July 8, 2015

Millennials: What Do We Know? And… Should We Care?

In the past few months, there has been a lot written about millennials. Namely, what they want, why/why not we should care about their characteristics as a generation, and conflicting information about what the Church should do in light of this information. 

In April 2015, a popular Christian speaker and author, Rachel Held Evans, published a Washington post blog that quickly went viral. 

In it she cited a study published by Pew Research for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Research showed that over 25% of the Millennial Generation claims no religion affiliation. She described in detail the efforts made by churches to be relevant and to reengage this demographic. Evans suggests that instead of looking at market research to determine what is cool for the moment, millennials are looking for authentic worship.

“If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.” Her blog’s thesis was to embrace what the Church does well instead of changing it to meet the culture. 

She writes,”I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight, and even perpetual doubters like me.“

The blog was met with both high praise and criticism. David Watson academic dean and associate professor at United Theological Seminary notably wrote that while it is possible to cite generational trends, one can`t assume religious beliefs will remain static over time. He argued for the Church to move away from worries of relevancy. 

The Lilly Foundation’s Lake Institute on Faith and Giving has also weighed in on millennials and Evans’ post. Their November 2014 newsletter’s lead article “Millennials: Faith, Giving, and Mutual Transformation” by institute director David P. King offers a different perspective and approach. King’s theory is that by seeking to understand others, we engage in conversations that we all have the opportunity to be transformed in the process. 

And, in the Institutes May 2015 newsletter, King responds directly to Evans’ blog in his article “Making sense of the Millennial Debates.” 

What’s interesting about these opinions is that most authors, when discussing the role of millennials in the Church, cite the same Pew Research, often Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Center, (2010).  Another cited data source is the Barna Research Group, who, in June 2015 released new research data on millennials. Over the past 10 years, the Barna Group has interviewed 27,140 millennials in 206 studies and each month it provides new learning’s. Barna’s findings support Evans, Watson, and King’s description of millennials.

So, if both are citing similar data, where do Rachel Held Evans and the Lilly Foundation’s King’s argument intersect and disconnect? 

Evan’s argument is that in order to attract millennials, its less important for us to understand their characteristics and more important to focus on what makes our Churches authentic. Evans, a millennial herself, asks not for churches to change but to hold fast to what defines them: the sacraments of our faith.

King’s argument is written from the perspective of a non-millennial to a non-millennial audience. “We must remember that the goal is not simply to understand millennials so that we can fit them into our work or transform them into donors for our cause. This is mutually transformative work.” Essentially that in committing to understanding, we enter in to relationship and potentially can be transformed together. King, from a different generation, asks not for the Church to change in order to simply attract millennials, but for us to commit to understanding and engaging with the other. 
In the midst of different opinions, Evans, Watson, and King all note that millennials must not be used simply as a way to restore the Church to its “glory days.” 

While the conversation will continue about this important demographic, parishes are encouraged ask, “Why do we care about this generation?” and “What is our true motivation for understanding this demographic?”

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