It’s a question that many in the church are asking. Some even go so far as to chastise millennials for choosing not to attend church on a regular basis. And everyone seems to have a theory as to why millennials don’t come to church—they’re lazy, self-obsessed, overly busy with other activities; they want church to be more like a rock concert with laser shows and live bands playing, etc, etc, etc. But being a millennial (and a priest), and reading and attending lectures on the topic, I’m convinced that none of the popular theories for why many millennials are choosing not to attend church are accurate.
No, I’m convinced that many millennials are choosing not to attend church because the church has failed—failed to invite them in (just having a sign that says “the church welcomes you” doesn’t count); failed to demonstrate the love of Christ to them and to others; failed to show the kind of transformation that can happen when we model our lives after our faith. Far too often millennials (who tend to be more plugged in with individuals around the world because of the internet) are experiencing or hearing stories from others about churches who on one hand profess the love of Christ, but then in the next breath condemn certain groups of people, claiming that they are abominations, something which God feels a great hatred toward. This hatred is directed towards gay people, transgender people, and anyone who disagrees with any positions they as a church hold.
So many millennials hear about Christ, and how loving and nonjudgmental he was towards groups of people that the society of his time condemned and are intrigued. Because, believe it or not, many millennials are actually not any more self-absorbed than people of other age groups, and actually tend to care about others and the world. But they hear these stories and characteristics of Jesus, but then see people who loudly proclaim themselves to be followers of Christ spew such anger and hatred towards others, and understandably decide they want no part of the kind of organization that not only fails to condemn such behaviors, but actually seems to support it.
And who can blame them? Sure, not every church is like that, but when so many extremely vocal churches are and no one sees contrary responses from more reasonable churches, what are millennials (or anyone for that matter) supposed to think? They may even have friends or family members who have felt their lives be transformed by attending church and forming a deeper relationship with Christ, but these types of Christians tend to be much less vocal and much less likely to share their faith journey’s with others than the types of Christians who picket funerals. Millennials want to have a reason to belong to a church. And they see none.
But why do we care? Why do we need millennials in the church? It’s not that millennials are some kind of holy grail that will fix all of the church’s woes, but it’s important that churches have diversity among their members. Because that leads to diverse perspectives that help us to learn more about the world. And millennials particularly tend to be more accepting of others and more knowledgeable about some of the world’s problems such as limited resources and global warming than other age groups that weren’t raised with this kind of knowledge.
So what can we do to make our churches more welcoming to millennials? The first is to actually welcome them. Personally. As in actually inviting millennials we know to come to church with us instead of expecting them to just randomly show up. But we also need to start sharing our faith with others. That doesn’t mean shoving our beliefs down other people’s throats, but it does mean being willing to honestly and openly share how our faith in Christ has affected our lives and why it is important to us personally to come to church. And when we encounter instances when people are being hateful in the name of Christ, we have to be willing to say that anything hateful perpetrated in the name of Jesus is wrong. Because otherwise future generations will grow up believing that in order to be a Christian you have to hate people, and our church as a whole will start traveling down a dark path indeed.
It’s not too late for the more reasonable branches of our church to make our voices heard, and to teach millennials and all others that there are church communities that truly care about other people and the rest of the world—who do not believe that we should be excluding and judging people and who think we must be responsible stewards of the earth. We can still show people there are Christians in the world that believe we should be using our God-given gift of reason when interpreting the Bible, and who believe we don’t have to agree on everything to be one body in Christ. We can still show the world that there are Christians who, above all else, seek to follow the greatest commandments that Christ has given us—to love God and to love our neighbors.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:35