We are certainly concerned about millennials.
It began about the time this age cohort reached adulthood, with the 1999 publication of Saving the Millennial Generation: New Ways to Reach the Kids You Care About in These Uncertain Times. It accelerated when some polls in the mid-2000s began to suggest millennials’ waning interest in church. Enter “millennials and church” into a search engine, and soon enough you are pointed to sites that proclaim, “Ten reasons churches are not reaching millennials,” or, “Why millennials are leaving church.” The latter article quickly garnered some 100,000 page views not long ago.
This past October, the 2014 Alignment Conference featured Barna’s David Kinnaman and pastor and church planter Dave Ferguson talking about millennials, who present a “game changing moment” for the church. Gen2 Leadership Conference is meeting this month with the theme, “Fighting for the Heart of the Millennial Generation.”
We find ourselves facing into “millennial anxiety” as well as concern about the “rise of the nones” (those who do not identify with any religious tradition, a cohort that is apparently growing in the West). Like some reverse Paul Revere, many ride through the fiber optics of the Internet and into church basements shouting, “The millennials are leaving! Watch out for the rise of the nones!” Simply put, millennial anxiety—a concern shared by both mainline and evangelical churches—is the fear that those between ages 18 and 25 have little interest in the church, and that the church has failed to convince them to stay.
As a professor of youth ministry and theology, I suppose this is my time to shine. I should stoke the flames of millennial anxiety, preaching afresh how important youth ministry is, urging that if we don’t offer some new, culturally sensitive initiative, the future of the church hangs in the balance. Or I might become a booster, pointing to the counterevidence that, while some millennials are leaving the church, according to studies by LifeWay Research and Barna Group, many others are as faithful as ever. To do that, of course, would only reinforce millennial anxiety by locating the focus of our anxiety on the next generation.
Instead, I find myself moved in another direction. I wonder if millennial anxiety is about our concern for real young people, or if it’s about the church’s desire to possess a youthful spirit. Do we want departing millennials and nones to encounter the gospel—or to merely become members? Are we worried more about their spiritual health or about the health of our institutions?
Over the past several months, as I finished writing a book on the youth and children’s ministry of 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve had the chance to rethink the church’s approach to millennials. Bonhoeffer scholars and others have often overlooked the fact that most of Bonhoeffer’s ministry from 1925 to 1939 was among children and youth. In fact, many of Bonhoeffer’s most creative theological periods coincided with his direct interactions with children. For this reason, he provides a fountain of theological and practical wisdom that can free us from our own millennial anxiety and help us offer something of lasting value to our young people.