The Church and Millennials- Part 1

The Pope with some Millennials
The Pope with some Millennials

This past weekend I had the chance to participate in an open-space conversation on the purpose and practices of lay theological education. As part of this discussion, there emerged a recognition and need to talk openly with and about millennials. How can the church engage them? How can the church meet them where they are at? As one of probably only two actual millennials in the conversation I had to avoid being a “token voice” but overall, I enjoyed the conversation. I have talked about the implications of millennials some with my parents and some in my parents’ generation, but had never really before seen the topic be engaged by a gathering of people my parent’s generation. My fellow millennials, I think you would have been pleasantly surprised by what the gathered group had to say about millennials. There is a lot of energy around them in the church and the opportunity and possibilities they might provide.

This leads me to wondering today though, what are the gifts and opportunities that millennials provide the church? I don’t use the term “provide” in a commodity like sense for the church, rather I think that millennials through their perspectives and values may be part of a seminal moment in the life of the church (and at least specifically of the denomination that I am a part of,  the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

This is no exhaustive list, but so far I have come up with seven things that stand out. In this post, I will share the first two. The rest I will share in a post later this week.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton with Allison and I  (photo taken by Thomas Siburg)
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with Allison and I
(a presiding bishop and a couple of millennials by definition)

Millennials who are present or at least engaged in some kind of ministry, force the church to wrestle with questions.  To be a part of something or to engage with something millennials are likely to consider and think deeply about the basic questions of why, who, what, how and where. These are important questions that congregations, faith communities and the larger church should always be forced to wrestle with but often do not reflect on them and take the answers to the questions for granted. By wrestling with these questions though, there is space to really wonder, for example, what might be possible and what God might be up to and calling and leading a congregation to be a part of.

Building off the previous point, millennials are adept at allowing space for questions and the ability to leave a question open without an easy answer. You aren’t likely going to find an easy answer to a question as deep and profound like “what might God be up to here.” However, that fact actually may excite millennials who aren’t looking for easy answers. Millennials, like many people of faith are looking for those who allow the questions to be questions and give space to wondering about them. When there are easy answers there is less gray area, and at least from a Lutheran theological perspective, that doesn’t seem to correlate well with the many tensions and paradox which Lutheran theological ideas seem to create and leave room for.

Until picking up this conversation on Wednesday, what do you think the church can learn from millennials?

Image Credit: Pope and Millennials

10 thoughts on “The Church and Millennials- Part 1

  1. I have a lot of thoughts…like is it even the right question. But I don’t want to do a complete derail and I’m sitting at work right now. I’ll try and post a bit later with some reflections. I don’t often read your blog but I appreciate that your bringing up this conversation.

  2. I think imagination is key. The divide between generations is greater than ever, I think, and his so are what’s valued, experienced, etc. Millennials Bering a lot of possibility and creativity, which is their biggest contribution. But I think that need to be bounded by relationship with the other too. That’s why I think communal practices such as prayer, biblical interpretation, and service are so important. They create mutual space where I think millennial and “church” can learn from each other….and each has something to offer that will be valued.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more Aaron. The imperative in what I hear from you is the need for mutual space and multi-directional relationships. Do you have any good examples of those mutual space experiences to point to that I could lift up as examples in the next part of this blog post series?

  3. Well I’ve been having some conversations about the future of the church and if it’s even an institution that will survive moving forward. I think the conversation about engaging millennials is an important one, but it’s important to not limit the conversation to that. For example what are millennials creating on their own or across generations that may not look like church in the way it’s traditionally understood? How are those spaces sacred, worshipful, etc and how can other generations/other millennials enter into those spaces with them. This happens a lot in cultural shift where the conversation becomes “Here is our space, how can we make room for you?”. But instead maybe the conversation should be “How can we create something new together?”

    Because if the church in it’s institutional form does die out then people will seek spaces that are sacred and communities of faith. And maybe if we are encouraging and open and radical some of those spaces/communities will already exist.

    I’m not saying I hope for the death of the institutional church or that I even have some great idea about what alternative spaces/communities look like. But I do think it’s important to ask the questions about creating something new.

    Hope that all makes sense.

    1. Thanks for sharing Michelle! This helps a lot, and it’s good to hear what your thoughts are. I guess my concern in one sense is less about the church as institution here, though that may not be clear. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the need for creating, co-creating and re-creating together (across generations and all various perspectives). In a lot of ways what you are saying is at the very heart of the MA degree I did at Luther Seminary in Congregational Mission and Leadership.

      Regarding millennials, I entered this conversation a bit nervously because like any millennial, I’m nervous about using one category or type and then casting a wide brush with it. However, after engaging a number of church leaders on this, it seemed like there’s room for a lot of thought and questions on what the church (both as in local congregations and faith communities as well as larger denominations) can learn from and with millennials (and I do believe, reciprocally as well). I really think at this point that some of the creating, co-creating and re-creating you are getting at can really come if the church (in its different forms) considers these possible gifts, perspectives, values and strengths that millennials seem to provide.

      What do you think? Does that make sense?

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