A Millennial’s Perspective on Millennials

[1] What does it mean to be a millennial in 2014? Apparently, it means lots of things.

[2] I have read a plethora of articles about my laziness, my lack of ambition, my desire to leave the church, my likes and dislikes, and much more. Yet, as with every generation, it is difficult to describe millennials with a few generalizations here and there. This does not seem to dissuade some people from telling the world about everything that is wrong with “kids today.”

[3] A simple Google search for “millennial” results in suggestions like “millennials in the workplace,” “millennials and politics,” and “millennials and technology.” It is clear that we have many questions about what millennials are up to, and what they are going to do in the face of the world today.

[4] One of the biggest challenges we face is the new landscape of the United States. Both of my parents went to college and grad school by working and paying their way through school. Although I was blessed to have parents who were concerned about my education, I also went to college during a time when costs began to soar. I, like many people my age, am burdened with a load of student loans that I could very well spend the next 20 or more years of my life attempting to pay off.

[5] Millennials grew up in an era when debt was an accepted risk and natural part of life. Yet we came of age in an era when the stock market crashed, the value of homes plummeted, and financial stability decreased. We are facing the reality that, although we are paying into the Social Security system, we may very well never receive its benefits.

[6] In the landscape of the church, we were born at a time when the decline of the mainline churches seemed to be only a passing fad. Our parents and grandparents were confident that people would continue to come back to church after “looking for themselves” during college and maybe a few years later. For most Christians my age, church was less the center of our lives, but still fairly important.

[7] And yet, millennials are leaving the church and not coming back in larger and larger numbers. There are many reasons for this decline in younger people in congregations. Many studies have been done, and books and articles are being written on the topic. My generation seems to be rejecting the church in droves. For example, a Pew Research study found that only 33% of those 18-29 attend worship on a weekly basis, compared to 53% of those 65 and older.[1]

[8] Despite the seemingly depressing statistics, there are many facets to this mass exodus from the church. In fact, there are many congregations that have been successful at both attracting and retaining young adults. During my time at college, I participated in the campus ministry program. This was one of the most well-attended programs at Texas Lutheran University. Certainly, the problem with millennials leaving the church is not because of a lack of spirituality or even laziness. Time and time again, we prove that we cherish and simply want values like integrity, honesty, and a genuine spirit.

[9] It also does not seem that millennials are leaving churches and other institutions because we are anti-establishment. In fact, the same Pew study shows that those between the ages of 18 and 29 are in favor of giving more responsibility to the government when compared to those of older generations.[2] Much research and discussion has gone into the fact that millennials are distrustful of institutions in general, but there is some question as to how far this distrust extends.[3]

[10] Certainly, it is true that young adults today have plenty of reasons to distrust institutions. It is difficult for us to trust banks and the government because much of their financial program has failed. We have heard countless stories of infidelity by government officials, teachers, and even religious leaders throughout our lives. Our sense of safety was ripped out from under us at a tenuous age when the US was attacked on September 11, 2001. We have seen countless school shootings. Why should we believe that we are safe, that we can achieve the “American Dream,” that God is really here?

[11] And yet, many millennials continue to believe in God. Pew Research found that only 53% of millennials have “certain belief in God.” Yet the report also acknowledges that Gen X’ers were in a similar situation when they were the same age as millennials are today—only 55% of Gen X’ers stated “certain belief in God.” In contrast, 61% of Gen X’ers today say they have this certain belief—a percentage that is extremely close to older generations.[4] All is not lost. Young adults today are not doomed to lose faith in everything.

[12] And yet, the fact remains that millennials are far less likely to go to church than older generations. If belief in God is not the issue at hand, what is?

[13] After reading many books and articles and striving to tackle this now infamous question, I am gaining more and more clarity about the answer. Simply stated, millennials are leaving church because the church has failed to do its job.

[14] Schools, businesses, and even volunteer organizations love to have mission statements. The church—at least in the US—has taken up this trend, as well. This is not a bad thing. However, we have had our mission statement for over two millennia. Jesus told the disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[5] ​

[15] In many ways, the church has been very successful in this mission. But in other ways, we have failed. Certainly, we have made converts to Christianity throughout the many nations of the earth. We have witnessed countless baptisms over the centuries. Yet we have forgotten what it really means to make disciples. Just as we have co-opted the secular world’s way of using mission statements, we have co-opted its desire to grow ever larger through any means possible.

[16] Rather than dealing in the genuine, amazing message of the Gospel—that Christ came into the world, lived among us, died for our sins, and rose again—we are more concerned with results. The secular world measures success in numbers. We have started to think that we must do the same. We see that our congregations have ceased to grow and that the demographic we most often lack is young adults. Therefore, we create programs and gimmicks, advertising campaigns and so-called “evangelism” strategies to draw this generation into the church.

[17] When we do this—when we succumb to the ways of this world of sin, when we forget to whom we truly belong—we destroy the message of the Gospel. We forget that the Gospel does not need gimmicks. It does not need the next “big thing.” The Gospel is the big thing. The Gospel is the point. If we are going to truly make disciples of all people, regardless of age, we must be true to the Gospel. This means following Christ’s mission: we must baptize in the name of the Triune God, and know what that means. We must teach everything that Jesus commanded (specifically to love God and love our neighbor).[6]

[18] Finally, we must remember that Jesus has promised to be with us always. Jesus is with us here and now. He is with us as we gather around the table to share his body and blood. He is with us when we are gathered as only two or three as well as when we are gathered in groups of thousands. He is with us when our numbers are growing and when they are shrinking. He is with us when we are following his commands and when we neglect to do so.

[19] Millennials need to hear that message. We need to hear the message that Christ is with us always—that Christ loves us despite our own unworthiness. Just like the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, our close friends Generation X, we need to hear the Good News of the Gospel. We need to hear it in its pure form: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[7]

[20] My generation does not as a whole despise the very notion of God or church. My generation does not want to leave congregations and the church as a whole. Rather, millennials want to see genuine faith and community in Christ. We want to see lives lived for the sake of the Gospel. We want to see and be part of a community that loves God and serves neighbor as a result. We want to live among people who are willing to admit that they do not have all the answers, but are willing to explore the questions with us. We want true faith, not gimmicks or easy answers.​

[21] We want Jesus, and we want to seek to follow his path with you.


[1] “Religion Among the Millennials,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Feb. 2010, doi: http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For example, Holland, Joshua, “Millenials Didn’t Abandon Our Institutions—Our Institutions Failed Them.” Moyers & Company. 24 March 2014, doi http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/24/millennials-didnt-abandon-our-institutions-our-institutions-failed-them/.

[4] “Religion.”

[5] Matthew 28: 18-20.

[6] Mark 12: 29-31.

[7] John 3:16.

Jessica Cain

Jessica Cain is a senior Master of Divinity student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia pursuing ordination in the ELCA.