Millennials and the Church
If you ask Episcopalians to name the most valuable thing the church has to offer, they’ll probably say stuff like “grace,” “community” or “Jesus.” (Or “the BCP,” bless their hearts.) I’m not going to say that any of that is wrong, but for millennials, there’s another thing the church has to offer, and it might not be what you think.
First, some full disclosure: I was born in 1981, which either makes me the world’s oldest millennial or the world’s youngest Gen Xer. I think I’m a millennial, though, and here’s why. My older brother, who’s less than two years older than me, lives with his wife and two children in a suburb in a house that he owns. Classic Gen X.
I, on the other hand, live in the city in a house I don’t own with six other people, one of whom I’m married to (and five of whom I’m not), and I’ve lived that way for almost my entire adult life. For me, saying I’d like to own my own house is like saying I’d like to visit Narnia. I mean, I’d strongly consider it if I thought it were possible, but I don’t spend my spare time looking in wardrobes.
Living in community
I often get questions from older people in my life like, “Isn’t it weird to have roommates as a married couple?” Or “When are you gonna grow up and get your own place?”
The secret is that my wife and I are really, really happy. The six years that we’ve lived in our current community have been some of the best years of our lives, and we don’t plan to ever live any other way. Christian intentional community – a group of people living together like a family, intertwining their rhythms of life and disciplines of spirit, has changed our lives.
We helped launch this Boston community as recent transplants from Manhattan so that I could work half-time for a young, scrappy and hungry congregation called The Crossing. We joined a small group of other young folks dreaming of ways to live out their values, and we hatched a vision for creating an intentional community.
I didn’t know how life-changing that dream would be. Over the last six years, I became an Episcopalian and later, an Episcopal priest. I’m now employed full-time, running an organization (Creche) that replicates that dream and creating new intentional communities in the city of Boston in collaboration with Episcopal parishes.
Older generations of Episcopalians are often startled by the demand for communities like ours, possibly because our parish culture doesn’t understand the needs of young adults. If you ask a young adult in church about their deepest needs, you usually get some variation of “I need an affordable place to live, a loving and supportive community and meaningful ways to serve that align with my values.”
The Church’s response is usually, “Well, I hope you find those things. Meanwhile, Eucharist is at 10 am.”
Creche is an effort to give people the things they’re asking for.
One of the many gifts that millennials bring to Christianity is that by and large, we’re either not interested in church at all or we’re really, really into it. We’re unchurched or overchurched.
It’s why even though church attendance is down, clergy recruitment among young adults is the highest it’s been in forty years. Even as our denomination wrings its hands about church decline, ours is a generation for whom sitting in a pew once a week is simply not enough. “Not just my feet,” we say, “but my hands and my head as well!”
Four years ago, I was working on a project to bring a bunch of younger communities together to co-author an online Lenten devotional. One of the groups we reached out to was Emmanuel Church in Boston’s Back Bay. They got back to us right away, saying “We’d love to be a part of this! But we’re not exactly a young people parish.”
That was in 2014. Soon after, those relationships blossomed into Creche, and Emmanuel has been in the trenches every step of the way. We launched an intentional community with them this summer, and at their parish picnic last spring, four years later, I counted over a dozen Emmanuelites between age 25 and 35.
Only a few of those folks are living in the intentional community. Creating and supporting an intentional community is just one way that Emmanuel is helping young adults commit their lives to God. Young people are coming to Emmanuel because it’s a congregation that takes them and their needs seriously.
The last time I preached there, someone who hadn’t been to church in a while said to me, “I wondered why there were so many young people here, and then I realized that they must have come to hear you preach.”
“No,” I replied. “Actually, none of them knew I’d be here today. Your church is just growing.”
I was having lunch with a fellow millennial recently who was unemployed and searching for a place to live. This is no small task – rent in Boston is rising more than twice as fast as wages. The average rent for a one-bedroom in my neighborhood, Jamaica Plain, is $1700/month. And even if you can afford that, odds are good that you can’t afford the upfront costs of first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit and a broker’s fee.
So my friend had been couch surfing for several months, trying to save up enough to get a room somewhere. It’s brutal. It keeps the people from finding stable housing. For renters in Boston, it’s a full-on housing crisis.
Now if you’re a homeowner, you’re not affected by the housing crisis, full stop. In fact, the house crunch actually helps you by causing your home equity to appreciate. Millennial’s, meanwhile, are spending 35-45 percent of their income on rent. That’s why my generation is only half as likely to own a home as our parents were at our age, and it’s why home sales in Boston have dropped more than ten percent in the last decade.
The whole system prevents new people from getting a foot in the door of home ownership. It consolidates housing in the hands of professional landlords and encourages short-term leases and high resident turnover. It advances gentrification and destabilizes neighborhoods.
It also segregates the poor from the rich, actively driving them apart and preventing them from forging relationships, from finding the likeness of Christ in one another. Jesus did not say, “There will always be poor people.” What he said was, “The poor will always be with you.”
But are the poor with us? Not when it comes to housing.
In Creche’s communities, we’ve got full time students, part-time teachers, nonprofit administrators, journal editors, attorneys, bank auditors, childcare providers, folks who are underemployed and folks who are overemployed. Yet across these diverse incomes, we forge deep, intimate connections with one another, intertwining our lives across the differences that usually keep us apart.
The two fastest growing age groups in Boston are 20-34, and 65+ – younger millennials and aging boomers. These two groups have a surprising amount in common. They tend to have small households and limited incomes, and they report feelings of social isolation. This makes intentional community attractive to both young adults and seniors, and makes them surprisingly compatible roommates.
Psalm 71 says, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.” The fear of isolation in our senior years is very real. And it happens far too often. Just like we segregate the poor, we also segregate the elderly to their detriment and ours. Study after study has shown that in retirement communities and assisted living centers, it’s not the quality of care that contributes most to decrepitude, it’s the routine.
Living intergenerationally disrupts that. The spontaneity that comes from living with younger people has measurable effects on longevity and quality of life. Seniors who live with younger people live longer, healthier lives. It’s that simple.
And it’s a mutual benefit. We launched the first Creche House primarily with people in their 20s and 30s. From the outside, it seemed like none of these young adults who had bounced from dorm room to dorm room to craigslist sublet were treating their house like a home.
A few months later, our first baby boomer moved in. The first thing she did was paint her walls, and the day after that, she hung curtains on her windows. Soon her room was loveliest in the house. The other, younger housemates, who had lived their lives in short-term non-homes, were blown away by how much nicer her room looked than everyone else’s and soon followed suit.
The benefits of intergenerational living go both ways.
What we have to offer
So what’s the most valuable thing the church has to offer? Millennials do need grace, community and Jesus. But we also need an affordable place to live, and the Episcopal Church has real estate it has owned since long before the current housing crisis.
We might not have it for long, though. My diocese has closed 15 parishes in the last 12 years. Most urban parishes sold their rectories years ago. And a lot of church spaces are unused or underused six days a week.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. By renting, renovating and repurposing church properties, we can create a way of being church that is both very new and very old – one that looks more like a monastery than a parish.
By using underused church resources to plant intentional communities, we can build a vision of the kingdom for the old and young, the rich and poor, rooted in faith and growing in love.
The Rev. Isaac Everett is the Executive Director of the Charles River Episcopal Co-Housing Endeavor (CRECHE), an organization that creates inter-generational, mixed-income intentional communities in collaboration with Episcopal parishes. As a musician and author, he has written The Emergent Psalter, a contemporary setting of the psalms, and released “Rotation” and “Transmission,” two electronic rock albums inspired by liturgical texts. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, he is a newly ordained priest, and a founding member of an intentional community in Boston where he has lived with his wife since 2012. He spends his spare time making music, coaching weightlifters and playing nerdy board games.
- Church Building Use by Annette Buchanan, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 31, 2017
- Welcoming Young Families by Sarah Townsend Leach, ECF Vital Practices blog, October 23, 2018
- A Tale of Three Buildings by Janet Lombardo, ECF Vital Practices blog, February 18, 2019
- Millennials in Leadership by Nicole Foster, Colin Chapman and Hershey Mallette Stephens, Vestry Papers, May 2019