(This summer, we have guest writer Sarah Howell, here on the Conflict Transformation Ministries’ blog)
To start, I would like to introduce myself! My name is Sarah Howell, and I am a rising 3rd year student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA (I hope that doesn’t deter any of you Duke grads from reading!). I am working with Rev. Molly Shivers over the course of this summer as part of a summer ministry internship program through Candler, to give me the opportunity to work in the specialized area of ministry I am interested in. I am a candidate for ministry on the deacon track in the Florida Annual Conference of the UMC, and I am passionate about conflict transformation and peace building as integral aspects of healthy Christian community. Molly has asked me to contribute a series of blog posts during my time here in North Carolina, which I hope will spark new and exciting conversations!
A buzzword we constantly seem to be hearing these days is the enigmatic term “millennial.” While more specifically defined by the Pew Research Center as individuals born between 1980 and 1996, and the first generation to come of age in the 21st century, this term is more colloquially used to refer to any individual who is perceived as a young adult in today’s society. Millennials, while not a monolithic group, are the demographic many corporations, businesses and organizations, including the Church, are keenly interested in, due to their growing influence in the economic and social fabric of society. As a 26 year old, I fit right into this demographic, but unlike many of my peers, I have remained in the Church.
Churches have struggled and continue to struggle to attract and retain millennials: according to Pew Research Center, over 1/3 of millennials identify as “Nones,” – individuals who choose not to identify with any faith background or organized religion. It can be easy for young adults of faith, like myself, to lose sight of this statistic, especially when we are attending institutions with others in theological studies, or have been lucky enough to vibrant young adult ministries to join. However, for many millennials, the Church is not a place they would choose to be, despite a deep desire for a meaningful spiritual life. The following quote from a 2014 Barna Group study indicates some important reasons why:
“Millennials who are opting out of church cite three factors with equal weight in their decision: 35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church, and one out of 10 senses that legitimate doubt is prohibited, starting at the front door.”
Millennials, myself included, are looking for spiritual communities that are relevant to their world, speak to the issues they care about, and welcome the people they love; we desire spiritual communities that are authentic and spiritual leaders that lead with integrity; we want church homes that honor and encourage our doubts, frustrations, and questions in a time when our belief in a world whose moral arc bends towards good and justice is being constantly challenged.
Churches that attract millennials provide these spaces; they provide places where young adults can gather, both as young adults, and in intergenerational ministries, where hard conversations can be had and where fear of being rejected on basis of age, race, gender, orientation, ability, etc. is replaced by an overwhelming sense of love and affirmation of the imago Dei, or image of God, that exists in each of us. More than fancy, flashy, and polished worship, or a fair-trade coffee shop in the back, millennials are drawn to preaching that speaks to current events, that provides connection and interpretation of Scripture in a way that they can understand and that is preached with integrity by leaders who are not only orators, but who roll up their sleeves and stand alongside their congregations. (The coffee is super tempting, though!)
You may be thinking, “that’s all well and good, but why does it matter? Why do we want millennials in our churches anyway?” Millennials often get a bad rap for being lazy, narcissistic, entitled and unwilling to contribute to society. And while, as in any demographic, there are most certainly individuals who perpetuate this stereotype, there is a larger group of young people out there who are yearning for a place to pour into with their time, talents, and yes, even treasure. In the face of a world that seems dark and hard, millennials are often looking for places and ways to donate their time and talents through volunteerism, and their treasures through charitable organizations that address issues and populations millennials are passionate about. Millennials are entering the workforce and are more and more often beginning to both earn and save money – money that churches, whether they like to admit it or not, need badly.
The face of the church is changing, as populations, like the Baby Boomers, who have been some of the greatest supporters of the Church for years, leave the workforce and continue to age. Churches are growing smaller, and even dying. The model of opening the doors on Sunday mornings and expecting people to simply walk through them is no longer enough, and we not only need the financial support of millennials to keep our Church doors open, but we need their innovative and creative ideas of what Christian community can be, as we continue into the uncharted territory of the future of the church. Healthy community is diverse community, it is not all eyes, and not all feet, but many parts that are necessary to the whole body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). This diversity must also include age – intergenerational ministries are already and will continue to be absolutely vital to the life of the Church. The churches that will survive and thrive, will be those who listen to the passions and dreams of our young people, and are open to the new opportunities and ideas they can bring.
Recommended further reading:
How the Wisdom of Millennial Nones Can Revitalize the Christian Church
What Millennials Want when they Visit Church
“Searching for Sunday” by Rachel Held Evans