An Open Letter to the Church About Millennials
This article comes from a document requested by the eldership of a church in response to the opening of a new university campus nearby. They were interested to know how they could attract this influx of young adults to be part of their community. This has been published here with permission and any names changed.
To the leadership of [any church in Aotearoa],
Typical Baptist Church (TBC) is not the only church in the country which struggles to know exactly what do with the gap of people aged 18-25+ missing in many of our gatherings, especially young, single, working professionals. Yours is not the only region which experiences what could be called the ‘young adult drain’— the phenomenon whereby most young people who either grew up in the church or had family ties in the congregation leave for the latest exciting, attractive church plants that spring up based around a hip, charismatic young pastor; it’s the great Christian osmosis where churches grow rapidly, often not by new converts, but by the shifting of different young, Christian social groups across the city. I want us to cast our minds back to our own experiences of being 20 (it’s not very hard for me to do!) where you are discovering yourself, buying into the fierce western value of independence and self-sufficiency, and seeking to disassociate with your childhood years in order to define yourself as your own person. Developmental psychologists would call it the late-adolescent stage of differentiation, but most of you know it as simply growing up and leaving home. Many with young adult children will know this stage more than I, someone very much still in this phase. This ‘young adult drain’ should therefore cause much less anxiety and panic than I have seen it create — in many ways it’s a no brainer why we see these types of movements.
However, behind phenomena such as this I do believe there is an underlying cultural cause, and I use the word ‘cultural’ very intentionally. The simple fact of the matter is both what generational research and personal experience will point to over and over: young adults as a generation inhabit an entirely different culture to the one found in most middle-of-the-run congregations. From the way they view money, have been taught to understand institution and authority, where to spend time and energy, and even what faithful Christian witness looks like in the post-Christian world they live in and in fact grew up in is radically different from the regular 20th century cultural milieu most churches inhabit. As one example, young adults have been taught in the very foundation of 21st century postmodern secularism to distrust authorities, institutions, and absolute truths. One has to look no further than the #metoo movement (of course which has become #churchtoo) as a rather compelling case to distrust once unquestioned power structures and leadership forms.
These are simply the cultural undercurrents of everything they’ve grown up in, in school, university, media, and peer groups—myself included. Rightly or wrongly, when a Christian church (an untrustworthy institution) preaches from an ancient sacred text (a questionable authority) and claims that the only way to salvation is through their particular religious belief (an absolute truth) one can begin to see the complexity of reaching the late-modern millennial. This is not to make comment on the validity of such a worldview but simply to highlight what the church is getting into when it wishes to reach young adults. It is no small feat, and in many ways should be treated as some sort of cross-cultural mission.
To digress, I confess that I was initially very unsure about how to collate information and respond to the request for this document! I have not much specific to offer this question about reaching the new campus apart from, if I may, to speak from personal experience being one of these ‘crazy, complicated millennials’ myself, and having seen the different way churches tend to treat my demographic. I hope and pray this shall be a help and humble guide to keep asking the questions about young people you are asking. Already my heart is glad that this issue is on the agenda of the eldership and gathering here at TBC and I thank you profusely for reaching out to inquire more. Too many churches simply abandon the idea of having young adults in their church at all. This, I hope you’ll agree, cannot be.
Arohanui and the peace of Christ,
1. Treat Young People…as People
Think of all the things that flood to your mind when you hear the word “millennial.” So far, I have tried to use the term sparingly because, as you will know, it’s a very loaded word! For some reason the media has picked up on the term and used it to sensationalise young people left-right-and-centre, from articles about smashed avo, laziness, self-entitlement, and more. I’ve seen the way my generation, and myself personally, are treated as this strange, unapproachable, and totally unique generation with no hope of ever being reached. This is simply not the case.
Modern day young adults are not the first group of people whom society has thrown their arms up in despair at, imagining that all is lost, and this generation is going to fail and ruin the world. As the Apostle declared nearly 20 centuries ago “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). Resist the urge to sensationalise young adults and don’t be scared of them and their strange fashion, piercings, or tastes. People are people; treat them with respect, dignity, and like adults even though underneath they may be scared and clueless about life (I count myself in that latter category). Expect them to make silly mistakes and be inexperienced in life, because, well… they are! Trust them with leadership and empower them even if they fail, let go of the reigns a little bit and catch them if they fall. I apologise if this sounds redundant, but over and over I’ve seen church leadership tentative and nervous in dealing with these ‘mysterious’ young adults that they hold back and keep at a safe distance. From a young adult’s perspective, this can often be seen as a cold shoulder.
If a young adult is visiting on a Sunday, go up and talk to them! Ask them about what they study, be kind and friendly, even if their response seems moody or juvenile. Offer to take young adults you know better under your wing, offer to mentor them—you don’t how often I sought a mentor in previous communities I’ve been involved in and how many times I got brushed off. It’s not a good feeling. In my experience, especially in youth ministry, the simple act of talking to an adolescent and asking about their life, though nine times out of ten they won’t show it explicitly, matters a great deal to them. Older adults who take the time to be genuinely interested in who they are, in my experience, are a rare and precious commodity. Treat young people like people.
2. Think Long and Hard About Your Intentions
As I mentioned, I am so glad and encouraged that as a leadership team you are interested in reaching young adults and the new campus opening in town. But it is vital to sit down and ask yourselves honestly: why do you want more young adults in your church?
Andrew Root has an excellent book (Faith Formation in a Secular Age), which is a great read in this area, which opens by talking about the current situation of churches who are hungry for more young people. This seemingly wonderful desire to see young people come to know Christ can sometimes be disguised as a cultural value for the vibrancy and attractiveness youth and youth-culture can bring.
In short, within western capitalism and culture during the last 50-60 years, young people have become the ultimate bearers of value and drivers of culture. Lloyd Martin, in his book on youth-work in New Zealand (The Invisible Table), examines how young people have become the key drivers of culture as the new holders of knowledge, story, and wealth. For example, where before in western culture, and still today in other societies, elders were the key holders of knowledge and information. However, as technology began to increase at such a rapid rate alongside generations who have grown up with a far greater intuitive understanding of this technology, the shift in knowledge has gone from the older generation to the young. The holders of information are now those who can operate an iPhone and internet connection with ease. As another example, for the first time ever in history, teenagers and young adults have an expendable income, and while proportionally the wealth may still be found in older generations, young people free of mortgages, families, and most expenses are the biggest market for fashion companies, entertainment industries, etc. Therefore, corporations target and aim their branding, advertising, and image towards young people with unrelenting intensity. Any brief look at the latest movies, music, fashion, or trend reveals one clear thing: youth culture is its key driver. Young people have become the key holders of knowledge, story, and wealth.
All this is to say is that youth and young people are seen in our capitalistic society as a sure sign of success. The formula runs that if young people like a certain product, company, or organisation it is sure to succeed. On the converse, if there are no young people involved, that is the sign of death. I hope you can see Root’s initial point: is a church’s desire for young people always birthed out of a holy passion, or an effort to capitalise on the value youth culture can bring in order to (crudely put) reverse its aging and declining image?
I hope that wasn’t too dense… but my point is this: why do you want young adults to be part of TBC? I think it’s a good and biblical imperative to have a multi-generational gathering which accurately represents the surrounding demographics of a place, but what is driving the desire for that? Is it a Christ-given love for young people and millennials or is it a desire to make sure TBC remains a vibrant and attractive church?
Here’s why this issue is so critical for the young adults bracket: they will see right through it. Remember this is a generation who has grown up being taught to distrust institutional and religious authority, and is constantly fed stories and articles about the abuse, corruption, and scandal of church leadership. If they see a shady religious organisation who is only taking interest in them to use them, they will have nothing to do with it and probably overreact in response. ‘Authenticity’ is a terrible buzzword in young adult ministry, but it’s got a ring of truth: young people will want genuine, transparent, and honest leaders whom they can trust. Financial transparency, down-to-earth leadership, honest and open policy—these will be big factors for young adults in deciding where to commit their time and energy which may not even be on the radar for other groups. Think long and hard about your intentions for wanting young adults in the church.
3. Empower and Equip the Young Adults You Already Have, Even When They Fail
Thirdly, young adults value collaborative leadership and the ability to have a voice and influence. Modern young adults have been raised to want to make a difference and influence the world to be a better place, but what they don’t often have is the acknowledgement that this takes tremendous work and long-term commitment. Most of the time, the idea of ‘making a difference’ is a very vague and ill-defined concept, but important nonetheless, and if a church doesn’t want to let them into leadership positions, give them a seat at the table, or invest in them as young people, they will quickly feel as though their energy is best spent elsewhere. Again, I am not trying to make an evaluative statement about this, rather stating what both research and experience points to.
I remember commenting to [Peter] and [Lucy] about how wonderfully they had both invested into [Edmund] who interned at TBC. Not only did the church put a bit of money where their mouth was by helping financially with his studies, [Lucy] and [Peter] invested into [Edmund] with no agenda: no push to make him the next youth pastor, to coerce him into anything but rather to help a young person still discovering who he is in Christ and trying to figure out his place in the world. The depth of love, friendship, and openness was inspiring and encouraging. Do more of that and you’ll find more young adults sticking around. Why not invite a young person onto the eldership? The idea of that shouldn’t be too radical a concept, especially if we count ourselves as Baptists who affirm more than most the priesthood and faith of all believers.
And be realistic: know that they will fail and you might put young adults in roles where they mess up a bit. Millennials, yes, have some unique attributes, but they are most certainly not the first generation with a wonderful mix of youthful idealism and naivety. Once again, I count myself in this starry-eyed category.
4. Know What You’re in For, But Don’t Overthink It
Just in the brief few example I’ve given you might begin to see perhaps how daunting and complex the situation may seem when it comes to witnessing and discipleship among late-modern millennials. Know that it is a complication world and that the cultural undercurrents I’ve touched on not only affect our young people but in fact all of us, and in this globalising world increasingly more so. We hardly know the reach and effect of what Jamie Smith would call the ‘cultural liturgies’ which are shaping and forming us into disciples of technology-addicted, post-Christian secularism rather the slow and demanding way of Jesus.
But also, don’t overthink it. If I could sum up this whole thing, if there is one thing I wish desperately churches could hear it is that young people are people. They are just like you, and more like you when you were at that age too. Don’t be daunted by how dire things may seem or how little you feel the church is making a dent into young adults in the west but rather put your trust in King Jesus who shall call them to himself. He was 22 once, remember? He knows what it’s like. And his heart is for them too. Pray for young people as you have been doing, and trust in him. Thank you for taking the time to engage with this and giving me this opportunity to write. To him be the glory forever and ever.
This is a blog interested in theology, church, pastoral ministry, and the gospel of Jesus in post-Christian, 21st century, Aotearoa New Zealand. Comment and korero below, or get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.