Millennial Canaries


If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.

18 thoughts on “Millennial Canaries

  1. This is good. Very, very good.

    “What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith.”

    We Boomers created these forms FOR ourselves. There’s no small irony in the fact that many in this generation have grown tired of the very thing we perfected. Millennials are indeed the canary in the coal mine – singing for their lives, and singing perhaps to save the rest of us.

  2. I’ve been following Michelle’s thinking on the 40+ demographic, and this is a helpful perspective from the other end of the generational continuum. One common feature in both seems to be that those outside of the apparent target demographic of families with children are not finding churches to be communities in which they are valued or understood. I agree with you that to understand the perspective of millennials is to understand the future of the church.

    1. Judy. Michelle and I have discussed the impact of family-focused programming before. It’s an interesting dynamics. Lots of energy on children and youth, a drop off during young single years, then back with young marrieds and energy on children. Then empty-nesters.

      However, I think the issues confronting 40+ and 29- are different. A church committed to authenticity and engagement can address both. One thing that’s surprised me in evangelical circles is the number of 60+ folks who have serious questions about prior decades of legalism. They say that privately but I’ve yet to hear it clearly addressed institutionally.

      Thanks for following the blog!


      1. I agree with Judy. I was a Christian for many years (was a Baptist) but over the past year or so have been doubting the faith. I am becoming agnostic. I am in my early 40s. I had hoped and expected to marry, but it did not happen. I feel out of place or unwanted by much of Christian culture because the majority of it is aimed squarely at married people with children at home, followed by incessant focus by many churches on twenty-somethings (which is a huge turn off to me), and many churches are also engrossed with lambasting certain social concerns constantly (such as homosexual marriage, abortion). I’m a social conservative myself but I wish churches would not be so engrossed with social issues all the time. Any way, churches are largely about marriage, family, and children, so if you’ve never married or never had a kid, church feels like a lonely, uncomfortable place to be.

  3. yep. One of the most important things about my church (it’s small, so it’s possible) is “response time.” The mic gets passed to anyone who raises their hand, and anyone can say anything they want- a reflection, something they heard that moved them, etc. No one is worried about conformity. And doubt and anger and the hardness of life are often speculated about from the “pulpit.” I have a church where my questions are valued.

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