A growing segment of Canadian college students and young adults who grew up in Christian homes no longer identify with their Christian heritage.
To reverse this trend, James Penner, lead author of the 2012 study, Hemorrhaging Faith, encourages church leaders to get to know young adults and find out what they are looking for in a faith community.
He says the study and follow-up research shows that the millennial generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, see church as a family, not as an event or an organization.
“What needs to go and what needs to stay so that millennials experience your church as a family rather than an organization?” he asked at a workshop in Winnipeg organized by the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba.
About 50 church leaders participated in the event that took place January 28.
Broadly speaking, the Hemorrhaging Faith study divides respondents into four spiritual types: the Engagers who are part of a church, the Fence Sitters who still identify with Christianity but feel the church is out of touch and the Wanderers and Rejecters who have left the church and their spiritual identities as Christians.
Penner says vibrant faith communities look like an aspen grove where young saplings and mature trees share the same root system and thrive.
“Young adults want to be part of something bigger than them and they step up to help if their talents are viewed as important,” he says. “The millennial generation needs high support and over the top expectations.”
Age, he says, is not a barrier to bring positive changes into the church. Jesus’ disciples were young adults and they changed the world. If young adults are given the opportunity they will bring a fresh perspective on what it means to be radical followers of Jesus.
“Canada is becoming a post-Christian country—what an exciting time to be a follower of Jesus radically,” says Penner.
As they summarized their small group discussions, workshop participants noted young adults want to be agents of change and see God at work in and through people in new ways. Young adults are inspired by people who are attuned to the presence of God.
The millennial generation has a lot of questions and appreciate opportunities to honestly explore the answers to serious questions without being judged.
Kelly Cochrane, an apprentice church planter with C2C Network in Winnipeg, recently purchased a new car. He noted his young adult daughters, Kyla and Karis, intuitively knew how to use “high tech features” in the car.
Just like he learned from his daughters how to use the features in the new car, he believes older generations can learn from younger generations in a faith community.
“Church is not a place you come to—it is what you are,” he says. “It is not a spectator sport—it is something that you engage in. The millennials are bringing us back to that reality.”
Gladys Terichow is the staff writer for the Canadian Conference of MB Churches