Sweet Lord, I can’t believe I’m attempting to add to this conversation.
Until now, I’ve resisted writing about millennials and the church. Maybe it’s because this topic feels a little like pastor porn, or click bait for heady theological deconstructionists, or ammunition for those who fancy themselves to be God’s personal security detail. This may turn into a series of posts, or it may just be another solo sung by too many people. Either way, I’m diving in.
I was born in 1970, right in the middle of Generation X. We were led in worship by Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, who gave voice to the confusion and hatred we felt towards ourselves. We wore flannel and smoked cloves. We grew our hair out long. We wore goatees. Good Lord, the goatees (it was still so very male, all of the church leadership stuff in the 90’s). When some of us became pastors, we pioneered a new style of church that was raw, authentic, and dark. We liked giving people permission to be depressed. We were depressed. We didn’t know how to deal with the boomer church, with their saxophone solos and fake shrubbery hiding the monitors. We smirked at the drama sketches and we winced at the choreographed smiles and matching blue shirts. We didn’t like the assumption that everything could be wrapped up at the end of an hour of church. It felt too much like t.v.
So we created Gen X services (JUST FOR US) that were long on cool, dark and authentic, but short on friendship and mission.We didn’t let anyone in over the age of 32. No Dockers. No parents. No one’s doing Gen X anymore. Maybe it’s because we’re becoming the establishment now, or maybe it’s because we’re the parents now.
Then we began reading Barna, about how millennials weren’t smoking what we were selling. Did they leave because they wondered how in the world we could be smoking what we were selling?
So we did what we had always done: we attempted to create a new style of worship service for millennials, because they were leaving the church. We started reading (and writing) books about being missional. We started exploring liturgy and the church calendar and parish models. We preached sitting on stools using small table tops instead of pulpits. WE PREACHED USING iPADS! We used words like orthopraxy and heterodoxy and we did theology on tap in pubs. We became Christians who drink! And swear! Emergent exploded and then died. Rob Bell was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world in 2011, but was quickly abandoned by most of the evangelical church when he wrote a book about love and hell and God (John Piper actually tweeted Farewell, Rob Bell). Mark Driscoll swore while he preached and planted a bunch of churches, then was fired by the church he started. Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle wrote about how every 500 years, the church goes through a rummage sale, bringing getting rid of the old forms and traditions that have become useless, and bringing in new ones that can hold new life (Constantine in the 4th century, the Great Schism in the 11th, and the Reformation of the 16th century are all points of reference). And then Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote Pastrix, describing a church full of people who felt lost and left out and abandoned by the church.
And then we found out millennials weren’t looking for a different worship style or segmented space in which to worship by themselves. Millennials left church because they wanted to be a part of a family, and they didn’t find much of a family at all in the church. Or, worse, the one they did find was so dysfunctional that they needed to set a boundary around it. Millennials also left wondering why we weren’t creating spaces to bring light into the darkness out there.
Wherever it is that might be up for grabs in this era’s great rummage sale, I think the question – how can we keep millennials in church, or get them to “come back” to church, is short sighted and far too small. The church is a family that is always dying out and being reborn, as each generation decides how it will respond to what God is currently doing in the world. Millennials are a part of that family as much as anybody else, with lots to learn and lots to teach. To keep talking about millennials as if they need to find a way to fit into the current form of church is like lecturing to family members who call us out on our addictions, telling them they’re the problem.
I am a pastor who has been around millennials for twenty years, since they were in the junior high youth group that I led in the mid nineties. I hear millennials asking at least four questions. The point is not to answer those questions for them, but for us all to engage in a family meeting so that we can improvise a future together. To improvise literally means developing trust in ourselves and one another in order that we may conduct unscripted dramas without fear.*
- Is the “win” simply to get us to come back to church? It seems like that is what “we” have focused on, at least pastors at conferences have. And it’s what a lot of blogs and some books have focused on. But even if “we” could find a way to get “them” (hear the false binaries?) to come back, will we invite them to occupy places of authority so they can imagine the future with us? Will we yield control or will we fight to keep it?
- What breaks your heart? The world is raw right now. Refugees are streaming out of Syria and Iraq and the church hasn’t known how to respond. The LGBTQ conversation involves faces and friendships, and for many millennials, it’s a justice issue. Racism in America is still a very real thing. Millennials are wondering if the church is going to be a prophetic voice in any of these areas, or whether we’re going to be late to the party, as we always seem to be.
- Where is the life in your life? Millennials have seen boomers and Gen Xers working very hard, having little margin, and especially in the church, they aren’t seeing people living robust spiritual lives. They see people who don’t know how to rest, don’t know how to prioritize joy, and they’re wondering if they need to lead the way, since nobody else seems to know how to do it. “I’m decidedly not busy. I’ve got time for days,” one of my millennial friends told me recently.
- Can we create a new kind of family? The idea of family is stretching and morphing. One of my closest friends (a millennial), invites people to his family’s house every Christmas morning, and those who come are typically those who don’t feel strong connections with their family of origin. A millennial couple in my church has “adopted” a 73 year old widow in our church, picking her up for church and recently throwing her a birthday party. Another millennial couple I know has decided they won’t have biological children. They have instead just welcomed three foster kids into their home. The church in this era has a great invitation: will we become a family again, or will we insist on keeping things anonymous and Sunday centric?
This is what I’m hearing. What are you hearing? Where do you resonate with this conversation? What bugs you? What energizes you? What hope do you see for the future of the church?
* Definition of improvisation taken from Improvisation, the Drama of Christian Ethics, by Samuel Wells.
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