June 18, 2019

Millennials and Authenticity, or "Be Yourself"

As a millennial clergy woman, I’ve been approached by folks when I’m visiting churches about “what millennials want in church.” My usual response is, “well, I can tell you what I look for in a church, but that’s not necessarily what my husband looks for, or my friends.” Despite what the media may lead us to believe, millennials are not a solid mass of young people (the oldest of us are in our late thirties) who all want the exact same thing. As every generation that has gone before us, we’re a diverse group of people who have different needs and desires in our lives, and that extends to church as much as to anything else. Thus, my advice to those asking the question about how to reach millennials and bring them into church is this: Be yourself (in my head, in true millennial fashion, it’s the Genie from Aladdin as voiced by Robin Williams saying this right now). It’s advice I give to the young people with whom I work all of the time, and it’s a guiding principle in my marriage and in my parenting. But these are good words to live by when it comes to being church as well.

There have been numerous studies about “millennials and authenticity.” Most of them are related to marketing. Some claim millennials are all about authenticity, while others say we don’t know what authenticity really is. I would argue that millennials do have a particular relationship with authenticity, in large part because of the social media environment in which we’ve come of age. While we all know that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (to name a few) are not full representations of our lives, I think many of us struggle with what we see of others and present of ourselves online and what we know of our lives offline. In a world in which we’re constantly negotiating these boundaries, it is a blessing to be in a space filled with people committed to being themselves, in all of their quirks and beauty.

As Christians, we are called to live lives of authenticity—secure in the knowledge that we are loved and saved by Christ, the need to follow society’s model of “success” has no hold over us. Easier said than done, though, right? However, the churches I’ve seen that are thriving—that have a healthy number of millennials and their families, and are full of people of every generation—are churches that have a firm sense of who they are, and embrace that.

Are you a parish with a strong tradition of organ and choral music? Great! Embrace that, and make that part of your outreach to the community. Do you have a praise band and sermons longer than ten minutes? That’s great too! Live into that identity. One of the undersold beauties of the Episcopal Church is the incredible depth and breadth of our traditions, as well as the flexibility we are given in the Book of Common Prayer.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the advice “be yourself” is either easy or a pass on discernment. It requires intentional, hard work to figure out who you are as a community. What are your gifts, your passions, your hopes and dreams? Are you being true to that in your worship, outreach, formation, and fellowship? If so, how can you keep doing that? If not, how can you move in that direction? As important as a good online presence can be for reaching the community, who you are in person is even more important. We all need authenticity, and the Church is a place that is called to embrace authenticity. We are a people who have been saved by Christ. We are loved. You are loved too. Be yourself. Let that lead you as you invite millennials to come and see.