Millennials and the Church
Millennial Mythbusters: Church Edition
In my years as both a millennial and a churchgoer (and, more recently, a priest) I’ve heard a lot of commentary about my generation, particularly related to various aspects of life in the Church, and a lot of that commentary has not exactly hit the target. Below are, in my experience and according to national trends, a few myths — and truths — about the millennial generation.
Myth #1: Millennials prefer ‘contemporary’ worship styles and expect to be entertained
I began with this one because I’m actually hearing it less and less, and I think it’s finally becoming recognized as the myth that it is. That said, it bears repeating. While the millennial generation is a diverse group, and I’m sure there are millennials who enjoy contemporary, entertaining worship, this is simply not true as a blanket statement. Liturgical innovation should be mindful and reverent, and it should come out of the worshiping community’s desires and interests.
Myth #2: Millennials are distracted by their phones during worship and programs
In my current ministry setting, there is no WiFi in the nave. This has been problematic at times, as cell service throughout the building is poor-to-nonexistent, rendering communication into or out of the sanctuary difficult. According to church lore, at the time the WiFi was installed, the rector — innocently enough — thought having it available in a worship space was undesirable, because it would lead to people being on their phones all the time during church.
This is a concern I’ve heard a lot, but I tend to see worse phone etiquette from older generations. Everyone can benefit from moderation when it comes to cell phone use, but fear or hatred of it is the wrong tack. Technology and social media have the capacity to enhance our lives and contribute to our mission — but only if they’re not viewed as the enemy.
Myth #3: Millennials won’t volunteer or commit to events
There is some evidence that millennials are less likely to commit and more likely to flake than older generations. I would argue that this stems from a potent combination of paralysis in the face of myriad opportunities and burnout in a society that devalues sabbath time in favor of overwork and constant availability.
In fact, millennials volunteer more than any other generation, but they are focused on purpose, seeking to live in a way that holistically supports their values. What a gift this is for the Church. Now we have greater motivation than ever to help members identify their gifts and select ministries that use and engage those gifts.
Myth #4: Millennials don’t pledge (or don’t pledge enough)
This one may not actually be a myth, but it has nothing to do with a perceived lack of generosity. While the amount of money millennials give to charitable causes is less than previous generations, polls have shown that anywhere from 72 to 84 percent do give to charitable organizations—more than older generations. And they do that in spite of significant un- and under-employment rates and the highest student loan debt burdens in history.
As far as pledging is concerned, ease and availability of online giving is critical, as is education around pledging — how pledge donations are used, why pledging is important and the personal and spiritual components of giving. The onus is also on us as the Church to figure out how to move forward in a world where expendable income for most people is steadily decreasing and the dollar amounts of pledges are following the same pattern.
Myth #5: Millennials just aren’t interested in church
I am able to contradict this statement by my very existence as a millennial priest — and I’m not the only one. It’s true that millennials are more likely to have no religious affiliation (“nones”) than previous generations. Many are finding the community they crave elsewhere, and that’s okay. Church attendance patterns are changing as well, and that’s okay, too.
We won’t get anywhere by wishing for a return to the Church of our childhood (whenever that may have been). What we have now is the knowledge that everyone in our churches is there because they want to be, and the conviction that there is no age group that does not stand to have its life and spirit transformed by an encounter with the living God. What we do with that is up to us.
Myth #6: Millennials are all the same
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? It’s the requisite disclaimer in every article about generational dynamics — and it’s required for a reason. While generational research is interesting, and can be useful, it is not meant to take the place of relationships and respect for diversity. One stereotype about millennials is that millennials hate being stereotyped (see what I did there?).
We are all God’s children. We are all humans on a journey. Articles about millennials (like this one) are generally about what makes them different from other generations, intentionally or unintentionally setting up an us/them perspective. But the fact is that what sets generations apart is less significant than what brings us together. One of the marvelous things about church is its capacity to be a truly intergenerational community. For this kind of community to work, though, we have to welcome all of the voices at the table. We are all vital to the Church, and we all bring those things that make each of us uniquely valuable. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
The Rev. Alissa G. Anderson is Associate Rector at St. John’s Church in Larchmont, NY, where she lives with her husband and their soon-to-be toddler. Alissa earned her Master of Divinity and Certificate in Spiritual Direction at the General Theological Seminary. Find her online at www.alissag.com.
- Talkin’ About My Generation by Miguel Escobar, ECF Vital practices blog, January 25, 2011
- Millennials—Our Next Greatest Wave of Givers? by Erin Weber-Johnson, ECF Vital Practices blog, October 23, 2014
- Alternative Questions and the Church by Alan Bentrup, ECF Vital practices blog, February 2, 2017
- Spiritual Resources Online, an ECF Vital practices webinar presented by Kyle Oliver, January 15, 2013