I often feel lonely in church.
Sometimes it has to do with my role. As a pastor, I have certain responsibilities to the people I serve, what we call the “sacred trust.” I try not to be someone other than who I really am, but there is still a sense in which I am never fully myself in church. And that can be lonely.
But what’s on my mind today isn’t the loneliness of being a pastor. I’ll save that for another post. What’s on my mind today is the loneliness of being a millennial in the mainline church.
There is a kind of grief that comes when you look around a room of hundreds of people united by a common identity for a common purpose and see hardly anyone within 10 years of your age. Mind you, I have no desire to be part of a community that is comprised solely of young adults—I deeply value the wisdom of older generations and the joy of children all mixed together in one intergenerational family.
But it’s a little like how I felt when I was at the age where, as the oldest of the cousins by several years, I had outgrown the kids’ table while not yet qualifying to sit at the grownup table—and so I was stranded in between, alone.
This grief comes and goes for me, but it’s been in sharp focus lately. There are people in their 20s and 30s who are faithful participants at my mainline church, and they are wonderfully engaged and active. But for the most part, when I look around the room, I see kids and teenagers, then Gen-Xers on up—and a gap in between.
This troubles me. I’m already plagued with a sense of not fitting in, of not being cool enough to my peers, of struggling more than I think I should with cultivating a “normal” social life. Working in a church only reinforces the distance and alienation I feel from my own generation.
To be clear, what saddens me is not that my peers don’t come. I totally get it. There are times I think I wouldn’t come to church either if I didn’t work there. I understand their qualms and aversion probably better than many of them think I do.
What saddens me is that I am pouring my heart and my life into work that seems to be wholly irrelevant to a large segment of my generation and even objectionable to some of my peers. I often feel like I am preaching to the choir, and although I love that choir and every person in it, I can’t help but think this isn’t the whole picture.
And the choir knows that. They desperately want to understand why their son, their granddaughter, their little brother would choose to play disc golf or go to brunch or sleep in on a Sunday morning. (I don’t understand the disc golf option myself, but that’s just me.) They worry about this trend because they care about the wellbeing of that missing generation and about the future of the church they love.
Sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, many people expect a pastor like me—a 29-year-old with enough piercings and tattoos to make them think I might have an “in” with my peers but not enough to totally freak them out—to know how to fix it, or even to be a draw. I get the sense that some people believe that if they just put a young person in the pulpit, his or her peers will magically flock to church.
And there is something to be said for millennials seeing other millennials in church leadership. But if you prop up a 20-something in the pulpit merely as a sort of dog whistle to the young people, we can smell the marketing ploy a mile away.
We are the MTV generation. We’ve been advertised to since we were kids. We aren’t interested in flashy marketing or a transparent strategy to lure us in by putting one of our own out front. We’re interested in authenticity, whatever age package it comes in. Remember, Bernie Sanders, the 75-year-old crazy uncle of the Senate, was our guy.
So no, I don’t know what to do about the absence of millennials in church. Most of the time, I don’t want to do anything about it. I don’t want to fix the problem of young people not coming to church, because that’s not the real problem.
I hear people long for the days when everyone came to church because that’s just what you did. But was the church really so much better off when people came because “that’s just what you did”? I don’t think so.
The solution isn’t to go backward, and it isn’t simply to move forward as is, or even to tweak our message and presentation to appeal to a new generation. It’s to reorient ourselves as to what the problem is. Maybe the problem isn’t millennials’ apathy toward the church—maybe it’s the church’s apathy toward the concerns and passions of millennials, and not just millennials but the world outside the Christian bubble.
When people tell me that young adults just need to come to church and see for themselves, I ask them: why should they care about what’s happening inside our walls when we don’t seem to care about what’s happening outside them? I know that we do care, in our own way—but not in a way that translates to my generation.
Many millennials see the church as exclusive and insular. The church’s problem isn’t attractiveness—it’s that the church is perceived as failing to live up to its own standards. Not that the church needs to be perfect—when people accuse the church of being hypocritical, my response is, “Well, duh, it’s full of humans”—but we do need to be more perfectly honest about our failings, our motivations, our real purpose.
Millennials, far from being lost souls secretly in need of what the church has to offer (how unintentionally patronizing our evangelical efforts can be), are constantly creating community in their own ways. It will take more than a rebranding campaign to convince millennials that the church is a form of community worth participating in. In the meantime, I pray that my loneliness will lead me to seek solutions we haven’t yet dreamed of to problems we can’t quite get our heads and hearts around.
Author’s Note: I recognize that I sometimes use “we” to refer to millennials and sometimes to refer to the church. I decided to leave it that way, even (and perhaps especially) because it might be confusing, since it reflects my own sense of conflicted identity.