Are You There God? It's Me, the Millenial
Google “Why are young people leaving the church?” Within seconds, hundreds of results pop up with thousands of reasons for why we're trading our Sunday pearls for jeans, and our hymnals for live bands. And yet, the casual dress code and upbeat music are still not enough. We millennials want more.
Fewer young people are opting for the traditional church structures of our childhood. How can we help our peers feel involved in their faith if traditional worship stints their spirituality? The new face of Christianity is drastically different than the one your grandparents grew up with. Pope Francis is playing a large part in that cultural change. His progressive social agenda and focus on helping our neighbors, particularly the poor and marginalized, has influenced how young people, both Catholic and Protestant, view their responsibility as Christians. With millennials citing "neighbor" and "community" as important parts of their church experience, it's little wonder that, for many, church no longer consists solely of sleep-inducing sermons and Sunday school.
Let's go back in time. The Catholic Church in the 16th century believed church itself should be strongly based on tradition and the sacraments. From the practice of paying penance for your sins to preaching services in Latin, the Catholic Church struggled to reach an audience whose attendance was often largely based in fear of eternal damnation. If you didn't understand Latin, tough luck. The 16th century Catholic model would never work for the modern millennial, partially because we expect everything to be free and get upset when told otherwise. Martin Luther, religious rebel extraordinaire, nailed his 95 Theses to a cathedral door to show the corrupt Catholic leaders that they were getting the idea of church all wrong. Thanks to him, following generations gradually realized that there were other ways of structuring church (like attending services led in a language they actually knew). The next time you fall in love with a less than traditional church, thank Martin for paving the way.
Much like Martin, millennials are redefining traditional concepts of church. Most agree that the basis of this change is God's commandment to "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31). How does our generation define neighbor? With social media and the Internet, we can connect with people we'll never meet in real life, and hear their life stories, whether we want to or not. These digital connections, however invasive and frustrating they may be, have allowed us to expand our idea of neighbor. Most people fail to scroll through their Facebook timelines without seeing multiple articles trying to bring awareness to something happening in the world or announcing the latest viral cat video. This kind of far-flung outreach expands our Facebook network from people we've actually met to those we will never meet, from our hometown to Holland, and everywhere in between. With active friend lists of over 1,000 on social media and an entirely new outlook on who our neighbors are, community itself is a fluid definition.
The church of the millennial has a new idea of neighbor. That neighbor wears wrinkled jeans to worship and would rather join a small group than seek out Sunday school. Above all, they want to feel included and known in their church community. Despite the hype, the trend of mega churches and their literal rock bands leading worship is not satisfying our desire to know and be known. Like its pearl and pantsuit counterpart, it too seems to be an extreme answer to the question of the missing millennials. The reason for this, perhaps, is that our new idea of “neighbor” also has us looking for community.
“There is something special about coming into a church and being able to feel the connectedness of the community there,” says Calvin Taylor, a second year at Candler School of Theology, who has gone to many different types of churches over the years. “I remember going in some churches while in college and feeling like I had to be a certain type of person to be welcomed there. That’s not what church is to me.”
The idea of neighbors being more than just the strangers around us begs for a more comfortable idea of church. Comfort is translated literally as straying from the traditional structure and expectations from religious leaders. We millennials are not fans of being told what to do, so we appreciate when churches find a happy balance between preaching on our sins and reminding us we are still loved, despite how many times we call in sick to work Monday morning or struggle with traditional teachings on sex.
“The people coming to my church are not looking for the big events, the bouncy slides, and all that stuff,” says Pastor Tim Lloyd from Eastside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
We don't want church to be "cool." We don't need professional rock bands to guide us through worship or elaborate buildings the size of a small country. The current trend in church atmosphere is somewhere in the middle of rock bands and stiff pews. We've found ways to combine the best of traditional services and our new desire for a more casual and inclusive community that doesn't try too hard.
“There are new ways of doing church that are not able to be counted, and so, may give the impression that less millennials are attending,” says Lloyd.
Most of those who rejected the traditional ways of the Catholic Church during the Reformation in favor of Martin Luther's teachings were not counted as churchgoers. Although this was perceived as a lack of attendance in traditional Catholic church, in reality, a different way to do church was being born. Today, we can attend anything from worship services in bars to a ride along with a biking group that ends in communion.
“We know that just because you put the words ‘church’ on the front of a building doesn’t mean when you walk in you will find a church. So it should not be so surprising that millennials are able to find church in something not necessarily labeled ‘church,’” says Lauren Bowden, a student who recently started attending church again.
Through the traditional means of counting religious involvement only if it happened in a cathedral, unconventional settings and services are often overlooked as legitimate means of worship. Thanks to this new idea of who our neighbors are, along with a need for true community because of it, millennials are creating exciting new venues of religious interaction. No longer is sitting in the pews every Sunday enough. And simply sticking a live band on stage and shining strobe lights over a crowd of blue jeans is not enough, either. There is a calling for churches to truly be involved with their neighbors, not just the people around them, but with every neighbor that they are now connected to through social media. It's time for church to embrace the inclusive ideals of our generation: loving all our neighbors as ourselves.
So why are millennials leaving church? Did we just get bored? Maybe, but not in the way that older generations might assume when we struggle to stay awake during a marathon sermon on Genesis. We are leaving the ideas of traditional church structure to create better ones, denying it to affirm a more inclusive one, and creating something that inspires and rejuvenates our former boredom, by embracing our new neighbors in a broad community called church. Pearls and pews optional.
Daniel Garrett is a second year at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He's a fan of ultimate frisbee, reading, and anything Marvel Superhero related.
Feature photo by Milada Vigerova/ VIA Unsplash