Every one of us has a unique identity. As James Taylor said in an Instagram post about Jimmy Buffett’s death, “We all … invent, assemble, inherit, or fall into our inner identity.” One important source of identity is our associations—the social groups we join, including congregations. It’s important to appreciate new forms of association that are emerging in our time.
When I urge congregations to develop strategies to engage Millennial and Gen Z generations, someone inevitably says, “Maybe we should start a contemporary worship service to attract them.” The problem is: nothing in my research or experience leads to the conclusion that contemporary worship will attract younger generations. Indeed, is what we call contemporary worship even contemporary?
Call me overly optimistic or even naïve—but I think it is still possible for congregations to reach the next generation successfully. One key skill will be to listen to our mission field—the people and communities around us—better and more deeply than we’ve listened in the past.
“Boomers at our church don’t understand how we give.” I hear this from young people around the country. In a striking example of how generations can see things in opposite ways, boomers say, “Millennials don’t know how to give the way we do.” Let’s unpack these conflicting perceptions of millennial financial support for the congregations where they worship.
It is hard for a congregation to revitalize, but when leaders have the courage to make major changes and live deeply into the mission, churches can rebuild. I know this, because it’s happening now in many places.
As a baby boomer, I am disappointed by church members in my generation who, all too frequently, dismiss millennials and others who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is a theme I hear constantly in my consulting practice. “Why focus on them when they have already told us they are spiritual but not religious?” or “They have no desire to join or even attend a congregation because they are spiritual but not religious” are comments I hear every single time I work with a congregation.
Those of us who are older cannot expect the church to stay the same to accommodate our preferences. Every church needs to change if it is to continue to be faithful, and the only way for that to happen is if each of us agrees to start with ourselves.