According to a recent study by Covenant Church, the percentage of Americans attending Church is at an all-time low and steadily declining. Counted in this decline are the Millennials who were discovered by Pew Forum to be the least religious and least likely to attend church of any generation before them. It is expected that this trend will continue beyond the Millennials to the generations to follow. These statistics reflect a grim future for the institutional church unless something is done to reach out to this audience. Asking the question about how to be “church” to the Millennials, however, presents somewhat of a conundrum. How is one “church” to those who are not religious? After twenty years of working with and ministering to the needs of this audience, I believe there is a solution. I have learned that in order to support the spiritual needs of the Millennials, benefit from their inherent gifts, and prevent the ultimate demise of the Church’s mission, we need to think outside the box of traditional religiosity. Instead of expecting them to seek us out, we are invited to meet them where they are at.
Meeting the Millennials where they are at, begins with understanding the characteristics of this generation of young adults and doing so through a lens cleared of our own judgements. Whereas some have accused the Millennials of being slackers, suffering from arrested development, increasingly individualistic, self-centered and narcissistic, the opposite, in fact, is true – at least as I have experienced them.
Psychology researcher, Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State University), observed that Millennials reflect the trend in the West toward increasing individualism – recognized in a self-first perspective. While this is true, I would argue that what is often mistaken for individualism is in fact, individuation – a process of increasing psychological and spiritual maturity. One aspect of individuation, especially common among Millennials, and which often poses a challenge to the Church, is the drive to gather information and discern truth from within rather than seeking guidance from an outside perceived authority. Many in the Church judge this behavior as rebellion, when in fact it is a necessary stage in human psycho-spiritual development. If we are to minister properly to the Millennials we need to become comfortable with this stage and learn how to respond to it with welcoming support.
The accusation of Millennials as being “slackers” arises out of a misunderstanding of the millennials’ reaction to the grim prospects for them beyond high school and college. As one friend recently advised her child, “Please do what you love because there won’t be any jobs for you anyway.” Sadly, there is truth in this observation – and Millennials know it. They are the first generation who will not be better off than the generation before them. Millennials have responded to this truth by carving out a creative and entrepreneurial niche for themselves. The Millennials put passion and purpose first; their primary energy and attention going toward doing what they love. Sometimes this evolves into a profitable entrepreneurial venture. More commonly, the money-making comes piecemeal. Millennials work harder than many who have gone before them, they are just doing it in nontraditional ways; and while they are working several jobs to pay their bills, they are also finding time to volunteer. Millennials are inherently altruistic which provides a ready population for stewardship, service and mission work. For a church community, one does not need to “work” at getting a Millennial’s help. If they are passionate about the cause, they will leap in with both feet, then ask what more can be done.
Millennials are not suffering from arrested development as many have assumed. Whereas they may be slower to leave their parents’ home, or are slower to enter into the traditional trappings of adulthood, they are in fact, masters of adaptation. Because of what they have witnessed in their developmental years (their parents giving up happiness for money and then losing it all in the crash of 2008, 9/11, foreign wars, etc.), Millennials are consciously choosing a simpler life. They are making creative fulfillment and interconnectedness priorities in their lives. For those who are in a committed relationship and are choosing to have children, there is a healthier balance in the parenting roles. In all of this, Millennials are more psychologically and spiritually mature than their predecessors, gifts that would benefit any community of faith.
Beyond the negative stereotypes, I have discovered a common drive among Millennials for unity. Millennials are more tolerant, understanding and compassionate than the generations before them and more ready to not only accept, but honor that which makes people different. Millennials are not disconnected, as it is often assumed. Instead, they are deeply passionate about forming community. They are forming community in ways that are new and creative – transcending traditional cultural boundaries and doing so with an eye toward global consciousness.
It is this global perspective that will prove to be the greatest gift provided to humanity by the Millennials. The Millennials, more than any generation before them, possess a global sensitivity and a desire for global harmony. They see the far-reaching impact on what we are doing to our environment, how our separation by country, nation, religion, race, and class are destroying the world, and how the Western consumeristic behaviors are wreaking havoc on our planet and the people trying to survive here. Millennials want all of this to change and passionately want to be part of making that change happen – qualities that faith communities would be grateful to have among their members. The problem is that the last place you will find a Millennial is in church, which brings us back to the question about how to be Church to the Millennials.
The short answer as to how to be Church to the Millennials is to stop being Church – at least in the ways with which we are familiar. If the Millennials’ primary drive is toward unity, then we need to lay down all that makes us appear separate. We need to put away our clerical collars and our priestly robes. We need to set aside our catechisms and canon laws. We even need to put away the bible (at least initially). We need to stop defending our faith and proclaiming that we are the only way to salvation. We need to stop selling Christianity and start selling unity and love. We need to do what Jesus did. Show up in the clothes that everybody wears and meet people where they are at – not in the temple, but in the marketplace, in people’s homes, in our own homes, in the local coffee shop, bookstore, yoga studio. Instead of expecting the Millennials to come to us, we need to go to them and if that means learning the language of Mythology, Buddhism, Paganism, Yoga, Atheism, then we need to learn this language. We need to be present to them with their questions and their inquiring minds and we need to honor this searching as sacred. If we are intent on bringing forth Jesus’ message of love, then we need to find a language that speaks of this love that isn’t imprisoned by the trappings of doctrine and dogma. If we want to be Church to the Millennials we have to stop being Church and start being the people Jesus called us to be – unconditionally loving, welcoming and kind, speaking the language that the people speak, and working toward the Oneness that Jesus so passionately taught.
About the Author:
Lauri Ann Lumby, OM, MATS, is an ordained interfaith minister, spiritual director and the published author. As the director of Authentic Freedom Academy, Lauri ministers to the needs of those who have been disillusioned or disenfranchised by the institutional Church and to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Lauri offers programs and services which support the self-actualization of her clients and students and empowers them to enjoy the fulfillment of a life of meaning and purpose in service to the betterment of the world. You can learn more about Lauri at www.authenticfreedomacademy.com.