Jonathan Aigner has a passionate-yet-simple plea for congregations heaven bent on attracting Millennials to church.
“Stop,” Aigner said in a recent essay for Patheos. “All of it. Stop trying. Stop marketing. Stop targeting.”
Churches should just be themselves, and live into their gifts in their settings. And don’t worry if the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 is going to show up (because they probably won’t).
“Church attendance is declining, and no music, no coffee, no marketing campaign, and certainly no fun, convenient Sunday experience is going to change it,” he said in the article. “The church is shrinking. The trend of young people leaving church started decades ago. It’s nothing new, and there is no magical, surefire way to change it. Especially overnight.”
Aigner, 34, is director of music at The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church in The Woodlands, Texas. He’s visited churches with his wife, also a Millennial, and seen Christians bend over backwards to convince them to stay. Sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s aggressive.
Aigner spoke with Baptist News Global recently about such experiences and the reflections they have inspired about church, worship and authenticity.
Do you remember when you first heard the word “Millennial”?
I don’t even know for sure. I think these are labels super imposed on us.
How do you think your generation became such an obsession for churches?
I grew up with the whole evangelical, evangelistic model in the wake of the revivals of the 20th century. The revival tent got brought indoors and churches said, let’s get them in here, whoever they are, by whatever means is necessary. We’ll bait and switch them with the gospel. The megachurches adopted this revival mindset and pulled in these marketing tactics where you end up treating your audience or your mission field as a commodity.
Growing up when I did, we [Millennials] were advertised to and targeted more than anyone in the history of the world. Everyone is trying to get us to buy stuff.
You wrote about visiting a church where you and your wife felt idolized because you are Millennials. Is that a common experience for you and others?
They were very lovely to us. But I have been places where it’s hostile. You get a sales pitch. It’s a little embarrassing. It happened more when I was younger. “We’ve got this going on and that, and you need to be here on Sunday night.” Just stop. Stop. That’s what scares Millennials off. It feels dehumanizing.
Where does the treatment of Millennials become idolatrous?
If you’re changing worship. I grew up thinking “these silly Israelites, craving their little idols.” But anything is liable to become an idol. The shift is when worship is something I do for God, where God is the audience up there and he is watching me, and hopefully what I am offering is pleasing. In reality, the historic Christian liturgy is what God does for us through word and sacrament. The Christian story is being enacted again and again on us and God is the mover. But some have made worship about people — even just about numbers.
Why aren’t good coffee, cool websites and cool worship music attractions to Millennials?
I had to stop myself from laughing about the church-as-commerce mentality that thinks these things are going to adequately represent the church and get [Millennials] to come back — or that these things are even attractive in the first place.
Most of the people I grew up with in the megachurch don’t go to church anymore. And if they do, it’s very sporadic. And those who do, church looks like the youth group they grew up with, though the music is a little more edgy. There are people who came out of this and said if this is what church is about, I don’t want any part of it. And I think there’s a lot of us out there.
Given that an entire industry has evolved around attracting Millennials, will churches and and the media likely ever be able to let go of that idol?
The short answer is no, not really. I think it will be one thing or another as long as the church continues to employ a consumerist mentality, using marketing principles to lure whichever group they are targeting. And especially when we tailor our look to be attractive to a certain group, we are selling a product — music, programming, whatever — and calling it “Jesus.” That is just the way so many churches begin. It’s staggering. When having a big, growing church is the goal, the methods are always going to be to grab themselves the biggest possible market share of these potential customers. And that’s when the church bows down at an idol’s feet.