On engaging millennials

May 31, 2017 | Editorial | Volume 21 Issue 12

Millennials, born between 1981 and 2001, are known to be the first generation contending with technology and social media in our personal, professional and relational lives from the start.

We also hear that we’re lazy, entitled, screen-obsessed narcissists (with nice beards and cool cafés). If that weren’t enough, there are plenty of legitimate headlines that decry millennials for “killing” a lot of important things, including hotels, the napkin industry, democracy, handshakes, the European Union and breakfast cereal.

Are millennials “killing” the church? This, too, feels laughable and unfair. Sure, we’re the ones leaving, but I think this decline in numbers has been a whole team effort. Targeted in this blame game, I’m entirely unsurprised that only 40 percent of millennials actually want to be one, according to the Pew Research Center.

How can churches work together to engage the millennial generation? In the spirit of unauthorized click-bait lists, here are five questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you inviting young people to things outside of Sunday morning?

We want to be a part of your church life, not just your church service. Invite us to coffee, ask us to help wash potluck dishes, introduce us to your families or drive us home to our student dorms. We may be hesitant about institutional religion, but if you are real with us in moments outside of worship, we might discover how our doubts and dreams are in good company. This is how church becomes what Angelika Dawson, this issue’s feature writer, calls our “tribe.”

2. Are young people only participating in things related to other young people or fixing your technology?

Meeting people of the same age can be enriching, but the intergenerational makeup of a healthy church is fairly unique. We crave friendships across generations and we have gifts to offer the whole church: preaching, seniors ministry, administration, even quilting. Especially when we’re known for our shortcomings, the church can play a role in encouraging our strengths. Don’t forget: We love your enthusiastic calls, but we also burn out when over-committed (or over-committeed).

3. Do you know what we’re reading, protesting or talking about over beer?

There is nothing new about a world of inequality, violence and fear, but our technology makes us more rapidly informed and mobilized than ever before. Millennials join the Occupy Movement over social media. We watch Philando Castile’s murder at the hands of police, filmed with a camera phone. We’re baffled by fake news, incensed by colonialism, and trying to do something about it. And we believe Jesus is out there with us, but where’s the church?

4. Do you know what we do for fun, where we volunteer or what kind of ice cream we like?

Paid work is a stressful topic for millennials. When The Economist asked, “Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds?” we tweeted back, “Because I work at a grocery store.” It’s not avocado toast that is keeping us from financial stability, but rather the impossible job market that forces us into unpaid internships and contract work without benefits.

For these reasons, we cannot be defined by our jobs or lack thereof. Change your small talk about work to, “What keeps you busy?” We can still answer about work, but we can also tell you about a new ice cream we’ve discovered or new park we’ve explored.

5. Are your interactions with us based predominantly on anxiety about departure and doubt?

It’s hard to arrive at church and be greeted with, “Wow, we haven’t seen you in a long time!” We don’t need your anxiety about our attendance added to our pre-existing confusion and guilt. If church isn’t fulfilling our needs, find out directly from us (and not from our parents) how we’re doing and if we’d like your support. Churches can’t do better at what they’re too scared to know, and millennials are hurt when our disillusionment and frustration is always dismissed as impetuous or selfish. Instead, you might learn from us about where God is leading.

Notice something familiar about this list? I hope so, because a genuine community showing genuine love is something we all want when we experience doubt, unemployment and isolation. It might be time for change in the church, but it’s not just for millennials. It’s for all of us.

Ally Siebert chooses to be a proud millennial. She lives in Ottawa, works with teenagers and is a member of the Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service Board of Directors.

See also:
A big fan of Jesus . . . the church not so much
Spaces of trust


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I can see where Siebert is coming from when she is addressing the generation divide between millennials and their elders. Evidently, people overall will come to things they feel engaged to. With church, the idea of being engaged seems like a required aspect to wanting to participate at all. To elaborate on this point, I mean needing to have these social interactions to come to church to really be drawn into church itself. I understand wanting to have friendships in the places you should go regularly. It is like work: I would much rather work in a place where I know I have peers I can talk to and be friends with. It is a human thing to crave relationships.

However, I personally, for me at least, believe church is an exception to all of this. To note, I was born in 2000, and I grew up going to church every Sunday and went to an elementary school up until now that was strongly religion-based. I understand all of this generation divides because I am one of those kids that knew computers since their earliest memories. I am incredibly tech savvy, and social media is a huge deal in my life. But, growing up, religion has always been kept the center of my life. Without any exaggeration, most of my classes since I was 5 years old have always incorporated religion into them in whatever way they could. My school taught me about my faith and brought me to church during school hours. And, that was just my school life. My life at home was even more of the same.

I know what it is like to be scorned by elders for how I am different. It can be very disheartening when I am told about how I should be far more like them. Truthfully, it is a lack of understanding about the change in culture. Times are changing, and life just is not what it was like before--and that is a fact many people are not empathizing with. People are different now, because this whole world is different now. Ali ibn Abi Talib once said, “Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you, they were born for a different time.” That is the reality of it.

What I am trying to stress is that I am a millennial, but our elders who stress about the importance of church and faith heavily influenced me. I empathize with everyone’s view of the matter. But, to me, church does not require friendships or need these special potluck nights for me to want to go. When I go to church, I go because I am more than anything engaged in my faith. I want to pray and feel the closest I can to God. Nothing else matters to me when I am in that holy atmosphere.

Ally, thanks for sharing this well-written and carefully thought-out article. It truly reflects the conversations we've had with other young adults in our church, and other young adult Christians elsewhere. I didn't find a church during university because it was hard to find a way to plug in where people welcomed me. I ended up practising my spirituality on my own through music, prayer, and physical activity, because I felt God more there than in not-welcoming churches.
I'm thankful to be at my home church now, although it still seems like people expect us, the young adults, to welcome anyone between 17-35. I'm looking forward to trying to change the culture a little and encouraging inter-generational relationships, where we can learn from each other.

Personally, I found many of the points stated in the article valid and quite accurate. In terms of being invited to events outside of just Sunday morning services, I believe that it is good to invite young people to such events. However, events such as coffee and washing dishes, while they may appeal to some, do not necessarily appeal to the majority of young people.
Even though I have never been to a youth group myself, many of my friends have told me many great stories about youth groups and the fun events they plan. Expanding the outreach of youth groups could be a huge factor in inviting new young people to church, and to follow God.
Point number 2 connected with me very well on a personal level. While young people, especially teenagers like me, enjoy to have things to do, it can be exhausting and overwhelming when you have too much to do. For number 3, I don't have too much to say on this, everything I read was very accurate. My impression is that you are trying to say that more young people would want to be a part of the church if they heard about all of what it does in the world on the news. In my opinion, the reason we don't hear about church in the news, is simply because church and mission stories don't sound like stories that appeal the general secular public, where as murders and violence fit more into our current societal thoughts and culture.
Point number 4 seemed confusing at first, but as I read I understood what the writer was trying to get at. Not all, but a number of older people who, at least to my knowledge and experience, generally run our churches, do not understand how busy and demanding the lives of younger people are in today's society. There is always the pressure from the media that we have to be successful, just like all of those big shots in the news. All of these media and news outlets make us feel obligated to do as others do, and to become successful. They make you feel worthless if you cannot achieve this. However, in reality most of us will end up working at the grocery store, at least for the foreseeable future. It will take lots of hard work and dedication just to get to a point where you can comfortably raise a family, and a lot of times this work can overlap the times when churches choose to do their 'things.' If you ask most young people these days, I'd imagine that most of them would choose being able to afford raising a family over living a God-centered live that may or may not pay well.
And finally my touch on point number 5. Young people's lives are already stressful and confusing as it is, adding things such as "wow, we haven't seem you in a while" can potentially push someone over the edge. In this case, church would be doing more bad than good to ones well-being. Unless I am mistaken, one of the main goals of a church community is to make everyone feel accepted and not to stress them out.
If our churches offered more opportunity for the input of millennials and focused these inputs on the lives of other young people, church would more than likely be a lot more appealing to young people.

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