– Connor Gwin
Millennials are the topic of many conversations in the Christian church these days. Depending on whom you ask, this generation will either destroy or save Christianity. Either way, most agree that Millennials are not in the pews. Every two weeks or so, a blog post lists the “Five Ways to Attract Young Adults” or “Ten Reasons Young Adults Are Leaving Church.” If these posts offered a solution, the problem would have been solved years ago, but the “problem” of Millennials and church may not actually be a problem.
There is no “secret” to bringing young adults to church, and no silver bullets. Anyone who offers one is selling you something. Instead, I offer two things to keep in mind about Millennials and church. First, as Millennials begin taking leadership positions in the church, some things will have to change. This is scary for those currently in leadership, because change means uncertainty and most people avoid uncertainty at any cost. Second, this process happens with each new generation. When one generation begins to loosen its grip on leadership, there is talk of monumental change and destruction of the old ways of doing things.
We need all generations in the Church. There are very few places in our society where true intergenerational interaction happens. This absence means that the wisdom of older generations is missed by those just starting out. The Church offers a place for old and young to share their experience. Quaker writer and activist Parker Palmer recently spoke of the importance of intergenerational interaction on NPR’s On Being. He said, “I feel like I’m standing somewhere down the curvature of the earth. I cannot see the horizon that [Millennials] see, where you’re standing higher on that curvature. I need your eyes, and I need your ears, and I need you to tell me what it is you’re seeing, because that same horizon is coming at me, even though I don’t know it.”
The Church can be an example for the rest of society, especially other nonprofits, of how young and old can share power and exchange wisdom. Millennials taking positions of leadership does not mean that older generations are resigned to sit on the front porch and rock their lives away. Instead, it means that Millennials are in desperate need of the wisdom and guidance of the generations that have come before. Every generation takes the wisdom of the generations that preceded it and adds the knowledge gained from its own experience. This helps explain the emerging trends that Millennials face. Growing up with divorce at 40-50% has made Millennials slow to commit to marriage. Coming of age around the September 11 attacks and resulting wars has made Millennials weary of armed conflict and geo-political intervention for solving problems. Entering the work arena during the Great Recession has caused Millennials to hold jobs in many different fields while avoiding life-long careers. Robert Wuthnow, in After the Baby Boomers, calls this generation tinkerers, saying, “A tinkerer puts together a life from whatever skills, ideas, and resources that are readily at hand.”
The solution to the Millennial “problem” is to stop leaving Millennials out of the conversation. Millennials need the wisdom of older generations, and older generations need the vision of Millennials. Millennials do not have the denominational loyalty of past generations and they may not attend church regularly, but they need real community. The formula for attracting young adults is authenticity. Find out what your organization does well and do it authentically. Millennials can tell when they are being marketed to, because they have been inundated with advertisements since childhood. Ask the young adults in your community what they want. Form relationships and live in community with people of all ages. This is what the Church has to teach the world. Let’s get to work.
When Connor Gwin completes his Master in Divinity this year at the Virginia Theological Seminary, he will be ordained an Episcopal priest and begin work as the Canon Missioner for Youth and Young Adults with the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife, Emma. Connect with him on his blog (www.connorgwin.com).
This article is reprinted from Vol. 2, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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