Are millennials just entitled consumers or are they ready to get to work?

Photo by Brooke Cagle

Could this go on without me?

If I stopped showing up, would they notice?

When will I get asked to do something that matters?

You’ve probably heard the accusations that Millennials are fundamentally self-centered and want tailored consumer experiences—for church and everything else. If you’re a Millennial, those accusations may annoy the tar out of you. If you’re not, you might be able to identify some experiences that make this ring true, and others that call it into question.

What we hear less about is how churches can be communities in which young people find not only spiritual goods and services, but also purpose, significance, and calling. What if the young people in our churches are asking the questions above? What if they look around our congregations and wonder, do these people really need me, or am I just an extra, a nuisance, or—worse—a trophy?

In our research for Growing Young we interviewed over 1,300 folks—both young people ages 15-29 and adults over age 30—about their churches. We wondered how young people who love their churches would describe them. We wondered how they see their place in the church, and how they are seen by leaders and other adults.

What we found was inspiring.

Among the many insights we share in our new book Growing Young are these three twists on why young people need to be treated as more than just consumers.

1. Family feel outshines consumer show

Among the reasons research participants gave for why their church is effective with young people, worship, music, and preaching were not nearly as prominent as we might expect. Instead, nearly 1 in 3 shared about warmth. They defined their church “like family” more than any other descriptor.

Yes, warm is the new cool.

In practice, this means that fostering a sense of authenticity, belonging, and caring community may be more important to the teenagers and twentysomethings in your congregation and neighborhood than how slick your Sunday morning service appears.

This shift also moves away from consumerism because in a family, everyone has a part to play. Everyone is needed. Remove any member of the family, and the family is incomplete. We want young people to feel this way about their vital role in the church.

2. They not only want to be saved from something, but for something.

Young people are longing for us to show them why faith matters not only on Sunday, but also on Monday. They not only want to be saved from something later, but for something now. They want to get to work. They want to know how to follow Jesus beyond a set of rules of all they can’t do.

Young people need adults who open the vast array of possibilities awaiting the engaged Christian in the world. They want an emphatic “yes” to their lives, not just a bunch of “no’s.” The good news is that this is not only the kind of life young people want, it’s what Jesus wants too. Following Jesus is costly, requires sacrifice, and invites us to actively participate in God’s kingdom. In fact, the church by its very nature is participatory, which means everyone shares the work.

3. Young people want a load-bearing role to play

This might seem counterintuitive, but in our research we found that young people don’t fit the stereotypes of shirking responsibility or waiting around for other people to do the work for them. They’re ready to get to work.

They want significance.

They want to be handed keys of responsibility.

They want to know they have a load-bearing role to play in the congregation. “Load-bearing” because without them, it would fail. Without them, it wouldn’t be nearly as good, because it would lack their unique voice.

How should we invite young people in?  

In ministry, most of us probably walk the fine line between “it’s not about you” and “we need you”, especially when it comes to young people. We tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between perceived opposite messages.

On one hand, since we don’t want to foster consumerist tendencies, we won’t cater to young people—or anyone else—by changing anything we do in response to what we hear. Our mantra is, “It’s not about you,” and of course, we’re right. Worship, community life, discipleship—it’s all fundamentally about God, not us.

But among the unintended consequences on this end of the continuum, we keep doing the same things in the same ways, and the same people (usually us!) keep doing them from week to week. So in the end, it’s not about them, but it is all about us.

On the other hand, we can fall into the trap of being so focused on attracting and keeping young people that we communicate “We’d be lost without you. You are our only hope.” And again, we’re right. Without young people, a church can only survive so long. But once someone becomes a “target demographic,” it’s not long before insiders smother young guests with desperate attention in hopes to keep them around.

Neither end of the continuum is healthy.

Toward a whole church body

Here’s the theological truth in the midst of this quandary: The church cannot be what it is meant to be without each one of us living out our part.

The church cannot be what it is meant to be without each one of us living out our part. (tweet that)

Paul focuses on the metaphor of the body to describe the ongoing lived presence of Jesus on earth: the church as the Body of Christ (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4). This metaphor is important for our understanding of community precisely because it assigns each person inherent value. Not only are we all made in God’s image, but also we are designed to fit in some indispensable way into the Body of Christ.

Indispensable.

This is why church attendance matters. Not because our numbers suffer when you don’t attend, but because when you’re not here, we can’t be who we really are. We’re missing parts.

This is why hospitality matters. Because when we welcome the stranger (whatever categories they may or may not fit), we welcome someone who may become part of our body, and to whom we then must commit our very lives.

I wonder how many teenagers and twentysomethings feel indispensable in your congregation? I wonder what they’d say if you asked?

Working together leads to belonging

In my own church’s experience, it’s in shared work that people find life. Work as a part of the body becomes an inroad to belonging. It’s where people find community, significance, and sometimes also vocational calling. It’s how “you all” language begins to shift to “we” language. Sometimes newcomers are surprised to be invited into work so soon, but it has become obvious to us that it’s the only way to really be a church—to share the work. Not very flashy, but effective.

Where we sometimes struggle with this—surprisingly—is with our own kids and teenagers. We are continually tempted to let them off the hook, or assume they don’t care, or fall prey to small imaginations about how they might contribute. When we get past these temptations, we’re often surprised. The work may be different than we predicted, but without a doubt better.

Because the whole body mattered.

Could this go on without me?

If I stopped showing up, would they notice?

When will I get asked to do something that matters?

This week, put yourself in the shoes of a young person and ask these questions about your church. Better yet, sit down with a few and wonder together how the church could shift from ministry to them to ministry with them. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Want more strategies to truly engage young people?

Get Growing Young