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.