There have been plenty of articles about why Millennials – those twenty somethings – are not coming to church. Plenty of time and attention towards what would bring them back.
Well, in our church at the moment plenty of Millennials ARE coming. It’s been noted by the older crowd that they’re starting to get outnumbered by that particular cohort this year.
As one older, wiser, godly Pentecostal brother who has been attending our service (as well as his in the morning) remarked about this fact, “Well I can tell you, it’s not for the music.”
Our music is pretty good – if you like really stripped back with one or two instruments and a couple of singers on the stage leading 150 singers in the seats. Which, if you’re a Millennial, I actually think you’ll like. We don’t need to be your favourite rock concert – you can go to your favourite rock concert for that. We want you to hear yourself sing with other people.
That aside, why are the Millennials coming? Why, beyond the fact that we may be the latest flavour or some such? My own thoughts, plus some conversations with these Millennials (as opposed to the results of a Survey Monkey poll) offer up the following reasons:
We have Christian, recovering-fundamentalists, non-Christians, Pentecostals, Conservatives, ex-Catholic Millennials coming. And it’s the weekly teaching from the Bible that takes the passage seriously, focusses on it, and reads it through the lens of its fulfilment in Christ that is central.
No Powerpoints (except for the Bible passage), no barstool conversation, no “six steps to blah, blah, blah”. Thirty minutes expository preaching.
Seeing the plan of salvation unfolded, and hearing its implications for themselves, the church and the world they inhabit (and the new world they will one day inhabit), is drawing them. And keeping them.
2. No Busy-anity
We don’t busy people up. The reason is two-fold. We can’t sustain a busy church program (and we don’t want to). But secondly, they can’t sustain a busy church program. Life has changed. The pace and expectation of life has changed. I get the sense from many that they’re holding on by their fingernails.
So older people laugh and say “It was the same in our day”, or “Wait until you have kids.” But to be honest, as I look at the school requirements of my soon-to-graduate daughter, I cannot believe the level or amount of work she has to do. Her Literature essays alone in Yr 11 were the equivalent of my first year at university.
The expectation levels have been ramped up to critical. Don’t believe me? Check out the number of young people who are depressed or suffering other mental conditions.
This generation can’t just close the door on all the noise. Social media has seen to that.
The feeling among the younger crowd is that the financial and social safety net that their parents enjoyed is no longer there. And they’re on the vocational and cultural outer as well.
We’re not trying to sign everyone up to a group of some sort in order to “capture them”. In fact we’re a bit coy. Come along for a while, we’ll cast our eye over you as much as you cast your eye over us. Perhaps playing hard to get works after all.
Mind you I don’t have trouble asking younger people to help out with something in ministry. If there is a task to do, and they can see what it leads to, they’re happy to pitch in.
But we’re not running a lot of programs. We’re selectively targeting certain things.
3. No Sales Pitch
We seem pretty budget at our church. We don’t do things all that slick. And we’re not trying to “play” our younger crowd with glossy visions.
To a generation marketed to death that is refreshing. And I hear that often from them – we’re not trying to pitch church utopia to them, some wish-dream.
That’s helped by the fact that we don’t out-source chatting and welcoming to a team. Sure we have a welcoming team, but people can sniff if they’re being viewed as a “potential customer”. We started as a household church that grew to two households, and the DNA of everyone welcoming everyone is still there.
I think I could do a better job at communicating in our church – I really do. But it’s the earthiness of what we are doing that people find refreshing. At least that’s what they tell me.
One of the things author and journalist Greg Sheridan said in his book about our church network was how it possessed “situational awareness” – a military term about knowing what is going on around us.
We don’t shy from the secular culture in fear, we don’t embrace it uncritically, and we don’t denounce it in shrill tones in fear. We are, as Sheridan called Christians to be, “happy warriors”.
We’re keen to let our younger crowd know that the next thirty years will be tougher for them than for us in the public square in Australia – but that we’ve got their backs. That their church is going to equip them for life in Babylon, and be a place where they can lick their wounds and find some strength should things get tough.
There’s a deep sense among our twenty-somethings that they can go to the forty and fifty-somethings for advice, or a listening ear. Especially as they face the challenges of a university and professional sector increasingly suspicious of the Christian faith, and that is calling for public conformity in many areas of identity politics.
5. Thick Liturgy
There is a rising interest in older, more formal liturgies among Millennials. But it’s not all just for hipster’s sake, and we’re not simply doing it for pragmatic reasons. There is principle behind it.
It is our contention that the primary way we are shaped is by turning up together week in, week out to hear the Word, respond in song and prayer, share the Lord’s Supper, and embed ourselves in a movement that is even older than the original iPhone. Perhaps even older than the Atari 2600.
But it’s like eating adult food. You don’t appreciate it for a while if you’ve been fed on burgers and fairy bread all your young life. But give it time.
I get so many comments about our weekly Lord’s Supper, in which there is prayer of confession, either extemporary or a liturgical classic, Scripture reading, come down the front and take bread and the cup, then share it together, before prayer and song afterwards.
“Why every week?” people ask when they first come.
“Why not every week?” they retort about two months later if someone queries it.
Jamie Smith said that what we do over time becomes what we love. I would also add that the need for Communion every week is tied to the preaching. If the gospel is proclaimed then it seems like the natural response. If the sermon is a “do more/try harder” or allegory, or contains little or no Bible, then communion every week seems a waste of time.
But we’re setting up the Millennials for a life in which cultural liturgies are shoving themselves in their faces each week. This is the counter-liturgy then need. And want.
6. One Public Gathering For Everyone
I could tell the gospel was taking form in one young man’s life when he made a pact with his mates not to sit in the “younger person’s section”. Next week there he was sitting with some of the retired people.
We have one public gathering for everyone. And no one wants that to change. No one. We held off the early calls for two that would end up being demographically split. We resisted. We have not regretted that.
And that’s theological. We’re called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3). A really good – and challenging, but rewarding – way of doing that is putting everyone together for church gathering and seeing how the spiritual ecosystem grows. Seeing how humility and other-person-centredness grows in the process.
True, many people’s rhythms of life are different: students versus young parents; younger people on the cusp of a profession/those easing into retirement. So we allow smaller groups to form (we don’t set them up ourselves either, instead allowing them to form naturally) around those rhythms.
But come Sunday and our public gathering, it’s one in all in. And the Millennials would not have it any other way. And we’re not going to give it to them any other way.
There’s a plausibility to it that would not be there should we stream our people into their culturally assigned cohorts. It’s a ecclesiastical “in-your-face” to a silo-culture riven by divisions already.
So that’s pretty much it. Nothing flash. But then again when have Millennials been convinced that something with style necessarily comes with substance? They’re onto that, as far as I can see.
They’ll put up with it for a while, but when the next busy stage of life hits; when they’re having kids and paying mortgages and juggling all of the expectations, then churches will discover whether what they were doing was filling in the blanks in the lives of Millennials who were busy carving out their own meaning, or filling in the meaning itself.