A decade ago, my wife and I were a young newlywed couple in the process of launching our adult lives, among the first group of so-called millennials to do so. Having started out as Baptist and Methodist, we had denominationally sojourned our way through college and grad school, and picked up degrees in Theology and Religious Studies along the way. So, of course, we were church shopping through the denominational delicatessen of Houston’s greater metro.
One Sunday, drawn in by the rad mid-century mod architecture and freeway-convenient urban setting, we decided to visit a Presbyterian congregation in the sixties-fabulous Greenway Plaza district.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say. Everything about this church really was wonderful. We didn’t care that it was outdated or that it’s cavernous sanctuary wasn’t full. The liturgy was rigorous and heartfelt and the preaching intensely gospel-centric. The lush exhalations of the 30ish-rank Aeolian-Skinner soared and drew the song out of us. The people were warm and welcoming, with one caveat.
You see, like so many others, this was an aging congregation. Though I would hesitate to use the word “dying,” the all -caps block letters were clearly stenciled in the stucco. This congregation probably wasn’t going to make it. Though there were young professionals there, the driving force was the older middle-age to elderly crowd.
As soon as we walked it, there were glances and whispers from both sides of the nave. It was immediately what was happening. We were fresh meat. The locals were hungry and desperate. They could hardly contain themselves through the opening hymn. When it was time to pass the peace, they passed their piece, all right. The sales pitch began. We were immediately recruited for choir practice after Bible Study after lunch social after food pantry shift after morning worship.
We felt, as one rebellious Hawaiian-shirted and hush-puppied boomer once sang:
You got fins to the left,
Fins to the right,
And you’re the only bait in town.
We weren’t offended, only a little intimidated. They loved their church, and they longed to see beauty arise from its ashes. Ultimately, it was not to be, at least not as they hoped and prayed.
But they had succumbed to a great temptation, especially present within the aging edifices and shifting neighborhoods where many greying congregations find themselves. They made us, for one hour one Sunday, a graven image in their unsettled wilderness.
We were millennials, and they were bowing at our altar
It seems like everyone these days has an opinion on what you need to do to engage the coveted millennial generation and their families. Especially our boomer parents and Gen X older siblings. You’ve heard it all before, haven’t you?
Create a cool website. Serve good coffee. Preach self-help courses masquerading as topical sermon series. Expand your connections ministry. Make church more convenient. Have cool “worship” music. Make sure the kids have fun, even though we are making precious few of those.
And thus begins yet another church marketing trend that has been tried in the past and which will inevitably culminate in increased frustrations, heightened anxiety, and no better results.
There is no silver bullet
Church attendance is declining, and no music, no coffee, no marketing campaign, and certainly no fun, convenient Sunday experience is going to change it. The church is shrinking. The trend of young people leaving church started decades ago. It’s nothing new, and there is no magical, surefire way to change it. Especially overnight.
So, as an elder statesman of this millennial generation, can I please offer you one piece of advice?
All of it. Stop trying. Stop marketing. Stop targeting. I know at first this seems counterintuitive, maybe even unbiblical. I can hear the objections arising already.
Are you saying you want us to just stop evangelizing? Our churches are dying! Do you want us to all close up for good? This generation is going to hell in a handbasket! We’ve got to reach those young people before it’s too late! So basically, we just need to have cool worship, right?
No, I’m not telling you to stop evangelizing, and I’m not suggesting for a minute that you write off any group of people.
But look around. There’s a big box Wal-Church in almost every town now, at least a McCongregation, dedicated to making Jesus easy again. They pride themselves on it, actually. They have something for everyone, at least everyone who matters. Especially the ubiquitous 50-something young adult pastor with skinny jeans, a dad bod, and that unmistakable Just For Men hue in his sideburns who desperately wants us to believe he’s a hipster.
These churches all claim that they’re reaching us, or at least making an attempt. But studies show they simply aren’t. With all the strategies, all the initiatives, all the campaigns, millennials are still leaving the church, and faster than ever before.
Let me let you in on a little secret: Most of us can’t stand churches like that anyway. I think one thing is crystal clear, though. We’ve become an idol, an object, a commodity. In your minds, we’re a special interest group that has left your church because we didn’t get our way. So like a jilted lover, you want answers. You want to know what will bring us back, or at least why we left and why you can do to bring in a bunch just like us.
Please, for our sake and for Jesus’ sake, stop
We don’t need or want it. The truth is, beautiful church, we really aren’t special. Yes, our collective experience of the world is unique, but we’re more like you than not. We’re living out the same human condition in the same cursed cosmos. And though the generational stereotype is one of narcissistic individuality, we don’t need you to engage it. The glorious gospel of Jesus the Christ is all that you need.
Do your thing. Live your mission. Live into the hope of Christ that overthrows evil regimes and sets captives free. Live into the confidence that knows Christ’s work is finished, and the church’s mission from age-to-age, generation-to-generation, doesn’t change.
But first, maybe stop for a minute. Remember who you are in the first place.
Worship together as if your lives depended on it. And invite us to join you, not as your honored guests, not as your coveted demographic, but as your brothers and sisters. Let us feast on God’s Word and dine at Christ’s table. Teach us the drama of your calendar, the discipline of your liturgy, and the joy of your melodies. Many of us are trying to follow Jesus on our own, and it’s tough. It’s just not working.
That’s just it. Following Jesus is a scary prospect, a costly endeavor, a daunting task. That’s where you come in. We millennials need you, just like our parents did, and like our own children and grandchildren will, also. We need a community of faith that reminds us who we are and Whose story we live out.
I can’t promise the millennials will come flooding back through your rusty-hinged doors and sink into your creaky old pews. Like I said, there’s no silver bullet. But it will be the start of a necessary process.
In the end, church, it wasn’t you that lost us, anyway. It was who you were trying to be. It’s time to be uncool. It’s time to be your beautiful self.
It’s time to be the church.