Millennials’ Relationship with the Church: It’s Complicated

(system) #1

Being the only millennial in my office means I get asked a lot of questions that I’m “supposed” to know the answers to. These questions run the gamut from technology-related woes that are easily answered to more complex issues such as “how do we engage Millennials in the church?”

For starters, let me say how glad I am when I’m actually asked that question. Being a Millennial in the Seventh-day Adventist church means I get to hear a variety of conversations about my generation, but rarely see those questions directed at members of my generation. I do my best to keep up with the various Adventist media, and I’ve seen many articles about Millennials…written by people in their 40s, 50s, or older, who write with authority about a generation they aren’t part of and don’t seem to understand.

It’s no secret that Millennials are leaving (or have already left) the church in droves. I grew up in one of the most well-known Adventist communities in the United States, and none of the friends I grew up with are still Adventist. None. Let that sink in.

The articles I see discussing this issue talk about the need to engage Millennials on social media to draw them back to the church, and a movement toward “edgier” church services to keep us in the pews (does this means drums in the sanctuary?!). We may be known as an attention-deficit generation but this kind of thinking is misguided and rather condescending.

No amount of shiny church services and social media savvy is going to draw us in. That’s a superficial Band-Aid on a much deeper wound.

What is it that Millennials are really seeking? Why have so many already left, and is it possible to get them back? These are complex questions, but here are a few issues that come up repeatedly when I’m talking to fellow Millennials:

We accept that everyone’s faith looks different, and that’s ok.

When I was 14, one of my friends came to Sabbath School dressed in jeans. The pastor turned her away at the door and told her to go home, change into appropriate Sabbath attire and then come back. She left and didn’t return. Not that Sabbath, nor any Sabbath after. There are so many rules in Adventism, both written and unwritten, and it can be easy to mistake rule-following as faith. No jewelry, no tattoos, no caffeine, no smoking, no alcohol. The list goes on and on. There seems to be a checklist in people’s heads as they walk down the aisles at church. They check off which of the countless rules fellow church goers are abiding by and which they aren’t, instead of just being glad they’re in the pews, and recognizing they’re there for a reason that has nothing to do with anyone else and everything to do with God. Millennials may “break” a lot of these rules, but don’t assume our relationship with God is somehow less than yours if we show up to church with earrings, a visible tattoo, or yes, even wearing jeans.

We wish the church would stop telling us to get married at such a young age.

Despite the fact that it is the year 2014, and there are numerous studies that show waiting until your late 20s or early 30s to get married leads to happier and more successful marriages, the church, our pastors, and well-meaning parishioners continually put emphasis on young church members to meet and marry while still in college or shortly after. Instead of telling young men and women to focus on their studies, their relationship with God, and figuring out who they are, we’re told to find a mate. And we’re told this again and again and again. We’re told that once we’ve graduated it will be too late. How will we ever find a good Adventist man/woman once we’re in the “real” world? The idea that all that matters is that the person is Adventist is so harmful. Where are the conversations and the encouragement to find someone who treats us with respect and love, who has a deep commitment to God, and whose personality meshes with our own? Simply being a fellow single Adventist is not enough reason to spend the rest of your life with someone, and yet, this is the lesson single people in our church are being told, pushing us into marriages too young, and often with the wrong person. Millennials put more emphasis on figuring out who we are, what our relationship with God should be, and becoming wholly ourselves first, before jumping into marriage. We’d appreciate if the church respected that.

We are (impatiently) waiting for women’s ordination.

This is a passionate issue for many people, regardless of the generation they’re in, but it holds a special place in Millennials’ hearts. We are the generation that has grown up with parents who actively talked about this issue. Parents who were in college in the 70s and thought women’s ordination was going to happen then. It didn’t. Now, the majority of Millennials have graduated from college too, and it still hasn’t happened. We’ve heard the arguments for and against so many times, we could recount them in our sleep. In a world that is increasingly becoming aware of systemic sexism and its detrimental nature, our church remains woefully stuck in the past when it comes to women’s issues.

We want to get back to the Bible.

I can’t tell you the number of church services I’ve been to that attempted to target younger members by discussing “young adult” issues like the evils of video games, the perils of alcohol, or the ever-prevalent focus on relationships and marriage (see above). I’m not saying these aren’t important topics to be covered, but do we really need to cover them from the pulpit? Despite popular opinion to the contrary, Millennials yearn to dive into the Bible, to have deep discussions about Biblical principles, to learn and grow and understand. As Millennials, we are constantly bombarded with information from everywhere, and we have plenty of access to dating advice, news articles about yet another drunk driving incident, and yes, even scientific studies on the desensitization that occurs when playing video games. What we don’t have easy access to is people who know the Bible through and through and want to talk about it. That’s what we want when we come to church. Stop trying to preach to what you think is wrong or misguided in our generation and instead help us understand the Bible better. Then trust that the rest of our lives will fall into place because of it.

We look forward to the day our church is driven by love instead of fear.

Maybe this is a more recent development, or maybe it’s always been the case, but so often it seems that the Adventist church is driven by fear and judgment rather than love and compassion. There’s such a desire to see the church continue to grow in numbers that we often miss the importance of growing in grace. The church stalls on women’s ordination because our conferences in other countries are threatening to leave if we ordain women. Congregations fear letting an LGBT individual serve in church office instead of being grateful that someone is showing an active interest in being more involved when so few do. People feel compelled to lecture the young man that just sat down in the pew behind them reeking of cigarette smoke, instead of welcoming him to church and inviting him to sit next to them. Or maybe they don’t lecture; instead they just gossip about him with fellow “concerned” congregants after the service, and deep down they hope he doesn’t return next week because the smell was unbearable. How different would our church look if we were truly a safe haven for all of God’s children? What would the Adventist church look like if we were driven to act with love and compassion, instead of listening to the voice of fear that compels us to judge and condemn and dig in our heels on antiquated issues?

The concern of Millennials leaving the church is not something that will be solved overnight, but it is something that has a real solution. If Millennials aren’t finding God in the Adventist church, they will look elsewhere. Or they’ll stop looking altogether. My friends who have left often ask me why I’m still here. The answer is simple: I want to see our church grow into something more, something better than it is now, and I want to help make that happen. I want to be part of the change for good.

Basically, it boils down to this: as Millennials, we try to follow Jesus’ lead…and we wish the church would too.

Alisa Williams is a life-long resident of the Andrews University community. She spent her childhood naming the cows at the dairy, exploring the nature trails that wind around Lemon Creek, and finding adventure in the maze of buildings on campus. Nowadays, you’ll most often find her hunting down antique treasures, writing children’s stories, or being walked by her two 70-lb. rescue dogs.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(George Tichy) #2


May be many of my generation have to pass away in order to dis-obstruct the way for your generation to finally exterminate discrimination of women in our Church.

Some of us would gladly see the goal being reached, when the Church finally evolves, grows up, matures, and becomes more civilized. I am not in a hurry to “go” anywhere. I want to see it happen during my days on this planet!!!

“A Christian Church that cherishes discrimination of women” - What an oxymoron!!!

(Carolyn Parsons) #3

Or they could change their minds and avoid passing away :smile:

(Rheticus) #4

The author raises a wide range of extremely valid points. Indeed there is nothing substantial to disagree with in the article.

It is much more interesting what she does NOT raise - EGW’s role, 1844, Homophobia, Evolution, Top-down v bottom-up authority. The Millennials are so far from the SdA mainstream position on these issues that they are simply ignoring the Denomination’s main stream position on any of them. I suspect that also applies to food, alcohol, dance, movies, appropriate Sabbath keeping activities, and a host of other issues. That was certainly clear amongst the SdA Millennials I met at a wedding in the South Pacific recently.

[quote=“spectrumbot, post:1, topic:7006”] The answer is simple: I want to see our church grow into something more, something better than it is now, and I want to help make that happen. I want to be part of the change for good.

That kept me in the SdA denomination from 1982 to 2001. It remains to be seen whether the Denomination’s request for her time and money to support so many things she disagrees with will eventually drive her out, or if instead the Millennials will eventually be able to put the wheels back on the wagon, round up and harness the horses, and make the old bus creak down the road again.

(Carolyn Parsons) #5

This is not a new thing, in fact it was more prevalent in the past. I am in my 50’s and I grew up in a church where judgment was an art form. Many others on this forum who are similarly aged have experienced that pervasive judgmentalism. As far as fear goes, It has also been a solid part of the tradition. There was more fear, I think, about being oppressed as a minority religion especially around the coming end of the earth. At least in the US, this has been decreasing for the most part. I attribute to the coming out of the SDA church from it’s identity of the few and chosen to a more politically involved organization that is worldwide and well known.

I have a special point of view for someone of my age because I recently went back to school to finish a degree. I went to a public university which was overwhelmingly millennial (18-24 years old). I found this generation to be overwhelmingly focused on doing the right thing when it comes to vulnerable groups. They don’t really base this on a book or religion but a tradition of social attitudes of fairness. This is different from generations before who looked to dogma for guidance. I think it started with the millennial parents’ generation who grew up in an era of activism in the civil rights movement which was not only focused on Black civil rights but moved to Women’s and LGBT rights. It was an era coming to terms with rights being self evident. I noticed a very strong commitment to civil rights and fairness and I believe that the millennial generation are on to something very good and noble.

(Pagophilus) #6

I think there are some fundamental problems here.

  1. Yes, everyone’s faith looks different, but everyone should at least grow in their faith and learn something. Yes, I can almost hear you saying that who am I to judge. Now I’m not judging, just stating the plainly obvious. You can see someone who has virtually no interest in God or the Bible and who comes to church purely to socialise with like-minded individuals. Now, we shouldn’t antagonise such people as hopefully they will still hear something at church and learn from it and be drawn closer to Christ, unless they become disruptive to the church. Quite frankly, if God tells you (through the Spirit of Prophecy) not to wear jewellery, drink caffeinated beverages, smoke or drink alcohol, and you not only do these things but celebrate the fact, WHO ARE YOU to tell me that your relationship with God is on track? Struggling with sin is one thing, celebrating it is quite another.

  2. I have never seen the church telling people to get married at an early age. Matchmaking is found everywhere in every society. It’s not a church thing. In fact, the church should stamp it out and promote the principle of leaving the finding of your future partner in God’s hands and washing your hands of the responsibility, and then just going about your usual business until God does in fact find you a partner.

  3. Women’s Ordination needs to be settled theologically, contrary to what some high officials have stated recently. In pretty much any black and white, yes or no issue, the Bible needs to answer it. It’s not hard. For example, either sex before marriage is permitted or it is not. What does the Bible say? The latter. Now, either the ordination of women to leadership positions is permitted by the Bible or it is not. Which is it? There are those who say both. That is not an acceptable answer, as it means that at least one of them is misinterpreting the text. Keep studying and the answer will become apparent. Until the Millenials get down to serious Bible study (which they don’t largely do), their take on this issue will be an emotional one or a crowd-following one.

  4. “We want to get back to the Bible”, well then get to it. There are plenty of people who would know the Bible and want to talk to you about it. The thing is, that you want to hang onto all those things that you yourself know the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy speak against, and still study the Bible, and this prevents the Spirit from working with you to help you understand the Bible. I feel you only want to hear the things from the Bible which will make you feel good, rather than those which tell you what is not good for you. The reason people talk about the evils of video games and television is because you persist in indulging in these things with no though as to how they are impacting you. Did you know the Bible actually talks about watching TV and movies? It does. Romans 1:29-32

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Isn’t that describing many “Millenials”? Note the last verse. They know these things are worthy of death but they not only do them, but they have pleasure or approve of those who practice them (i.e. on television and in the movies - they have pleasure in watching others sin.)

The church is not driven by fear. Of course, everyone must examine themselves to see if there is something in their lives which is keeping them from a closer walk with God. But we love you millenials, We love the drug addicts too. That doesn’t mean we want them to feel happy by continuing to inject drugs. No, we love them so much we want to help them out of their addiction. And we love you so much we want to help save you from your sins.

(Carolyn Parsons) #7

There you go. If you were not convinced of judgmentalism in the church, you should be now.

(Elaine Nelson) #8

Pago begins with: “Now I’m not judging” and then adds several paragraphs of judging. And I doubt he even realizes that all his following words were in sharp disagreement to what followed. Amazing; such self deception!

(Sirje) #9

When I trudged the “halls of Adventist ivy,” I was sure my generation was going to change the church and make it spiritually meaningful. The superficial rules, and the emphasis on externals were going to be banished when my contemporaries got into positions where they could be heard and counted. This was in the sixties! That didn’t happen. Once the sweat shirts came off and the suits went on job security took over.

We still meet once a year and see the marvels of Clairol; and spend the SS and most of the church service in the foyer exchanging pictures and stories - and wonder where the time has gone. Not many of us are still faithful church goers, if at all. Those who stayed to make the changes look tired; and the others hang on for old time sake.

This “millennial” thing isn’t new. We all had dreams. Hope yours come true.

(Pagophilus) #10

You have it the wrong way around Carolyn. Adventists today are afraid to actually call out the bleeding obvious for what it is, for fear of being labelled judgmental. Thus, anything and everything finds its way into and is accepted in the church, because obviously, if you have any standards at all, you must be judgmental.

(Pagophilus) #11

Elaine, you and many others have a basic problem with definitions. Is stating the obvious judging? Is evaluating something based upon a set of criteria judging? Does not the Bible actually call us to judge? There are more texts telling us to judge than those telling us not to. You have to read the context.

(Peta Hay) #12

Thank You Alisa for this post. I think you have been very mild with your post. I would like to see change in the church. Everyone should be welcome and not only that but there should be radical unconditional acceptance. There seems to me to be a lack of acceptance of difference and women are not appreciated or allowed to be a really active part of the church. Our differences should not be only be tolerated but be celebrated. There is a pressure to conform. I am no longer a member of this church. I do not want to be a member of a church that thinks that I am flawed and a disturbance or sick.
Anyway, I think Mike Yaconelli sums it up better:
“The religious leaders of the day had written the script for the Messiah. When Jesus announced he was the Messiah, the Pharisees and others screamed at him, “There is no Jesus in the Messiah script. Messiahs do not hang out with losers. Our Messiah does not break all the rules, Our Messiah does not question our leadership or threaten our religion or act so irresponsibly. Our Messiah does not disregard his reputation, befriend riffraff, or frequent the haunts of questionable people.” Jesus’ reply? “This Messiah does”! Do you see why Christianity is called “good news”? Christianity proclaims that it is an equal-opportunity faith, open to all, in spite of the abundance of playwrights in the church who are more than anxious to announce, "There is no place for you in Christianity if you [wear an earring/have a tattoo/drink wine/have too many questions/look weird/smoke/dance/haven’t been filled with the Spirit/aren’t baptized/swear/have pink hair/are in the wrong ethnic group/have a nose ring/have had an abortion/are gay or lesbian/are too conservative or too liberal].”
― Mike Yaconelli

Nothing in the church makes people in the church more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace “more responsible” by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out (which, as I understand it, are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include).”
― Mike Yaconelli

(Carolyn Parsons) #13

Good judging is when you look at dogs of a certain breed at a dog show and compare them with the breed standard and make a judgment of which ones fit the criteria the best, just as one example. Being judgmental is painting people with a broad brush and making judgments about them as people. Judgmentalism is an attitude of negativity towards people you don’t understand or don’t see eye to eye with. What good does alienating an entire generation do towards the cause spreading Christ’s love?

(jeremy) #14

is this supposed to be some kind of threat…my own feeling is that if someone doesn’t want to be an adventist, let him leave…i left, before i returned, and ditto for many in my generation - and i don’t see that millennials and their constant tantrums for attention are particularly unique…i see no virtue in staying in the church if one doesn’t want to be in it…

(Rheticus) #15

apparently neither do most Millennials.

What is surprising is that a 90%+ drop-out rate doesn’t make you wonder whether there is something that the organization might have wrong.

(jeremy) #16

this kind of drop out rate isn’t new…it was happening when i was 20-something…

(Elaine Nelson) #17

Insanity: Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. If the church’s goal is to make more converts, are you content that more are leaving in the first world than are remaining? Why are you unconcerned about the dropout rate?

You claim to believe all the Adventist doctrines and yet one that is foremost is to bring in more converts. Quite a paradox.

(jeremy) #18

my view is that someone who wants to find meaning in adventism can do so by doing his homework…i feel very little burden for people who’ve grown up in the truth and have done nothing to learn about it themselves, but sit back and have the nerve to whine about what they don’t understand…if people turned off their phones, their computers, and their tv’s, and instead opened their bibles and egw, they’d see a very different perspective…and that’s what it takes…nothing can replace personal initiative…

(Kai Kronberg) #19

Great Article. Millennials are not the only generation to wrestle with many issues that you wrote about. The problem is a serious one, because those who have left are not returning. I recently attended a town hall meeting where the issue was discussed. There were in all, approximately 50 persons in attendance. It broke my heart to see that, because for me the attendance reflects our attitude (I say ours because I include myself, I am also guilty) to the young people in our church, which in my opinion is dismissive and judgemental at best. Our attitude to young people and their concerns is one of superiority - we know best. So what do we do? we attempt to fix the problem without consulting them or we pass the buck- we blame and judge them. The young people are leaving because they have witnessed our behaviours. They have witnessed it since they were infants. They know what our responses will be to their concerns. It is a pity.
I add you to my prayers. keep on trudging.

(Deborah K Jamieson) #20

A wonderful article that is thoughtful and well written. It is so sad that so many of our churches are not displaying the love of God that he asks of us. It really is that simple. Who wants to go to a church where you are not accepted for who you are and loved in spite of your failings (or uniqueness). Older members have learned to wear a mask to appear “perfect” but I don’t think Millennials are willing to do that (good for them!). Will we ever learn?