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    Missing Millennials

    Four reasons The Salvation Army is losing a generation. August 15, 2017 by Captain Scott Strissel
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    Photo: © ninjaMonkeyStudio/iStock.com

    I’ve noticed an alarming trend in The Salvation Army, and the church in general. When young people in our corps reach a certain age—usually around 16 to 18—more and more are simply vanishing from our doors. They might reappear from time to time, but they never stay. Why are we losing this generation? A generation that will one day run our Army?

    I’ve been doing some research on millennials—I also have two living in my home—and I’m sharing some of my findings with the hope that we can prevent the exodus of an entire generation. I acknowledge that not every millennial falls into these categories, but the majority who leave our corps and ministries cite the following reasons (whether true or not).

    1.       God can be found elsewhere

    In a 2015 Barna study, nearly 39 percent of millennials believed that God could be found elsewhere, and attending church isn’t necessary to find God. This is troubling. Our corps should be places where God is real and present. Is he in your corps? How can we impress upon our young people that God might not be tied specifically to our corps halls, but to sacrificial living? Perhaps it has to begin by living out that belief. I applaud those in my life who were an example for me. Many wonderful officers and soldiers displayed holy living through their kindness, grace and love. Perhaps we need less rhetoric and cliché mottos, and more evidence of belief in those mottos spilling itself out into our communities. No, God can certainly be found elsewhere, but is he evident in us?

    2.       Millennials can spot fakes

    We’ve all seen the televangelists with the gleaming teeth and the empty words, preaching prosperity without ever mentioning biblical principles, godly character or sin. Millennials have a deep longing for the return of the sacred to our churches and corps. The message of wearing a uniform as our only testimony of an inward change is not enough—we must live out this change. This is true, of course, for every generation, and the necessity of holiness in our movement is vital for all. When we talk a big game but nothing ever happens, millennials will spot the phoniness and run for the exits. We can dress the part, we can say all the “hallelujahs” until we are blue in the face, but if none of it translates into holy living, you can bet that sort of fakery will be seen. Once seen, it’s hard to recover from.

    What millennials want are people who are real and genuine. They want to see real people struggling with real stuff and not hiding or pretending everything is fine. This requires vulnerability for both sides: to admit that though we live out holiness, we still encounter hardship, doubt and fear. Soldiers, be real. Don’t put on masks; don’t lie when things aren’t going well. Live holiness out in the midst of life’s ugliness.

    3.       Hypocrites in uniforms

    Along with spotting fakes, millennials are repulsed by hypocrites who preach one thing, but live another. The “do as I say, not as I do” motto needs to die not only in the church, but in our Army as well. If it exists, address it and stamp it out. Don’t let it fester and lead to the spiritual death of your corps. Years ago, I heard of corps with band members who put on their uniforms to perform, and then rushed out the back door as soon as their part in the service was over. What kind of witness is that to our young people?

    Millennials have also seen moral failures in society, and perhaps even in The Salvation Army. Divorce rates are high; half of all millennials come from one-parent homes, or split their time between two homes. Some have witnessed the effects of moral failure first-hand in family members and deeply desire to change that narrative in their own lives.

    Other instances could involve officers or soldiers forming exclusive groups in the corps, either intentionally or unintentionally, and failing to include others seeking fellowship. Perhaps some have experienced mean people in the pews of our corps and wondered to themselves, “Is this what The Salvation Army is all about?”

    I guarantee that this point rubs many of us the wrong way. Good—it ought to. We should never be perceived as hypocrites in uniform. If we aren’t inclusive of people from all walks of life, then we have no place being an army of salvation. All are welcome to experience the love of God in our services.

    4.       Lack of ownership 

    Millennials want to belong to something great. They believe in charity, giving and helping people in need. They have a passion to serve causes that matter and make a difference. When we emphasize world services, they want to contribute and help out in tangible ways. When we don’t allow them to participate because they are young and “don’t know anything,” we are closing the door to their future in the Army. Millennials want to be invested in the Army—but how can we empower them and raise them up to lead? There needs to come a point, and perhaps it’s already happening in some places, when we not only invest in the younger generation, but we allow them to take leadership positions. We need to relinquish our grip on some positions of authority and allow them to help. When we help our youth be genuinely invested, they will have a sense of belonging and a deeper desire to serve and be used—because they will be making difference.

    These are just four reasons The Salvation Army is losing millennials. I acknowledge that churches in other denominations are facing the same crisis. But, just for a moment, let me ask you—What is the Army doing to ensure the next generation doesn’t flee its ranks? What can be done? More importantly, what are YOU doing? Our Army is only as strong as its members who are actively living out our mission.

    We don’t need to spruce up our worship bands, or make sure we have attractive-looking corps or programs. What millennials (and non-millennials) are looking for is a warm, inviting place to belong. Is YOUR corps that place?

    Captain Scott Strissel is the corps officer at Evansville Corps and Community Center in Indiana. He is an active blogger and contributor for the purpose of encouraging and challenging the Salvation Army world. Read his blog at pastorsponderings.org.

    Comment

    On Tuesday, October 10, 2017, Major Terence Hale said:

    Hello "A Recovering Salvationist,"

    If you are out there and still following this comment thread I would be happy to continue this conversation with you as you suggest in your post.

    The Youth Department is very interested in hearing the experience of young people who have grown up with the Army, but, for various reasons, that the Army is no longer their church/spiritual home. It is important that we learn from each other and journey together.

    If you would like to connect further please contact me directly at Terence_Hale@can.salvationarmy.org.

    Blessings,

    Terence Hale TYS

     

    On Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Concerned said:

    I have read with interest the comments of " A Recovering Salvationist". They are a cry of the heart; his own and very much his generation.

    I had thought someone in Territorial leadership would address his concerns, deal with the issues he raises, and perhaps give us some trenchant thoughts on the vision for the Army in Canada the in years ahead. Alas....

    Thank you for your passionate expression, Recovering Salvationist. As I looked around my congregation this past Sunday morning ( in one of Canada's largest corps) I counted about 200 saints, most of them grey haired and now part of a numerically decreasing cohort. Hardly a millennial to be seen, save for a few in uniform and in the band.

    The irony was particularly biting as we sang "Come Join our Army"

     

    On Friday, September 1, 2017, A Recovering Salvationist said:

    This is a topic that has been beat to death over and over and over with little result. I think that while people are willing to ask the question as to why young people leave the Army, no one is brave enough to find the answer, usually because the answer doesn’t line up with their traditional (I don’t mean uniforms and bands) views of the Army.

    I will try and make this brief but Pandora’s Box is what it is:

    As a millennial, who grew up in the Army; as an Officer's kid, who was in uniform, played in the band, did outreach, mission work, and even a Salvation Army Gap year overseas, but now can barely stand to step foot in a corps building, I can say that this article only scratches the surface of why my generation (and the one's before me, and most likely the one's after me) have left in droves.

    I’ll try not to make this my own personal list of reasons why I think Millennials have left. And let me be clear right from the start: I don’t care about bands, uniforms, flags and militarism and whether or not they are relevant or whatever. These things are what they are and to me bear no real weight on the real issues the Army is facing today. These are traditions the army has surrounded itself with, but are just that, traditions and not the inherent mission of the Army. Keep them all, don’t keep them all I, and I would say a lot of my generation, don’t care.

    So to start let me say I agree with "Concerned" in that the Army is going through an Identity Crisis. A crisis that has been going on for quite a while. What is the Army? A church? A social service? A mission? Movement? Organization? Charity? etc etc. This only causes confusion and division.

    If the Army wants to be a church, then let it continue its descent into the McDonaldization of the western church where everyone sings the same songs, everyone reads the same big book out of Mars Hill, or Hillsong, everyone preaches the same self-help theology, and continues to build monstrous "Community Churches" in the suburbs. Fine. So be it. But if that is the answer to this question, unfortunately, in the end millennials will probably just go find somewhere that does the McDonald's church better. Because let’s be honest, the Army isn’t good at it, because it’s not what the Army is.

    Points 2 and 3 bring up some very good points. I’ve always loved the Army’s Arminian-Wesleyan heritage, founded and seeped in Holiness. But unfortunately now I would go so far as to say that the Army as a Holiness movement doesn’t exist anymore (In the West) Holiness has been misunderstood and replaced by piety instead, and this has had massively negative implications on Millennials. I’ve seen countless young people torn down and debased by “leadership” in the Army for having a drink, or some other trivial non-conforming action rather than look at the root-cause of these so-called sinful acts and seeking restoration and healing instead. Piety has replaced Holiness, being seemingly perfect has replaced being honest and open about brokenness, and every corps has their Sin Gestapo, policing young people rather than discipling young people. Today it’s more important to maintain the image of perfection and piety than to look at what Holiness really means and finding healing for the brokenness, (Which requires being open and honest) rather than just treating the symptom of that brokeness - sin.

    The issue of alcohol is another one I think some Millennials struggle with in the Army. To me, again I don’t care either way. What my issue is the lack of understanding as to why Salvationists don’t drink in the first place. And if more Salvationists understood the true reason for alcohol abstinence then I would say there would actually probably be even more things in the Covenant to abstain from or at least a higher emphasis on! (i.e. Diet Coke, Social Media, Sugar, shopping, to name a few!)

    As for Point 4; this, I think is the big one....And while I am speaking for myself, this is a conversation I've had with too many young people from my generation:

    My generation (especially) was inundated with the idea of revolution, revivial, neo-salvationism, and being the future of the army. Now I know every generation gets those ideas pumped into their heads to some extent, but my generation in particular had the likes of Phil Wall, Chick Yuill, Russ Rook, Steve Court/Dannielle Strickland to name a few, challenging us, inspiring us, facilitating our passions and ideas; There were places like 614's, gap years like the War College in Vancouver, Ignite in Toronto and Timothy in the UK, all of which fed into the idea that the Army is changing, going back to its roots, getting away from the McDonaldization of the Army and back to a neo-salvationism that isn't about wearing a uniform or playing in a band. (That is not an attack on uniforms or banding). But when a lot of my generation came out of those years, after having done our gap years, being revved up at our Design for Life weekends, our Micah Challenges, our Youth Councils etc. we were left holding our hat in our hand and told to fall in line, get a job at Starbucks to support whatever ministry it is you want to do and if you really want a full-time ministry opportunity become an Officer. This realization that nothing really had changed, that “leaders” were nothing but, and that it was all talk goes back to a lack of authenticity, and to a lot of us an outright betrayal. We could also discuss the top down leadership structure of the Army and how inefficient and stagnant it is, but that’s another topic. Regardless, if you tell someone long enough that they’re special, they’re meant to change the Army and the world, and then you say… now just conform and continue to do things as we’ve been doing them… well what do we expect is going to happen?

    And no we don't want hand outs, and no we don't want everything just to be given to us. I know a lot of us were willing to work hard, but not always in the way the Army wanted us to (Officership) And herein lies my point... If the Army would like young people to take up leadership roles at any and all levels, then they have to accept that not all millennials are going to fit into the mold of the Army as it is. For one, we question everything! And the Army is not good at having itself questioned. (Personally I was branded a heretic for simply asking some hard questions about the Doctrines). I could ask the question of what makes a Salvationist a Salvationist, (i.e. is the Salvationist who plays in the band every Sunday in a perfectly tailored uniform a better Salvationist than the one who doesn’t wear a uniform at all, but is on the streets every night serving the poor and marginalized? ) I know the answer is both, but unfortunately, in my experience and those of many around me it was not so and those of us who didn’t fit the mold were cast aside.

    There were plenty of my generation that would have given up anything to pursue their passions inside the Army had they been given the opportunity to do so. Apparently Millennials are a very different generation than those that came before us (that’s what we keep hearing anyway, in the news, social media, The Salvationist!); whether that be good or bad I guess we’ll see. But whichever it is, we’re a product of how we were raised both at home and in the Army. So after having been filled to the brim with ideas of the need and importance of social justice, neo-salvationism, change etc. how can we be expected to fall into rank and file in traditional (not bands or uniforms) Army roles and ways of doing things?

    So to ask the question so desperately, as has been done again and again, "why are young people leaving” but to then expect to continue doing things the exact same way (ok sure maybe change the name of something here and there) seems to me an exercise in futility.

    Nonetheless, I know plenty of my generation who have gone on to pursue their passions and ministry in other denominations, other organizations, professions, vocations and other fields, but who would love the opportunity to come back and help fulfill those dreams of an Army for the 21st Century. But most of us have now moved on, too much baggage, too much hurt, too many empty promises and what would we come back to? Nothing different I would imagine, based on this article.

    So unfortunately I think the Army of the 21st Century (in The West anyway) will continue it's slide down the McDonald's church way of doing things, corps will shrink, banding will shrink and the Social Services side will either continue to be completely separate from the Corps side of the Army and/or will be left in the dust by more progressive and dare I say it more [historical Salvation Army] non-Army organizations.

    Perhaps the question shouldn’t be how should the Army get Millennials back, or how should the Army keep them. Perhaps the question needs to be, what does the Army want to look like in the 21st century? The world today is more similar to the world of the 19th century than we might think in terms of social injustice, income inequality, technological revolution (19th century industrial revolution) and the social implications of this revolution. If the Army can answer this question honestly, find its identity and mission for the 21st century, and be willing to make the changes necessary (again I’m not talking about traditionalism, banding, uniforms etc.) I would go so far as to say that Millennials will be scrambling to be a part of The Salvation Army. But does the Army have the courage to do this?

    This is a conversation I’ve had so many times in my life, and yet it’s a conversation that will never get old for me personally because I know there are millennials (And other generations) out there that are still deeply passionate and even desperate to come back to the Army. But when we see the same conversation and questions, the same cliches and gimmicks, the same arguments over banding and uniforms we can’t help but feel hopeless.

    As we all know change takes time. Hard questions have to be asked, hard realizations have to be made, and ego (personally and as an organization) needs to be cast aside. Otherwise the cycle will repeat itself with the next generation and the next.

    I’ll leave it here (though I am more than willing to continue this discussion!) for now with this,

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

    Yours Truly,

    A recovering Salvationist

     

    On Sunday, August 27, 2017, Sidney said:

    Maybe the big bands are getting smaller and the songsters too.It maybe just maybe we are getting back to the true army off he general William booths army let's hope so. .

     

    On Thursday, August 17, 2017, Concerned said:

    Captain Strissel is a provocative, thoughtful writer, and the contents of this article reflect that. He tackles the problem head on, and rightly acknowledges that "the church" is also struggling to hang on to its millennials. The problem, however, seems to be particularly acute in the Army.

    Perhaps it is more noticeable now than in earlier times. This is a function of the fact that as an evangelical denomination the Army continues to shrink in size as society changes, the general population ages and "organized" Christianity of any nature is seen as less and less relevant

    It is also to be remembered that "youth exodus", as it were, from the Army is not an entirely new phenomenon. As a Boomer I well recall the large size of our Youth Group in the 1960s and 70s, but so few, if any, are still "in the Army" today. It is no secret that corps are smaller than ever, and the absolute number of active Salvationists simply continues to decline

    But there are some glaring problems that the Army faces virtually alone, and they have profoundly contributed to the exodus of its milennials. They are, in no particular order:

    1. What are we? A church? A social service agency? A strange amalgam of both? As time progresses the connection between the two gets more strained, and many milennials I know question what is it that we are doing. The pages of "the Salvationist" reflect this. We hand out water and meals at forest fires, we run thrift stores and we have a tremendous array of "ministries" of all nature. We run Santa Shuffles and have bake sales. But what is it we, as a denomination stand for, and what do we value?. Does anyone really know what we believe any longer? Milennials don't have time for uncertainty. They are busy enough. And they can do "good deeds" anywhere.

    2. Sad to say, we are reaping the whirlwind of a grossly disproportionate emphasis on music that seeped most innocently into the more "ecclesiastical" aspects of our movement over time. Brass bands and Songster brigades became ends in themselves, and are unfortunately relics of a bygone era. Purists will strongly disagree, but one only look around to witness their slow disappearance from corps everywhere. Milennials are rarely interested in learning to play a brass horn or sing in a songster brigade, so long a hallmark of active Salvationism; and

    3. The extended military analogy is simply dated. We know and love it , and can think of nothing else. It defines us as an Army. We are not a church, but a movement. We have grown up with it, its rich symbolism and the unique culture it spawned. But the world we live in has changed, and it is all almost something of a joke to today's milennials. This includes our precious uniform, which at best today is only worn if one is in a musical section.

    I realize these comments will no doubt stir some controversy, and all milennials are not tarred with the same brush. There are, of course, other factors. But as one who spends considerable time with millennials and keenly observes demographic trends these are some of the key factors I can identify that are simply helping to chase this so important cohort out of our corps.

    I wish there were easy solutions, as an Army can only march as long as it has soldiers willing to do so. And their number continues to decline as more and more millennials leave.

     

    On Thursday, August 17, 2017, Ruth Doyon said:

    You talk about change and creating a warm and inviting place for millenials to feel like they belong to something. The first thing you the Army needs to do is stop using the word CORP and start using church if you want people to be a part of the church. Most of the population these days have no idea what a Salvation Army Corps is and therefore will not be attracted to it. As a whole the Salvation Army resists change and therefore you will see a decline in membership

     

    On Wednesday, August 16, 2017, Theresa McMurray said:

    After reading this article it has shown lots Of truth I can see where young people may Feel left out or concidered too young to Lead and we need to break this chain I have seen number 3 in my Corps and I Am a senior and I don't believe that some Are aware they are a clique and leaving. Others out of the circle and

     

    On Wednesday, August 16, 2017, Randall Taylor said:

    As one who has went to a Pentecost church and now go to the army I see it in all churches when the youth are told not old enough but how old where the world changers in the Bible old enough to serve and also faith is a simple thing give your life to Jesus and serve him everything else is an add on that we make difficult to follow trust God to lead and we must follow

     

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