A Perspcective from a Millennial still in the Church

I read this article about millennials leaving the church and why, and much of this is true…very sadly. Some of the examples mentioned in the article are why, at least, I found myself in a more anciently-rooted Anglican Church vs. the Large Evangelical Church model… But as a categorized “millennial” very passionately a part of an incredible multi-generational and multi-cultural church family– I want to offer some hope as well–some movement that I do see already and/or see as possible. Movement that I don’t see as only “their” responsibility but ours as well as that young generation who were raised in the church.

I believe in a team-work approach and I have a widely varied experience that has given me that perspective.

I have been in about every kind of church there is (denomination, size, etc) from growing up and moving a lot, to trying things out in college, to living in another country, to finding a true church home as an adult single, then as a couple, and as a family. I have attended churches in several other cultures both within our country and overseas.

Because of this huge range of experience, I can  say that the church (and church experience) is and can be incredibly diverse and even though this article definitely hits some major issues that I think are statistically true in a large number here in America, (and I too have felt frustrated many times by some of those issues) I offer the perspective that there are always many sides to a story..and it’s hard to completely stereotype the church experience as a whole. Also, the article downplayed culture as a factor, but having seen how vastly different church perspective and expression (from both leadership and community members) is in other countries and cultural settings, I see it as somewhat naive to not take note of how our current national and generational culture plays a part in the statistical outcome of participators in faith community. We live in an markedly different culture than even our parents did, and if we don’t think culture plays a part of how we view the church and how we respond to its message, we are misinformed or just not seeing the whole picture.

I think , while the church needs some changing (as honestly it does and has and always will because it’s a bunch of humans trying to follow God and that always gets messy and off-balance) –even some BIG changing!–one of my passions has been to speak TO my generation in the midst of it more than it has been to speak for my generation.

I have had many conversations, asked many questions, and heard lots of opinions–enlightening and challenging and everything in between. I think every generation grapples with the things we don’t like about the generation before us and what they are doing and how they are doing it etc. It’s harder to look objectively at ourselves and the part we play. I guarantee no matter what, our kids and their generation will have plenty to say about our own short-comings and folly, and I sure hope they don’t leave the faith because of it.  In my conversations and interactions with many of my peers as well as teaching in high school, I do think one of our generation’s strengths is being perceptive enough to point out where change needs to happen, where we (or others) have been let down, or even having great ideas for change, but then I think our weakness is often just walking away with a chip on our shoulder and a big megaphone instead of being a part of cooperative change or instead of engaging with it in a positive and constructive way.  I want to clarify that I define being a part of change as not just writing articles, pointing out failures, and slandering the church outside of its doors, but having conversations with real people in the context of those real places where the change needs to occur and taking responsibility where it is necessary. I’m talking about getting active in the things you’d like to see happen in the church, before walking out. I’m talking about loving someone it’s hard for you to be around, instead of blaming them for not doing the same thing. It starts with talking to, or if necessary, confronting individuals before criticizing them to others..I’ve been really guilty of this in the past because I hate confrontation and I’m an introvert and cringe at the idea of approaching something difficult or that could involve a lot of hot emotions, but I’ve realized how important it is in order to maintain my integrity and authenticity.  Otherwise I forfeit my so-called platform, and it’s just become self-righteous gossip. If I confront someone in respect and nothing is done, or the wrong response is given back to me, that’s on them.  But if I’ve said nothing to seek change or reconciliation, that’s on me.

The general attitude that I felt from the article (and I’ve read many on the topic of the generational exodus from the church and I think there are many factors and facets worth exploring along that topic) was that of, here’s this problem–fewer of this generation staying in the church than ever before, which is true, but the conclusion was pretty much “it’s all their fault”..not any mention about the short-falls or snares of some of our generation’s perspectives and expectations. Because, news flash, they aren’t perfect, but neither are we.  If the church’s validity is ever going to actually be based on the perfection or performance of it’s leaders and/or members than we’re in trouble no matter what. Thankfully I believe its true validity is so much bigger than all of us, and that it will stand the test of time and every ebb and flow of history’s generations.  Christ is the reason for being a part of the church and because of Him we can receive grace, but we can also give grace.  Grace for those who would take on the task of leading in the church; grace for those of us who wander away no matter what those reasons are.

Through my counseling education, I have found that blaming, though sometimes pointing out something true, is rarely helpful toward change or healing. On the topic of whether or not the church prioritizes mentoring of young people, I’ve asked people if they’ve approached anyone older in search of relationship and mentorship and the answer is usually no, followed by a lot of reasons, excuses, or blaming someone else. I’ve talked to older adults who are aching to be important to and to offer love and wisdom to younger adults–same thing, they haven’t sought it out or they’ve offered with no real response. It boils down to the desire being on both sides, but both sides needing to take responsibility to take action.. it’s hardly ever just one side’s fault in a big collective scenario. But we have this generational split. We have a generation who had almost nothing handed to them, and a generation who’s had almost everything handed to them.  That causes a psychological difference in how we then approach any issue. I have had incredible mentors in my life, and each of them I initially sought out, they were honored that I asked them to play that role, and it’s been a two-way relationship- a RICH relationship- and a two-way work of the heart and making it a priority through many years. I am eternally grateful for each of them, but it took me moving toward them as much as them moving toward me. I think it’s because of them that I am often able to see outside of just my generational woes… because they are people who have experienced things I haven’t, to who’s hearts I listen to, learn from, and am grateful for. They help enlighten me, and vice versa.

So here’s the thing: Real and perceived problems are pointed out, and need to be changed and engaged with, and in response I see two things happening in churches..

I see churches with no millennials and I see (and was a part of for a time) church with only millennials. I think both things strike me as very unhealthy. It’s an “us and them” mentality and it’s not just coming from the “older crowd”. I’ve watched my parents’ church cooperate with young adult leaders to create value and ministry FOR young adults–the older generation desperate to help and support–and like what happens in many scenarios–young adults find it hard to commit and engage long-term. Period.  This happens in the work place, in social settings, as well as church.  My husband and I have often felt let down even as peers, by other millennials who consistently “flake out” of commitments that we are showing up to whether we felt like it or not. So when the article said churches don’t care and are not doing anything to reach out to this generation, I call that bluff to a certain extent.. you have to say yes to an invitation. You can’t say no and then say, “No one invited me!”.  You have to show up.  I remember my little brother once complaining that I had a relationship with my parents and did a lot of things with them, and I reminded him that they were literally just waiting for him to say yes to any of their many invitations to spend time with him.. he was like, “oh.. yeah.. that’s true.”  Same parents. Same invitations. The only difference was that I said yes.  Because I very much wanted that relationship with my parents. My brother realized that and wanted it too, and things are very different for my parents and him now in that regard.  But it took him meeting them, not just them fishing for him.

The article talked about churches not really serving or doing the work of the church…My husband, Mike, and I left a church of millennials that was “doing” tons of service projects together, helping the poor, being active in the community, all kinds of socially just stuff that in itself was “very right and cool”, but at the same time we didn’t feel a spirit of love there. We didn’t feel known, committed to in friendship, or valued even as people. (and these were millennials who supposedly care so much about being valued and giving value) We felt a spirit of “we’re doing this right and all those old churches are doing everything wrong” and it sort of almost created a spirit of negativity, if not hostility, if that makes any sense (it didn’t make sense to us)… Also we got married during the time we were there (nobody knew or cared) and though the article mentioned millennials seek mentorship and that is VERY true for us, I thought, “How can we find mentorship in a church that is filled with only people my own age??” We left feeling desperate for loving community, for humility among our peers, for wisdom of those who have gone before us–and yes, to actually value their perspective as much as I value my own, and for a church that maybe wasn’t getting “everything right” but was just real tattered people trying to figure out life and faith. We left the “supposedly awesome millennial church” making it our responsibility to find these missing things. Not just saying, “Oh this wasn’t handed to me properly, so I will become bitter and give up” Bitterness kills, it does not renew life. So we went out with hope and desire.

We have found ourselves in a church–an Anglican Church–that was originally filled with largely “grey-hairs” (as they humorously and affectionately call themselves) who don’t take themselves too utterly seriously, are willing to see their short-comings, and who sat there praying weekly, hiring and amazing young adult pastor and his family, and seeking out an open door for young people. We found ourselves there, (and I believe we were drawn there) immediately loved and valued by these people, but also not padded and entertained or given our every need the very second we showed up (because that’s not possible), but we were invited, loved, and valued. We decided we wanted to be part of the young people and not just seek out a place already flooded with  young people. Our church has grown into a diverse community–a handful of passionate young people, as well as a huge group of beloved Burmese refugees, solid and faithful older people, middle aged folks, babies, kids, someone from every walk of life,  and it’s a strange/beautiful muddle of humanity coming together in our imperfection to participate in worship to a God way bigger and way better than ourselves, to do life together, pray together, be real together and do ministry together. It’s not a consumer church. It’s a church where each one of us works to be a community.

I know this is not always true, but my point is that there ARE churches like this and we don’t get talked about or heard about… I’d like to give people–millennials especially– hope and also a challenge to do the searching and/or stay in your church and do the changing–we have to make it valuable for ourselves and not wait for someone else to make it valuable for us.

*as a side note, and also to address the article, I was asked to be part of the Vestry (Steering committee) along with another young adult representative shortly after joining, with the sole reason of the church wanting there to be a “voice” for this generation – so not all churches neglect this.  Also, if they do, try asking if you can be represented.
*Also our finances and financial giving are well tracked and publicly accessible at all times – again, many churches do this right and you can ask.
*I could address each of the mentioned issues, and many of them are lacking in many churches, but my main point is that these are generalizations that simply do not mark every church. We desperately need to be telling the stories of victories within the Christian church and not just the failures..

To address a general feeling that churches aren’t reaching out, loving, and helping the needy and poor, etc. I want to share again, some of the things I’ve experienced that shed a different light…

When I worked cleaning our church on Mondays, (and this happens at my parents’ small church as well) frequently random people would wander in from the neighborhood just needing help, needing to somehow pay their next bill, or put diapers on a child, get a job, or whatever… every person that entered that door sat down with our pastor and deacon (and whoever was there in the building–sometimes I even got to join in and just pray with them) and be listened to, prayed for, cared for, offered help, sent on their way with a bag full of groceries and/or grocery store gift card and their name known, and an invitation to come and ask and be loved. And that’s just one little example of the community’s experience within the doors of our church.  One of my thoughts the other Sunday driving home was pondering how many people don’t even know that this happens because we’re not out there bragging about each act of love. We have an incredible list of ministries done by people in our church– regularly visiting a women’s prison, food drives, inner city schools, Denver Rescue Mission, Fire disaster relief for the devastating fires that happened in Colorado a few years ago (and let me tell you that work was extremely difficult and who was out there doing it?? The church.  many churches coming together–whoever was willing to join in), ESL (and citizenship classes and aid for our refugee community), Restoration Outreach (again for immigrants in Denver), Alternatives Pregnancy Center, hospital and shut-in care, the list goes on…and on., but it’s not just a “list of programs” these are regular people out there just pouring their lives and time and resources into the lives of others who are hurting, in need, marginalized, etc. What if the church was really dead?  What if none of these people really were out there helping others, reaching into some really messy and difficult situations?  Would there still be efforts to help people? Yes.  But there would be HUNDREDS of fewer hands out there in the places many people forget about. To discount these millions of sacrificed hours, donated funds, hands, arms, hearts, sometimes even risked lives, is a gross underestimation of the good works that are happening within the church.  And the thing is, that it’s not about proving these works, but it is about not ignoring them either. The church isn’t perfect in doing these things, and there aren’t anywhere near as many volunteers as there should be, but there are also many lights and love shining from so many of these communities of faith and it’s blind-sighted to believe that these things aren’t happening.  

My eyes fill with tears almost every time I tell about my mother-in-law serving and loving the struggling immigrants of multiple nations on East Colfax in Denver…a place not many millennials step foot in, and you know, she would never draw attention to herself for one second in order to prove herself to anyone or in order to prove that it’s worth it for young people to join in..but if you meet her, she’ll invite you.  She knows the old hymns and maybe she sings a few songs you think are rote or “cheesy”….And she loves far better than I ever have.  When I find myself climbing my high horse, I think of her, and I get right back down and thank those around me for giving me grace.  We have so much to learn from women like her (she’s in her 70’s by the way), but in our pride, we shut the door and complain about how they’re doing it all wrong….

My Dear Fellow Millennials, start researching before you form your opinion, start looking, start asking, and listening to stories!  Listen to the people serving and praying for single mothers in the church. Listen to the stories of fixing and giving people computers so that they can have jobs and ways to apply for jobs since everything is on-line now.  Listen to the relief givers. The child care providers, the assisted living visitors, the meal makers, the GED teachers.  And not just in the church, Listen to the people who fought in our wars.  Listen to our grandmothers who raised children through the depression. Talk to the farmers.  Talk even to the crotchety, single, old man, set in his ways.  You’d be surprised by how both your lives will change by the interaction!  Start going to visit some of these ministries and just watch these people live and give and love.  I have a real person in mind for every single example I mentioned and they are each one among groups of others doing the same and more. I met each of them in the church. The church–the real church–is not void of these things or of these people.  But you can’t just walk in with your coffee, listen to a sermon and some music and walk out with your cell phone in your hand if you want to find them. There’s the rub.

I talk to so many people my age who say they are looking, but don’t look long enough to see… or looking for a place to already be just what they want it to be, or it’s not worth it. It’s cool to jump on a band-wagon, but what about the day-to-day grind of actually living it out when it doesn’t “feel” important, or awesome, or easy, or comfortable, or attractive, or up-to-date? Or valuing something that has potential to grow or change before discarding it or judging it entirely.

I remember a friend I went to school with in Omaha who was going into ministry and I think now is a leader at a (progressive church of sorts) sitting around a table together and all of them were complaining about their particular church leadership at the time and as it went on and on, I simply asked at one point, “Have you gone to the leadership and asked if you guys could sit down and have a conversation about what the young generation wants/needs/sees as a different perspective?” and there was a little bit of a silence from everyone and the answer was, “well……no.” This is only one example of many responses like that over the years. On the other hand, almost every time I have approached church leadership with first respecting and valuing them (because if I’m asking for the same, I’d be a hypocrite not to offer it to them) and then offering a different perspective/idea, I have always been more than valued and considered (and though ultimate change doesn’t happen overnight) change in each case was contemplated and a beginning was started–even if it’s just the beginning of a new conversation.  It’s not just on them. And in my opinion, if you approach a church leadership in that way, offering ideas, and opening conversation, and they shut it down without a thought (which I think would not usually be the case, but I know there are churches that are like this) then that would be a church to leave behind and move on your way, but I would urge not to give up faith on all churches (again, the church is so vastly different all over our nation and world) but to find one that values collaboration generationally. If we don’t do that, then we’ll have and settle for just what this article says, a lost generation entirely (if not more) or generationally segregated churches like there are now.  Sometimes our current church situation feels like it’s one big parent-teenager fight that never stopped. I heard a lot of how “they” need to change and get better, but not a lot of owning up to our end too. There is always two ends. Sometimes one end is heavier, but there is always two parts to play. Communication is key, and MUTUAL responsibility is key. Working together. Also taking the time to seek out and be knowledgeable about what is really happening inside and through the church without coming to conclusions based on an at-a-glance approach or a version of the church portrayed by media. Or even a conclusion based on one or two collectives of people.

Recently, I personally felt there was a need for a young adults gathering at our church and we have currently not had anyone to lead that up–I had an idea, approached the leadership, expressed our need, and said, “What would you think about letting us paint (not making them do it for us) the big downstairs room and starting up a coffee house for the young adults with a space to fellowship and create together?” They were thrilled to support and provide for this! We’ve now had two gatherings that have been an incredible blessing and I hope will grow.

Sometimes someone just needs to put an idea out there and be willing to lead.

Sometimes it’s on me. Sometimes it’s on us. WE do this together. WE do faith together.

And doors open when you knock softly, respectfully, and consistently. Doors open when we realize too that it’s not just “we’re 100% right and they are 100% wrong.” That type of thing is a very limited perspective. And maybe even ungrateful because we don’t know the whole story. And as young people we carry that too often. We talk about them not valuing us, but I’ve seen in full action us not valuing them either. We’ve both got to move together and not do the tug of war, hostage negotiation thing anymore.

I am very passionate about inter-generational reconciliation. These are all just thoughts coming from someone who’s been around a vastly large block with church and as a millennial, among millennials, and among a multi-generational/multi-cultural community.

I’ve seen a lot. And because of that, I see both the faults and the possibilities. And I see more than just the church who needs to move and change perspective. I think we all do.

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