What Millennials Want

On the blog for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, Nadia Bolz-Weber (of The Sarcastic Lutheran) writes about how mainline Protestant churches are generally not culturally located in a Millennial context, even as the Millennial generation becomes increasingly prominent.

(Haven’t heard the term “Millennial” before? Look it up on Wikipedia, or check out the PEW research done on the generation.)

Bolz-Weber enjoins the Church to listen to Millennials, to see what they (we) want from church—talk to cultural natives to know how to change. This is all well and good, though I would add that Millennials could probably do a little more listening, too—but isn’t that the story of generational change? I also think that talking to Millennials will result in about as many expectations of church as there are twenty-somethings.

For instance, even as denominational churches have been shrinking and leaking young people, evangelical mega-churches have been growing, especially among younger folks. So have small, grassroots house churches. These are both legitimate and respectable forms of communal worship, but they wouldn’t be my choice. They aren’t my choice.

See, I’m a high-church girl. I like smells and bells and sacred music from before the 20th century (I mean, seriously, Bach was a genius). I like pipe organs and stained glass and chanted liturgy. I like hymnals and prayer books—a projector at the front of church could actually be a church-shopping deal-breaker for me. I’m comfortable with thees and thous. I wear nice dresses to church, and then cover them up with my choir vestments.

But I, too, am a Millennial. I even took the PEW quiz to see “How Millennial [Am I]?” and I did score in the “Millennial” category (barely, but I made it!).

Maybe the point is that what I or anyone else really want from church has less to do with the liturgy and style of worship (though that’s important), and much more to do with what’s going on under all of that—the deeper current of what’s going on with the church. It’s the difference between a church/congregation that’s abundantly alive and one that feels dead.

So I made a list of things I want from church:

  • I want a church that goes out of its way to be a hospitable space.
  • I want a church that emanates care.
  • I want a church that won’t desert me in times of need.
  • I want a church that is excited about the Good News.
  • I want a church that values “authentic” interaction.
  • I want a church that isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions.
  • I want a church that welcomes differing perspectives.
  • I want a church that isn’t afraid of other cultures and religions.
  • I want a church that can handle existential doubt.
  • I want a church that takes action toward social justice and other important issues in the local and global community.
  • I want a church that tests everything and clings to what is good.
  • I want a church that avoids legalism without sliding into apathy.

When I look at this list, things like the church’s involvement with new media and social media doesn’t strike me as such a huge issue. Digital media is pretty (done well), it’s engaging, it’s a powerful tool that can be yielded well or really crappily. Digital technologies are going to become increasingly a part of and increasingly important to churches, as more and more of the population grow up as “digital natives.” It’s probably already more a part of church life than anyone realizes—and that’s great.

But if I find a church that’s alive and vibrant and living out the Gospel, if I find a church that fulfills every item on my list, I’m not going to care if it has a Facebook page, or makes cool videos about itself, or has a flashy website. Those things are totally incidental.

This isn’t limited to media: if I found this fully alive and vibrant church, I could give up the pipe organ and magnificent architecture and chants. Even these things I love are just things.

In real life, the “things” and the “deeper current” are meshed. They inform and are informed by each other. You can’t go to worship with just your mind and morals; you’ve got to bring your body, too. Bodies are important. And bodies use things.

In real life, I’m part of a church (and denomination) that does all right by my list’s standards, AND I get to sing in a great volunteer choir, worship in a beautiful old building, and enjoy lively Facebook repartee with some of the plugged-in parishioners. My church, like any other, has plenty of room for improvement on both levels. It’s far from perfect—but it’s just what I was looking for.

So I’m a churched Millennial, a twenty-something who never really left, just bounced around a bit. It wasn’t technology or media or contemporary worship that held me—I only lasted a few months at the most “contemporary” church I attended. What held me—what holds me—is real experience of Christian worship and community.

___

What about you? Are you a “Millenial”? What do you want from Church? Have you found a church that was “just what you were looking for”? What can you add to my list? Do you agree or disagree with any of my suggestions?

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11 thoughts on “What Millennials Want

  1. Alas, I didn’t make the millennial cut (didn’t play enough video games in the last 24 hours, otherwise I might have qualified). Interesting quiz. I LOVE your church list. Some of these overlap with what you’ve written, but I want a church that visibly loves Jesus Christ, and is willing to talk about him from the pulpit and in conversation. I want a church that honors and depends upon historical expressions of Christianity. I want a church where people are free to be broken and express their brokenness, because the message of grace is so pervasively ingrained into the life of the congregation. I want a church characterized by intergenerational friendships and caring. I want a church that is “missional, not attractional.” I want a church where the pastor and his wife (or pastor and her husband) are just people. I want a unified church mature enough to confront, exhort, and love each other like Christ does.

    • YES. Such great additions — thanks.

      In light of this post’s topic, I esp. like your point about “intergenerational friendships and caring.” Have you heard of Faith Alive’s new “WE curriculum” ( — it’s been all over FB ads) It sounds neat.

  2. Alissa, I’m so glad you found me on twitter so I would read this article. I feel very similarly to you (I’m on the old end of “millenial” I’ll have to take the quiz to see if I qualify) about church membership. I’m seeking something deeper than music or a website, but if I can play violin with other musicians who can improvise that’s a big bonus. When I looked for my first church after college, I summarized those concerns into “I need a place where I can serve.”
    Also, my parents had a hand in the “WE” curriculum, and I think it’s pretty good.

    • Bethany, thanks for stopping by! My outcome on the quiz is heavily dependent on whether I’ve texted that day or decide I lean more “liberal” than “moderate.” I like the idea of “a place where I can serve.” I sometimes forget how important/fulfilling it is to be in a place where I’m able to use my gifts.

      All I know about the WE program is what I’ve gleaned from the website, but I like the emphasis on inter-generational learning.

  3. I believe you have defined us! Very accurate. Being on the inside of the millennial looking out, I have an impossible time trying to see how a Christian would want something other than the things you’ve listed. I know that they do, and I realize that most of our values were shaped by our birthdays, but still, it’s very difficult for me to sympathize with something like the list of values from the “builder” or “boomer” generations. The “busters” in particular seem very selfish to me.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. For me, a really dangerous/off-putting aspect of this is when current church leadership (not many “millennials”) tries to make church “relevant” or “attractive” to younger folks without much communication, and we end up with mediocre praise songs and fancy coffee bars behind the sanctuary — but nothing underneath. Maybe it all boils down to just not listening to each other enough. 🙂

  4. Oh no! I scored a 5. I guess that’s what you get for not having a phone. People think you were born in 1928.

    Love your church list. I’m a little afraid to go church shopping when I return to the States … I’ve moved so far from the “evangelical” label that I don’t know where I’ll end up anymore. Probably with the Quakers. : )

  5. I’m more of a Gen-Xer than a Millennial, both in age and in habit. However, this entire generational issue has been a problem facing churches of all kinds for awhile. And since many refused to figure out how to maintain a relationship with kids back during WWII, I doubt they have much of a chance now. 😦

    • Well, then maybe it’s up to the youngers to figure out how to turn things around — step in and start the intergenerational relationships, and at least break the cycle of generational isolation. Thanks for stopping!

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