“If we’re serious about forming faith to sustain young adults… we have to trust that the Christian spiritual tradition has much to offer.”
On Millennials and Church
Young adults – those in their 20s and 30s, often called Millennials – seem to be everywhere, except, of course, in church. If we truly believe that the church needs millennials, and that millennials need the church, what is the way forward? Kyle Oliver has studied and written extensively on this generation. The following is a condensed version of his article from the Winter 2016 Episcopal Teacher.
The Challenges of Reaching Young Adults
At the developmental margins by definition, the in-betweeness of young adults is a huge part of why congregations are so flummoxed about them. Churches have long served children, youth, parents, empty-nesters, and elders. But emerging adults are a special kind of moving target, no longer youth but not quite adults.
How can churches meet twenty- and thirty-somethings where they are developmentally, supporting them in their transitions without condescension?
The challenges are real: Pew Research reports that only 18 percent of Millenials say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more, as of the late ’00s. Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age, but slight upward trends do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending, where the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation. It is often difficult to form a critical mass for young adult fellowship or programs.
Below are four approaches that churches are using for successfully engaging young adults.
#1: The Critical Mass, Going Post-Denominational
What no denomination can afford to continue is the habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. For example, in the Episcopal Church, campus ministries flounder when they say “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” Many Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal shield is on the sign out front.
A post-denominational approach acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition. Denominational identities can help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“every Methodist will join our group”).
Gathering around a common Christian identity – core teachings of the faith, patterns of common worship and fellowship, a desire to grow and live in integrity – is more engaging than denominational differences.
This is good news for faith formation leaders. We’ve long known that the message of the Gospel, the power of personal relationships, and the freedom to explore the rich diversity of the Christian way are more important factors than denominational brand identity in the forming of a mature and lively faith.
#2: Emphasizing Service
Following the popularity of secular programs like the Peace Corps, Christian denominations have created programs for service in the U.S. and abroad. These programs are a terrific response to the realities of emerging adulthood, providing food, housing, and employment at a time when many cannot find work; bringing young adults seeking to make a difference to areas of great need; incorporating vocational discernment; and connecting them to faith communities.
These programs are changing Christian culture because they provide as positive model for how being the church is about more than Sunday worship. Participants become living signs of being a Christian in the world. Many organizations find that an emphasis on service addresses the issues springing from Millennials’ waning religiosity and distrust of institutions.
Service connects with young adults in a way that worship or church activities may not. It many not be easy for most Millennials to invite a friend to church. But inviting them to serve? That is a way to plant the seed of faith.
#3: Creating Space for Questions
We can respond to young adults’ developmental needs by becoming a place where they feel safe to be themselves: anxious about the future, conflicted (or not) about their sex lives, doubtful about the historical doctrines of the church, etc. They need to be encouraged to own their faith, to make it real and concrete in their lives. The motto of the catechumenate program at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis is, “Your questions are not in the way – your questions are the way.” Communities that are successfully reaching young adults emphasize authenticity.
The lens of authenticity is helping many young adult ministers find success by gathering around food and drink, such as pub theology and dinner churches. It’s wrong to think of these approaches as merely luring in young adults promises of food and booze. It’s about meeting them where they already are, trusting in Christ’s presence among any gathering of the faithful and the seeking, easing barriers to invitation, and acknowledging that the faith questions you’d ask in a pub or at a dinner table are just as legitimate as the ones you’d ask in a pastor’s office or parish hall.
#4: Digital Ministry
Online spaces are a primary outlet for all kinds of authentic expression, including religious expression. We shouldn’t assume that young adults demand that all of our faith formation practices have an online component, but strategic efforts can lead to additional “faith touches” and a sense of ongoing connection and belonging amid busy young-adult lives.
A Firm Foundation for Faith
A pilgrimage is just a trip if there is not both a journey and a meaning connected to the journey. There is a body of Christian knowledge and a distinctively Christ-like way of living and this resonates with young adults. How should we describe it? In 2014, my colleague Melanie Mullen and I jotted down the big items:
• Basic knowledge of the Bible and reading it for spiritual fulfillment
• Basic knowledge of church traditions and worship and a commitment to letting them shape us over time
• Basic knowledge of theology and an ability to use it to reflect on everyday life
• Basic knowledge about prayer and spiritual practices and a willingness to explore them in a committed way
• A passion for justice and mercy and a commitment to serving others and the common good
• A sense that we are in this together as a people, sharing our joys and sorrows, marking the major passages in life.
Your community’s list might be different depending on your tradition, your gifts, and your theological commitments. But you can help the people you serve make their meandering way through that territory over time.
Programs may be out. Formal curriculum may be deadly. Service may be the starting point, or fellowship over coffee, beer, or a good meal. But a pilgrimage requires a sense of direction, progress, and thorough exploration. If we’re serious about forming faith that will continue to sustain young adults as they age, we have to trust that the Christian spiritual tradition has much to offer. We need to give it a chance to do its work, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Kyle Matthew Oliver is digital missioner and instructor in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary and priest associate at St. Michael’s Church in New York City. He leads the e-Formation Learning Community because he believes digital literacy is essential for 21st-century ministers. He lives in the Bronx with his wife, Kristin Saylor.