Several articles, such as those by Sam Eaton and Rachel Held Evans, have been making the rounds on the internet (where else?) about the failure of the churches to attract millennials. These articles each repeat the dire statistics: among millennials, those ages 22-35 years, only 20% believe attending church is important, almost 60% of those raised in a church have dropped out, and fully 35% have an anti-church position, meaning they believe churches actually do more harm than good. These articles offer recommendations of how the churches can attract more millennials, most of which focus on taking millennials seriously by listening, mentoring, and building community through service.
This is all well and good. It may be as instructive to consider, though, that the lack of interest in church may be a manifestation of a broader pattern among millennials to shy away from commitment. The same lack of interest can be found in millennial attitudes toward work, military service, and marriage. It may be a stereotype to complain that millennials are afraid of commitment, but the facts bear out that fewer millennials are getting married, fewer are joining the military, and employers are pulling their hair out over the seeming inability of millennials to commit to a job for more than a few months. Having grown up on fast food, technologies that become obsolete after a couple of years by the next generation of technologies, and hundreds of websites, songs and TV channels at their fingertips, there’s not much convincing millennials of the virtues of patience and diligence. The demand to impress immediately and continuously is one not many individuals or institutions can meet. And millennials are suffering the consequences, with reports of increased job and marital dis-satisfaction, increased levels of loneliness, and increased rates of poverty and mental health issues.
How can the churches respond to these concerns? I’m not one for turning worship services into entertainment hour (though I believe many churches could much improve their music ministries). Neither am I, or many other serious-minded Christians, interested in compromising morals or doctrine to accommodate the social agendas of some Christian millennials. Eaton, Evans, and others, as well, think the matter much deeper than simply one of style and messaging. The reality is, there are many young people out there who are hurting. Society and culture have left a lot of empty holes in the hearts and souls of millennials, and those holes won’t be filled if the churches focus on treating millennials, or anyone for that matter, the way society and culture have, that is, as foot soldiers in an agenda-driven culture war, or as potential consumers of the latest product they can’t possibly live without.
Rather than focusing on style, the key, I think, is to focus on substance. The key to substance for the Christian church always comes back to the gospel: how we are preaching and practicing and challenging each other to live faithfully the gospel of Christ. Rather than offering the latest trend, it might be more constructive to offer millennials, and everyone for that matter, the Ancient of Days. For centuries, the focus of Christian worship and life has been this: tell the story, pray the prayers, break the bread. Tell the story of Jesus. Pray the prayers of the Church. Break the bread of Eucharist, and of service to others. This formula has kept the Church going for nearly twenty centuries, through countless social and cultural eras and epics. If the Church is to survive and prosper in these interesting times, it’s best to stick with what has worked through others.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.