Recent statistics have painted a jarring picture of the state of faith for Millennials and Gen Z – those born between 1981 and 2012. But none quite so shocking as a recent study by the US Barna Group, finding that 75 per cent of young Christians in the US will leave the church.
But there is hope. Unlike other studies, this one listed common factors in the 25 per cent who stayed. These included:
- Eating dinner as a family five times a week.
- Serving in a ministry with their families.
- Having one spiritual experience in the home during the week.
- Being entrusted with responsibility in ministry at an early age.
- Having at least one faith-focused adult in their lives other than their parents.
While this is a helpful study, giving constructive advice we can act on, the question remains: How is this possible? Do these small habits make such a significant difference? They seem so simple! At least three of the five factors have nothing to do with the church! Were any of these factors present in the 75 per cent who left the church too?
Maybe it is this simple, or maybe there is more to the question. But what can’t be denied is that something is missing in the Millennials’ and Gen Zs’ experience of faith, which is often observed through their relationship with the church. Indeed, that is demonstrated rather clearly here in these statistics.
I examine this phenomenon in my latest book, Deep Faith, Resilient Faith. I believe the missing piece is depth. It has always been a temptation in our Christian culture to become preoccupied with external matters and not those of the heart. From the day the church began, smaller sections concerned themselves with rituals. And in the generations just before Millennials, church attendance was the universal sign of commitment to Christ. While I suspect such observable signs do matter, they have never wholly expressed the true picture of a changed heart. Church attendance was not the goal of our faith; the goal was always to be a disciple – something that is clearly seen in the five factors above.
It has always been a temptation in our Christian culture to become preoccupied with external matters and not those of the heart.
Those five factors are all signs of a whole community discipling a child – parents, church leaders and the larger church community. Truly, they are signs of depth and the priority to instil a deep faith in the next generation. Depth of faith is critical, as Scripture proposes many times: it was the depth of the soil that determined the response to the seed (Mark 4:5), it was deep digging that stabilised the house built on the rock (Luke 6:48). And so we must explore for ourselves what a deep faith looks like so that we can exemplify it for the next generation. My book unpacks depth in action and how we can attain it. Confronting such truths is challenging, but gives us the greatest hope we could ever have in our faith.
The fact is, the next generations need us. They need those of us who have come before them to demonstrate, through the life we live, the kind of depth and meaning that faith in Jesus can bring. They don’t need us to nag, judge or be frustrated by them. They need us to be willing to take up our cross, forego our comforts and go deeper than ever before, because the gospel has always been enough to satisfy all of us, from generation to generation.
Melanie J. Saward is a Christian author and communicator.