I was attending a ministry leadership conference recently in Arlington, Virginia where I served as the conference speaker. At the conclusion of the three-day conference, a young man who had served as the conference moderator, approached me and said “thank you for being a relevant pastor who speaks to the heart of the issues that millennials face in today’s world.” At first blush, I smiled and enthusiastically pat-myself on the back for being considered a “relevant” preacher. But as I drove from Arlington back to Connecticut, I revisited his comments, and begin to think to myself, is today’s church not effectively reaching this demographic? Has the church become too antediluvian?
Being a pastor of a mainline denomination that is experiencing a rapid decline in membership, makes the task of revitalizing the church an arduous one, especially considering the fact that most pastors in mainline traditions must adhere to the often malignant hierarchical structure that exist within the organization. While having structure is not a bad concept, the reality is that often times it is restricting and does not allow a (reformist) pastor’s vision to be fully executed.
Often times, the older members of the congregation are unwilling to try something different. Hence, any real attempt towards change and progress, is met with sheer resistance not just from everyday parishioners, but also from those who sit at the helm of leadership within the organization. As a millennial, I understand the complex realities of why some millennials find traditional church spaces to be unattractive.
The church must get on board with technology. It must connect to the virtual world, and get outside of the individual parish. Being situated in a local community does not mean that the church cannot make a global impact. Most folks nowadays—are connecting to churches through virtual means, which means, that churches must not miss the opportunity to reach people online. Yes, people also pay their tithes and offerings online to churches they feel connected to. People are now searching for inspirational messages anywhere they can find them--which includes Facebook, twitter, snapchat, and other relevant cyber-tools. The church must see itself as belonging to a wider cyber-faith community.
Faith communities can be formed on iPhones, androids, tablets, iPads, and other digitized means. This means that churches must be willing to invest in high-quality technologies in order to compete for this generation’s attention, and churches cannot be afraid to step outside of their comfort zone and think (progressively) different about its role in helping to reshape the idea and conversation of doing church in the 21st century.
All in all, the church must be relevant. Today, believe it or not, there are still churches who function as if they are in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. Yet, they are asking the question: where are the millennials? There are still pastors who preach from lofty pulpits, (which gives the impression that they are untouchable), and who preach dull and uninspiring messages. Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with sticking to tradition, but one must be willing to be flexible and fluid enough to modify the process when it’s appropriate. There must be a balanced blend of new school and old school.
Furthermore, the church must be willing to provide intelligent answers for questioning millennials. This generation do not automatically accept doctrine and ideologies without asking the tough questions, as to why we do what we do, and why we believe what we believe? They are thinkers, they are inquisitive, they are theorist, and they often philosophize and intellectualize about everything and anything.
Moreover, they are seekers of authenticity. They almost have a sixth-sense when it comes to genuineness. They can spot phony spectators a mile away, and tend to judge people by the “fruit that they bear.” In other words, they are watching the words and the actions of an individual. It is not merely enough to regularly attend church, but millennials want to know that you are a living embodiment of the church with respect to how you live out your passions and commitments. Put simply, be the scripture you want people to read. They are seeking a leader that reflects their reality, and who does not present themselves as “holier than thou,” possessing a moral superiority complex. But, one who is not afraid to be vulnerable and share their blemishes. The leader does not have to be perfect, but the leader must be open, honest, and transparent.
Next, millennials want a place that feels welcoming, accepting, and affirming. They tend to shy away from spaces that are condemning, judging, and reproachful. They truly believe in the old proverb: “treat people the way you want to be treated.” This means they are looking for an open-arms ministry, one that respects the individual dignity and difference of a person, and that stretches it hands towards the marginalized.
This group is looking for opportunities to get involved and to make a tangible difference in the world. Millennials want to get outside of the four walls of the church and get their hands dirty. They want to engage ministry with their head, hand, and heart. This generation is looking for an experience where they can feel, see, and touch the hands of God by engaging with humanity.
Many are leery about the churches future. However, I am optimistic enough to believe that the church has not lost its moral voice. The church is indeed still relevant—and faith is still essential and continues to speak to the human experience. As the church evolves, as faith evolves, and as passions and commitments evolve, will your church evolve or dissolve?