Recent surveys suggest Millennials are frustrated with today’s churches. As a twenty-something myself, I can understand why. But with a little more creativity and vision, we can show today’s young adults that the church still has something to offer them.
An article at The Root asking the question why so many Generation Yers are abandoning the church caught my attention this week. Written by a member of my own Gen-Y or Millennial generation (born in the 1980s and ’90s), the piece attempts to explain the restlessness and dissatisfaction many young adults are feeling regarding the church. While I disagree with several of the author’s points, it’s obvious that the church’s appeal among younger generations has decreased.
I’ve been in the church all my life. I’ve been interested in activist organizations that speak to the plight of the disadvantaged and underprivileged for as long as I can remember. I see much value in church and in many of these organizations.
Much of my talent was honed in the church. Most of my gifts were developed in the church. I was afforded opportunities to lead, speak, sing, and express myself in ways that have distinguished me from my peers who did not have as many opportunities in other places. I was also affirmed in the church which gave me a sense of confidence and pride I would not have had otherwise.
I am naturally disappointed, then, when I see the decline of participation of my generation and the generations around mine in church and other social organizations. Interesting as it may sound, I can understand many of my peers who are tired of “church as usual.” I can sympathize with their desire to take a break from the weekly routine of going to church to sit in the pew for a few hours, often fighting sleep.
While we are not the only generation to feel this way, we are unique in a few ways. We are one of the first generations where no significant movement for social progress has been led by the church. Before his death, Michael Jackson said he planned to do his final series of concerts so that his children could see him perform. They were not old enough to have witnessed him in his heyday. Similarly, our generation has not seen the glory of the church in action.
We are also one of the first generations where the church didn’t heavily influence the music we grew up listening to. It’s now popular culture that has a greater influence on the music of the church.
You must admit that times are changing. So are people. While I believe the church, at its core, should remain the same, there are some things she should consider as she tries to attract wayward youth and young adults — and to keep the ones she has.
1. We Are Searching for Relevance and Meaning.
Everybody, at some point in life, will get to the place where they ask the timeless questions of purpose and meaning: Why am I here? What am I to do while I’m here? What will happen once I die? Though I cannot speak with authority about the degree to which people in past generations sought answers, I get the sense that people in my demographic are interested and willing to travel across traditional, denominational, and even religious lines to collect information. Keeping in mind the fact that we have been trained to be critical thinkers, this quest is very important. The answers that the church provides, though truthful, come off as inadequate because they do not satisfy the quest.
We are also looking for someone to speak to us where we are and help lead us to living our best lives. In my opinion, the church is a great place for this to happen, but pastors and church leaders need to know that it’s not the only place. Oprah is doing a great job where the church is failing. I think a compartmentalized Jesus is part of the reason. Preaching, in other words, should be more than Sunday school stories told from an adult perspective. Church should teach more than Jesus and salvation. We are interested in day-to-day ideas about diet and lifestyle, maintaining healthy relationships, getting a promotion at work, and even understanding the mental and spiritual mysteries.
A pastor who is interested in attracting or keeping young adults should make room for questions and critique. Pastors should not be concerned about confusing our generation. It’s already too late for that. Provide a safe and loving place where we can dialogue about what we are confused about without being condemned to hell. Also understand that the threat of hell is not as potent as it used to be. Overuse of anything tends to increase the tolerance one has for it. Additionally, preach the unadulterated truth. It is embarrassing for me to hear someone from another faith preaching truth and being more relevant than the Christian minister. The pendulum is swinging. The preach-me-happy sermons are overrated and overdone. We want truth. Unadulterated and naked.
2. We Are Looking for a Place to Belong.
I don’t know anyone who likes feeling rejected or unwanted. It’s a part of the human hierarchy of needs. For many in my generation, we have been taught that the church is that place. Most regrettably, too many people in my generation do not feel that way. Just the other day, I saw one of my friend’s Facebook status which said something like, “I have to deal with enough drama from hypocrites in the world as it is. When the church starts acting like the church, let me know — then I’ll return.” While I understand that the politics of human relationships inevitably means some sort of drama, the expectation of people in my generation is that the church should be less stressful than the workplace. If the people there act like the people in the world, the conclusion is, why go? If I still have to wear masks and put on an act around other people wearing masks, what’s the point? Beyond that, if nothing more, the pastor should be someone who is respectable, caring, and available for spiritual counsel. Unfortunately for the church, however, there are too many impostors in the pulpits, and our generation can see through the façade! If the preacher is not seen as someone who is trustworthy and genuinely concerned about my spiritual growth and development, it reflects on that local church — and if there are enough stories, the whole institution.
A pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should be invested in making sure people feel welcomed. S/he should be available for spiritual advice, and warmth should emanate from their countenance. It’s important that a pastor lives the life s/he preaches about. That alone will do wonders for the church.
3. We Are Seeking Work to Do and a Team to Work With.
Personally, I am not interested in sitting in a pew from the time I enter until the time I leave. In fact, I don’t know if anyone wants to (which may explain why some churches have a meet-and-greet period where congregants are allowed to speak to their neighbors and socialize). Unfortunately, this is no longer enough. I like to feel like my presence at church matters, and that I have a meaningful contribution to offer to the flow of the service besides my financial offering. I also want to meet people who are likeminded and work with them in a meaningful ministry. Not just a group of people who meet every two or four weeks to talk about ministry, but a group of people who come together to minister. We want to meet needs, we want to make a difference, we want to change the world. On the surface, it may seem as if we are an individualistic generation that only cares about ourselves and our status, but at the end of the day, we want to fill the void that comes from having such ambitions — and ministry and community service is one important way to achieve that.
A pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should make sure there is work for us to do — and not just busy work. Small groups/teams comprising other people in our demographic are especially attractive because it can meet a social need and a spiritual need simultaneously. Pastors should also be open to us “reinventing the wheel.” I have been involved with too many organizations where momentum and excitement was sucked dry by an adult saying, “That’s already been done.” Why not let us do it again? The quest or process of arriving at a conclusion is better for us than to be spoon fed. Additionally, be aware that some of us are looking for immediate gratification. The more we can see the fruit from our labor, the better.
4. We Are Looking for Solutions.
We are living in a mean and cruel world. Problems are abundant — racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and so many other isms plague our communities. Children are being kidnapped, youth are being killed, students are dropping out of school, and babies are having babies. It seems, at times, that amid all of these problems the only answer the church has is prayer. To people in my generation, as honorable as that may be, it doesn’t seem like enough. If we’re not careful, we will conclude that the church has no clue about what’s going on. I often wonder whether or not the church is equipped to deal with the realities its parishioners are facing in these modern times. In many cases, it is a turn off. The picture churches are painting, whether they intend to or not, is one of a bunch of powerless people begging and pleading to a Suffering Servant to come down and help us navigate through this mean and cruel world in these last and evil days. It’s almost hypocritical. There’s an all-powerful God that Christians claim to know personally, and yet they are poor (in too many cases), unfulfilled, and worst of all, powerless to change the horrid conditions in which they find themselves.
In addition to preaching and praying, a pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should be active in looking for real-life solutions. The church has resources to the extent that they can be the answer to many of the prayers people are sending up. It must become more intentional about reaching out beyond the walls of the church to serve the people, and more creative in finding ways to address other needs and empower youth and young adults to tackle the problems they face each day.
All of the characteristics about my generation may not be good. We can be selfish, impatient, and shortsighted, no question. Good or bad, though, we are who we are. Knowing this going in is always better, because teaching and training then can be informed rather than ill-informed. One has to know whom they are working with if they are going to reach them. As Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
I love the church. I love people. And it saddens me that two of the things I love don’t love each other. Let’s see what we can do to change that.