Several articles have made the rounds over the last few years regarding millennials and church. Many of them contain great insights into a generation that is disappearing from our congregations with pleas to “the church” to change their ways, because whatever “the church” is doing now is obviously not working.
Again, there are some great insights and considerations being offered in these articles, but I want to offer a few quick counter-considerations for the millennials (or anyone else) who might be over church or leaning that way.
#1 - Dig In, Don’t Desert
One of the main concerns I’ve heard and noticed is the lack of being heard or acknowledged. This does not negate the experience of millennials in church, but I would offer that other demographics feel the same way. Senior adults and singles of all ages come to mind. The difference, especially with senior adults, is that they aren’t leaving the church. Yes, churches need to give a voice to everyone and incorporate them into areas of service, leadership, etc. But I also think believers should not give up on their churches while they figure that out. Dig your heels in. If you’re committed to the Lord and His body, assume a “for better or worse” commitment and pursue change. We’re all in this together, so embracing the “What am I getting out of this?” posture can only further divide. From my experience, senior adults have a great concern that the church sees them as expendable. Typically, most change in the church is catered towards families. Families typically give more money, support/enable more ministry efforts, and can complain louder because their kids are involved. To oversimplify this approach think, “If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” But senior adults don’t as quickly entertain the idea of quitting church. You might blame this on tradition. I think you could also chalk it up to commitment. They have established relationships that are longer lasting and more valuable than their battles (real or perceived) with the establishment. Those who are prone to leave church without much hesitation have vastly undervalued spiritual community and the bigger picture of “many members, one body.”
#2 - Suit Up or Shut Up
This is a common sentiment I’ve seen aimed at church leaders. It’s the idea that churches talk a lot about millennials but don’t do anything to engage them. I know I’m biased because I serve on a church staff, but I think that argument goes both ways. This principle also applies to all churchgoers, not just millennials. In general, there is a lot of talk about the church’s problems, but not much effort being put into transforming the culture. I know people who are quick to share articles criticizing the church, accumulating their share of likes and favorites, but who have never tried to get together with any church leaders to discuss their concerns. The default seems to be to criticize and walk away. It’s pretty common to see awareness promoted, movements championed, and ideas applauded. A lot of ink is being spilled regarding what the church is not doing, but few are rolling up their sleeves to make up for it. “I wish we were more like that,” is a poor substitute for, “What can I do to help my church?” Moving forward is going to be a process that requires effort from all parties and the commitment referenced in my first point. Have you talked to leaders in your church? Have you reached out to people who are not like you in your church? It will make for a more effective journey if the widely diverse members of the church don’t mind being in community with each other, rather than expecting the church to create a tailor made ministry experience for each and every different demographic and life stage.
#3 - Adaptation Isn’t All on the Church
There seems to be a consistent theme from any group accusing the church of being irrelevant. That is, that the church needs to adapt because the times are a-changing and what we’ve always done isn’t working. Might I suggest that there are things the church should not compromise in order to keep up with the culture? This is too nuanced of a discussion to lay out here, but I do want to emphasize that no, churches should not hold onto cultural traditions for tradition’s sake. However, there is also a sense in which believers should consider the fact that the culture of Christianity is not subject to the patterns of this world. There is a balance to find.
Oversimplifying the complaint to “churches should adapt or die” can be a slippery slope to a place we dare not go. By that logic wouldn’t “soften the message so more people will want to hear it” also be a good strategy? I trust that most well-intentioned people are not asking the church to compromise their doctrine or water down the Gospel message. I hope churches do consider how they can more effectively minister to the unreached and disengaged. In turn, I would ask wavering believers to consider what they might adapt to in order to cultivate unity through diversity in a local body. This is not always the case, but might the unattractiveness of the church be chalked up to its calling to be different than the ways of the world? It’s natural for people to reject an offensive message and the call to come and die. The challenge, then, is to be sure we are cultivating Gospel culture so we can rightly pinpoint the cause for church avoidance.
If you’re thinking about giving up on church, reconsider. Punishing the church with your absence actually weakens both sides. That’s a lose-lose. Don’t be fooled by the idea that you’re better off without the body. And don’t put the burden on the church to get it all sorted out. People who refuse to throw themselves into the process are as guilty in this scenario as the church is for not hearing them out! Have conversations with your church leaders. Demonstrate how you desire to serve the body and advance the kingdom. Don’t just like and share articles that call out the church’s faults, waiting for them to get a clue. Chances are someone at your church would love for you to help lead out in areas they might be weak.