(How) Will Millennials Change the Church?

Pete_Forsyth_demonstrating_Wikipedia_use_by_Ellis_Christopher
Photo by Ellis Christopher, licensed CC BY.

by Sarai Rice

First, apparently, by leaving it.

According to America’s Changing Religious Landscape, the latest report from the Pew Forum, the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. In the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”—jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. One of the most important factors in this shift is the weak connection between Millennials and the church: 36% of those between 18 to 25 and 34% of those 25 to 33 are religiously unaffiliated. To be fair, it’s not just Millennials that are leaving – nearly a quarter of Generation Xers (b. 1965-1980) are now unaffiliated and even Baby Boomers are slightly more likely to be “nones.”   But the large number of unaffiliated Millenials is a big deal for the church! Among other things, the median age of mainline Protestants has risen from 50 to 52 since 2007 and will almost certainly continue to climb.

Some millennials do stay with the church, however, and they will inevitably change the church because they don’t behave like the rest of us do.

For example, older adults in congregations all over the country have been waiting for years for the younger generation to “step up” and take their turn running the committees that run the church. Well, not actually running the committees because the younger generation is clearly too young to actually run things yet, but at least they should step up and do the work!

Unfortunately, very little “stepping up” is ever going to happen because younger families, usually made up of adults with careers and children with activities, have very little time for committees. Frankly, they barely have enough time for church. And furthermore, they aren’t likely to view committee work as the kind of “work of the church” to which they’re willing to commit time. Occasional teaching? Sure. A food-packing event that they can do with the kids? Definitely. Worship Committee meetings? Not so much.

The thing is, millennials have a different, and in many ways admirable, understanding of the nature of work.

For example, Jeff Goldsmith, who has spent his life working in healthcare management, described boomers as having “a near obsession with consensus, along with decision cycles on major points sometimes stretching into years.” I don’t know about consensus—Presbyterians always appreciate a good vote!—but decision cycles that take years sound like the church. I can remember endless hours of discussion (some of which may still be going on) about the color of the new choir robes or whether pea gravel is preferable to rubber mulch on the playground.

Take Risks, Fail Faster

Millennials, however, are much more comfortable with a rapid-cycle management style that substitutes “take a few risks and fail faster” for “never fail.” They may attend a few meetings of a church committee to see whether they can help, but they won’t stay around for a slow process and slower results.

Goldsmith also talks about “continuous horizontal communication” as the millennial way to do work. Continuous horizontal communication looks to older adults like young people spending all their time on social media talking to multiple friends while simultaneously doing homework and listening to music. Based on their own brain behavior, older adults question whether any work is getting done.

But to young adults, continuous horizontal communication feels as if it’s the only way to get work done at all. Social media is the way most young adults communicate, whether about homework or committee work, and it has advantages—it doesn’t need to be face-to-face and real-time, issues can be thoroughly hashed out, and there’s usually a record of what people have said. There are even web- and smartphone-based apps for taking votes when necessary.

I already see the effect of continuous horizontal communication on life in the church. For example:

  • Fewer face-to-face meetings at night at church, but more email and social media-based organization and decision-making
  • Less willingness to serve on committees, especially for three-year “terms,” but more willingness to help organize and participate in project-based or event-based mission activities
  • Fewer “standing committees” because fewer people are willing to serve in this way
  • More people involved, but doing smaller pieces of the work

There are other differences in the way millennials work, too. For example:

  • Little interest in doing “busy work” like recruiting rosters of acolytes—because this work can be done via apps or staff time rather than by volunteers walking around with clipboards or making phone calls
  • A higher degree of creativity and innovation—because there’s no interest in doing the same thing over and over again, whether it’s a curriculum or a mission project
  • More “professionalization” of the boards and committees that do exist—because most members are working adults with professional skills like fundraising, personnel, financial management, information systems, which they fully expect to use in the context of their congregation
  • Higher expectations for the skill level of the congregation’s professional staff
  • A strong commitment to all the most up-to-date forms of technology and software
  • Little patience for congregational systems that expect them to wait their turn as leaders or that disregard their expertise about today’s culture because they don’t understand or sufficiently care about yesterday’s

I have to admit, I’m thrilled that work can be done differently than I’ve always done it. Thirty years ago, I would have assumed that seven-member committees with three-year terms were a part of at least one of the Creation narratives along with Sunday School, hymnbooks, and the clock at the back of the sanctuary. But now we can all see that there are effective and efficient alternatives to most of these things. My hope is that our congregations, especially the ones made up mostly of over-50 adults like me, will see that the way they’ve always done things doesn’t work any more.  We have to change if our congregations are going to attract young members and build a vibrant future.

[box]Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.[/box]

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