Millennials and the Church
I grew up attending Episcopal camps at the turn of the century when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were the cause du jour. Noble in their pursuit, we spent many hours with other teens participating in group discussions and globally-minded service projects focused on eradicating poverty and the constellation of associated issues by 2015. The high value placed on the building up of God’s kingdom made me proud to be Episcopalian, and our church’s emphasis on justice as central to baptized living continues to draw thousands of mercy-loving millennials to our corner of the vineyard.
Ironically, however, the approach to faith in action that I experienced as an adolescent in the new millennium was quintessentially boomer in nature, as exemplified by the MDGs’ signature liturgy: The U2charist, a votive mass, originally conceived to raise money and awareness for the MDGs. Nothing against Bono or the liturgy’s creators, it was a classically Anglican experiment in vernacular adaptation, and I am grateful for its philanthropic impact.
Nevertheless, as my generation has been empowered for lay and ordained leadership in the institutional church, I believe we have deepened and expanded conversations around what faithful action in response to the Gospel might look like in our contemporary zeitgeist. Below are some personal and anecdotal reflections on how millennials are shaping the church’s perspective on social witness in an era characterized by the exposure and recognition of our world’s most raw yet ancient wounds.
Mutuality is key
The millennial generation is often caricatured by its affinity for locally-grown produce and fair trade coffee, and disdain for chain stores and restaurants. Its gravitation towards the urban bourgeois can, at worst, contribute to the dispersion of communities (especially black and brown) through gentrification. But time and again, I have seen my peers — Christian and otherwise — choose to root themselves in their local neighborhoods, embracing the art and cuisine and charisms of the city not for the sake of vanity but out of a sincere desire to participate in the realization of God’s beloved community.
Consider my friend Allison Kendrick, one of the most Christlike people I know and a freelance videographer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Like so many millennials, she cobbles together a livable income through a collage of creative side hustles. She loves the flexibility this offers, permitting her to lend time to local activism while chatting up everyone she meets as a full-time extrovert. When Allison learned of the need in Chattanooga’s Westside neighborhood for care and food for children in the summer, she found the space and funding from local Episcopal and Presbyterian organizations to start the Renaissance Day Camp. It was messy, and chaotic and imperfect — and very good. It was not created to fulfill a parish’s strategic plan or from a vague sense of guilt and embarrassment in the face of public issues, but out of real relationships forged from an authentic commitment to the community — through eating, talking, working and playing alongside neighbors.
In my observation, this sense of mutuality underpins so many of the most vibrant ministries by millennials. I often recall the words of the Rev. Bob Leopold, founder of Southside Abbey. His alternative to the old adage, “Give someone a fish and feed them for a day; teach them how to fish and feed them for a lifetime” is simple. “Go fishing together,” he says. It’s what I like to call fully “prepositional” ministry — ministry not only to and for, but with, by, of and among.
This posture challenges even our most well-intentioned prayers. While studying at Yale, I started an experimental dinner church called Table on the Green to bring town, gown and church together around a meal. We often began with a song that went, “Stand in awe of the one who hears the cry of the poor, for they shall eat and be satisfied.” After our first gathering, a trusted colleague said, “why pray as if the poor are not among us?” The next week we simply changed “they shall eat” to “we shall eat.” The words were an easy fix; enacting them is much more difficult. And yet I see miillennial-led ministries across our church where “fishing together” is the norm.
Open hearts and hands
The Rev. Chantal McKinney, founding pastor of Christ’s Beloved Community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, describes her priestly vocation as somewhat surprising, having grown up in a conventional, white Episcopal parish "with an organ and all the trappings.” However, after spending time ministering as chaplain among the incarcerated, she was moved to take to the streets, committed to building relationships across difference. With a passion for bilingual ministry and breaking down racial barriers, she describes her ministerial vision as “mutual, rather than top-down, and she seeks to honor the spark of the Divine in all people.”
I could go on to tell you about Smokey’s Pantry for food insecure students and staff begun by young adults at the University of Tennessee, or about the Warrior Church we recently started in Atlanta that brings men in recovery from addiction and white-collar professionals from our well-established downtown congregation together to work out and worship at a local gym. There are countless ministries, big and small, led by millennials across our church for which I give thanks to God. Millennials are leading the Jesus Movement as chains are broken, barriers removed and truth is proclaimed with courage and conviction.
Needless to say, poverty and its cruel companions were not eradicated by 2015. It turns out, Jesus was right: the poor are still among us and always will be (John 12:8, Deuteronomy 15:11). In the information age, we know this more than ever, and in light of this these hard words, it is easy to feel deflated. And yet it is Jesus’ own presence that strengthens us to press on with open hearts and hands.
Our church is alive with young people who choose to stay the course — despite our church’s imperfections, blemishes, and flaws — because we have seen the One who is making all things new. Nourished by word and sacrament in the beauty of the Episcopal Church, we are reminded at font and table that none of us goes alone. Our tradition will not allow us to resign in hopelessness, nor does it call us to bear the burdens of the world alone. Again and again, we are called to go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Won’t you join us?
The Rev. Zack Nyein is Associate Rector for Community Engagement and Children and Youth Formation at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Zack is enthusiastic about developing creative ways of connecting and communicating the Good News of God in Christ across generations and difference as the church lives into its new and ancient calling as a community of reconciliation and renewal. He is a lifelong musician and a lover of travel, the arts and fitness. He holds degrees from the University of Tennessee and Yale Divinity School and resides in Midtown with his husband, Michael Waterson. He currently serves at the churchwide level as a member of the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision for the Episcopal Church.
- Simple, Not Easy by Jimmy Abbott, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 10, 2019
- Talk with Millennials, Not About Millennials by Br. Angel Gabriel, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 17, 2019
- Young People: Not Merely the Church’s Future by Vanessa Riutta, ECF Vital Practices blog November 15, 2013