My hometown church is small. It always has been. I started attending my junior year of high school, and at that time, it was already a pretty small congregation. But it’s smaller now, six years later. And I know we’re not the only church with this story.
I need to start off with a disclaimer: the millennial generation was never a large percentage of the Church. Research done by LCMS Research Services and LCMS Youth Ministry (2017) showed that the millennial generation wasn’t baptized at the same rate of other US generations. And the rate of retention into adulthood hasn’t changed in the past three generations, leading to less and less members in the pews. As millennials start to become parents and we enter an era where this data continues to be the case for newer generations, we must evaluate why.
This isn’t a sentimental longing for the Church to be like it was in America a few short decades ago; I can’t pretend to know what that was like. Instead, the research done in 2017 gives us a peek at what those of the millennial generation who left the LCMS would value in an LCMS church.
We were built for community. And younger generations need it more than ever. We are experiencing what is being called the loneliness epidemic. Despite being “more connected than ever” through social media and smartphones, the millennial generation and younger generations are the loneliest generations yet. Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. A simple conclusion is that they lack community. People are looking for a place to be themselves, a place where they are wanted and valued. And that’s what it’s like to be part of the Church. As a Christian, I know that I am wanted and valued by God. I was wanted and valued so much that He gave up His only Son for me. Being in a Christian community doesn’t mean everything is perfect—we clearly live in a fallen, sinful world with fallen, sinful people. But being part of the Church means that we know everyone is wanted and valued by the Lord of the universe.
In the research done by LCMS Youth Ministry, we see that almost half of respondents agreed that it’s important for churches to be a close-knit community but also that 45 percent of respondents felt that the LCMS is unwelcoming. In 5 Things You Can Do to Make Your Congregation a Caring Church, the author recommends walking around your church property inside and out with “visitor eyes.” I would recommend also looking at your worship service the same way, and without changing how you worship, think about what you can do to prepare and teach newcomers or young adults who may be back in church for the first time.
I hear it all the time: “The Church didn’t allow me to express doubts.” Every time I hear this, it breaks my heart because, of course, people would feel led to leave the Church if they didn't believe they could express doubt. This statement implies that the person felt like he or she couldn’t ask questions, that questions weren’t taken seriously, or that the answers given were always closed off with “well, that’s that.”
We don’t have all the answers. We just don’t. I may be preaching to the choir, but we don’t always have the right words either. We need to practice listening. We need to hear their struggles and pain with both the Church and the doctrine. And we need to respond with truth and grace.
We see an example of this in Scripture. In the account affectionately known as “Doubting Thomas,” we see how Jesus addresses Thomas’s doubt and offers him peace. In fact, what Jesus offers in the conversation with Thomas is Himself (John 20:27). He doesn’t change the fact that Thomas doubted Him, but He responds to that doubt and allows Thomas to tell other believers his doubts.
According to the research (2017), 34 percent of currently unaffiliated young adults agreed that right doctrine is important for a church. Let that sink in. One third of millennials who were surveyed and are not currently attending or involved in a church think that right doctrine is important for a church. This implies that these people believe that a church could have correct doctrine, that maybe, just maybe, this Good News could be true. How do we capitalize on that finding?
We do this by faithfully being the Church, by standing firm in our core doctrines, by continually evaluating what we believe against the Word of the Lord. We teach our doctrine and show how this doctrine aligns with God's Word. We don’t teach doctrine angrily; we don’t do it so we can show how much we know or how much we can learn. But we humbly show where we find our Lord and Savior. We do this by surrendering what we want from God for who God actually is. And we find Him where He says we’ll find Him.
Jesus gives us a specific plan for the “dying” church. “Do this,” He says.