An article written for churches of all kinds!
National news media outlets have been peppered recently with reports and opinions on the churchgoing habits of Millennials. Bloggers have rightly identified why this 18-35 year-old demographic is leaving churches of all stripes, citing a need to change churches’ substance instead of its style.
Seeking reason amidst the reported exodus, some writers blame poor instruction in youth Sunday School. Other critiques connect the absence of young adults in churches to their choice of secular colleges (the horror!). Some analysts blame a lack of edgy and tech-savvy tools to attract the online generation. Others look hopefully to the growing trend of young people finding interest in religious progressives and note the trend of “uncool church” becoming cool again.
This conversation about Millennials and the church might feel familiar to you and your church as you look around on a Sunday.
“Where are the young people?,” you ask.
“We need young families!,” you exclaim.
“How quickly can we create a Facebook account?,” you wonder, thinking that this might fix the problem. (Heads up – it won’t.)
Buying Macs for the church office and creating a clever hashtag to use about your church on social media sites will show young people that you’re trying, which is good. Your church might even go through a strategic process, identifying that unless you do something about the “black hole” of people in your pews between the high school seniors and the 40-somethings with stable family lives, your church’s future is endangered. Props to you for noticing!
Before you buy better church coffee or even hire someone to create a ministry with young adults, know this: Your church must be ready and willing to be transformed and forever changed by the passions of 20- and 30-somethings if you intentionally invite them in.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, prepare for them to ask probing questions about your systems and organizational structures, advocate for the marginalized, demand inclusion for all of God’s children, and compel the congregation out the door and toward those who need what Jesus came to give.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, know that they will ask WHY you do what you do, and you must have an answer better than “because we’ve always done it that way” (or, in our Baptist context, “because we’re THIS kind of Baptist and not THAT one”… there are very few young people who actually know what you’re talking about or really care).
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, expect them to want a place at the decision-making table in all levels of church life. Make it possible for them to bring their critiques of the church into the church’s systems to lead real and needed change from within. Nominate them to be deacons and committee chairs, but be prepared when they challenge your church’s sacred cows (or drop choice words about them) in meetings!
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, get ready to have hard conversations that will make you uncomfortable about injustices they experience. Marriage equality, the plight of the economically or physically disadvantaged, racial inequities, the stigma of mental health, sexual abuse, and issues of sustainability will become regular topics brought up in Bible studies and asked for during Wednesday night adult education planning.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, familiarize yourselves with the realities they’re grappling with, like soaring student loan debts, a crippled economy that directly impacts capacity for independence, a tenuous work/life balance in this demanding 24/7 job market, a rocky path through the life-stage changes into adulthood, and faith questions, doubts, and raw experiences of suffering that keep them up at night.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, equip yourselves to risk boldly for the gospel and delight in the Jesus they know and love. Let them inspire you as they become change agents of God’s transforming Love in the world and in your church.
In the nearly four and a half years I have served as Minister to Young Adults at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, our young adults have sparked our congregation to revise our membership policy to make room for members coming from other Christian faith traditions, to create an ongoing presence in the impoverished and underserved neighborhood a mile down the street, and to consider actively how we might engage with marriage equality. They have even asked that we restructure our organizational architecture to more effectively carry our our church’s mission.
In the midst of this change and inevitable church conflict that followed, Highland has welcomed five young adults as deacons, 50 who serve on ministry groups (eight of whom are Chairs), dozens who become members each year, and hundreds more who connect to our community of faith, all from this 18-35 year-old demographic.
And just as much as they’ve challenged our church, our young adults love it even more. They are teaching our children the songs of faith and our youth the stories of Jesus. They are following the gospel to the ends of the earth, serving the most neglected in our inner cities and in Morocco, Romania, Peru, India. They’re hearing the call of Christ to a life of ministry and bringing their imperfect, hopeful selves to the task. They are giving sacrificially to the church, even if they don’t always agree with how the money is spent. They are listening carefully amidst dissent to the voices of those who have been here for decades. They actually show up at church business meetings – imagine that! – and speak emphatically about our bylaws. They’re inviting others to our “thinking, feeling, healing community of faith” and introducing them to the way we live life together in the way of Love. They are bringing about the kingdom of God and making tangible the movement of the Spirit among us.
It certainly hasn’t been a smooth road, and I trust that our path ahead will continue to ruffle feathers and challenge our church’s identity, Millennial and non-Millennial alike. However, this journey is one that Highland dreamt about, prepared for, committed to, and intentionally invited. To be clear: Highland didn’t embark on this venture in order to shore up lagging attendance figures; rather, it believed this group, like all groups, need God’s transforming love revealed in Jesus. Highland may not have anticipated the ways that an influx of Millennials could change our church, but they acted on faith and with a calling toward these people, knowing that the God we worship is the one who promises to do a new thing in our midst and be faithful along the journey.
I realize that I’ve painted Millennials with broad strokes and that these statements about institutional change could refer to any demographic group that your church might reach out to, or even better, a group that might just start showing up at your church without invitation. The beautiful thing about church is its messiness, its incarnational humanity that should reflect the most colorful, succulent aspects of the lived life of faith. Young and old, capable and kooky, gay and straight, extrovert and introvert, representing every color in the rainbow. Together we practice how to live abundantly in the way of Jesus.
Because that’s what Jesus promised – a life of abundance – and in the face of the scarcity narrative our culture tells us, this is just the story we all need to learn. For when the gospel gets under our skin and dirties our hands and feet for Love’s sake, generational divides don’t seem like a yawning chasm anymore. Our spiritual rootedness in a particular, peculiar people and a particular, peculiar place grounds us all in the One who dreams wholeness and reconciliation for all people.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, you are right. And they need your church just as much.