Worship at The Well at Springfield in Jacksonville, Fla. Member Mike Belle said he joined the Baptist congregation because of its focus on authentic relationships, not for its worship style. (Jeff Brumley ABPnews/Herald)
Worship at The Well at Springfield in Jacksonville, Fla. Member Mike Belle said he joined the Baptist congregation because of its focus on authentic relationships, not for its worship style. (Jeff Brumley ABPnews/Herald)

Millennials warn churches against catering to their generation

A writer and others say stereotyping Millennials as eager for contemporary worship overlooks differences among individuals and the human capacity to change.

By Jeff Brumley

Many American congregations are modernizing worship in an effort to lure Millennials and other young people either into church or back to church.

“For some, the instinct is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender [guitar],” Christian writer Andrea Palpant Dilley wrote recently for Churchleaders.com.

But that could be a big mistake, Dilley said, because not all Millennials want the same thing when it comes to worship. It’s also risky because Millennials, like anyone else, often change their minds.

Dilley was raised Presbyterian but traded its rituals for hipper, nondenominational churches before returning to more liturgical, traditional sanctuaries.

AndreaPalpantdilleyBut Baptists report seeing the same trends Dilley cautions against in her article. They see congregations revamping services and culture in hopes of drawing into the pews a generation noted for abandoning churches and faith in droves.

Baptist Millennials themselves say they, like Dilley, chafe against the stereotypes of their generation as being drawn only to the adrenalized worship modeled by the megachurch movement.

‘It isn’t them’

Church coach and consultant George Bullard said his own children, raised in the same Baptist churches, reflect the reality Dilley writes about: one now goes to a contemporary church, the other to an Episcopal church.

“You can’t just take a generation and say ‘they are this,’” said Bullard, president of the South Carolina-based Columbia Partnership. “You can say they have tendencies and they have themes, but you can’t say everybody is like this.”

While the numbers are smaller, there are Millennials drawn more to contemplative spiritualties, Bullard said.

BullardMug“I see churches with formal liturgies and the Lord’s Supper every Sunday who are attracting Millennials ... who want that mystical connection with Christ.”

But Bullard said he also sees congregations contorting themselves into contemporary expressions that attract few young people. The problem: they were not staying true to their own identity as churches.

“They do it very badly because it isn’t them,” Bullard said.

‘Churches often leap’

Dilley is not the first Millennial writer to complain about her generation being lumped by church and denominational leaders into neat categories. But she goes further by warning them against planting churches or revamping services to meet what is perceived to be a uniform attraction to modern worship forms.

Building services and congregations around a single idea of Millennials is risky because, like anyone else, their values and perspectives change over time, she wrote.

“Churches often leap to meet these demands, and yet the arc of my own story suggests that chasing after the most recent trend may not be the answer,” Dilley wrote.

Raised in a Presbyterian church, she rejected that tradition and embraced an “anti-institutional church that looked less like a church and more like a coffee house.”

But when she and her husband moved to Austin in 2007, she chose an Anglican church over nondenominational options.

“We take communion from an ordained priest who holds a chalice of blood-red wine and lays a hand of blessing on our children,” Dilley said. “We sing the Lord’s Prayer and recite from the Book of Common Prayer — in which not once in 1,001 pages does the word ‘dude’ ever appear.”

Dilley said the evolution of her religious preferences is one churches should consider.

“In my 20s, liturgy seemed rote, but now in my 30s, it reminds me that I’m part of an institution much larger and older than myself,” she wrote.

‘We change our minds’

Millennials who worship in Baptist churches echoed Dilley’s case that they shouldn’t be stereotyped when it comes to worship.

They also agreed that their thinking and feelings about church often evolve, making perceived generational accommodations a bad idea.

“I think a lot of people go through that and we all try to find ourselves at some point — and we change our minds,” said Chris Canary, 27, a member at First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.

That fits Canary, who grew up a Southern Baptist fundamentalist and worshiped accordingly. However, he then developed an interest in churches where he could ask questions and wrestle with beliefs.

Throughout all of it, he added, he stayed away from congregations known for contemporary worship.

“I have never been big on the coffee shop scene,” Canary said. “I usually went to a place where I could get involved and study deeper.”

For Mike Belle in Jacksonville, Fla., the most important feature of any church is that it be a place where he can form honest, authentic relationships.

“Ultimately, for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to get through today spiritually,” said Belle, 33, a member at The Well at Springfield, a church plant of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida and Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church. “I need a group of people who are laser focused on that and that’s more available at a church like The Well.”

Worship, whatever the style, is secondary.

“I don’t care if it’s liturgical or not liturgical,” Belle said.

‘… not quite figured out’

And that’s just as well, because distinctions between worship styles and types of churches is likely on the way out, said Travis Collins, director of mission advancement for Fresh Expressions, a Virginia Baptist Mission Board program that helps churches navigate the challenges posed by a postmodern culture.

Collins TravisCollins said he envisions a time when churches will be unable to put terms like “contemporary” or “traditional” on marquees because they won’t mean anything to most Christians.

“I think the days of what we presently know as contemporary worship will soon be behind us,” he said. “I don’t think the answer is going to be what we now call traditional worship. I believe the answer is going to be something that we have not quite figured out.”