My pastor tagged me in a Washington Post article today from Rachel Held Evans about stop trying to make church cool if you want Millennials (college-aged people) in your pews. I’d just addressed generational differences in management and leadership, motivation and teamwork with my own crop of college students this past week, so the content of the article came as no surprise. Research from the Barna Group, an organization that researches the intersection of faith and culture, found that churches need to cut the fluff and go back to authentic practices and worship.
In short, Millennials don’t want to be entertained; that’s why they have Netflix. Duh.
I feel responsible for being part of the church as cool movement. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, church was flat out boring. So, we did youth group on Wednesday nights and that became our life group. Sunday’s were spent, not unlike Lori Singer’s character in Footloose (1984), paying little attention to the sermon and much attention to the boy across the sanctuary. We didn’t belong there, in big church. It clearly wasn’t for us. Wednesday was our bag and we claimed it as thus. (Disclaimer: I met my husband in Wednesday night youth group, so #bless.)
We watched from the back seat of our parents’ brown Ford Aerostar minivans as they pumped gas and complained about 15% mortgage rates. We worshiped at Contempo Casual, Sam Goody and Miller’s Outpost. We took communion at the food court. We came home to empty houses with keys around our necks because we’d lived through our parents getting divorced. We singlehandedly survived multiple rounds of selling $1 bars of Words Finest Chocolate (it wasn’t). We spent less time with our parents than any generation before and it showed. We learned independence early and screwed up a lot as a result. Just as we finished school, the economy crashed. As a result, the job market was tight and we adapted. We valued autonomy and self-reliance, rather than respect for authority. That authority had let us down so, screw them!
Basically, we lived The Breakfast Club. No wonder we are the most cynical and skeptical generation, ever.
So, being the good Gen X’ers that we are, we said Hail to the No and set about changing church from boring to cool. Now that we are older, we crave participation and having a voice in change. We give a skeptical side eye to over-produced worship and mega church budgets. We don’t trust television evangelists and Joel Osteen’s fur-clad mother makes us cringe. Everything just seems too complicated and theological so let’s just stop with all that junk. Church can be cool. Church can be fun. Church can be entertaining and non-threatening. Church. Can. Have. Coffee. Carts!
That’s where we went off the rails, making Jesus into entertainment.
We did church as slick, produced, seamless, and beautiful. Gone were the traditional formats; we didn’t trust tradition anymore. Technology allowed us to embrace new and bold in defiance of stuffy and old. Sure, the old ways were represented, but the trend was clear. Big screens, contemporary music and solid programs were our bag.
But then we realized, as we got older, that something was off.
We craved real, deep and meaningful conversation. We started to see the service as a show, the program as suffocating. It seeped into our subconscious, this standardized 6-week DVD Bible study, and the feeling we just couldn’t shake: status quo. Our generation of rebellious and belligerent youth who mistrusted authority and grew up fast as a result have turned into adults who have started to see church in a different way. We’re not sure how we feel about it, frankly.
My 40-something peers and I are now actively questioning our role in status quo churches. We left tradition, but are also shirking polished and programmatic services now. We’re asking, where’s the real in this, and feel guilty for doing so. This upsets our families, our friends and our support structure. And yet, it nags at us, this disquiet in our soul. This longing for real, deep and meaningful and doing life together is something we can’t ignore any longer.
The Millennials are fast approaching in work and worship. They are a different breed than us. More optimistic and socially conscious. More educated but less experienced. More of everything, it seems, at times. Better situated with technology as part of the everyday and more comfortable with global-minded careers. More accepting and understanding of different lifestyles. And yet, for all the ways they are different, we are all searching for the same thing: REAL CONNECTION.
Real connection with our Father, our Creator, our Lord. Real connection with others and a desire to serve the least, like Jesus. A push from within and above to do church different with less as more and more of Him. Stripped down, bare bones, down and dirty Bible study with none of the trappings of patriarchy or rules to hinder our experience. Open conversation forums where no question is unacceptable and no answer is rote. Safe spaces to discuss sexuality and shame, anxiety and anorexia. From stadium-style worship concerts to now, a lone singer with her acoustic guitar on a stage built for one. She says, sing with me, and we do. And it’s enough. It’s more than plenty for our soul.
It’s enough because we are all broken. Broken people, regardless of our generation, are the real seeds of an authentic church. Broken, vulnerable, humble and kind. These are the people who will grow a church family and infuse it with love, mercy and grace.
Turn in your generational labels and come be broken with me. Let us be broken together, I pray. We’ll find a new way forward together.