The church needs the millennial hunger for authenticity, innovation, and social change.
There is an amazing opportunity to learn and grow from the inspiring individuals that are coming into adulthood. (And just take a look at the generation coming up behind them – another compassionate, articulate, energetic group who want to save the world!)
Millennials don’t have the loyalty to institutions that previous generations do. They don’t want to go to church for the sake of going to church. Much has been written about how millennials are the least religious generation in at least 60 years, but my experiences confirm that there is a robust thirst for spirituality and community.
Millennials are seeking meaningful experiences that connect them to God, themselves, and one another, and help them live their lives with more meaning and purpose.
And the church can be that place. I’ll go so far as to say the church needs to be that place if it wants to continue to be relevant and significant in the future. But it’ll never get there unless it is shaped by the people who aren’t there yet.
So many churches operate like country clubs: membership, familiarity, polished look, nice amenities, a good spot to put the kids for a while so you can have a break, the strings that come with donations and contributions. I can see the good intentions behind all of these things, don’t get me wrong.
But from where I sit, those are all the wrong things for a church to be. Let country clubs be country clubs – let church be fluid and inclusive, messy and surprising, changed by the people who are there and who haven’t come yet, experimental and real, a place that brings different classes and generations and races and ideas together into conversation and exploration.
Millennials are seeking authenticity and vulnerability – they don’t need a big fancy building, they need you to speak into the difficulty of their life and the hope they’re so carefully nurturing. They want belonging that comes from relationships not rosters. And they don’t have the time to wait around to be included.
This is where churches look like country clubs again – you have to ‘pay your dues’ and ‘put in your time’ before anyone will listen to you. Millennials are the most mobile generation we’ve seen, moving and starting over without hesitation. They aren’t going to be able to join a committee after three years, maybe get to the head of the committee, join the council, and then after another year or so, finally offer their input. They want engagement now. They don’t have time to waste waiting to be included.
Sure, you could call us flaky. Irresponsible. Peripatetic. But we do a lot more than just sleep till noon in our parents’ basements. We’re forsaking the conveyor belt of soul-sucking high-paying corporate careers to find interesting, impactful work that makes a difference to the world. We are the generation that popularized social entrepreneurism. We believe that we can do well by doing good. It’s going to look different – we’re not going to work at the same company for forty years, and we’re not going to stay at the same church from baptism through marriage until death. If we accept this as the new reality instead of dismissing it as “irresponsible youth” that will some day wise up and join in this old system, what potential awaits us?
The church needs to be more nimble, allowing for and designing ways to get millennials plugged in and making a meaningful contribution immediately. This type of energy may attract millennials, but it will serve the church as a whole. How many people are waiting to be included? Hanging on the sidelines, waiting to be invited in?
I’ve heard too many church meetings where the introductions go something like, “I’m So-and-So and I’ve been there thirty years.” And then someone else popping up, “Well, I’m So-and-So and I’ve only been here for seven years, but I think…” Do you get extra votes for longevity? Millennials are not interested in Nepotism or Seniority. They want the realest, truest, best thing to come forward, and they want to be part of it.
From what I’ve seen, Boomers, by and large, are going to go to church. It would be nice if they found one they liked. And it would be even nicer if they found one that would cater to their needs.
On the other hand, Millennials don’t care if they go to church or not – they are craving meaningful experiences, and that can happen at yoga or the meditation center, camping with friends or volunteering, protesting downtown or working in the community garden.
The church has a unique opportunity to be this and more for the next generation. But it’s going to require letting go of assumptions and some traditions, it’s going to require some agility and fragility for a little while as new ideas and new experiments unfold.
The millennials have so much to offer communities of faith: sincere engagement, activism, social media fluency, craving for what’s authentic, vulnerability. A desire to make a creative, meaningful, significant impact in their communities.
Let me be clear – if the church doesn’t adapt itself to the coming generation, it won’t last. How many times have you heard it said that the church is always one generation away from extinction? Well, I’m putting it on the endangered species list. But the gospel – the truth that love is always stronger than fear, that life is better when we do it together, that there is always something to hope for, that at our core we are loved and loveable – that’s not going anywhere.