First, our problem isn’t a Millennial problem. Every time a new crop of 20-30 somethings comes around, the church struggles to reach them more than the last crop… at least since the Baby Boomers. That’s a lot of 20-30 somethings. I’ve written elsewhere about this, but to sum up, the church misses the boat on the main life crisis of 20-30: belonging.
So how do you address the problem of belonging? Simple: recapture what it means to see the world through their eyes. That does not mean seeing their world and problems and understanding them through 40 or 60 something eyes. It does mean recapturing solely the struggle of belonging, no concern of legacy, just how to be one’s honest to God self in this world.
This is won’t be the 1st, 2nd or 3rd time this has been suggested. Everything I’ll say has been said and will be said again. This should be telling. Clearly, it is important and, clearly, we’re not doing it.
1) Honoring them
This problem should surprise no one. Churches are just too good at honoring what goes on inside. Church is home for church people and honors them. The message a 25 yr old (or anyone else) gets is, “If you belong, you’ll stay; if not, you can go.” This is why most church outreach efforts reach mostly church people, resulting in mostly sheep swapping.
Honoring enables belonging. We need to honor our 20-30 somethings’ tastes, culture, concerns, questions, struggles, questions, doubts, frustrations. Different contexts require different measures of each. Some churches must honor frustrations, doubts or questions and others tastes and culture.
This means changing church (our worship, Christian Ed., expectations, wants, budgets, missions, etc.). But it doesn’t mean pandering to anyone. There’s a difference between trying to win over and honoring. One gets people, the other engages them. One is for the self, the other is for the other. One is a power play, the other is an act of love.
In short, we need to change how we do church. You can’t honor another and remain the same, and there is much we need to honor.
2) Already having a place ready
Whether or not their age group exists in the church is somewhat beside the point, sure it’s beneficial and helpful. Yet, don’t fall into the lie that someone needs to be close in age in order to relate.
Love is not hard, even if interpersonal connections can be difficult. The only true challenge across age groups I can see is wrestling with different life concerns. Older members encountering issues they haven’t thought about in years, thought settled or never addressed. And younger members encountering issues they don’t yet have the means to address.
But this is a worthwhile challenge, it shows the beauty the church can have when love across age groups lead us to wrestle with ourselves in and because of community.
Be ready to honor whatever anyone brings. Rarely will anyone commit to a group where they make themselves belong. Their belonging must precede their presence.
3) Actively engaging them
When they come be ready, but less and less are coming because we’ve already done a good job helping them want to stay away. Passive engagement with doors open doesn’t do a thing if no one wants to go through them.
Therefore, we need to make an effort to be on their turf. It’s not worship, it’s not Bible study, it’s probably not remotely religious looking and not on church grounds. I could be stereotypical and tell you what their turf is (coffee shops, breweries, etc.), but it wouldn’t be true, because it differs according to context. And there are better ways to engage people other than awkwardly striking up a random conversation in those spaces.
Engagement is about belonging where someone else is, which helps them see that they can belong where you are. It’s also about not trying to gain any measurable result ie. butts in seats on Sunday morning.
We’ve given ourselves work to do here, which requires more patience, more time.
4) Providing Good Theology
This doesn’t imply a specific theological bent. I have my own theological preferences (which I like), but know plenty of people with whom I disagree that also have good theology and I am glad to serve alongside them (if even at a distance).
Good theology takes seriously, and empathetically, other worldviews, questions, doubts and hurts. It deals in tensions and not stark dichotomies. It enables loving those with whom you disagree. There may be dichotomies in life, but good theology honors the way life blurs dichotomies into gray, so it wrestles in and with that struggle. It explains where it stands, but recognizes that life works against others easily standing likewise. So it allows them to stand elsewhere, loving them and trusting that the Spirit is working in them.
The empathy and love in good theology helps people belong in church, because it honors the struggle of our human life, muddling our way to holiness through fallenness.
A word of caution…
Churches have long done some good, hard work of ignoring the need to help 20-30 somethings (and nonchurch people in general) belong. We’ve given ourselves a bad reputation because of it.
This is not an overnight solution and our problem will get worse before it gets better.