My name is Nate, and I’m a millennial. That means I must love liturgy, hate big production in church, want to ask really hard questions about faith all the time, go do organized “social justice” every Saturday, am nowhere near shallow enough (or I’m just far too clever) to attend a church with a hashtag campaign, want a pastor who preaches messages that are “on point” and filled with “authentic, hard truth”, think that the majority of Christians I grew up with were hypocritical bigots who suppressed all of my doubts, love Jesus but question institutionalized Christianity, yet simultaneously desperately desire a church that will help me get back in touch with the “historic roots” of the Christian faith.
So, church leaders… if you want to reach me and all my millennial friends, decipher how all of that fits together, then get busy changing to become exactly like me so that I can have a church that’s perfect for me. But make sure you stay “authentic” along the way, otherwise we will see straight through you and discount you completely.
Heew. What a difficult task you have. Unless, of course, that’s not true for all (I might even argue, most) millennials.
The last couple weeks, there have been several articles posted about how the church can reach millennials. Below are just two examples.
Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’
Dear church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out
These kinds of posts have been rolling out for a few years now. The reason I’ve decided to write this post is because several older believers and pastors I deeply respect have been sharing the articles, almost as if their ministries are completely irrelevant and headed toward extinction.
I simply don’t believe that’s true.
See, there are two primary problems with these articles. First, the authors write as if their preferences are the preferences of all millennials. Second, they dismiss churches for a supposed flaw in philosophy of ministry, yet adhere to the same philosophy in a different form. Let me explain.
PROBLEM 1: Not all millennials are the same.
First, not all millennials are on a never-ending quest to find the truest, most authentic, historically-rooted expression of Christianity and “participate in an ancient-future community.” If that’s your story, that’s awesome. Sincerely! But that’s not for most people.
On Christmas Eve, it’s my tradition to attend a liturgical candlelight service. I find it’s one of the richest experiences of my year. I have truly come to love and appreciate Jesus for the Incarnation so much through these services the last seven or eight years.
But this year something interesting happened. As I was sitting there, having a spiritual moment, in tears thinking about how much love Christ demonstrated by becoming a man, I thought to myself, “See, this is what churches need more of. No fluff. No lights. No fog machines. Just liturgy! Sermons! Sacraments! Simple! How could you miss the beauty of Christmas in such an elegant service?”
Right at that moment, I looked across the aisle, and on the back row there were four young guys about my age. One was completely asleep with his head down in a pseudo-praying posture. The other two were laughing back and forth like some of the middle school students I have in my student ministry. The other guy was on his iPad.
They were in the same service I was, and they were having a completely different experience. That’s really weird though, because the key to reaching millennials is getting them into those kinds of churches, right?
Absolutely not. The key to reaching millennials is getting in touch with the historic roots of the Christian faith, where Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some.”
I honestly believe the most helpful thing for those four guys on the back row would be to see church in the way that so many of these millennial authors belittle. A church where the pastor looks like a normal guy. The worship leader has a “beard and skinny jeans” like a typical musician would have. An environment that looks like any other event venue they’d go to for a show on Thursday or Friday night. And most importantly, a presentation that’s clear, practical, and gospel-centered.
See, “relevant” and “authentic” are relative. That’s why these authors misrepresent millennials. They talk about authenticity, but what they really mean by “authentic” is “doing things the way I want them to be done.”
The fact is, churches like Hillsong, Cross Point, City Church, Buckhead, Passion City, Soul City, etc. are reaching just as many millennials as anybody. They have cool lights, modern music, put a lot of energy into creating the right vibe, have great coffee and lobby space, dress like hipsters, and utilize technology and social media. According to the articles above, these are things that automatically scream “FAKE!” to millennials.
On the other hand, there are people like Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, Matt Chandler, and Tim Keller. Each reaches millennials at his church. Yet, they are all different from each other, and most certainly different from the churches mentioned above.
PROBLEM 2: Everybody wants to attend a ‘cool’ church.
The second problem is this— those who are advocating that the church doesn’t need to try being so “cool”, “relevant” and “consumer-driven” are treating those terms as if they only apply to churches utilizing lights, modern music, technology, etc. The reality is… they wouldn’t be going to the churches they are going to if they didn’t think they were cool, relevant, and didn’t meet their needs.
Nobody ever really escapes consumerism in our culture. These authors are just as consumeristic as anybody, it’s just that for them what they believe to be cool, relevant, and desirable are liturgy, simplicity, tradition, and more intellectually stimulating dialogue. An argument could be made that those things need to be present in all churches to some degree or another, but that’s not actually the issue at stake when they talk about it. The real issue is that they find these things to be ‘cool’. Thus, their churches are driven just as much by consumerism, because they chose to attend their church because it met certain criteria.
But even most of these people want things to seem “cool” in a mainstream sense as well. For most millennials attending more traditional, liturgical churches, if the church had an ugly, out of date website, and the pastor didn’t look educated or talk eloquently, they wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t grow. Period. You know how I know? Small, liturgical churches have been around forever, but they didn’t become the millennial buzz until “cool” people started representing them.
So, how do we reach millennials? That’s just it. There isn’t a way to reach millennials. There are many ways, because the real truth about millennials is they are people just like every other age group of people. Just like in every other generation, some things will work for some and not for others.
For me, I’d be frustrated out of my mind if I had to go to a traditional church every Sunday. My best friend from high school joined an Anglican church. We both trust and follow Jesus.
The real question for me is— Would I be willing to lay down my preferences and embrace someone else’s if it meant they might meet Jesus? My hope is that the answer to that question will always be yes. My hope for local churches all over the world is that the answer would always be yes. That we would be willing to do whatever it takes to introduce people to Jesus.