The church and millennials

August 28th, 2014

Recently I had the chance to participate in an open-space conversation on the purpose and practices of lay theological education. As part of this discussion, there emerged a recognition and need to talk openly with and about millennials. How can the church engage them? How can the church meet them where they are at? As one of probably only two actual millennials in the conversation I had to avoid being a “token voice” but overall, I enjoyed the conversation. I have talked about the implications of millennials some with my parents and some in my parents’ generation, but had never really before seen the topic be engaged by a gathering of people my parent’s generation. My fellow millennials, I think you would have been pleasantly surprised by what the gathered group had to say about millennials. There is a lot of energy around them in the church and the opportunity and possibilities they might provide.

This leads me to wondering today though, what are the gifts and opportunities that millennials provide the church? I don’t use the term “provide” in a commodity like sense for the church, rather I think that millennials through their perspectives and values may be part of a seminal moment in the life of the church.

7 gifts and opportunities millennials provide the church

Millennials who are present or at least engaged in some kind of ministry, force the church to wrestle with questions. To be a part of something or to engage with something millennials are likely to consider and think deeply about the basic questions of why, who, what, how and where. These are important questions that congregations, faith communities and the larger church should always be forced to wrestle with but often do not reflect on them and take the answers to the questions for granted. By wrestling with these questions though, there is space to really wonder, for example, what might be possible and what God might be up to and calling and leading a congregation to be a part of.

Millennials are adept at allowing space for questions and the ability to leave a question open without an easy answer. You aren’t likely going to find an easy answer to a question as deep and profound like “what might God be up to here.” However, that fact actually may excite millennials who aren’t looking for easy answers. Millennials, like many people of faith are looking for those who allow the questions to be questions and give space to wondering about them. When there are easy answers there is less gray area, and at least from a Lutheran theological perspective, that doesn’t seem to correlate well with the many tensions and paradox which Lutheran theological ideas seem to create and leave room for.

Millennials value authenticity, and because of this they value authentic stories—in preaching, leading and relationship. They want to know the deeper story (like in the work around authentic stories done by Humans of New York). Millennials don’t want just a Bible study in the sermon. They want to see what is being preached lived out in life and the way the church or faith community exists. They want to know what questions people are contemplating, what parts of the faith journey are being struggles, and they want to be met in authentic relationship. They desire to be valued as equals by others in their communities and by their communities’ leaders and pastors. The idea of some people being “set apart” over others does not sit well with them, and pastors that hold such an idea of leadership and of pastoring often may frustrate, alienate or altogether lead to millennials leaving a particular faith community (and sometimes, sadly, the larger church) altogether.

Millennials may signify new opportunities for connections and connection making because being connected and connecting people and ideas is something that is seemingly second-nature to millennials. To see this, one only has to witness the way millennials use and engage social media. But beyond the connecting online, millennials connect ideas from different spheres of influence and study with different areas and subjects in their life. In this sense, they are networkers but also able to connect meaning in ways that may not have seemed possible, necessary or even considered before.

Millennials seem to have, more than prior generations, a spirit and desire to collaborate because they see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves and want to be able to help do some good in the world. In their service they look or find depth and are able to make meaning out of why they are doing what they are doing. Thinking of a particular faith understanding, for example, for Lutherans this might mean being able to better connect the work and theological meaning of related non-profits and organizations like Lutheran World Relief to the life of a particular congregation. Millennials love partnership, and because of this they are not to be as afraid of giving others power. They are happy to share power and decision making for the sake of the larger need. A good example is the “Friend Raiser” model employed by MIDTOWN Church.

Millennials are cautiously optimistic and hopeful. They love helping others and generally appreciate opportunities to affirm other people in the work they do. For the church this may mean people who can help teach the church how to affirm people in their daily life (vocations). Everyone brings something beautiful and unique to the table. I believe this has great potential for a new way of deeply articulating what it means to be Children of God, and to be beautifully unique, diverse and loved.

Millennials desire and yearn for depth. Traditional Bible studies and being told what is important doesn’t really resonate for millennials. There is a deep desire to connect, wrestle, question and engage multiple senses and life with faith. This reiterates the importance of connection and meaning making unpacked above. I also think this speaks to the opportunities presented by some church related undergraduate institutions like Centers of Faith and Life or other such places. If congregations and faith communities open up opportunities for depth and intentionally allow space for it, they may be more likely to engage millennials.

What do you think of these observations and potential opportunities? Do you agree or disagree? What other observations or ideas do you have? What your ideas are will shape the next post in this series so please let me know what you think and join the conversation. I believe it’s an important one for the church.

This post was adapted from posts previously appearing on Timothy Siburg's blog.

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