What if we’re the prodigals?

You could feel the passion in the air at the 4/14 Summit in Bangkok.

Passion for “reaching the next generation.”

Lots of good ideas, full of hope and promise, circulated among conference goers during three days of plenary sessions, breakout groups, and meals together.

“Holistic children’s ministry.”

Talk of kids being “rooted” in faith so they can be “released” to make their own contribution to this world.

A compelling vision for seeing children as “partners in ministry,” as full citizens of the kingdom—not as second-class members of the church.

Particularly among US attendees, there was a lot of talk about “bringing the prodigals back,” an allusion to the parable of the prodigal son who forsook his family, his identity, and his calling to seek a life on his own terms.

Prayers were spoken for the “prodigal generation,” for millennials who grew up in the church and then walked away. Anxiety and anguish were voiced over these prodigals who had lost their way.

I kept wondering:

What if we’re the prodigals, not them?

What if it’s the church who failed them, not the other way around? What if we’re the ones who need to repent and ask forgiveness?

Much has been written about millennials leaving the church. How many and why are matters of intense inquiry. Barna says 59% of millennials raised in the church end up walking away from institutional religion or faith altogether. Pew reports that 1 in 3 millennials have no religious affiliation—more than earlier generations at the same point in their lives.

Some millennials are justifiably disillusioned by scandal and abuse in the church. Many are turned off by their churches’ preoccupation with money and power. Some are simply yearning for less flash and more transcendence. Others long for justice, but their churches don’t offer an outlet for this passion. (It’s worth noting that historically black churches, which have a much richer legacy of social justice, aren’t experiencing a similar decline).

Most millennials feel the church has been coopted by partisan politics. Some left because they were forced to choose between faith and science, or between their church friends and their gay friends. The overwhelming majority perceive the church as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, and sheltered.

None of this is new information.  But all of it, I think, points to the same conclusion: We’ve lost the plot. The “main thing.” Our “first love.” We’ve lost sight of it. And I think it’s time we owned up to it.

During a breakout sessions near the end of the 4/14 summit, I raised a question that had been nagging at me all week. What if we’re the prodigals? What if we’re the ones who need to repent? The uncomfortable silence that followed was punctuated by a few murmurs of agreement.

Someone else, one of the few millennials present in the room, stood up to say that if we are to regain her generation’s trust, we ought to get serious about acknowledging and prevening abuse in the church — not only sexual abuse, but any abuse of power. The breakout facilitator blinked defensively and said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by ‘abuse,’ ” before quickly changing the subject.

Until we understand who the “prodigal” really is, our efforts to bring millennials back to the church will fail. Only when we confess that we’re the ones who let them down, not the other way around, will we earn the right to ask them back. Until we own up to our failures — until we admit that we are no longer worthy to be called their sanctuary, their place of refuge — all our handwringing over their departure will be in vain.


The first-century church in Ephesus was known for its diligence and perseverance. They were known for their orthodoxy. They had tested counterfeit apostles and exposed them as frauds. But in one thing they had failed: they had forsaken their first love. “Consider how far you have fallen,” the Spirit told them. “Repent and do the things you did at first.”

“If you do not,” the Spirit warned, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

Until we rediscover our “first love,” we have no right to expect millennials to come back to the church or to think of ourselves as a beacon of light to a “lost” generation.

Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo (photo by Jorge Elías on Flickr)

One thought on “What if we’re the prodigals?

  1. Jonathan Martin at Renovatus recently did a series on parables, including the prodigal son. However, he noted that BOTH sons had issues that needed to be addressed… and that, in truth, those folks who are IN the church already need to see in us, not the first son who “left”, but the second son who stayed and how much we, also, are in need of grace…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s