by Glenn Zuber
The recent May 12th Pew poll (“America’s Changing Religious Landscape”) added a new wrinkle to the familiar debate over why established, traditional U.S. churches aren’t attracting younger generations like they used to in the 1950s. It turns out that Millennials more than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers don’t trust institutions of any kind and so they are cutting ties with most of them. Churches are asking a new question in light of this poll: Can we buck this trend and attract new generations, or are we facing a trend that’s so massive in scope that it’s basically “mission impossible?”
One thing is certain: the church of the future will look vastly different than the church as it is today. So how can we find our footing in this new religious landscape? Rather than list surefire solutions (because there aren’t any), I’m going to suggest six steps congregations can make to gain a first hand knowledge into the current cultural barriers that separate Millennials and established churches.
First, start new conversations about faith outside the church building and in the local coffee shop, diner, or pub. Hold at least one event per month at a local coffee shop so the doubters and the seekers feel freer to ask basic questions. A book study on the compassion of Jesus or a local doctor’s perspective on faith will suffice. But let’s be clear about something. We’re not just trying to reach a new audience, we’re trying to gain a new perspective on how we can love our neighbor better (Jesus’ second commandment). Starting true conversations means we’re open to change and dialogue as much as the invited guest. It’s this authentic openness and respect that draws people. It’s not an accident that Jesus’ ministry was not spent in religious buildings but talking to people in the marketplace, on public roads, and in private homes. The openness of Jesus to others and their lives drew people ready for a new adventure in life.
Second, take seriously the unique life stories, concerns, and economic burdens that shape Millennials. Jesus’ metaphors for God and faith are drawn from agriculture because he knew his audience came mostly from farms and rural areas. Likewise, a progressive ministry vision needs to reflect a familiarity with trends shaping the culture. For example, many young adults are burdened by economic factors beyond their control, including mounting college debt and job scarcity. This makes them anxious about the future and hesitant to commit to institutions whether that means marriage and children or the church. Moreover, churches often assume that people will stay in an area for a long time. That’s no longer true in our transient society. Only as we actively listen to young adult concerns can we create innovative ministries that meet real needs.
Third, keep in mind that Millennials want to know where the rubber hits the road. Connect seemingly abstract Christian tradition and doctrine with their interest in practical, hands-on community change and service projects. Organize a service project at a homeless shelter after celebrating communion and connect these two events spiritually and theologically. Jesus spent a lot of the time in his ministry healing and feeding people. Perhaps the need to connect with Millennials will help churches create ministries that mirror the original holistic teaching of Jesus.
Fifth, be sure to explain the reason behind your cherished traditions so such traditions don’t come across as rote. Why does your church have people in robes? Why is the communion table near the middle (or in front) of the sanctuary? Why are certain songs sung over and over? Is there a theological vision behind the architecture and design of your building? Explaining why your cherished rituals and sacred space matter and what they mean to you shows an interest in connecting with others and invites new people to appreciate them too.
Sixth, participate in new institutional, ecumenical, and communications networks to truly engage Millennials and their unique culture. Churches often give up their generational challenge in frustration because they have unrealistic expectations to begin with. Many churches can’t address this issue alone nor can they rely exclusively on their usual denominational networks. Instead of going it alone, churches should partner with other congregations, sometimes from other denominations, to address this challenge. Even if a church doesn’t have the resources and time to directly engage the wider culture, it can help fund initiatives started by others in their area. There are a number of ways every church can be pro-active. Even observing the projects of other churches can help foster new opportunities for brainstorming. In the gospel of John (17:20-23), Jesus prays to God that his followers will be united in love. Perhaps as churches partner with each other to address their common generational challenge together they will discover practical ways to realize this key aspiration of Jesus in the 21st century.
The May Pew poll doesn’t have to make us despair. Instead, we can view this poll as a road sign pointing to some new engagement opportunities with our wider world. Such polls are what we make of them. They outline one of many possible futures. So, what kind of future do we wish to create together?
Glenn Zuber is the founder of Iona DC: An Christian Community in Washington, DC. He’s a historian, college teacher and part-time Maryland minister who has taught religion and theology classes at Indiana University—Bloomington, Fordham University, Manhattan College, Wesley Theological Seminary, and more recently Trinity Washington University in DC. In the process of reading and preparing lectures on theories of the future of faith and Christianity, he became curious about what Christian faith and community would look like if it addressed the realities of postmodern worldviews, cultural fragmentation, greater racial diversity, and the increasing digitalization of relationships through the use of social media. He then started Iona DC. You can follow him and his community on twitter @glennzuber