4 Myths about Young Adults and Church

It seems like the heat has died down somewhat around Millennials and Young Adults. There was a stretch last year where it seemed like every blog post or magazine article had something to do with my beloved generation. We were either too lazy and self-centered or incredibly altruistic and compassionate. We were, at the same time, coddled by our parents and forced to fend for ourselves in a economic recession. Each blog post offered the secrets to tapping into this ‘market’ for companies, employers, and anyone else who stood to profit off any insights into the largest generation in America.

Church blogs were no different. Posts offered the new tips and tricks to get Millennials/Young Adults through the red doors of the church. Contemporary music, ancient hymns, bible studies in a bar, no church building, huge cathedrals. The tips and trick were legion. And they were oftentimes wrong.

They were wrong because of the premise with which they started. The idea that any large group of people can be boiled down to a blog post listing of characteristics and traits is foolish (I recognize the irony in that statement as I write a blog post listing). Millennials are the largest generation in America; there is no way that a blog post can sum up their collective interests or common attitudes.

To help spur this conversation on, I have complied a list of the most common myths that I have seen or heard about Millenials and Young Adults, especially when it comes to church:

1. Millennials are monolithic. As I mentioned above, there is no way to succinctly say what every Millennial wants or cares about and anyone who says that they know “what Millennials want” is a)lying or b)trying to sell you something. In the same way that no one can speak for every retiree or every baby boomer, no one can speak for every young adult. What this means for the church is that there is not one solution to the “young adult” problem. There is not one magic program or secret bible study curriculum or perfect liturgy that is going to have young adults flocking to your church.

2. Millennials aren’t interested in organized religion. The Emergent Church movement capitalized on the myth that the “church of the future” wouldn’t look anything like the institutional church that we all know. I contend that the Emergent Church movement blew up in popularity because of baby boomers and Gen X-ers, not Millennials. Many of the young adults I have talked to about the institutional church are fully aware of the sins of the past and the blunders of the recent decades, and yet, they are interested in being a part of the community and bringing about positive change from within the church. Organized religion is not going to suddenly disappear because young people aren’t interested. If anything, organized religion will disappear because it has lost sight of its original purpose and lost its soul. This is especially true of Christianity in America. The “Great Decline” could be linked to the  mainline churches losing their ‘saltiness’. Jesus warns that we (the Church) are the salt of the earth, but if we lose our saltiness we can never get it back and we will be thrown away. Millennials, for the most part, aren’t opposed to the institutional church, they just wish that we would embrace our saltiness. They are drawn to Jesus but they can’t seem to find the same attractive, “Other-ness” of Christ in the average church.

3. Millennials all want to hang out in bars. The newest trend in the mainline churches is to host bible studies or hymn-sings in local bars. “Theology on Tap”, started by the Catholic Church, was the first organized effort to take the church into the saloon. It seems to have all the things that the mainline churches love: alcohol, community, and a very clear way of saying that we are NOT like those other, prudish Christians. We’re cool. We’re hip. We can pray and drink at the same time. The issue is that not every single young adult loves hanging out in bars. Alcoholism is a problem for young adults, just like it is a problem for every other age group. In fact, many young adults come out of college with an extremely unhealthy relationship with alcohol. There are many young adults who are alcohol dependent, but have no idea that their drinking isn’t normal because of the current zeitgeist around alcohol. There are also young adults who just don’t like to drink or hang out in bars. Some think that the Church should be different from the culture, not just a copycat. How many folks, not just young adults, are automatically excluded from church events because they are held in bars or because alcohol is the underlying theme? An article in the June issue of Christianity Today calls on churches to reconsider their relationship with alcohol in light of the commandment to “love our neighbor”. If your neighbor (or parishioner or young adult seeker) is struggling with alcoholism, how loving is it to host a bible study in a bar? At what point do we recognize that we are sacrificing inclusion of all people for the sake of being ‘relevant’ and ‘cool’. If you are a young adult (or anyone) who thinks they might have a problem with alcohol, please follow this link.

4. Millennials can be attracted, if only we have the right [liturgy, programming, leadership, whatever]. The moment that the Church stops seeing Millennials as a group to be attracted is the moment that Millennials will feel comfortable in church. It feels wrong to talk about tricking people into coming to church, but that is essentially what churches do when they pretend to be something they are not to attract young adults. By adding programming and other things that are out of character for the local church, we become salespeople who are trying to repackage Jesus so that he is more palatable. The truth is this: Jesus doesn’t need our help attracting people. The Word of God has been calling folks to himself since the beginning, with or without the exciting new programs the Church has invented. Young Adults are not the target audience for a new marketing campaign, they are people who need the love and peace of God like everyone else. We cannot afford to be reductionist about the people in our churches, because the mission of the church is far bigger than Millennials – it is about the holy, ordinary people of God…of all ages. The source of most sin is disunity, which may be why on of Jesus’s last commandments is a call to unity. If we focus on the wide variety of people in our churches, of all ages and stages in life, perhaps we will see our unity and our saltiness return.

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