Millennials Want A Church That Talks About These Three Things
Published by Mary Hulst
As a university pastor working with many young adults, I’ve heard a consistent message from rising generations in the Church: Millennials are reluctant to attach to local congregations.
Some of it is on them, and they own it. It’s easier to listen to a sermon on the drive into work than to drag yourself out of bed on a Sunday morning. It’s hard to walk into a church where you know no one.
But there are deeper things. Harder things. In this season of my life the Lord has granted me a front row seat to see what He is up to in the lives of the next generations.
They’re telling me they love Jesus, but they are skeptical when it comes to the church. And the most common reasons I hear for that skepticism fall into three categories: money, sex, and power.
Let’s talk about money.
The millennial generation is the first generation to make less than the generations before it. Adjusted for income, they will make 20% less than their parents. Those who graduate from college average $40,000 in student loans. Of all the generations, they are the most likely to live in poverty.
Because of this, they have a different view of material goods. They see their purchasing power as a way to bring good into the world. For example, 84% of millennials give to charity. Many will spend more to purchase a product or a meal that is also investing in a good cause.
When it comes to giving to the Church, millennials want to feel like they are making a difference. Money has to be connected to a story. And the money story that rising generations most often hear in church is not a story connected to the Gospel. Young people don’t know where the church budget goes, because they often haven’t been told where the funds go, or why those areas matter.
In addition, young people tend to be skeptical of preaching that never mentions the insidious sin of greed and how that could be taking us down. They wonder when a baby boomer pulls into church in a new car with a pricey bag over her shoulder, but never volunteers in the nursery, or has people over for dinner, or serves as an elder.
Our children and grandchildren actually listened when we read them the gospels. They paid attention and took it seriously. So when they are coming into their own financially and watching what we do with our money, they are disheartened.
The rising generations also hear about the pastor who gave away a year of his wages to the poor. They have friends who intentionally choose to practice rural medicine for a lower salary, or who move into a tiny house to conserve energy, or who are living on one half of the couple’s income and giving the other half away.
They are exposed to Jesus followers who are actually selling all they have and giving it away. So when a church elder talks about buying a second home on a lake, or the church is going to hire more staff because it can’t get enough volunteers, that doesn’t sit well.
Are the rising generations perfect in their financial stewardship? No. But are their financial realities causing them to ask different questions? Yes, and we need to listen.
Ready for the next challenge? Sex.
In 1968, the average age of first marriage in the US was 23 for men and 21 for women, and it was about the same in Canada. Currently those numbers are much higher, and 59% of North Americans between the ages of 22 and 35 are single.
Our young adults listened to us when we told them that sex was a big deal, that it was to be saved for marriage, that this was what God asked of us. So, they tried, but then they graduated from college or moved to a new city, and there was no place where they could talk about dating and sex as a Christian adult. When it was mentioned in worship or preaching, it was usually intended for younger people.
So, they may go ahead and have sex. And then they tell me it isn’t such a big deal. They are disappointed and feel they’ve been lied to. Our intentions are good, but our “true love waits” storyline doesn’t hold. When it comes to sex, we need to be talking about the challenge of sex and the single Christian.
The numbers tell us that the rising generations of conservative Christians in North America are moving more and more toward the full acceptance of gay marriage. We can point fingers at cultures and governments and media, but let me tell you what I hear from young people: They don’t know why many in the Church are against it. They have no idea where the traditional, historic position of the Church comes from or why it matters, because we’ve never told them.
But they have grown up forming meaningful, positive relationships with people who identify as LGBT. And they’ve also heard from culture that people who aren’t completely affirming and accepting of all people and the choices that they make are bigots.
Without an explanation of their stance (beyond denominational reports most millennials don’t read), churches can also be seen as bigoted—behind the times at best and unjust at worst. If we haven’t explained the reasons why a church or denomination has taken its position, how on earth would they know? We need to be talking about the why behind our stances, as well as our deep care for LGBT church members.
We also need to be talking about pornography. Does your church talk about porn from the pulpit? Does your congregation have at least one sobriety group for porn addicts? I have learned not to ask young people if they have accessed porn. I ask them, “How has porn affected your life?” This is a problem that acutely pervades all age groups.
The Christian-pop, true love waits, “purity culture” sexual ethic is anemic. It does not help the 28-year-old single man or the 19-year-old lesbian or the 14- and 40-year-old alike, struggling with porn.
So, what if our sexual ethic was no longer based on a potential relationship with another human, but on our present relationship with God? What if we looked not only to the doctrine of creation to understand sex, but also the doctrine of resurrection, which proves that our bodies matter to God? What if we took the shame away so that when someone said they had an affair, or someone said they were addicted to porn, the Church said, “Ok, we’re in this together.”
What if, instead of asking our LGBT friends to “stay celibate and good luck,” we had the most extensive system of care and companionship for all single people so that the overwhelming power of loneliness did not draw any of our singles away from church and into shame? Instead, the love of the Church of Jesus Christ would draw them into the Kingdom and into leadership and into service in ways beyond their asking or imagining.
The rising generations need the Church to talk about sex, to pray about sex, and to preach about sex. The world around them is talking about it all the time and we cannot be silent. We can talk about hard things like this.
We can also talk about power.
On Sunday mornings in your church, who is up front? If week after week, our younger members see no one up front who looks like them—their age, their race, their marital status—they are going to assume that their voice does not matter. If they see the elders serve communion and every elder is over the age of 50, they are going to assume that their voice does not matter. If every committee is chaired by someone who has been a lifelong member of the church, they are going to assume that their voice does not matter.
And having a voice matters. Millennials have grown up in a culture where they can put their opinions about everything out into the world: from Yelp reviews, to political posts, to Instagram stories. If they have a thought, they can express it.
If the rising generations do not believe you’re going to listen to them, they will leave. If we aren’t ready to share power intentionally and creatively, letting the 20- and 30-year-olds influence the culture of the Church, we won’t have any 20- and 30-year-olds.
Young people are not only watching how we share power, they’re watching how we use our power to speak to issues of justice.
I recently asked a group of young adults, “If there is a racial incident in the news on a Wednesday night and it’s not mentioned on Sunday morning, do you notice?” Each person, no matter their race, said yes. Those who were white were aware of their privilege; the people of color knew the pain of being minorities. When we avoid speaking about race, our children notice.
The vision of the Church in Revelation is of a Church of every tongue, tribe, and nation. How did it get to be that way? Because the One who had all the power emptied Himself for our sakes. How are we emptying ourselves for the sake of anti-racism? How are we imitating our Jesus when it comes to race?
The rising generations notice when the Church says nothing about race. Or immigration. Or sexism. Or abuse.
When the least of these are invisible in our worship, our council rooms, our prayers, or our sermons—the rising generations notice. And they assume, rightly or wrongly, that if these things are not mentioned, then the Church does not care. Here’s the core of it: They are asking, “Is the Church talking about issues that are vital to me, and are they doing so in an honest way?”
The biggest question.
The issues that are vital to the rising generations are money, sex, and power—and what Jesus has to say about them. They are looking to us to tell them, to show them, to mentor them, to model for them lives that are not afraid of moving toward hard things.
They are not interested in casual, cultural, or polite Christianity. Why? Because we taught them not to be. We sent them to Christian schools and colleges and conventions. The Christian Reformed Church formed the first committee on Race Relations in 1968, talked about homosexuality back in 1973, and has been ordaining women for over 20 years. Millennials have been listening and they have been watching and they are asking us to find our fire again.
While issues often seem more polarized than they used to be, and certainly more than they ought to be, God is still the ruler. He absolutely has the power and intentions to restore this world, and He wants us to get to work, together.
The rising generations are asking us to answer the most important questions. They are asking us if following Jesus affects how we spend money, how we engage our sexuality, and how we use our power. They are asking us if following Jesus makes a difference.
In the sanctifying nature of the multigenerational Church, young people are calling us to account for how we talk and live around the issues of money, sex, and power because they learned it from us…and we learned it from Jesus.
We can be excited for the future of the Church, not because these young leaders want to join a church, but because they want to follow Jesus. They want us to call them to radical generosity, and resurrected sexuality, and surrendered power. They want us to show them what following Jesus really looks like.
What can be more exciting than that?
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