By Emily Hull McGee
National news media outlets have been peppered recently with reports and opinions on the churchgoing habits of Millennials. Bloggers have rightly identified why this 18- to 35-year-old demographic is leaving churches of all stripes, citing a need to change the substance of churches instead of their style.
Buying Macs for the church office and creating a clever hashtag to use about your church on social media sites will show young people that you’re trying, which is good. Your church might even go through a strategic process, identifying that unless you do something about the “black hole” of people in your pews between the high school seniors and the 40-somethings with stable family lives, your church’s future is endangered. Props to you for noticing!
However, before you buy better church coffee or even hire someone to create a ministry with young adults, know this: Your church must be ready and willing to be transformed and forever changed by the passions of 20- and 30-somethings if you intentionally invite them in.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, prepare for them to ask probing questions about your systems and organizational structures, advocate for the marginalized, demand inclusion for all of God’s children and compel the congregation out the door and toward those who need what Jesus came to give.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, know that they will ask why you do what you do, and you must have an answer better than “because we’ve always done it that way.”
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, expect them to want a place at the decision-making table in all levels of church life. Make it possible for them to bring their critiques of the church into the church’s systems to lead real and needed change from within. Nominate them to be deacons and committee chairs, but be prepared when they challenge your church’s sacred cows.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, get ready to have hard conversations that will make you uncomfortable about injustices they experience. Marriage equality, the plight of the economically or physically disadvantaged, racial inequities, the stigma of mental health, sexual abuse and issues of sustainability will become regular topics brought up in Bible studies and asked for during Wednesday night adult-education planning.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, familiarize yourselves with the realities they’re grappling with, like soaring student loan debts, a crippled economy that directly impacts capacity for independence, a tenuous work/life balance in this demanding 24/7 job market, a rocky path through the life-stage changes into adulthood and faith questions, doubts and raw experiences of suffering that keep them up at night.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, equip yourselves to risk boldly for the gospel and delight in the Jesus they know and love. Let them inspire you as they become change agents of God’s transforming love in the world and in your church.
In the nearly four-and-a-half years I have served as minister to young adults at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., our young adults have sparked our congregation to revise our membership policy to make room for members coming from other Christian faith traditions, to create an ongoing presence in the impoverished and underserved neighborhood a mile down the street and to consider actively how we might engage with marriage equality. They have even asked that we restructure our organizational architecture to more effectively carry out our church’s mission.
In the midst of this change and inevitable church conflict that followed, Highland has welcomed five young adults as deacons, 50 who serve on ministry groups, dozens who become members each year, and hundreds more who connect to our community of faith, all from this 18- to 35-year-old demographic.
And just as much as they’ve challenged our church, our young adults love it even more. They are teaching our children the songs of faith and our youth the stories of Jesus. They are following the gospel to the ends of the earth, serving the most neglected in our inner cities and in Morocco, Romania, Peru and India.
They’re hearing the call of Christ to a life of ministry and bringing their imperfect, hopeful selves to the task. They are giving sacrificially to the church, even if they don’t always agree with how the money is spent.
They are listening carefully amidst dissent to the voices of those who have been here for decades. They actually show up at church business meetings — imagine that! — and speak emphatically about our bylaws.
It certainly hasn’t been a smooth road, and I trust that our path ahead will continue to ruffle feathers and challenge our church’s identity. However, this journey is one that Highland dreamt about, prepared for, committed to and intentionally invited.
If you believe you need Millennials in your church, you are right. And they need your church just as much.