By Eddie Pipkin

August 4, 2017

This week at my regular Tuesday morning Bible study, we discussed the balance between “comfort” and “discomfort” for people who have chosen to be a part of local congregations, and the discussion gave me a new insight into the perennial-handwringing-over-what-to-do-about-the-millenials-and-post-millenials which any gathering of ministry leaders eventually finds itself addressing.  The leader of our little group is a retired United Methodist pastor who served local churches and college campuses, and I posed a question for him: In local congregations, what would you say the balance is between people who participate in the church to be comforted, versus those who participate to be discomforted (that is, challenged in uncomfortable ways to live more deeply as disciples).  His thoughtful answer was that, while it is true that probably more people in worship are looking to be comforted, there are plenty who are looking for a measure of both; there is a season for each of these aspects of the Gospel, and one of the great challenges for any ministry leader is finding the balance between the two (a balance demonstrated so dramatically by Jesus in the Gospels).

This got me to thinking in a new way about the much-reported dissonance between the church and young adults.

First, our current crop of young adults perceives and receives comfort in distinctly different ways than previous generations.  What they need from the institution of the church to fully experience God’s comfort in their lives is sometimes exactly the same as the experience of previous generations: someone to talk to, someone to stand by them in difficult time, and someone to embrace them in acceptance and love.  But the way they experience God’s comfort can also be very different from what previous generations needed: the music that comforts them, the stripped-down authenticity they crave, the raw qualities of the messages that bring them hope have shifted with the culture.

Second, our current crop of young adults is arguably more eager to be discomforted than previous generations.  We have raised them with instant connectivity and a clarion call to be about the business of changing the world.  We have challenged them from preschool to be unique, think creatively, say what they think, innovate, and get involved.  When they show up at church, they are programmed to interact in these dynamic ways, but the local church can be institutionally positioned against these approaches (often without even realizing it).

I link to two comprehensive reflections for your millennials update. The first is taken from a Facebook post by Sam Eaton.  It’s a familiar, but well-articulated, manifesto of what millennials (and post-millenials) are looking for from the church, what Eaton terms his “metaphorical nailing of my own 12 theses to the wooden door of the American, Millennial-less Church.”  Here are some quotes:

  • We’re not impressed with the hours you brag about spending behind closed doors wrestling with Christianese words on a paper. We’re impressed with actions and service.
  • Explicitly teach us how our lives should differ from the culture.
  • How many hours do you [the church] spend on church-y stuff versus how many hours you spend actively serving the poor?
  • Millennials, more than any other generation, don’t trust institutions, for we have witnessed over and over how corrupt and self-serving they can be. We want pain-staking transparency. We want to see on the church homepage a document where we can track every dollar.
  • [T]he currency of good preaching [in the local church] is at its lowest value in history [due to the instant accessibility of the best preaching on the planet]. Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes.  We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future.
  • We need a church that sees us and believes in us, that cheers us on and encourages us to chase our big crazy dreams.
  • [W]e have to create a place where someone older is showing us a better way because these topics are the teaching millennials are starving for. We don’t like how the world is telling us to live, but we never hear from our church either.
  • The neighbors, the city and the people around our church buildings should be audibly thankful the congregation is part of their neighborhood. We should be serving the crap out of them.

The second is an article from Exponential, a church-planting resource, reflecting on the dramatic departure of millennials and post-millenials from traditional engagement with local churches.  Here are some choice quotes compiled from various church leaders and captured in that article:

  • Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches, and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well.
  • The Church’s reason for being is the same as it was when Jesus gave us the Great Commission: Make disciples. And yet many of today’s leaders aren’t sure how to grab hold of this generation and help them catch a vision for following Jesus.
  • The days of the light and fog machines and overly produced church services are a gone era. Young adults are used to Photoshop. They want reality TV.  They want to see real people and what they go through.
  • We don’t want to feel stress when we go into church. The logistics of a building shouldn’t be a barrier for people coming into church. The biggest thing is to create a welcoming space that isn’t confusing.  Millennials want to be able to answer the questions ‘Where am I?’ and ’What’s expected of me?’ by looking for cues in their surroundings.
  • One of the ways churches can help point people to God regardless of their facility’s architecture is by bringing nature into the church setting. Millennials say nature helps them connect with God and it helps provide an antidote to a need they voiced in the Making Space for Millennials research—the need for respite.
  • Most church buildings today are places of action, not rest, and spaces to “do” rather than “be.” The activities, of course, are designed to connect people with God and each other— and some Millennials hope for that, too—but many just want an opportunity to explore spiritual life on their own terms, free to decide for themselves when to stay on the edges of a church experience and when to fully enter in.
  • Twenties want to be challenged to think about difficult messages. We don’t just want to have easy topics each week. We want to dive into difficult-to-understand topics and passages and explore how they apply.  Young adults in this congregation have found a place that’s decidedly different from any other aspects of their life. In other words, the church is offering something they can’t get anywhere else.
  • Every young adult is trying to figure out what they exist for. What’s my purpose in life? We present this and try to show them the goodness of God, the goodness of being in community. We’re heavy on person-to-person discipleship and believe this happens best in relationships. We take young people and talk with them about real things
  • The challenge for faith communities is to help young adults identify what pieces of ‘church’ are inadequate, misshapen or missing in their modular lives and help them rebuild or fill in the gaps—and connect the pieces of family, work, church and faith into a cohesive, whole, Jesus-shaped life.
  • Millennials want a role to play. They don’t want to sit on the sidelines and observe. If they’re going to be part of a church, it must have value and meaning. In generations like the Boomers, people attend church out of some moral obligation to do so. Millennials won’t have any of that. If it doesn’t provide meaning and value to them, they won’t participate. They’ll go and find something that does have meaning and value.

That’s a lot of quotes, of course, but I hope they encourage you to explore the linked articles more fully.  This is a topic we should keep at the forefront, wrestling with it and actively engaging it in our planning and decision making.  We could take any (or all) of those statements and use them as a clear test of how we are doing at engaging this generation?  I encourage you to do so as an exercise with your ministry teams?  How are we doing?  What concrete steps to address these concerns are we taking?

This was a timely topic for me, because next weekend I am helping to lead a weekend river trip with young adults.  I’ve been doing those kinds of trips for decades now, so the logistics of canoes and sandwiches don’t generate much stress or require much brainpower, but when one of the other leaders asked what we should do for “devo time,” I found myself struggling.  These young adults, several starting out in college, several moving beyond that into what comes next . . . what do we have to say to them in the two to three hours that we will have available?

What is your experience in working with this generation of believers?  Even better, what is your perspective as part of that generation?  Share your stories and ideas.  And for more help building pathways to strong discipleship for all generations (including mentoring and authentic relationships), check out the resources at EMC3coaching.