In the last decade, the church in North America has experienced an exodus of approximately two-thirds of millennials. If you have attended a formal church gathering in recent years, you have likely witnessed this happening. In 2020, The Salvation Army appointed me to the corps mission resource department with the task of creating a strategy for retaining and reaching this generation of young adults.

In December, the Canada and Bermuda Territory distributed a survey as the first step of a virtual listening tour for adults between 18 and 38 years old (the millennial generation and older Generation Z). In church culture and millennial studies, the growing and consistent response to questions of faith is, “Jesus yes, church no.”

For adults who belong to this emerging generation of leaders, the teaching of Jesus and the mission of the church resonate with their worldview and vision for justice, on both a local and global scale. However, there is a disconnect when it comes to their impression of Jesus, the head of the church, and his followers, the corporate embodiment of formal religion. Hence the growing “Jesus yes, church no” attitude.

There is no denying that we are experiencing a rapid decline in church attendance. Research done between 2010 and 2020 shows a drop in Sunday worship attendance by 64 percent among the Gen Z and millennial group.

At the same time, in the past three to five years, there has been an overwhelming response to Australian church plants that have moved into major Canadian cities, attracting millennials by the thousands and influencing other church plants across the country. The outcome? A generation of young leaders rising and engaging in Sabbath worship, community service and taking initiative in their own personal growth and Christian discipleship. It leaves us to wonder, What are they doing right? What is this generation seeking from the church?

The End of an Era
In The End of Words, author Richard Lischer argues that the church in the post-Second World War era lost its influence as a result of a disconnect between the teaching of Jesus and the words and actions of the church in the 1960s and 1970s. In the aftermath of atrocities like the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, the baby boomer generation questioned the existence of God and the authority of the church, turning to other voices for meaning. The words of the church, seen as assenting to the social injustices of an era, fell on deaf ears.

The millennial generation, the children of the baby boomers, grew up with complete freedom to question the message of the church. Within this cultural, social, economic and political global shift, the church found its message competing for space in the digital landscape of the information age. Millennials have grown up with ideas of relationships, family, life, self and faith forged in those spaces; they do not accept the faith of their parents at face value, but rather, they wrestle with questions of God and his relationship to this world, challenging their own understanding of his relevance to their everyday life.

A Searching Generation
In this new cultural space, there is much opportunity for the church to answer those questions. Perhaps there is no better time than now for a body of people to embrace a searching generation. There are also many questions for the church. As we seek to find answers and develop a strategy, our working group will be made up of people from the generation we hope to reach. The survey was the first volley for the project, paving the way for focus groups.

We wholly believe that addressing the needs of emerging generations requires engaging the wisdom of their peers. We are listening to God, drawing from our experience and that of the community and bringing voices to the table to create a way forward as we discover the opportunities for The Salvation Army.

In a 2002 study on the religious landscape of the United States, the PEW Research Center found the following data among millennials. When asked about their belief in God, only 17 percent of 20-somethings answered a definite “no,” and 64 percent of the same group shared that they prayed on a regular basis. While 68 percent of young millennials believe in heaven, an astonishing 81 percent answered in the affirmative to “having a sense of wonder about the universe.”

There is an open door for The Salvation Army to listen to the voices of our young leaders and make way for a generation that is looking beyond themselves. This pursuit brings to life words from Scripture: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NASB).

In the song Hosanna by Hillsong Worship, the lyrics, “I see a generation, rising up to take their place with selfless faith,” resonates with the church of today. Millennials have not given up on God or his church. They are asking the church to live a life that is congruent with the life of Jesus; for a church body that is connected to its head. In the coming weeks and into the spring, we will dig deeper into this project, as we invite your input in our focus group discussions. We will listen with you, pray for you and create a strategy that disrupts our movement, guiding us to a place where we can all agree, “Jesus yes, church yes.”

Major Rick Zelinsky is the millennial project officer.

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