There are approximately 12,046 articles1 about what the church needs to do to reach Millennials. Usually, they come in listicle form, explaining to the world in 5-12 points what needs to change for Millennials to… Well, sometimes I’m not exactly sure what. I struggle with these posts because they’re not particularly convicting.
For example, in the closing days of 2016, I stumbled upon another one of these when a former colleague shared a blog post offering “12 reasons millennials are OVER church.” The arguments were the ones I’ve read a thousand times before:
Millennials want to be mentored and create authentic community. The want to be listened to and given “a seat at the table”. Churches need to spend differently and care for the poor. We need less preaching and more doing. They need to stop creating new mission and vision statements because Jesus already gave us one (to which I would say “amen” if the mission Jesus gave us was mentioned). Unless we do these things, and a few more besides, Millennials will keep being “over” church. And we’ll miss out on an entire generation that wants to be so over the moon about going to church each week that they’d make Ned Flanders seem like a backslider by comparison.
On my struggle to sympathize
There’s a degree to which I sympathize with some of the concerns this specific author points out, and others more broadly. Should our churches strive to be good stewards and maximize every dollar? Yep. Is any church perfect at this? Nope. (And for the record, I know of few churches that are secretive about their financial records—many operate on an “ask and we’ll show you as much as you want” policy.) Can some churches be cliquey and lack authentic community? Sure. Do we need to listen to people with different life experiences better? Uh-huh. Do we spend too much time crafting mission and vision statements? I don’t know, probably some do. But, on the other hand, is it wrong to create one that speaks to how a church exists to fulfill our greater mission (the Great Commission) within its local context?
You can probably see that even in this, I struggle. My issue is that, on a fundamental level, I simply disagree with generalized assertions about churches and Christians. And frankly, I’m tired of Millennials doing themselves a disservice and displaying most every negative stereotype about them that’s been recorded to date. Let me offer a few quick examples:
1. When I read a Millennial declare that churches aren’t doing a good enough job caring for the poor, my first response is, “How do you know?”
Consider for a moment that The Southern Baptist Convention administrates one of the largest relief agencies in the world. Thousands upon thousands of churches offer assistance to those in need, both at home and globally, though local acts in their communities and supporting organizations like Compassion International.
But here’s the thing: most aren’t showy about their care of those in need. Why? Because doing so runs contrary to the spirit of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:2-4. If we make a big fuss about what we do, guess what? We’ve got our reward. We’ve strutted our stuff and let everyone know, in our best Ron Burgundy impression, how good we look. But based on Jesus’ words, we’re not supposed to do that. So why would we expect it?
2. Then there’s listening and having a seat at the table. My question is, “What do you mean by that?”
For some, I suspect there’s a legitimate frustration with not heard in any way. But for others, I have a hunch it’s a desire for power or influence (and to have it right away). But again, these generalizations don’t mesh with reality. There are thousands upon thousands of Millennials in vocational and volunteer leadership, many of whom have served for a decade or more. They do have a voice because they earned it through their character, first, and commitment, second.
Having a place at the table, having a voice, is something that’s earned. It took me a long time to figure that out, to my shame. I assumed that because I’m smart, I should be listened to. The problem is, I wasn’t humble and didn’t have a track record for faithful service. Chances are if someone is “over” church, they don’t have that kind of track record either because they’ve not chosen to commit.
3. Finally, to the complaint of too much preaching and too little action, I don’t even have a question to offer.
It’s just wrong. In fact, I would argue that the problem in many churches isn’t that there is too much preaching2 it’s that there isn’t enough gospel-saturated, Christ-exalting preaching. When Jesus is proclaimed, people are captivated by him. And the more people are captivated by him, the more naturally they begin to pursue him (no matter how incrementally).
For the person who is tired of preaching, consider: what message are you hearing? If you’re not hearing the gospel come through, yeah, you have a reason to be burnt out on it. But if Jesus is faithfully and consistently proclaimed and you’re not captivated by him, there’s a different issue to consider.
Have you considered…?
I realize that, at this point, I probably sound like a curmudgeon crabbing about how “these kids today” need to pay their dues. But you know what? It’s kind of true. I’m not quite a Millennial, but I’m pretty close (endstage Gen-Xer). I’m married to a Millennial. My children are post-Millennials.3 I also work with dozens of Millennials who are faithfully serving the church, both in their local communities and more broadly.
So here’s my question for those who keep writing incessantly about what the church needs to do to win you as a Millennial: have you considered that the problem might not entirely be the church?
You’ve identified a bunch of problems. Great. So what are you doing to change them in your local church? If you want authentic community, how are you a part of building that? If you want to be heard, how are you serving faithfully? If you’re concerned about caring for the poor, what are you doing to be an example? If you’re concerned about people’s faith being lived out, how is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pursue Christ as you pray and read the Scriptures?
These questions are relevant for more than just Millennials. We all need be asking ourselves them, regardless of our demographics. If we’re serious about growing in our faith, we have to realize that we need other believers—and we need the local church. It’s not something we can ever be “over”.