May 2019
Millennials and the Church

Authenticity and Community

In a New Kind of Christianity (2011), Brian McLaren, a spokesperson and leader for many young Christians, argues that numerous church leaders have lost touch with their millennial congregants – spending more time “preaching to the choir” and involving themselves in institutional maintenance, rather than listening to the desires and needs of their young congregations. He calls for a renewed vision of a “post liberal, post conservative, post sectarian, postmodern” Christian faith.

Many young Christians are heralding his work as revolutionary and sparking a need for change and social renewal. For them, McLaren proposes a re-evaluation of faith to address some of the issues that have separated communities within the larger Christian faith — issues like heteronormativity, a Biblical sophistry that alienates non-Christians, the problems with claiming an exclusionary access to the Truth and, most importantly, the challenge to older churchgoers to stop isolating themselves in their congregations and get out into their communities.

Millennials are seeking not only an “authentic” faith that they feel will allow them to deepen their relationship with God, but also an authentic institution that emphasizes service, community and compassion to those in need.

Finding Authentic Faith

I think (and just give me some rope this evening) that Christmas is a time when we are to remember our struggle with God. It is a good struggle… It is a noble struggle. And yes, we have limps to prove it. This is what God wants from us at Christmas: honesty about our lives, so that God can struggle with us. It is our honesty that gives God access to our struggles.
-Pastor, New City Church[1] during a Christmas Eve sermon.

The “Christians with a limp” metaphor is telling, as it demonstrates the guilt or feelings of inadequacy that many experience when trying to define their faith to others — and, some might say, to themselves as well. To be unable to adequately describe one’s own faith in a word or a sentence can be seen as weak or uncommitted. But this could be far from the truth.

Millennials eschew “easy” forms of religious practice. They seek congregations that offer a rigorous learning community that also emphasizes care and compassion for others. In turn, they feel empowered to construct religious identities that fit their personal needs. Pushed to see that they are no better or stronger or wiser than others and that others are also in need of help and comfort, they are able to make peace with imperfection and perceived individual weaknesses.

Space for growing an authentic faith

How do congregations and pastors create an authentic experience that engages individuals who are cynical of their elders’ traditions and highly suspicious of “feel-good” sermons?

  • Find balance
    A congregation or service devoid of ritual lacks a valuable communication tool that can strengthen community and faith. Similarly, preaching a “personal fulfillment” narrative (one that highlights how individuals can succeed in their careers, their relationships and life by answering the ultimate question, “who am I?”) lacks the depth millennials crave. These sermons tend to be more “touchy-feely,” lacking the intellectual quality of other, Bible-based sermons. Many see a focus on self-improvement as distant, but not entirely separate, from the pursuit of authenticity. Clergy and lay leadership must grapple with which rituals strengthen their congregation, incorporating those that invite members in, while still tending to the individual. Preachers need to create sermons that weave personal fulfillment narratives together with cerebral, thoughtful and profound worship.
  • Create community
    When ideologies do not attract new members, they need to be replaced with different frames. For example, in attempts to alleviate generational tensions, clergy leaders can re-fashion theological differences into a “community” framework, with common beliefs about poverty, Jesus-emulating philanthropy and self-fulfillment. In doing this, they harness the fluidity of ideology in an effort to build sustained congregational membership.
  • Show your limp
    When looking for a congregation, millennials are drawn to an authenticity that does not “pretend to be perfect,” that does not judge anyone’s faults (especially those in need) and offers a community that doesn’t shy away from imperfection. Unfortunately, in trying to appeal to a younger generation that seeks self-awareness and self-fulfillment, pastors can become nothing more than what some may call “motivational speakers.” Although many young people begin with churches within their original denomination, eventually they search out congregations that embody specific values towards helping those in need, yet another characteristic that defines “authenticity” for this group. Millennials seek new forms of religious practice that enable them to participate in communities that emphasize care and compassion for others and that allow them to be at peace with imperfection and individual weakness.

While it’s tough to nail down the aspirations and options of an entire generation in one article, the goal here is to shed light on the process of aggregation that enables millennials to create unique religious identities that fit their current lives. Accepting vulnerability and creating community reaches beyond the doors of the parish. It pushes us to question how we determine who is “one of us” when creating a supportive community. In our efforts to engage millennials, we must consider how we invite the stranger (and each other!) into affirming and life-giving community.

Adriane Bilous serves as Project Coordinator for ECF’s Lilly Endowment Initiative “From Economic Challenges to Transformational Opportunities.” Prior to coming to ECF, she taught at Fordham University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Adriane received her MA from the University of Chicago and her PhD from Fordham University. Her PhD dissertation explored the relationship between gender, faith, and social activism. Originally from Toronto, Adriane is a proud hockey mom and supporter of all things Canadian.


[1] Name of congregation has been changed to protect privacy.

This article is part of the May 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Millennials and the Church