These kids today.
If you pay attention to the vast universe of blogs and news sources that write about faith and religion, you may have heard that the American church is in grave danger. Apparently it’s all the fault of the younger generations, especially the Millennials—a popular name for those born in the late ’80s through the early 2000s, who are just now coming into young adulthood.
The media’s religion beat is clogged with surveys and studies and article after article declaring that this generation is leaving church in droves, fleeing to atheism or agnosticism or, most likely, the comforting and colorless neutrality of “None,” often called the fastest-growing religious designation in America today.
It would be easy to stereotype the whole generation as agreeing with the sentiments of this pseudonymous contributor on Reddit (one of the defining online communities of the present decade): “Church,” wrote a user called caba1990, “is just a big book club.”
But Nathan Lamb ‘02 BS, ‘13 M.Div., who pastors a new Wesleyan church in Colorado, has seen a different side of the Millennial world.
“We have seen young adults not only become part of a church, but really take ownership of the local church, and have the ability to build a really healthy local church. I look at that and say, ‘that has to mean something,’ ” says Lamb, who leads Front Range Church in Littleton, Colo. “I’m nothing but optimistic about the future.” It’s true that a lot of young adults are leaving the church.
Studies have shown that this generation of Americans has more people who consider themselves outside of religion than any previous generation on record. People attribute this drop to a lot of things. A lot of Millennials, observers say, have a negative stereotype of the church as anti-intellectual, overly political, hypocritical, hateful toward homosexuals, and unconcerned with helping people outside its own walls.
Rachel Held Evans, a writer and blogger who has become one of the most prominent spokeswomen for evangelicals of the Millennial generation, wrote on CNN.com that “young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.”
“It just takes a lot of time to kind of break down their assumptions of what church is, and then to begin talking about who Jesus is and all that,” says Pastor Gabe Melian ‘12, who leads Overflow, a Wesleyan church in Tampa, Florida. “It just takes time. It takes a lot of hanging out, a lot of coffee, a lot of conversation.”
Even the culture of church, for a lot of Millennials, seems cold, artificial and unwelcoming: less focused on personal connection, they feel, than on broad-based marketing appeals.
“Typically, most churches are built for those people between 30-35, and up,” says Pastor Troy Evans of The Edge Urban Fellowship in Grand Rapids, MI, “and everything, the music, the paint colors, everything is created for those ages or older. Well, we’re looking at building a church. We need to be thinking 15 years down the line….I have the honor and privilege of building into people that will build the church for tomorrow.”
Unfortunately, a lot of the changes that many churches try to make to serve younger people often come off as little more than cosmetic to the people they’re trying to reach. Evans writes that when she is invited to speak to evangelical leaders on the subject of Millennials and the church, “Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …’ ”
The issues go deeper than that, and so do the solutions. According to Dr. Jim Lo, IWU Dean of the Chapel, the watchword for the next generation of Christian leaders will be fellowship. When he visited Overflow, run by several of his former students, he saw God working through an innovative church model designed around relational ministry.
“They’re doing their church plant through relationships with people their same age,” Lo says. “So their church service looks very, very different than anything that we older ones perceive to be church. They’ll have meals together, and the Bible study is not even preaching, necessarily, but it’s almost coming and [saying], ‘Let me tell you a story. Let me give you my testimony.’ ”
“We just spend a lot of time with people, connecting, getting to know their stories, sharing our stories, and just letting them know that ‘hey, we’re normal, we’re not anti-everything, we just want to love you and share God’s story with you,’ ” Melian says.
For the Millennial generation, Lamb says, an inviting church offers more than contemporary worship and an up-to-date online presence: “A lot of that stuff is kind of expected. It better be good. You better have a good website. You have to be on social media…but at the end of the day, the surprise factor that actually brings people into the community of the church is the authentic relationship.”
This definitely involves creating deep, sincere friendships that go beyond a scripted conversation designed to evangelize. It also means including Millennials early on in the actual process of ministry.
“You have a clear sense of purpose and mission, but then at the same time…involving them early and often in decisions for the church and helping them be a part of what’s going on, when maybe that’s not always true in churches–the default would be, ‘we’re going to do this for them,’ [not] realizing that you really need to do this with them.”
South Carolina-based Providence Wesleyan Church Pastor Wayne Otto ‘93 BA, ‘06 MA points out that, in an age defined by social media, a lot of Millennials are used to having their voice heard.
“We’ve got a very conditioned, younger group of people that feel as though they kind of are entitled to their input right away on anything and everything,” Otto says. “They just kinda want to be part of the story, and they want to communicate, and they want to give their input on where we’re at….where the generation before was like, ‘no, you earn your right to be heard.’ ”
When Millennials enter full-time ministry, Otto says, they’re looking for a very different experience than the often-isolated life of a pastor in many evangelical settings.
“I think the heart cry of a lot of millennials is, ‘why would I want to go into ministry and be alone?’ I don’t want to be lonely, I don’t want to be like the last two generations of pastors who are dying on the vine because they felt like they’ve been by themselves.”
This is why the church plants in many parts of the country is creating networks in which believers in different congregations can put aside any temptation toward competition and pool their talents for the good of all.
“While they don’t want everything centralized, they do want to be networked. They want relationship,” Otto says. they want to feel like the churches that they’re pastoring are part of a bigger movement.”
The Wesleyan Church created a network called Nitrogen to create partnerships among people interested in church planting. Otto works with Nitrogen to help church plants work together.
“We’re trying to help church planters in districts put together district huddles where their church planters are meeting on a consistent basis and where they feel like they really are networked together,” Otto says.
The gap between what many in the Millennial generation hope the church is, and what it actually is, can frustrate people on both sides. At the same time, church leaders working with Millennials believe that the next generation of leaders will have a vital new energy and imagination to re-energize the American church.
“There’s an incredible passion, an incredible willingness to do whatever it takes to see the kingdom move forward,” Lamb says. “I think there’s an incredible opportunity for the church to harness that, if we can figure out how to get our arms around that and allow that to drive the future of the church, I think it’s huge. Huge.”
“I think our generation is pretty passionate about not just expecting people to come in and not just be content with, say, our mass marketing techniques,” Melian says, “but actually being more a community that is out in the world, living out their faith, rubbing shoulders with their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and sharing their faith right there. Not needing to be inside the church walls.”
“This age group will step up to the bat,” Evans says. “In our setting, because we are an urban, younger church I see great possibilities when you have a lot of young people that were on the street that are definitely not interested in the urban church experience saying, “well, man, here’s something different. I can be used at my age, and I do have value, and I have worth.’ “