The UK church is ageing. Many of us might suspect this from our own contexts, and the relevant research confirms that this is a widespread reality. Millennials (those born between the early 80s and mid-90s) are one of the groups currently underrepresented in the UK church. As a millennial myself, I find this situation concerning, as I’ve shared before.
A recent episode of Talking Theology, the podcast of Cranmer Hall, Durham, explored this situation, asking the question, ‘What does millennial faith look like?’ The episode featured Ruth Perrin, a research fellow at Cranmer, whose work focusses around the faith of millennials.
In the episode, Ruth focusses on insights from her study into a group of millennials who exhibited a strong Christian faith and church involvement in their early 20s but have since gone down different paths. Some have continued to retain their faith and church involvement, others say they still have a Christian faith but are no longer involved in a church, while another group have rejected both Christianity and the church. The episode is well worth listening to in order to better understand the characteristics of millennials and how we can better reach and disciple them by applying the findings of this research .
Why Do Millennials Lose Their Faith?
What were the patterns that could be observed among the millennials who now identify as having no Christian faith and no church involvement?
Most had experienced what Ruth refers to as an existential crisis in which the gospel stopped making sense to them. Often this came when the individual met non-Christians and encountered alternative viewpoints. Most had not really wrestled with big questions before this and so were ill-equipped to do so and had a faith which was not resilient to such an encounter.
Personal crises were also a common theme. Examples included situations linked to mental health, others to marriage breakdown. Individuals had faced these very difficult situations and had not found that their faith or church had been able to help them.
No doubt linked to the above two factors, each story also exhibited a distancing from the church. Importantly, Ruth notes that for those in this group, the journey was slow and gradual, occurring over months and years, not in a single moment.
How Can the Church Help Millennials?
How then can the church best help millennials to maintain and deepen their faith? Here Ruth shares some incredibly helpful insights.
Top of the list is the importance of relationships and, in particular, cross-generational relationships. Millennials who have continued in their faith and church commitment often speak of the importance that older Christians have played in their life. Often to the surprise of older generations, millennials really want the friendship, advice and practical support of those who have been around longer than them.
Also key is authenticity. This is a really key value for the millennial generation and its absence is quickly noted. Millennials want to see people being real and honest about life and the struggles it can bring, including struggles in the journey of following Jesus.
The final key lesson is the importance of allowing and helping people to acknowledge and deal with doubts and questions. Millennials (and arguably any age group) need the permission to acknowledge doubts and questions and then the support to really wrestle with them. Given that we can’t give easy, water-tight answers to every question, we also need to reclaim the reality and goodness of living with mystery.
A Millennial’s Reflections
As I reflected on these observations, I was first struck at what useful insights they are for those of us who want to reach millennials with the gospel and to disciple them well. I only later realised how strongly they chime with my own experience.
I have had to acknowledge and wrestle with some big questions: discovering in my teen years that I’m same-sex attracted and then studying theology at secular UK universities made that pretty unavoidable. I do greatly value authenticity. I find it odd when people are so surprised about how openly and publicly I’m prepared to speak about struggles in my life. I stand there thinking, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I share about this?’. And I have benefited greatly from cross-generational friendships. Some of my closest friends are more than twice my age, and as I look back over the past decade or so, their friendship, wisdom and support is one of the key things that God has used to keep me on the path of following him.
As I look back over my teenage years and early adulthood, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’ve been blessed to have the space and strength to wrestle with big questions, I’ve been allowed to be open and honest about my life while still being fully loved and accepted, and I’ve had older friends who have walked alongside me as I’ve done so. Many others haven’t been so lucky. There are millennials missing from our churches because we’ve overlooked these things. Ruth’s research probably makes all of us conscious of mistakes we’ve made in the past, but it should also help us to see opportunities for the future.
You can find more of Ruth’s research into discipling students and young adults on her website Discipleship Research.