Over the past month or so, there has been quite a bit of Internet chatter as to why Millennials aren’t going to church. As a member of their big sister generation, Generation X, the eternal little sister to the Baby Boomers, I’m torn between apathy and Jan Brady Syndrome. (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”) Of course, we should be concerned when any generation is turning away from the church in large numbers, especially at a time when church attendance across denominations is dropping faster than a brick off a tall building. Even though there are millennials who are quite active in their churches, we should still be questioning why there are such high levels of disenchantment with the weekend ritual of getting dressed up and going to Sunday morning worship. So what went wrong? I think people are skipping out on church for two general reasons: perceived hypocrisy and lack of access to social media.
Church hypocrisy is nothing new. There have been church scandals during the formative years of the Baby Boomers (those born between 1946-1964) and Generation X’ers (those born between 1965-1980). The difference for the Millennial generation (those born after 1980…also known as Generation Y), is the level of saturation. Millennials have had an up close and personal view of some of the biggest and most widely publicized church scandals ever. This generation has grown up simply bombarded with them. Let’s call the roll:
In the 1980s, there were multiple sex scandals involving children and Catholic priests. In many cases, the Catholic Church admitted covering up these scandals. Many of the offending priests were simply moved to other parishes instead of being stripped of their collars, and the Catholic Church has paid out millions in settlements to the victims. In 1987, there was the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker church scandal. Evangelist Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye were the hosts of the “Praise the Lord (PTL) Club”, a talk show that ran on the Christian Broadcasting Network from 1974-1987. At one point it was the most successful televised ministry of all time.
The PTL Club was a front runner to televangelism and prosperity preaching, and the ministry brought in millions of dollars in revenue. Jim Bakker was alleged to have made all of PTL’s financial decisions and was accused of keeping two sets of books to hide irregularities. He was also accused of paying Jessica Hahn, a woman he admitted having a sexual encounter with, more than a quarter of a million dollars to silence her allegations of rape. Bakker resigned in 1987 and served time for mail fraud and other charges.
In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart, then aligned with the Assemblies of God, uttered his now infamous phrase “I have sinned” and admitted that he had sexual encounters with prostitutes. After that revelation, he was removed from leadership by the Assemblies of God, and just three years later, Swaggart was again accused of having sex with a prostitute. Rev. Swaggart is currently the pastor of Family Worship Center, a nondenominational church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In the 1990s, Terry Hornbuckle, pastor of the Victory Temple Bible Church in Arlington, Texas, (they have since changed the name of the church) was convicted of drugging and raping three women, a crime for which he is currently incarcerated and will be until the year 2026.
In 1994, Henry Lyons was president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the largest Black Christian denomination in the country. By 1998 Lyons was indicted for fraud, money laundering, extortion, and other charges. He spent time in prison, and was released in 2003. In 2009, Lyons attempted to regain his position as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. His bid was defeated. Lyons is now pastor of the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida.
In 2006, Rev. Ted Haggard, then president of the National Evangelical Association, which represented some 30 million evangelical Christians, admitted to having sexual relations with a man. Haggard was well-known for his stance against homosexuality. He was also the pastor of New Life Church, from which he was eventually fired. In 2007, Bishop Thomas Wesley Weeks III was reported to have beaten his wife, Evangelist Juanita Bynum, in an Atlanta, GA hotel parking lot. According to witnesses, it took a hotel bellman to pull him off of her.
As recently as 2010, Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was accused of sexual misconduct by four young men, all former members of his church, of forcing them into sexual contact. After the initial allegations a fifth accuser came forward. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 2011, and one of the contingencies of the settlement was silence about the case. The very next year, Creflo Dollar, leader of World Changers Ministries, just thirty minutes away from New Birth, was arrested for allegedly assaulting his daughter.
This is just a sampling of the number of church scandals the millennial generation has been a front row witness to. I believe church scandals like these lend themselves to a hermeneutic of suspicion about the overall character of the church. They also feed the notion that churches are just too full of hypocrites to even be bothered.
Ironically, the advent of social media has also been a factor in keeping scandals on the front burner because there are endless forums in which to discuss them. I contend the lack of social media in church keeps millennials from coming is because it is just too difficult for them to sit for hours without checking in on Facebook or Twitter. (And that is not just millennials, by the way.)
The millennial generation probably has the shortest attention span, and is a generation masterful in the art of navigating multiple stimuli simultaneously. They gained great hand-eye coordination from the advances in video games, and they tweet while they watch television shows. Granted, it’s not just millennials doing this but they are the generation that was raised on it. Let’s put this generation in perspective: for them, there has always been a running crawl at the bottom of news shows. They have probably never “dialed” a phone. For them, popcorn has always been microwave food (Jiffy Pop is so far off their radar it’s not even funny), the expression “you sound like a broken record” is meaningless to them; in fact, the vinyl sound is vintage to them, they text more than they talk in person, and can have serious dialogue with each other in 140 characters or less. Dare I say the church in general has not kept up well with these changes in communication? This is the most plugged in generation ever, and we are asking them to sit for over an hour and just listen without significant engagement? And let’s not forget to mention the inevitable stink eye they will get from certain church members if they dare even touch their smart phones while sitting in the pews.
So what can the church do to engage this generation? Will churches need to reconfigure ministry to adapt to social media, and what would that look like? Will churches have to set up live interaction with the pulpit during the preaching moment? Or provide Facebook bars in the Fellowship Hall? It is worth mentioning that many churches do have Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as up to date websites with online giving options. Many churches are also utilizing extended forms of communication like Skype and using conference calls for prayer, but there are still relevant questions that need to be raised: what does “community” look like to a plugged in generation? What does “forgiveness” mean when your sins are broadcast online? Has Facebook desensitized us to compartmentalization in terms of our “online” and “in person” personas?
I believe the church writ large must address these issues if she wants to remain relevant not just to the millennial generation but to all generations. We’ve got to get familiar with how the millennial generation does theology, and we’ve got to find ways to be in community with them. One good place to start is inviting millennials to conduct church worships on social media. Even if older church members have no interest in learning about Facebook and Twitter, it’s still an opportunity for intra-generational fellowship. It’s a means of keeping the lines of communication open.
With regards to what the church can do about hypocrisy, I don’t think there is an essential corrective prescription for that…but I think my grandmother had the best remedy. She often said: “Live right. I live right because I’d rather be in church with a few hypocrites than be in hell with all of them.”
Follow Kimberly on Twitter @kpringer