Millennials will change the future of the church

Millennials will change the future of the church December 18, 2011

First let me tell you a story from almost 20 years ago. My buddy Dwight and I were arguing over what I was going to wear to a meeting.

“I’m not a catcher,” I told him. Catchers have to wear their baseball caps backwards because of the mask. But if you’re not a catcher and you’re not, say, riding a bike into a headwind, then it seemed to me that wearing a baseball cap backwards was unnecessary.

“Just turn it around,” he said. “They expect it.”

“And I don’t even own ripped jeans or a flannel shirt.”

“Get some. Play along, maybe they’ll listen.”

The meeting was with a bunch of older establishment types who previously wouldn’t have returned our phone calls. Dwight and I were putting out a magazine called “Prism,” dubbed “an alternative evangelical voice.” That “alternative” message focusing more on social justice was largely ignored. We were easy to ignore because we were unknown, unproven and underfunded, and mainly because we were too young. We were just in our 20s at that time, and to the old white guys who made up the evangelical establishment of “gatekeepers,” it was presumptuous for people our age to expect them to care what we had to say.

But then Douglas Coupland’s book came out and Kurt Cobain died and, briefly, talk of Generation X was all the rage. A steady stream of polls confirmed what those evangelical leaders would already have known if they had been paying any attention at all to younger people: Gen X-ers were leaving the church in droves and not coming back.

That got their attention. The future of attendance figures, tithes and offerings was at stake. Panic ensued. Seminars were organized. Conferences were convened. Books and articles were written.

And Dwight’s phone started ringing.

Many of the same old white guys who previously wouldn’t give us the time of day were now desperately turning to people our age for advice on “reaching Generation X.” (That was the name of many of those seminars, conferences, books and articles: “Reaching Generation X.”) We wound up having a string of meetings with panicky old white guys fearful that the mass exodus of Gen X-ers spelled doom for the future of the church.

So we went to those meetings, in costume, and we talked about our g-g-g-g-generation.

We explained that we hadn’t been elected the official spokespersons of our generation, but that we were happy to share whatever insights we had, for whatever that was worth. They took notes. We talked about participation and inclusiveness. We talked about music and worship styles. We used words like “authentic” and “wholistic.” We suggested, delicately but firmly, that the older generation’s preoccupation with a peculiar set of social issues seemed off-putting and weird to many people our age. (That’s usually about where they stopped taking notes.)

I don’t think that anything we said mattered much because I don’t think any of it was what they wanted to hear. What they wanted to hear was some secret trick that would enable them to bring Gen X-ers back to church as faithfully obedient spectators in the pews without the church having to make any changes to the way things have always been done. And emphatically without any change in who had always been in charge of doing it.

They didn’t really want to hear about how the way they had shaped the church might need to change in response to the new generation. Instead, they wanted to find some way of changing the new generation to make it conform to the way they had shaped the church.

And then, after about six months of that, the pollsters and the old white guys finally realized another essential truth about Generation X: It’s really small. Compared to either the Boomers who came before or the Millennials who came after, Generation X really didn’t amount to much.

Amanda Marcotte has some insightful thoughts about how this may have shaped X-ers’ tendency to “sit in the corner cracking jokes” instead of trying to change the world. It’s “a numbers game,” she writes. “There are simply far fewer of us than of them.”

So back in the 1990s, the old white guys in charge of evangelicalism eventually decided that they could write off the apostates of the baby bust. Maybe they’d allow some half-hearted “outreach” to X-ers by letting the praise band add drums, but they realized that the future of their church on their terms did not have to depend on passing the baton to Generation X. They decided, instead, to invest their hopes for the future in the much larger — and then still much younger and more impressionable — Millennial generation that followed.

Which brings us to today. Once again a steady stream of polls is telling evangelical leaders what they should already have realized had they been paying any attention: Millennials are leaving the church in droves and not coming back.

Once again panic is setting in as the now-even-older old white guys realize that the future of their church is at stake. Seminars are being organized. Conferences are being convened. Books and articles are being written.

The dynamic is the same. The old guard is still looking for some trick to change the new generation to make it conform to their church on their terms. They’re still looking for some way to make sure that the church of the next century doesn’t look any different from the church of the last century.

But this time around they’re a little more desperate. They’ve squandered nearly 20 years, so now everything depends on the Millennials. And this generation is huge. It’s way too big to be passed over.

I want to discuss several different aspects of this subject — Millennials and the church — so I’ll be returning to this subject in several more posts. Here, though, I just want to stress that one point: For the aging generation that has been running the show in American evangelicalism, everything now depends on the Millennials.

That means that Millennials don’t have to settle for sitting in the corner cracking jokes. They might actually have a shot at changing the world.

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