Wooing millennials with tradition, not pyrotechnics

July 16th, 2015

This article originally appeared on The Living Church's Covenant blog. 

As a clergyperson and an older millennial of the Oregon Trail variety, I’ve followed the ongoing debates about millennials and the Church with both interest and, at times, frustration. There’s an endless number of articles and blog posts out there addressing the “problem” of millennials, most of them with titles like:

  • 5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be
  • 5 Reasons There Are No Millennials in Your Church
  • Millennials Leaving the Church in Droves
  • How the Church Can Get Millennials Back
  • How to Effectively Reach and Retain Millennials

As the titles (and recent Pew reports) suggest, millennials are dissatisfied with the Church and defecting at increasing rates. Many of the articles on the topic take one of two tacks: (1) induce a sense of alarm over millennials leaving the church; or (2) offer surefire strategies to get them back.

If churches are looking for quick fixes that might ease their sense of panic and attract young people, they need only consider the suggestions of millennial Jordan Taylor, who suggests in his video “How to Get Millennials Back in Church” the following remedies: fog machines, light shows, aggressive worship leaders, and a beard for every staff member. Taylor’s sarcastic suggestions expose a central weakness in many churches’ thinking about how to draw millennials: young adults can tell when they are the target of marketing strategies, and they generally don’t appreciate it.

I consider it a blessing that most of our Episcopal churches are poorly set up for fog machines; because we cannot rely on quick fixes, we have an opportunity to reflect more deeply on what it means to be church and how to pass our faith on to the next generation. So, what can more traditional and liturgical churches do to welcome the younger generation and help them connect with church?

I recently heard pastor and author Mark Holmen speak on the role of the family in inculcating faith. He presented research by the Search Institute on the most significant religious influences on a child’s faith. It isn’t the programs at their church or their youth pastor; it is their parents, the mother being the most influential and the father the second most influential.

(Holmen also has a book on the topic, Faith Begins at Home.)

When Holmen presents this research, his answers don’t necessarily encourage parents who are worried about their children’s faith formation. Wouldn’t it be easier if the answer were to outsource our children’s spiritual lives to a professional, as we do with soccer or piano or dance? The research is clear, however: having faithful parents is by far the best indication that a child will continue to attend church as an adult. Once parents come to terms with their indispensable role in their children’s faith, their next question for Holmen is what they should be doing at home. Again, the answer isn’t for parents to launch a snazzy faith program at home, but for them to do the simple but challenging work of living the Christian life, day in and day out, in front of their children.

I believe there is a parallel here for the Church. Rather than luring young adults through flashy programs or outsourcing their formation to experts, we will contribute to the spiritual formation of the next generation best by being serious about our faith ourselves. We must be serious about our faith on two levels — first and foremost, demonstrating what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus; and second, modeling what it looks like to be a Christian in the Anglican tradition. Most Episcopal churches don’t stand a chance against nondenominational churches in a pyrotechnic competition, but we have a rich and beautiful tradition in our prayer book that goes beyond short-lived trends that will seem horribly dated within a few years’ time. Our tradition will not appeal to everyone, but it will draw young adults who long for something deeper in a superficial and distracted age.

However, we cannot invite others into something we do not understand or practice ourselves; we must do the simple but challenging work of living the Christian life ourselves, day in and day out, in front of the next generation.

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