Millennials and the Church

Posted: May 29, 2013 in Christianity
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Millennials WorshippingI recently reviewed the book The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer.  Because of my love for the church as well as for Millennials, and because I believe many American churches are at a critical crossroad for their future, I want to devote a follow-up post to the subject of Millennials and the church, borrowing from and commenting on the information in the last couple of chapters of the book.

The last two chapters of The Millennials are titled “Their Strange Religious World” and “The Church Responds to the Millennials.”  I don’t like to quote too much from a book, but in this case I feel several quotes and summary statements are necessary to set the stage for the conclusions and personal application that follows.

In the first of these chapters, we read the following:

  • “There is no majority spiritual position in the entire generation.  To the contrary, many have such a hodgepodge of beliefs that it’s difficult to give them meaningful labels.”
  • Only 13% surveyed identified spiritual matters as really important in their life.
  • The authors estimate about 15% of the generation to be true Christians.
  • About 24% of Millennials are active in a church, while 25% strongly agree with the statement that the Bible is the written Word of God.
  • “Those who are Christians demonstrate fervency about their faith.”
  • About 70% of the generation believes that American churches are irrelevant.
  • The church’s challenge is not overcoming an adversarial attitude, but overcoming apathy.
  • “A Millennial with parents who were nominal Christians is likely to divorce himself or herself from Christianity and churches.”  They will probably not adopt the lukewarm faith of their predecessors.

In light of the above characteristics of Millennials, what then is today’s church to do if it is to be a place where Millennials choose to be and to serve?  That is the subject of the final chapter, where the authors suggest the following:

  • Millennials “will connect with churches only if those churches are willing to sell out for the sake of the gospel.”
  • Churches focused mainly on themselves rather than others will not attract them.
  • The American church has two related challenges: connecting with Millennial Christians, and reaching the 85% of Millennials who are not Christians.
  • To connect with Millennial Christians, churches must:
    • Become radically committed to the community (missional and incarnational),
    • Go deep in biblical teaching,
    • Love the nations,
    • Direct revenue outwardly,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility, and integrity.
  • To reach non-Christian Millennials, churches must:
    • Remember the indifference a majority feel toward Christians and the church,
    • Unleash the simple power of inviting,
    • Connect Boomer parents with Millennial children,
    • Demonstrate the deep meaning of following Christ,
    • Demonstrate concern for others,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility and integrity (again).

With all the above in mind, I cannot help but think of my church.  It will soon be 200 years old.  Its largest demographic is its senior adult population.  It says it wants more young adults and young families, but the past decade has seen more Millennials exit the church than enter.  The weekly attendance is less than half what it was when my family started attending in the mid 1980s.  A large majority of its $1.75 million budget goes to paying for salaries and facilities.  Still, it does many things right.

I love my church and have wonderful friendships with many people there.  Each week I get to participate in the best adult small group Bible study class I’ve ever experienced.  As an inner city church, we have some opportunities to do things that will not happen in other settings.  I am committed to serving my Lord through this church and am hopeful for its future, even in this time of searching for a new pastor to lead us.  While I was at times sorely tempted to leave in recent years due to some frustrations, God would not let me go, even though I visited and deeply enjoy and respect other nearby churches dominated my Millennials.

One of the thoughts that I walked away with after reading the book The Millennials was this: No church – mine included – will be successful attracting Millennials as a result of implementing a program to reach them.  We can’t hire a staff person to do it.  We can’t expect a new pastor to magically make it happen.  We can’t vote to take some action in a business meeting that will suddenly result in being the kind of church Millennial Christians are drawn to and Millennial non-Christians care anything about.  We have to actually be the kind of church daily at our core – naturally, honestly, genuinely, individually and collectively – that Millennials and others serious about the faith are drawn to.  We need to be doing the things mentioned above not to attract Millennials, but because doing so is at the heart of our faith and practice.  We must do them because of who we are, not because of who we want to attract.  Millennials will see through anything less.

Given the impatience for slow change demonstrated by many Millennials, most young men and women aren’t inclined to take on a project of the magnitude of turning a 200-year-old church around.  I can imagine many thinking “Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!” as they head off to another established (or brand new) church that is already living out the radical Christianity they expect.  Where does that leave my church and so many others as we look to the future?  I’m not sure.

This I know, however: God isn’t finished with His church yet.  He may well raise up new ones as others no longer serving His purposes fade away.  He may choose to bring new life to many currently struggling.  As we ponder what it means to be a church member and then live out that faithfulness, God can still surprise and amaze us all.  I’m eager to see that happen at my church, and I hope I witness it alongside devoted, faithful followers of all ages, especially Millennials.

(Note: The photo above comes from the USA Today article “Pastor Mark Driscoll: Millennials are honest on faith.”)

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