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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  • Anonymous

    Well, technically, that’s what the first church services were: private Bible studies and dinners (Communion/Eucharist was originally part of a meal) in someone’s home.  Somewhere along the line, local groups of believers got too big for this model to be sustainable, so they defaulted to the traditional temple-based forms of worship that Jews and Pagans had employed for centuries.

    Neopaganism is an interesting analogue, because it’s in a state of tension between small-groups-of-a-dozen-meeting-in-members’-homes and big-group-temple-worship.  I’ve been wanting to contact (and maybe join) a local coven in my area, but they’re still notoriously hard to find even if you’re a member of local Pagan social groups.  Meanwhile, CUUPS chapters and large local Pagan gatherings are easy to find if you know what to look for.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention that most folding chairs are hard metal with no seat cover or cushion, and I can’t see that being good for someone who already has hip problems.

  • Anonymous

    Even more fun: kneeling in a church that either doesn’t have kneelers, or has really old worn-out ones.  Hell on your knees, unless you bring in one of those gardening cushions.

  • Lori

    But either way, you still have to buy or rent something for everyone to sit on during at least part of the service.  I can’t think of a single Christian denomination in which everyone stands up the whole time*.  If your congregants don’t have folding chairs, you still have to come up
    with some.

    Many places you can rent have chairs as part of the rental.

  • Lori

    Not to mention that most folding chairs are hard metal with no seat
    cover or cushion, and I can’t see that being good for someone who
    already has hip problems.

    I’ve never known a group that was going to be using them for any length of time that didn’t get the nice cushy ones. Really, pews are nice and traditional and have advantages, but based on my experience there’s no situation in which they’re actually necessary.

  • Folding chairs.

    One thing I’ve noticed about the cheap ones is they shift around too much sometimes when you’re trying to get out of them. I can see an older person having a hard time pushing off a chair that wiggles when you so much as cough.

  • Wow! The article was about a generational takeover of the evangelical church. How quickly the comments devolved into a discussion of the merits of pews vs chairs. It feels like a board meeting at a traditional church. What happened to the discussion about how a new generation would reinvent the American church?

  • Anonymous

    I’m shocked it took two pages to derail, myself; this blog, and this group, are notorious for going off-topic quickly. If you don’t like it, feel free to offer some ideas on how YOU would reinvent the American church, or something.

    I actually think I’d prefer to stand rather than use either a pew or a folding chair – both options are painfully hard and neither allows for the sort of lower back support that it takes to be comfortable sitting.

  • I did make many suggestions in my other posts here. They were largely ignored. Not a new experience in 40 years of pastoral ministry. lol

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    What happened to the discussion about how a new generation would reinvent the American church?

    Oh. I didn’t realise that this was yet another discussion that excluded the vast majority of the world (and a majority of the developed world, and even a huge chunk of the Anglophone world) by assuming the implicit adjective ‘American’ in front of the word ‘church’.

  • Nobody

    /delurk for purposes of snark/ 
    I mean we’re talking about evangelicalism. Yeah, there are communities around the world, but America is the Italy of that particular Roman Empire. (I’m not sure what the Rome is. Atlanta? Denver?)/endsnark/Generally I agree with you, Americans have some astounding America-shaped blinders on, but this conversation was clearly about the American Evangelical Church.

  • For those of us who are American our responsibility would be to “fix” our own church. Certainly we should learn from the world church as to what furthers the Kingdom of God as opposed to the Kingdom of Men with outsized egos.

  • FangsFirst

    What happened to the discussion about how a new generation would reinvent the American church?

    Discussion still seems to be occurring as to whether that is achieved by reinventing outside the existing one and how/whether that is feasible.

    Alongside that, there’s a pretty decent non-Christian contingent here, and plenty who have worked to find a church which they are, themselves, okay with, some people who aren’t Millennials, and various other viewpoints, and the conversation won’t remain centered, because the common ground shifts with the group. If you have people who have no dog in the race of reinventing churches, people who are happy with their churches and people who have no interest in the churches most “in question,” and it’s only reasonable that it would fall to the wayside…

  • Got it! Very reasonable perspective and rational response. I was just disappointed that the core questions were not addressed more directly by more participants. This mirrors my experience in the church. People who are participating are not always the one’s to ask about a new vision for the future. They are usually happy with what exists or only want some minor tweak to the existing paradigm. I guess my perspective is, if any particular generation wants to lay claim to the evangelical or mainline church, they are welcome to it. I personally have no longer any particular interest in changing any of the existing institutions. The fact that most of the evangelical and mainline churches have supported either the status quo or a vision of America that does not include everyone, makes them beyond the pale for me. The mainline churches saw themselves as God’s chosen American people and have passed that role on to the evangelical church. Even though we do not have state churches as they do in Europe, psychologically the US is the most vital vestige of “Christendom.” I was hoping that some here might take up the challenge put up by the blog poster who was basically calling out a whole generation of evangelicals to come up with a new vision of the evangelical church.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    this conversation was clearly about the American Evangelical Church

    That wasn’t clear to me (and other non-Americans who joined in). The issues affecting the American Evangelical Church are also affecting churches in other countries. I thought we were discussing clearly universal issues. But I guess this is the nth example of me seeing universal application where others default to exceptionalism.

  • Anonymous

    Church leaders, such as the ones described here, labor under a serious conflict of interest when they presume to rule on standards of religious observance and doctrine. I know, that’s the core of their jobs, but think about it: Who were the bitterest enemies of Christ? Caiaphas and Annas, the high priests. Their livelihoods, not to mention their social positions, depended on their keeping “the old-time religion” unchanged. Christ threatened that, and He had to be destroyed. The church leaders of today have that same conflict of interest. They are no more able to accommodate the changes demanded by millennials than the leaders Fred and Dwight spoke to could accommodate Gen-X.

    If Christ were to return in a form different from what the clergy depict today (think “Left Behind”), they not only would be unable to recognize Him, they would do their utmost to destroy Him.

    I believe that has happened, both the return and the denial.

  • “If Christ were to return in a form different from what the clergy depict today (think “Left Behind”), they not only would be unable to recognize Him, they would do their utmost to destroy Him.”
    We have proof that you are correct. Jesus is always with us in a form we have trouble recognizing (Mtt 25). Those who are hungry, sick, homeless, shabbily poor are so often ignored by those who are busy building edifices and streams of income. When the WWJD craze hit evangelicalism it was sad to see that the point of the author who coined the phrase in the early part of the last century was totally missed. I wish more had read “In His Steps” and taken it to heart as a way to reform the church. It never happened in our time, but it did happen if only briefly in Kansas City in Sheldon’s time.

  • Which is exactly why so many despair of the Millennials changing the
    world – your priority isn’t changing the world, it’s getting something
    for yourself.  Somehow, the world has changed radically without the
    preconditions you insist one… So the problems aren’t in your stars
    Horatio, it’s in yourself.  Grow up and get over yourself.

    Dear Sir,

    Kindly fuck off and learn something about mental illness, chronic physical illness, and neurodiversity. If we did not have the what little socialized health care we have, I would not be in a position to “grow up and get over [myself]” because I would be DEAD. My sister and her younger child would be DEAD.

    Thanks to what little socialized health care we have, I am alive and able to receive treatment for my mental illness, just as I do for my lifelong physical illness (end-stage renal disease).

    But apparently people being sick is no excuse for not “growing up and getting over [ourselves.” The two and a half years that I spent performing dialysis procedures on myself four times a day while struggling with mental illness, and so did not meaningfully contribute to changing the world, was clearly due to my own immaturity and lack of willingness to stick with something for as long as it took.

    Thank you so much for your wisdom. Had I simply known that all I needed to do to become an independent agent capable of affecting social change was to just grow up a little and get over my neurological disorder, end-stage renal disease, serotonin imbalance, and other ailments.

    TL;DR version: Shut the fuck up, Donny.

  • Maybe I’m wrong, but what you’ve described (10 people in someone’s
    living room, sitting in living room chairs) doesn’t feel like a ‘church’
    to me. A bible study group, or choir practice, maybe but not a church.
    Then again, as I said, I’m not a believer, so I’m not sure I’m the best
    person to speak on such matters.

    Sounds like a typical Friends Meeting to me. But I understand that most Christian sects do want such elements in order to set apart a worship space.

  • pstrmike01

    Such great insight and ignorance all wrapped up in one nice article.   I fit into a very small demographic of too young to be boomer, too old for an xer.   And you think xers are small…….  we rarely have a seat at the table….if in fact, there really is a need for the table to begin with.   I hate conferences and I don’t buy books that will not be of any relevance 10 years from now.   I’ve lived through the Jesus Movement, Seeker Movement, the “oh no, where not cool any more with gen x movement” which has evolved into an outright panic of the church attempting to regain market shareby appealing to the millenials.  That’s why you have a multi site pastor in Seattle ( he’s gotta be at least 40) dressing like the typical sophmore in high school. 

     While I think being lumped into the old white guy catagory is a bit premature for me (even in a culture who’s god is youth)  I can say that I do not worry about things that are beyond my control.  What the church looks like when I am dead is not an issue with me.  There is much that concerns me about the church, but those concerns do not fall along generational lines. All I can do is minister to who God has placed in front of me, be faithful to my calling, and entrust it all to a God who is bigger than us all, and I’m  sure we all can agree, that we are thankful of that.