Millennials and the Church
What Do We Want?
I am a millennial. I was born in 1992 in Houston, Texas. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and I have decided to continue to follow Jesus in this branch of the Movement. I do not like coffee; I do not own a vinyl record or a player; I have yet to eat a slice of avocado toast; I have never been to Coachella or anything like that; I have never been to Portland; and I do not own an Apple product.
Millennials are not a monolithic culture. We are not just what happens in LA or New York. We are from all over the United States, and we embrace those who come from far away places, offering what little we have to those who may have nothing. Growing up, I have seen a colorful cast of characters on TV and in music, and as I continue to observe the emerging pop culture of the next generations, I am pleased to see many more voices coming to the fore. We are an aware generation, and having seen authenticity in different cultures, we expect it wherever we go.
Just as our culture reflects a vast diversity, so should the music meant to attract us. Millennials are more connected to the rest of the world than past generations. A lot of this can be attributed to social media, where forums and websites help connect people through common interests that transcend borders. Because of this, millennials are more conscious of what is authentic to other cultures, and some engage with new cultures so much that they feel like part of them. For example, many people my age enjoy listening to music that is popular in other cultures. I cannot count the number of people I know who listen to K-pop or Nordic Metal — and mostly in non-English languages.
Skip the stereotypes
Now, what does this mean for our churches? It means that we need to pay attention to the people coming to us. Hillsong United is not the only way to sing to a younger person in your congregation. They might like the Hymnal. They might like Taizé. They might like Mongolian throat singing!
The most important thing is to reach out to them and find out what they like. As a millennial, I have encountered some of the most judgmental writing in major media outlets about people around my age, articles that describe us as irresponsible, self-centered, adult-aged children. As a consequence, many millennials walk into new spaces bearing the burden of the articles or stereotypes on the minds of those around us. It is no wonder that there is so much anxiety and depression in our generation. We need to be aware of this in our churches, and to rethink any pigeonholing we might be doing to anybody who comes in through our doors.
Authenticity is key
Millennials are looking for authenticity. Our awareness of the cultures that surround us in neighborhoods throughout the United States and beyond in the world makes us want to see everybody represented respectfully and not as caricatures (say, in the fashion of Three Amigos). We are interested in hearing what other voices have to say. In our popular culture, we are seeing the successes of people of color.
Hispanic means Puerto Rican, Dominican and other cultures and countries of origin, rather than just Mexican. Asian means Singaporean, Japanese, Korean and others, rather than just Chinese. We want to see more authenticity in the treatment of other cultures in the Church. Again, this means that those in power need to reach out to the different cultures in their congregations. It also means giving minorities positions of power and not just as “consultant,” “advisor” or “volunteer.”
Authenticity also means offering something that we actually need. Millennials today are subjected to a new society where everything is fast-paced. We go about doing business where emails must receive replies in less than six hours and phones are to be answered instantly. We are creating careers out of swatches of different jobs. All of this wears us down! So when we choose to fill whatever little time we have left, we want a break.
In the world of “evangelism,” I have seen so many churches offering services for youth and young adults centered around fast and loud music, light shows, smoke machines, large screens and phone apps. Instead, the spaces we often long for are calm, slow and pensive. Just look at what’s becoming more marketable to millennials: meditation software, essential oils, candles, crystals (for prayer and meditation), yoga. We’re looking for ways to engage with the mysterious, not just the technological. We need prayerful, worshipful and meaningful spaces, just as Jesus has taught us.
Conversation builds bridges
In the last year, I have been learning that conversation is one of the most powerful tools for evangelism. As a classically trained musician, I am quite familiar with the people who end up as music directors, instrumentalists, cantors, choristers and musicians with other responsibilities in our churches. Many of these musicians and many millennials are longing for spiritual direction in their lives. Many have been so hurt by Christianity that they have a harsh view of the Church as a whole, but they make music in a church because it is a job, just like working at an office. Often, though, the job is enjoyable, since the music is written by some of the best composers.
There is an opportunity for evangelism with your musicians. Talk with them about music. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your musicians? What does it mean from a spiritual aspect? Real discussion can help bridge the gap between so many of our musicians and our churches.
Will it always work? Probably not. But it is a way to build a good working relationship, rather than the blind eye from the pulpit and unkind remarks from the choir loft that musicians sometimes experience.
Millennials are aware of our churches, and the way to reach out to my generation is through conversation. Talking with them will bring about greater relationships that show the love of God across the age gaps. It is in this way that we will grow in an authentic faith.
To show what one millennial appreciates, here's a list of 10 sacred pieces/songs that I really like, in alphabetical order:
Anónimo: Gloria a Dios (Machu Picchu, Himnario 492)
J.S. Bach: Et in terra pax (BWV 232)
Albert F. Bayly: What does the Lord require (Hymn 605)
Gabriel Fauré: In paradisum (Op. 48)
Sandra Montes: Todo lo puedo hacer
J.A. Olivar y M. Manzano: Cuando el pobre (Wonder, Love, and Praise 802)
Josef Rheinberger: Kyrie (Op. 126)
Richard Smallwood: Total Praise
C.V. Stanford: Gloria Patri (Op. 10)
Marcos Witt: Tu Fidelidad
Ellis Reyes Montes is a multifaceted and dynamic musician and writer. A life-long Episcopalian from Houston, Texas, he pursues his passions in music and writing with the loving support of his family. He is the music director of Grace Episcopal Church, and he is a Story Weaver with the Beloved Community StorySharing Campaign. In addition to maintaining a church music program and facilitating story sharing, he performs with various ensembles around the country, and he maintains a blog: openlyepiscopalian.blogspot.com, where he seeks to investigate the love of God for all of God’s creation. Whenever he is not writing or practicing/performing, he can be found studying languages, playing bridge, or reading.
- Bartering for Bands by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices blog, October 6, 2016
- Millennial Mythbusters: Church Edition by Alissa Anderson, Vestry Papers, May 2019
- Authenticity and Community by Adriane Bilous, Vestry Papers, May 2019
- Talk with Millennials, Not About Millennials by Br. Angel Gabriel, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 17, 2019