Eight months ago, I began typing an essay on all the ways the modern church has failed to adapt to modern culture and reach millennials. Throughout my twenties I have been disappointed with both my involvement in the church (or lack thereof) and the lack of opportunities for me to get involved. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved at my home church, yet none of them seemed to fit or excite me personally. On top of that there are no other young singles involved and though I have pondered starting one, there just isn't enough population to support a twenty-something Sunday School class.
All of these things bothered me. It bothered me that the church had not changed over several centuries, yet the world around us had. It bothered me that I never heard life advice on dating or choosing a career or picking a major, yet these were some of the most important decisions of my life! Why did the church suddenly drop off specific ministries after youth group? Where was the young singles edition of AWANAS?
How can a system built on tradition, numbers and routine reach out to an entire generation bent on finding fulfillment and meaningful experiences? We don't care about the numbers. We don't care about the meetings. We just want to be fulfilled. We don't want to waste our time. Give us meaningful relationships and meaningful experiences. That's why millennials travel. That's why we don't make our life's focus about a career. That's why we do all the crazy, immature things that young-adults in generations past wouldn't even have dreamed of doing. We don't want to have any regrets. So why isn't the church offering the life-changing message of Jesus in a way that speaks to these needs?
While I put that question on hold, let me say that while I was still working on this essay, I began reading a short book by Kevin DeYoung called:
The book is a great read on how to discern the will of God without wasting time and overspiritualizing the decision making process. In this read DeYoung points out that the people of my generation are more fickle than any previous generation. Because we were raised to believe in ourselves and follow our dreams, we have more self-confidence and less direction than ever. If we truly believe we can do anything at all, then why would we pick just one thing and cancel out all of the other opportunities? It may sound strange but that is our logic. If we settle for a desk job here, will we be closing a door to a an exciting career in cruise ship directing? We are often misled into thinking the safer option is to choose nothing.
It's why so many of us still live at home.
It's why as a generation we are largely unmarried and staying single longer than those before us.
It's also why a lot of us remain unchurched.
Yup, I said it. Although I hadn't previously realized it, our generation really sucks at decision making and commitments. Because we want the best life possible, we find it hard to commit to anything less than perfect. The only problem is that the world we live and work in is just that; less than perfect.
So rather than spend two pages typing out how I think the church should do a better job reaching out to millennials, I have decided to write out a few things I think millennials could do that would move them towards a committed and loving church relationship.
Stop overspiritualizing every decision- Again, I am referencing Kevin DeYoung's book, “Just Do Something”, when I say that all of us need to stop overspiritualizing every decision. We millennials are so fearful of messing up that we avoid decision making by using well-meant phrases such as “I'm waiting for God's will”, and “I'm still praying about it.” Instead of using these phrases as excuses for avoiding the decision-making process, we should move confidently in our God-given wisdom and make a move. This includes picking a church to get involved in!
Realize it's okay to grow up- I admit I am probably the world's worst at this. Growing up is hard and emotional and really scary, but what's more scary is remaining an adolescent for life. While it's easy to blame the church for your non-commitment and the lack of young adult activities as the reason why you don't go to Sunday School (I'm talking about myself here), it really isn't the most mature action in the world. We are young and able to serve and lend a hand, so get off your mom's couch and do it.
Commit to something...like, anything- Again, this is a personal struggle for me as well, but wether it's a college major, a church or a career, we as a generation really ought to step up and make some commitments. Yes, it is scary but if we truly put our faith in Christ we should know without a doubt that everything will be alright in the long run.
Realize that life—and the church—and its members—are not perfect, and neither are you! As I mentioned earlier, it's really hard for our generation to accept imperfections when we grew up in a world where everyone was a winner and every dream was worth achieving. The sad reality is that this just isn't true. Accept each other's flaws and grow stronger because of it. The church often gets judged most harshly simply because it is supposed to represent Jesus, who was a perfect being. The problem is, Jesus was the only perfect being. The rest of us, including each member of every single church, are sadly still incredibly flawed. No matter how hard we try, we will always fall short. Which, believe it or not, is why we need each other, and a church to lean on.
Take a lesson from the Greatest Generation- If you talk to your grandparents or study the WWII generation at all, you'll see a whole different mindset. That generation worked hard for everything they had and they never questioned fulfillment, other options or what-ifs. They simply did what needed to be done and they never complained about it. Yet somehow they were more satisfied than any generation since. I guess they don't call it the Greatest Generation for nothing.
Now that I've spoken to the millennials, the question still remains, how can a modern-day church reach out to the largest generation on the planet? Just because they think and act differently, doesn't mean they are unreachable. Here are a few suggestions on how they modern church can reach out to today's young adults.
Be Meaningful in your Outreach- Our generation is over-educated and over-hyped. We see more advertising throughout each day than any history book could have dreamed up. We're constantly being sold something—on the internet, on online television services, and even on our radio streaming devices! The last thing we want is a sales pitch on why we ought to get involved in a church. It sounds like another obligation, another resume hitter and one more weekly meeting that we just really don't feel like attending. Instead, try building a personal relationship with the person before you try selling them on the church life. Sit down and have a deep and meaningful conversation with us, but don't preach – listen to the questions we're asking and try to understand where we are coming from. Most millennials want a good discussion so they can hear both sides, not a one-way advertisement.
Don't Expect too Much- It may sound like an excuse but that really isn't my goal here. Realistically most people my age don't make that much money and don't have a family of their own. We've spent way too long in college racking up student-loan debt so making-money and starting a family have hit the backseat. I say all this because quite often when I visit churches the first two-three questions I'm hit with, either from the pulpit or in person are about my marital status and my tithing ideals. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to tithe more abundantly, but I'm living off of Ramen noodles here. Ten percent of my paycheck isn't much but I know for fact the Lord will bless it. As for the marital status—don't just stick us into a room full of other adults. Singles have all different concerns, questions and ambitions than those with families. While it is nice to get some feedback from young families every now and again, it is incredibly shaming and disappointing to be automatically whiffed into a room full of people with a very different lifestyle.
It's not what the church is DOING, it's who it's BEING- I almost wrote an entire essay just on this sentence. In a world obsessed with going and achieving and building a resume and making the grades, one more place to go and do and achieve rank just doesn't sound like fun to me personally. I go to church because I fell in love with Jesus, not because I fell in love with an activity, event or program. Those things are needed and nice but they will never be more important than the heart of the church itself and by that I mean its members. Pray for one another. Encourage one another. Invite one another over for dinner and live with one another. Don't just invite us to a cook-out and expect our unending commitment; our busy lifestyles won't allow it.
One thing that really leaves me feeling disconnected from the church is the constant stream of forced activities. There is nothing more draining to me than having to attend a large group event with hundreds of people I sorta know. Again, as a millennial, I would rather sit down with 5-7 people whom I know extremely well and authentically share life. I'll say it again. We don't want another sales pitch.
These are just a few things on both ends of the spectrum that I think would improve the unstable relationship of Millennials with the Church. Just because we haven't been off to a great start, doesn't mean we aren't able to make this a great thing. In essence, millennials need to get off our butts and get involved and the church needs to work more like a body and less like a machine. I'm confident the power of the gospel will connect us all.