(Photo: Barna Group)
While most church leaders in America keep at least one eye toward finding answers to why or why not millennials are leaving the Church, researchers at Barna Group recently gave five reasons they do continue to attend. Although the relationship between millennials and the church has shifted, the report showed that churches are still at an advantage in building lasting relationships with them.
Barna Group researchers explain that churches successfully engaging millennials make room for meaningful relationships through mentorships. They also equip them with cultural discernment while ensuring reverse mentorships are a priority. In addition, they embrace teachings that encourage and cultivate a young adult's calling and they help facilitate a deep sense of relationship between young adults and God.
"The most positive church experiences among millennials are relational," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, referring to the differences between millennials who remained active in church beyond high school and those who did not.
Over the last decade, Barna Group tracked the faith development of millennials, while conducting more than 27,000 interviews that generated more than 200 studies worth of research. Among the findings, one-quarter of 18 to 29-year-olds reported that they practice their Christian beliefs, meaning they attend church at least once a month and strongly affirm that their faith is important.
Out of those surveyed, 59 percent, who maintained their membership in a congregation, were more likely to have a personal friendship with an adult inside the church versus the 31 percent who are no longer active churchgoers. Similarly, mentorship relationships were found to be another factor that retains young adults in church with a 28 percent of those surveyed saying they had an adult mentor in their congregation, compared to 11 percent of church dropouts who said the same.
Kinnaman says an issue with the current generation is that the culture in which they were raised is the greatest detriment in keeping them away from church.
"They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel. And life feels accelerated compared with 15 years ago - the ubiquity of information makes it harder for many to find meaning in institutions that feel out of step with the times," Kinnaman said.
However, in order to maintain millennials, churches should teach cultural discernment, according to Barna Group. Over the years, the research firm found that pop culture has become the driver of religion in many ways for millennials, and helping them think and respond in a "rightly" manner to culture should be a priority for churches.
The study findings concluded that 46 percent of active millennial Christians are more than twice as likely to say they learned about how they can positively contribute to society in church compared to 20 percent of those who dropped out of church.
Another reason why millennials stay in church is because of reverse mentoring, which refers to the notion of the give-and-take between young and established leaders. In other words, young adults want to be able to put their skills and talents to work for the church in the present not the future.
The study found that few congregations help young people discover a sense of mission while 33 percent of active millennial churchgoers are twice as likely as 14 percent of dropouts to say they served the poor through their church. In addition, 29 percent reported they had found a cause or issue at church that motivates them versus 10 percent of non-churchgoers.
Barna also believes churches can deepen their connection with millennials by teaching them a more potent theology of vocation, or calling.
"Most churches seem to leave this kind of vocation-based outcome largely at the door, unless these students show interest in traditional church-based ministry," Kinnaman said.
Of those surveyed, 45 percent of millennials who have remained active say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God's calling versus 17 percent of church dropouts. In addition, 29 percent are more likely to have learned how the Bible applies to their field or career interests versus 7 percent.
But Kinnaman says young adults in general seek more than a ministry within the church, they also take interest in vocational discipleship, which is a way to help millennials connect to the history of Christianity with their own unique work.
Barna Group research also noted that church communities should help facilitate a deep, meaningful relationship between millennials and God which encourages them to remain in church.
Millennials who remain active, 68 percent, are more likely than those who dropped out, 25 percent, to say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant. Furthermore, 65 percent of church-going young adults believe the Bible contains wisdom for living a meaningful life compared to 17 percent of those who are inactive.
"In part, it is a failure of not connecting Jesus and the Bible to the other outcomes identified in this research-relational, missional, vocational and cultural discernment," Kinnaman said. "In other words, the version of 'Jesus in a vacuum' that is often packaged for young people doesn't last long compared to faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life."