This article is Part 5 in a series on Why Emerging Generations Are Leaving the Church.
Written by reKindle Contributor, Briana Southerland.
In a lot of ways, I believe the church is at a standstill when it comes to reaching and keeping the emerging generations. You may have witnessed youth leaving your church for years, maybe even decades, and it still continues. Maybe it has been a slow trickle, or maybe the tide has taken a whole generation from your church family.
This is a painful reality we face in the church. And as such, it is far too easy to feel overwhelmed with the statistics and negative feedback that has been received from the emerging generations and millennial generation. So overwhelming that you may be left wondering if this is a lost cause. However, I can assure you it is not. And I hope to assure you this by offering you my story ... because sadly, I am one of those millennial statistics who left the church.
I grew up in an Alliance church as a Youth Pastor’s kid, but I also grew in my frustrations towards the church. I was constantly seeing the tension my Dad faced between the structured institution and the radical call of relational ministry outside our walls. I couldn’t understand this and began to realize I also carried this tension. I wanted to see the Kingdom come in power and push back darkness! I desired an experience that shaped me, not a tidy lesson to contemplate internally.
So I left, feeling misguided, unheard, and unworthy of sharing what God was teaching me through the experience of mission trips, cross-cultural hospitality, and tough conversations with unbelievers. I gave up on the church and left for almost 4 years - all of my university years. In this time I felt free to explore my doubts, my hurts, and my pain in a way I had not before. Yet, I still felt alone … living in two worlds. For brevity's sake, this is all I will say regarding the time of being a wanderer - but there were deep lessons that God used to shape me in this time, I know this season was not wasted.
Eventually, I came back. Why? Because God’s grace drew me back to Himself. He showed me the beauty of the church and He called me to refine it (this is another 6-year journey wrapped into one sentence).
Now, I know that not everyone who leaves returns, so it is important to pray for those who are still wandering, lost, and disillusioned from their experiences with the church. Yet we have to ask ourselves as the church if there are things we can do better, things that can change the trajectory of the emerging generations.
I believe we can change the trajectory, maybe not for all, but for many. I’d like to share some thoughts on how I believe we can do better as the church to reach the emerging generations.
Note: if you are expecting a 10-step process or magical formula of how to reach the emerging generation, I don’t have one. Rather, what I do have to offer is a simple, raw and real approach, based out of my own experience.
First, Church, I am asking that we get uncomfortable. That we take a step across the generational divide and get to know the names of the youth in our churches. Just as Jesus called people by name, I am asking that you learn to do the same.
I also want to challenge those of us who hold to a generic observation of a generation, may it be “lazy, entitled, and arrogant,” to realize we have no right to label someone -- especially, if you cannot even tell me the name of someone who belongs to that group of people. Take note of when those preconceived notions come into mind and then challenge yourself to learn the name of someone in that group of people.
And then, start getting curious! Ask questions about who they are, their interest, their dreams, and their goals. Build a relationship with them. Once you come to a place of knowing someone, only then can you learn to understand their perspective. Then, brace yourself, and ask the tough questions about the church. You may be surprised to learn that there are doubters and unbelievers growing up right under your nose. God may use you and your wisdom, experience, perspective and patience to speak into their lives.
In the book, The New Copernicans, the author writes, “Typically they [millennials/emerging generations] have not been given freedom to express their confusion and frustration out loud. Institutions that assume true faith and correct thinking are two sides of the same coin are not usually safe places to express doubt” (Seel, 2018, p. 28). It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make room for this in our churches. Doubt is not something to fear in our churches, but it is something to embrace. “Embrace young people’s doubts and faith…It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith. It’s silence…[so] equip leaders to be sensitive to questions and doubts and to see them as faith-forming opportunities rather than freak-out moments of failure.” (Powell, 2016, p. 157)
Church, I'm asking us to listen, to understand, and to equip the emerging generations, something that ultimately calls us to treat those who are searching just as Jesus did.
Finally, I think it’s time that we stop assuming things about the younger generation and get to know them for ourselves.
Stop assuming they believe.
… stop assuming they come from a stable home.
… stop assuming their parents or guardians are even believers.
Only when we stop assuming do we begin to value the individual on their own, as someone who desperately needs a relationship with Jesus.
I’ll never forget being confronted with this 2 years ago. As a youth leader to a group of Grade 11 girls, there was someone in our youth group that was a bit more difficult to handle. To be honest, I passed judgement and put her in a box. But during a class on holistic ministry, God spoke to me, asking me if I could answer some basic questions about her. Do you know how she is doing emotionally, physically, socially/relationally, spiritually, intellectually, or occupationally? I could not answer a single thing about her -- I had taken the time to learn her name, but nothing more.
I knew I needed to do better. And so, as I began to observe her and talk with her more closely I learned a lot, and it broke my heart. Her Dad was out of the picture most of the time. Mom was too occupied with younger kids to know what she was up to. She attended Youth to get the attention of guys. And she often ordered her dinner via SkiptheDishes because she had no one to take care of her. She was lonely, lost and broken.
Unfortunately, I believe this picture represents the emerging generation far more closely than the stable home, no doubts, and firm believing picture. When we get to know other people’s stories it may just change the posture in which we approach the younger generation.
If we take the time to learn the names, the hearts, and the struggles of the younger, emerging generations, our churches will become a safe place for them to grow. We cannot underestimate the power of a safe space that knows and accepts you for who you are, doubts and all. These are the spaces and communities people long for, especially the emerging generations.
Briana Southerland is the Share Ministries Pastor at First Alliance Church in Calgary, AB. She is called to mobilize the church to reach the lost and searching around them. She desires to see people cross borders culturally, generationally, and economically to bring the hope of Jesus.
Briana received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology; Social Justice and Studio Arts from Northland College (where she played 4 years of NCAA Soccer) and her Mastor’s Degree in Christians Studies; Intercultural Studies from Crown College.
In 2014, after marrying her college sweetheart, Austin, from Calgary, AB, Briana made the journey north from her hometown of Little Canada, MN. She is now proudly Canadian & American … with a special place in her heart for Germany.
Briana is thankful for the mentorship of her Dad - Pastor Rick Wallace, Pastor Craig Bundy, and Pastor James & Gillian Paton. These leaders have empowered, equipped, and released her into the ministry that God has called her to.