The Millennials and the Reformation

March 17, 2017

As someone who has worked in a college campus ministries setting for seven years now, church leaders and many others have often asked me questions related to my thoughts on millennials and their relationship to the church. They want to know if the statistical doomsday predictions are right. Predictions like these quotes taken directly from Sam Eaton’s recent article, founded on research by the Barna Group:

  • Only 2 out of 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
  • 59% of millennials raised in the church have dropped out.
  • 35% of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
  • Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).

The huge problem with all of the scary statistics I’ve heard over the past number of years is two-fold:

  • They are measuring values that may have mattered greatly to past generations, but those same values today simply don’t captivate the millennial heart and mind—values like institutional loyalty and doctrinal alignment.
  • Notice carefully the language being used. The surveys are measuring the millennial generation’s commitment to the institutional church, not to Christ. Previous generations may have simply equated those two. Millennials don’t.

Values like institutional loyalty were previously deeply-held convictions. Generations of the past century went to theological war, forging denominational lines around worship styles, women in leadership, heresies, building projects, and more. Denominational identity and belonging meant something significant about the individual believer and the congregation they called home. Whether or not you were Baptist, Methodist, or Reformed mattered. Not so for millennials. Millennials value the sincerity of their practices over how long their church has been practicing them. And denominational allegiance isn’t enough to keep a millennial in the fold. They’d sooner get excited about a church merger than another split. In fact, more than anything, they are more likely to distrust institutions and denominations and wish to see them decentralized.

For generations, the American church has arranged and divided itself along doctrinal alignment. Our faith affiliations have been primarily built by agreed upon confessional statements and doctrinal ties. The closer we were in doctrinal thought with a church or a denomination, the closer our ecclesiastical ties. To this day, the denomination that I am ordained in centers its leadership qualifications (and membership identity) according to assent to the “three forms of unity”—the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

For the millennial, the deepest problem with this way of organizing the church (or belonging to one) is entirely predicated upon the belief that if we think the same, we’ll get along. However, for a generation whose deepest held values are relevance, tolerance, justice, and service, belonging is created through shared experiences and missional alignment, not first and foremost whether or not we think the same.

In light of these substantial differences related to underlying values, surveys like the Barna Group one listed above reflect the lament of older generations pining for their children to come home. Of course, what’s missing the most is the invitation to—and genuine allowance for—millennials to do a little renovation inside that home, thereby making it their own. If you want millennials to get excited about the church again, let them help create a church that serves our surrounding culture rather than merely criticizing it. And give them a seat at the table while they do it. After all, Jesus gave the bumbling disciples the Great Commission amidst all of their uncertainties, doubts, and shortcomings. It went alright.

If there is one thing that serving millennials has taught me, it’s that the state of the church in its current form might be in peril. But the state of their faith might not be in jeopardy at all. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the faith they are demonstrating might, in some instances, simply be too large for our current ecclesiastical structures to house. In other words, what if they aren’t the problem? What if we are?

So how does all of this relate millennials to the Reformation? Well, the Reformation was as significant and as shaping as it was for church and for history because the questions the Reformers were asking were too big for the contemporary church and its structures to handle. Could it be that today we’re simply trying to answer questions that millennials aren’t asking? If we listened, I mean really listened, to the questions that they’re actually asking, we might just realize that we’re ripe for being re-formed once again.

About the Author
  • Aaron Baart serves as Dean of Chapel at Dordt University, where he provides oversight for Campus Ministries and as co-founder and chair of One Body One Hope, a church-planting, community development, and reciprocal missions organization at work in Liberia and the U.S.

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  1. I deeply appreciate your service to Dordt’s students, Aaron, but I’m curious about a couple things in this article:

    You cite a lack of institutional and doctrinal concern in a way that makes them seem like benign differences. Based on the article, I’m imagining we have different views as to the value of doctrine or doctrinal standards, but I can’t imagine that a loss of institutional loyalty isn’t a concerning thing. Your article focuses on a loss of denominational loyalty, but if this is a general feature of millenials, surely this disaffection with institution carries to the local church as well. Is that not something to be concerned with?

    I think you do share this concern, as your advice here is about how to woo millenials back to the church, which is presumably important, but doesn’t this then make the Barna study more than just a “pining for children to come home”?

    Finally, would you lump the work of Christian Smith and the National Survey of Youth and Religion under this heading as well? That is, all of this concern about moralistic therapeutic deism is a failure of the older generation to appreciate and welcome the nature of millenial faith?

    1. Donald, thanks for reading and for thoughtfully engaging.
      In pointing out the millennial disinterest (and keep in mind, these are broad stroke stereotypes) in institutions and doctrines, I want to communicate that this is at the same time concerning AND a much needed corrective. I believe there is plenty of room to “move the needle” away from membership and belonging based shared intellectual assent to belonging based on shared ownership of a meaningful misssion. For example, they want a church more ready to serve its neighborhood than itself. And doctrinal obsession can come off as self-interest to the millennial.
      The local church has more power in this conversation with millennials than the more distant denomination does. Due to its opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with millennials, it looks and feels less “institutional” and therefore is potentially a much more potent voice inviting millennials into ownership and activity. Thus, I have much more hope in the local church’s possibilities on this front than from distant denominational offices and programs.
      Finally, as for MTD, I honestly believe that the term better describes a version of the Gospel that we have believed this generation would want, not what they’re actually longing for. In other words, were trying to answer questions they aren’t asking and avoiding the ones they really are.

      1. I appreciate your reply, Aaron.

        On the first point, you say membership and belonging based on shared intellectual assent. I’ll dive into the doctrine (intellectual assent) bit in a minute, but do you see moving the needle away from church membership as a good thing? That it’s healthy to move away from caring so much that people join themselves as members of a particular church? I’m more willing to grant moving the needle to a shared-mission basis of belonging than thinking that church membership should be less important, just want to clarify if that’s what you’re intending here.

        As to the doctrine issue, do you think that’s purely a millenial thing? A big part of Smith & Co’s conclusion with respect to MTD wasn’t that this was something new, but that it was a faith that quietly moved in almost a generation ago. Beyond that, anti-doctrinal movements have been popular for most of the 20th Century. Heck, go back to the Second Great Awakening, and a rejection of doctrine as intellectualism was a cornerstone of Finney and many others. In most mainline churches, doctrine has had a diminished importance for a long time now. I know I go to a church in a denomination that most of my colleagues consider to be a bunch of extremists, but it still seems to me that the needle has been moving away from emphasizing doctrine for awhile now. I’m not necessarily pulling for more rigidity with regard to it, but I think we’re much closer to putting too little importance on doctrine rather than too much.

        I agree with you on the first part of your last point, although I think that’s Smith’s whole point. It is certainly the point that Kenda Dean makes in “Almost Christian.” I wouldn’t call MTD a “version of the Gospel” so much as a perversion and false faith that bears little in common with the Gospel, but, regardless, Smith says that the usefulness of MTD was more in producing kids who were nice and well-behaved than in converting souls. It was born of a conviction that kids didn’t need to be pushed too hard or they’d be scared away from the church, watering down the Gospel in order to make it palatable rather than, as you say, properly addressing the longing at the heart of this (and most) generations.

        On the second part of that point though, I’m not 100% sure what that last sentence is directed at. Are you saying that studies like the NSYR are asking the wrong questions or that the church itself is trying to answer the wrong ones? To my reading, the study found that the youth (again, broad strokes) are largely inarticulate about their faith. It’s not that they have less doctrine-oriented beliefs, it’s that they can’t articulate what they even have. If that’s true (again, broad strokes, not for every church, although the Reformed seem to suffer from the vanishing youth phenomenon too, as I wrote about on iAt a while back), then I would make an analogy to some of our students in an intro level class. Part of the art of introducing students to something like, say, the law, is that students so thoroughly lack the basic understanding and vocabulary that you have to teach that to them before they can even learn to ask better questions. Of course, as you note, you’ll never get them along for the ride if you avoid student questions along the way, even if they seem off-task, but the thrust of using something like a soft Socratic method is that, by asking students questions, they learn how to ask better questions themselves. Millenials need a seat at the table, but the oldest among them are in their very early 30s (I technically qualify, being born in 1985), and they’re getting that seat. On the younger end, they’re still children, and I take the findings of the study (and the more dire follow-ups) to suggest a failure of education. Yes, we need to be open to change as a church, but I think signs, on the whole (where Dordt might not be representative) point to genuine deficiencies, not just a threat to the status quo.

      2. As a “millennial”, obviously *doctrinal obsession” sounds like a bad thing. However, if the Church isn’t teaching right things about Christ, the Gospel, and God’s word then it could be leading people astray. Therefore isn’t doctrine worth at least focusing on a making a priority? That sure matters to me.

        Secondly why would I or we want a church more ready to serve the neighborhood than its self. Can’t a church do both. The example of the early church seems to be taking care if all of its members needs and then sending qualified and gifted people out to serve in coordinated ways. Essentially I don’t think you can do one without the other.

        Finally, if pastors and elders aren’t concerned about doctrine, doesn’t that affect the mission and heart behind our service to our community. These leaders are accountable to the Lord for the souls of their flock why would we measure or judge them by the degree or amount of their service. These are just some questions your post and article brought to mind.

  2. Great article Aaron,
    And I see Donald’s perspective as well.

    As one of those God-forsaken “millennials,” and I suppose “young restless and reformed” and other inadequate labels so casually applied to millions of people, I definitely think me and my friends and similary-aged colleagues care much less about institutional and denominational loyalty than our parents, and frankly, don’t entirely understand the hoot about much of the lines that have been erected – partly because of historical ignorance (sadly), but also because of those groups genuinely not delivering the goods (e.g. claims of unity from confessional assent that actually result in more disunity; political left and right platforms that never pan out to do what they say, etc.), and because more (and often needless) fragmentation is the last thing needed in today’s world.

    I think Kevin Vanhoozer is ahead of the curve in questioning what “doctrine” actually consists of – not mere propositions, but authentic performance. I think it’s an idea that has greater support in the overall vision of the New Testament than some of the chief approaches characteristic of post-reformation scholasticism. What if “theology” really did constitute results more than intellectual assent? James and his brother Jesus were maybe on to something when putting so much focus on embodiment than proper discourse. We know they are Christians by their fruits, not propositional formularies.

    That’s not to capitulate to classic liberalism which suggests doing is simply more important than saying; discourse is doing something; we create a world of interpretation and thought that we use everyday; it shapes our decisions based on how we speak of God and others; vocabulary matters – as the linguistic turn in postmodernity has rightly taught us. Much good work today in theology is dedicated to this “new” task, all within a post foundationalist and post-conservative context. I think creed making is important and, in the spirit of the reformation, should continue (and newer achievements like the 1983 brief statement of faith, PCUSA, are brilliant and needed and many millennial Christians would find their liturgical implementation wholesome and edifying). In fact, with Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy growing so much in the US, there is something to be said about millennials and their exhaustion from non-institutionalization. One of my students and his wife recently converted out of conservative evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy, I think partly because of millennials’ desire for historical roots and recovering ancient forgotten tradition, but also because organization is appealing after the unstructured emergent projects – and church hopping between mainline denoms – have left them exhausted and fragmented.

    With all of these tensions, the “new ecumenism” will probably continue to rise in the west (complemented by the results of urban emergent experimentation) with major denominations continuing to decline, and I think it’s good for those popular models to die (and yes, entire denominations) just as it is for a fire burn away the deadwood of a forest. Unfortunately this needed shift is complicated by secularism, resulting in pastors and leaders pointing the finger to everyone else (it’s the atheists, gays, pornos, etc) but their own inflexible models for the growing disinterest we see in those polls. In other words, I think it’s important in these discussions to avoid constructing the situation in terms of warfare and taking sides and “reclaiming” lost territory (as is so common within Christian activism) and instead think in terms of change and mutation, neither necessarily farther away from nor closer to God’s kingdom.

  3. Another question, you listed statistics regarding millennials and simple issues of church attendance. Essentially those statistics show that a lot of millenials don’t care to show up. You go on to talk about doctrinal alignment and institutional loyalty, aren’t those different issues than attendance?

    Could it be that the word of the cross is foolishness to those that believe? It seems like unwillingness to even attend a gathering of Christ’s body would be a pretty good assessment of a person’s heart.

    Clarification would be great.

  4. Generalizing about a whole generation isn’t productive; neither is failing to define key terms in a relevant context. Things like membership and doctrine can be understood and valued very differently by people of different demographic groupings within the same church and generation.

    Two recent studies of declining church attendance are Brad Wilcox’s (Res Sociol Work. 2012; 23: 227–250) and the
    2016 ANES Pilot Study, both of which show the biggest decline is happening among the white working class. These are typically religious and social conservatives.

    Wilcox, a conservative Christian, says church attendance corresponds with middle-class families and reinforces their values. This alienates working class families who do not fit that mold, and in an age of increasingly economic stress and inequality, more people are in this category. They are moving farther to the right politically while also staying outside organized religion, which appears to condemn them.

    Meanwhile, others on the other end of the socioeconomic and political spectrum may also feel condemned by or disaffected with condemning churches.

    If any generational forces can be generalized, perhaps the Boomers with their more secure footing in the middle class have, in an effort to defend their values, classified younger generations as failures rather than victims of economic distress when they see in them higher incidence of divorce, declining income, or more permissive moral views. This divides younger people against each other along the lines of class and political identity. With such internal divisions and enmity, is it any wonder they are not going to church together?