According to a 2015 survey done by Barna Research Group, 85% of millennials describe Christians as hypocritical and ⅓ of them believe the church is characterized by “moral failures” in leadership. So how do we reach a generation that really doesn’t trust the Church or its leaders?
I remember where I was when I fell in love with the Church. I was fourteen years old and I was volunteering at my local church. I had just finished teaching a Bible story about caring for people in need to a group of two-year-olds at our Saturday night service, and was getting ready to head out for the night. I was coming back early the next morning to teach at both of our Sunday morning gatherings. But before I left that night, some of the other high school-and college-aged volunteers invited me to play ultimate frisbee with them on the large property right outside the church.
As I walked out the door that night with these new friends, I had no idea how deeply formative that season would prove to be in my life. I didn’t know it in the moment, but as I have since gone on to work at a church, lead teams of volunteers, and start and run a ministry, I have come to realize those moments weren’t accidents. They were deeply intentional strategies my local church had in place to engage me in the mission of Jesus.
There was a place for me to lead and use my unique gifting…even as a teenager. There was a community of other young people who were actively involved in the church and served consistently. These young volunteers were pastored by incredible older leaders who invested in us outside of just our Sunday morning roles. It was normal for my church to teach all ages about caring for the least of these, Biblical justice, and how we could all do our part to change the world.
My local church changed my life forever. Today, as a 26-year-old leader I have been on a mission to understand why my generation is walking—rather, sprinting–away from a place where I found so much purpose, beauty, community, opportunity, meaning, and vision.
As I grew older, I discovered two very painful truths.
- I found out that by staying in the local church after I graduated high school, I was the exception, rather than the rule (and I wondered why).
- I learned that the pastor of my beloved local church where I was raised turned out to be yet another leader who would have his face plastered on news websites after he fell from leadership due to a devastating moral failure.
And yet, even after the leader of my church stepped down in disgrace, my love for the local church never faded. Not because of my own resilience, but because of the people around me who gave me an experience of the church that had nothing to do with my pastor. It was about the leaders who had coffee with me, the friends who invited me into their world, the Bible that came to life as I taught it to children, and the Jesus I encountered in the midst of it all.
“If our generation were to truly encounter Jesus, they couldn’t help but want to spend their entire lives following Him and telling everyone about His wildly unprecedented kind of love.”
I don’t believe my generation is walking away from who Jesus really is. I believe they are walking away from a misguided and warped picture of who we think Jesus is. Because if our generation were to truly encounter Jesus, they couldn’t help but want to spend their entire lives following Him and telling everyone about this God who demonstrates a wildly unprecedented kind of love.
What if we could introduce our generation to Jesus through such authentic encounters that their faith would grow strong enough to endure the moral failures, disappointments, and the church-inflicted hurt that will forever be a by-product of broken, imperfect people in leadership?
I believe it has to start with every generation taking a posture of humility to show up to the table ready to learn from each other.
So, let’s pull up some chairs and lean in. Let’s share our ideas and admit what we don’t know. Let’s link arms to make sure the generations to come encounter Jesus through their beautiful, messy, hope-filled, imperfect local church.
Hannah Gronowski Barnett, Founder and CEO of Generation Distinct, as well as Speaker, Preacher and Author, has always been wired to abolish cultural complacency, unleash lasting justice, and join the wild adventure Jesus invites us all to live.