The Loneliness of Being a Millennial in Church

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.

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63 Replies to “The Loneliness of Being a Millennial in Church”

  1. As a millennial beginning the ordination process in The UMC, I am so thankful for your honest and vulnerable words. Thanks in advance for continuing to write and sharing yourself!

  2. I ache for your loneliness. Even as a septuagenerian, I also feel lonely. Not because I’m not surrounded by members of my own generation, but because it is seemingly so difficult to find those who align with my views on social justice. I need you in the pulpit! If Ican’t rely on my own generation, I must rely on yours. Please continue on your chosen path. Hopefully, we can reduce our loneliness by knowing that we share it and that we are there to support each other.

    1. I just joined the octogenarians and I agree with you. I notices so few young people, folks from 20 to 35 in the pews. Frankly, I only attend church every six or eight weeks. Why? Look at the UMC stance on our LBGTQAI sisters and brothers, their stance on women’s reproductive rights. Many annual conferences withdrew from the RCRC.
      Thankfully there are annual conferences that voted to be in non compliance with the General Conference and accept our LBGTQI sisters and brothers, stayed supporting the RCRC, and feel that medical decisions need to stay between a woman and her physician.
      Perhaps the young cleric who wrote that excellent article is a member of one of the progressive annual conferences. If he is not, my guess is that he will be seeking a new profession within a few years. I hope he is a member of a progressive conference, and that he is joined by other young clerics, male, female or LBGTQAI.
      Millennials have dear friends who are LBGTQAI, sisters and brothers who have come out and cannot attend a church that treats their loved ones and friends as second class citizens by denying them the right to marry the person whom they love in a church or denying anyone who is LBGTQAI ordination in the UMC if they have graduated from a three to four year seminary.

      1. Mixed messages and failing to honest is what some have done to gain and keep employment with the UMC. Integrity is critical for trust and growth; bother of which have been discarded for personal, short-term agendas.

  3. A well-timed reflection. This has really made me think and consider feelings that I never expected from a minister. It’s so honest, thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you for these words, Sarah! I have shared your thoughts for years and had conversations with others in our generation who experience these feelings as well. Your writing will provide some helpful verbiage in continuing this conversation.

  5. I am a Christian. GenX here…Near end of GenX. I feel lonely at Church because I am single. I actually have not went to Mass in over a month, maybe 2 months. I am strong with my faith and happy when I am at Church. It just seems like there are so few like me. You blog made me feel I am not really alone. Thank you. 🙂

  6. Thank you for your insights and authenticity. I am a baby boomer and “get it”. My son attends Substance Church I’m Mpls MN. It attracts many millenials and younger. (And no, they don’t give away cars a couple times a year.) I’ve even seen a few grey haired individuals like me. God bless you and keep you.

  7. Thank you for such an honest lament.

    As one stumbling headlong toward the north gate of the septuagenarian decade, I am one of those who remembers when “everyone” went to church because that’s what you did. Things have certainly changed. So much has been written about the reasons, I doubt I have anything to add. Truth is, I find most of the reasons commonly cited to be superficial. Something so basic and so pervasive is, I think, the result of several deep shifts in the culture.

    I have my own views of all this, but I have no confidence they adequately address the root issues.

    So, from a different perspective, I share your lament and appreciate your candor.

  8. I didnt understand this part: “Millennials, far from being lost souls secretly in need of what the church has to offer (how unintentionally patronizing our evangelical efforts can be)”

    The gospel message is that we were lost, but can be found in Christ. So I dont see what you were getting at.

    1. My point was that the church tends to be very patronizing toward millennials (or toward anyone outside the church). Yes, we are all lost–ALL of us. Reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ comment that Christianity is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

      1. “patronizing?” How so? Church folk and businesses, all bend over backwards to reach the millennial. Who really gets shafted in society are seniors. But that is another story. And if you are in Christ you are NOT lost, blind, or begging anymore. I’d prefer to have a person who was hungry and now is full to point me where the food is. It doesn’t mean you have to be condescending about it. It just means your eyes are open. I haven’t given up on millennials. But we all should just continue to plant and water. God is the one who gives the increase. no person can come to the father, unless He draws them. Bernie didn’t set his sight on pulling millennials. But he in his authenticity had a message and convictions that resonated with them.

      2. I was referring specifically to evangelism that comes across as us having something that other people want–when in fact they may not want it at all. I also subscribe to a version of Christianity that says I am ALWAYS in need of grace, so I can never put myself in a category other than “lost.” I totally agree about the importance of authenticity though!

      3. I totally agree with you. Ron might be in one of the few churches that “bend over backwards” for Millennials but my church systematically persecutes young adults, limits them from service, silences them in congregational meetings, leaves them out of communication loops, and generally harasses Millennials who step up to try and lead their peers. We have a history of being a revolving door because of this. While the elderly may also get overlooked, there’s a stark disregard for and mistreatment of young people in churches at large. Churches want families with kids, but singles and young adults might better serve Jesus outside the church walls until there’s a shift in views!

  9. Sarah, thank you for this thoughtful and gracious call to a different way of being church for the sake of the world. I’m grateful that you are leading the church and will be in the years ahead. I pray your hopes will come to fruition in countless places and that the church will come alongside the people in their community and join them, young and old, in life together.

    1. What do you mean specifically? I certainly think authentic spiritual engagement is missing in so many ways in our church and world…

  10. Excellent post, but I’m curious about something. What is the wost case scenario you invision for the church?

    Is it that you permanently lose all millennials and their descendants? If so I’m concerned about an even worse outcome. Those kids 10+ years younger than yourself, what’s to keep them from becoming the next millennials? If that happens, wouldn’t the church’s population plumet as the current congregation dies out?

    I imagine most of them are there because their parents make them, just like millennials were made to attend when they were young.

    Perhaps these are inseperable issues, but I think we should focus on keeping today’s children rather than how to pull back yesterday’s lost lambs. That said, it’s not like I have any ideas for how to do this.

    1. To me, it’s not actually a worst-case scenario. I believe there will be bigger changes in the church during my lifetime than there has been in centuries, but the church doesn’t seem to have recognized that yet. Part of my point is that, you’re right, it isn’t just millennials–we’re looking at a massive cultural shift, one that, frankly, could benefit the church (I believe our witness is truer when we are pushed to the margins than when we are at the apex of cultural and societal power and influence), but we’re still acting like one day we’ll be able to reclaim our place at the center of American life. I think the keeping and the pulling back need to happen at the same time–and both are hard and require big changes in how we do church. It also saddens me to think that we would just give up on a whole generation–what message does that send to those who are in the fold now or might be one day?

      1. so really what do you see as a solution to try to reach a generation that is against organized religion and bog corporations? I’ve tried in my church, but didnt make a dent. BTW.. good article

      2. I think allowing open discourse is huge, Ron – Millennials in the workplace, communities and churches want to be involved and want to have a say. Creating space for Millennials to discuss and contribute is important. Boomers in my area generally try to fix things without asking what Millennials are upset at, so they tackle the wrong problems. My ministry prep college recently clued in to the mass exodus of Millennials and has seen the last ten years of grads don’t give financially to the school or come back for homecoming – so this year they invited Millennial grads to… an ice cream social. Because that’s what we really want? We can get ice cream on our own time – involve us in something important and we’ll show up. 🙂 If not, we do important things on our own time! I’m glad you’re trying in your church, and sorry you’re not making progress – I haven’t seen any progress in my own church and I’ve been advocating for Millennials there for the last 8 years and lead a home church of Millennials and a blog by Millennials about millennials and faith – http://www.roguemillennials.wordpress.com

  11. I feel your sentiment. Moving to a city that is one of the top destinations for retirement and snow birds, I quit going to church precisely because I could relate to no one and no one could relate to me and what my world is like. I just gave up and I don’t ever foresee returning until I move somewhere where there is a much larger group of single young adults.

    No, I don’t ever want to marry and raise a family, no, I don’t know what it’s like to raise 3 generations, no, I don’t want to talk about knitting best practices or share newborn stories. So if that’s all I have to choose from, why bother?

    I agree there are life issues specific to our generation and it’s especially difficult being a member of a generation where skepticism is the norm, but I haven’t found any god-centered community that speaks to those topics and it’s saddening.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. In know I am reading this really late and probably, no one will see it but, the church isn’t a social club. What brings people together in a church is salvation in Christ. You are there to worship God and learn how to walk through life as a follower of Jesus to serve others. I love my church family and spending time with them and yes, many of them are senior citizens. We are connected through our love of Jesus. I have lots of friends and opportunities to socialize with outside of church as well. The church doesn’t exist to to entertain and serve you. In a church everyone needs to be active participants and serve others.

  12. It’s no surprise that young people don’t trust organized religion and big corporations. Just look around. From Occupy Wall Street to the support of Bernie Sanders, the angst is real out there. The only thing we can do is not compromise God’s word, stop trying so hard to reach them because it’s looks fake and desperate. Just be real and let them SEE what the church is doing outside of the walls for people. Especially those within their age group. And do it without a hidden agenda of trying to fill your seats with them. Plus, with social media and brands constantly marketing to them, they know how to turn off “white noise.” With them, its all about “What are you saying… and why should I care?” You have 6 secs. If it not relevant to them, they shut down.

  13. I am a baby boomer, with fond memories of choir and youth group. We were a well heeled Presbyterian congregation, so our activities were good. The church I attend now has no children any longer, and it is fading. I think the sad part (as I would have to call myself religion light), is the losing of passing down traditions and culture. I love religious music, but not that Christian rock or camp meeting nonsense. But Christmas music, of which I have a large collection and Bach as examples, those are special. One last note – when I go to my childhood church for the nine lessons and carols Christmas Eve service (which even my grown children don’t miss), I see many of the older people know all the words to every verse of the carols, as do I.

  14. Seems to me, as one who is not aware of the names attached to different ages of people, that we have forgot to keep the main thing the main thing. We go to church to worship God, not to see who is there and not there. No one seem to be wanting to search the scripture as to just what God wants from each of us. Seems that the world has changed the church, and not the church changing the world. Presently there are some who get up every morning and look for something to protest about. I feel that is what is wrong with our church. I want to do my part to help, and staying away for reasons given above doesn’t cut it. Some times we under estimate the power of our Loving God, and want Him to serve us, not the other way around. But what do I know, I’m just a 81 year old farm boy. God bless.

    1. You’re right that we need to put God back at the center, but Jesus left the 99 to look for the 1 lost sheep and praised the woman who searched for the lost coin, so I think he is concerned about who is and isn’t there and we should be too.

  15. I’m 82 and serve a small UMC church that uses very “traditional” liturgy and openly struggles over relevant social concerns every Sunday in the midst of the worship hour., not only in the sermon,but as a group, during the “Joys and Concerns.” We are Reconciling, we serve the hungry, host twelve-step groups, and a day-care, have a good website … Yes, most of us are old, but that’s where religion is right now … I’ve always felt on the margin of the larger Church, but relationships within every congregation I’ve known have been rich and healing, and there’s always a great current author to read or retreat to go on or service project to get involved in, and daily disciplines to grow in, guided by scripture and prayer. The absence of young people is just another sign of the huge divisions and inequities in our time. Following Christ … being found by Christ … is a very shaky business, full of dying and waking up to joy in unexpected places. In sum, grieving over the Church’s irrelevance and blindness is not a vocation. Opening ourselves to the Presence in our midst, and honoring those who did that before us, are much more satisfying.

    1. Your church sounds wonderful! Of course there is always richness and joy to be found–otherwise I wouldn’t be in the church at all!–and I’m ny saying the church is objectively irrelevant but that it is perceived to be by many of my peers. Lament is part of what it means to be a Christian and a human, and it’s not mutually exclusive with celebrating the great good that does happen in churches.

  16. As a fellow millennial in ministry (youth ministry for awhile, now Outdoor ministry), I lament with you. I have often told people that I am loneliest in church – for many of the reasons you state above. Thank you for your voice and wisdom to speak up.

  17. Pastor Sarah – When I have the time and opportunity, I like reading articles like yours. I, too, am concerned with the lack of young adults (ages 20-40) in church. I have a question. What do millennials see is the real purpose of the Church? What do you see is the real purpose of the Church? Thanks for responding.

  18. Amen from a fellow female millennial pastor in North Al. Thank you for sharing your heart on this. I have some very active and engaged 20- 30 somethings in the church I pastor but the gap is still huge.

  19. There I heard it again ” I am loneliest in church” how can that be when God is setting right there beside you? I think if we have our mind, our heart, our ears, and our thoughts open, we should have joy, peace and love of others to replace the feeling lonely. It works for me.

    1. For me, loneliness in relation to fellow humans is not mutually exclusive to sensing and appreciating the presence of God. I believe God wants us to find community in others–and to meet Jesus himself in others–so human connection matters.

  20. Hi Sarah,

    I am 57 and have spent my whole life in the church. Even back in the 1970s and 80s I did not feel the church was reaching out to me, but that was not the issue. In the last 30 years I spent a lot of time in active leadership in three local churches. I think there is plenty of dysfunction and “not getting it” to go around, from the very top of the UMC to the local level, among our clergy and among our laity.

    I often have met people who grew up in nurturing, active churches, with vibrant pastors and laity, and I envy them. That has never been my experience, either as a child or an adult, although I have tried to find good places and contribute to them. My son, now 25, grew up watching his mom and others try hard to build church community and health, but ultimately be defeated by various problems. I do not blame him for not attending church now. He’s never seen church work, just bring pain to people.

  21. ^The idea that CHURCH is a place needs to go.YOU WALK IN MY SHOES and I WALK IN YOURS .Together we step out into the world a nd try to finnd His light andshare his love for all people.All things change.All days are finite. Who can you help today,smile at,make glad and lighten their load.I believe Jesus walked out into the world each day looking to be a helper,a friend ,a fellow pilgrim onthis earth.I don’t think it was everthem and us ,rich or poor .I look into your face and try to see only the soul of God.NO LABEL IS NECESSARY…ONLY CHILD OF GOD.

  22. Churches that exist primarily to care for its members–and members who attend primarily to be taken care of–are churches that don’t grow. They are just chapels. This is true of any age group. This problem is not new–it’s been centuries in the making. If we are not part of a church in order to be nurtured and challenged to be a disciple of Jesus outside the church, then we are wanting the church to be something it is not intended to be. Thank you for this call to discipleship.

  23. I gave up the idea of finding people my own age at church as most are 10-30 years older or their grandcildren. However, through the grace of the Lord, I find church to be a healing place because I do not look for those like me, but for where I can learn.

    Your words are inspirational and now, with God’s help, may ypu have actions to equate them. These two together will show todays and tomorrows youth the path to God and it may not be into a church per se yet will be the way.

  24. Amen. As a fellow millennial clergy person, I have felt everything you have. Trying to orient our congregations outward is an important and difficult task. There is resistance to it. I hope our congregations soon realize that the only way of survival is to live into our calling to be a place of hope outside of our walls.

  25. Fresh…thats 20 years old. you want engagement…across the ages…try Caleb Bislow’s Dangerous. Try going to a place that is Dark or Dangerous. Get out of the US and its narcissistic Christianity. I have seen hundreds across the age spectrum find new life and get caught by a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing in other countries.

  26. I agree that we need to get outside the walls of our churches and engage with people in the trenches. At the same time, it appears to me that people in the “club” Hold’em invite people who are different Into the Heart Of Our Lives, to invite them to places like our homes, and I mean the place where lay down our heads at night, sit down at the table or in the backyard and to really listen, with an attitude of humility and compassion, inviting Jesus Christ to be in the midst of us, unapologetically and expectedly. I wonder if some of the loneliness would disappear if those in the body of Christ or take the initiative to open their doors two others. When was the last time someone invited you home? When was the last time you invited someone else home? There are risks involved, but the rewards can be great.

  27. I am almost 83 and a Jesus Follower since i was 32. Recently I completed the Colsen Fellows program. My study there ungirded my long held belief that to seek the mind and will of Christ is necessary in each persons life. When a church succeeds in the effort to inspire members to live such a life then I will be so attractive that all will desire to be be part of the joy!

  28. Sorry I meant to end the above comment with the sentence
    When a church succeeds in the effort to inspire members to live such a life then IT will be so attractive that all will desire to be be part of the joy!

  29. I love your heart attitude. I am a ‘millenial’ 40-something who has also pastored but no longer attends church. I have a few ideas: don’t lament too much, the church is alive and well but it is inhabiting a different space than before, the internet, and the world! Embrace and encourage this. Stop trying to make people attend something, and if they do, let them feel welcome, don’t berate them for being irregular. Embrace that people don’t attend things regularly anymore. Encourage them to see how this new church thing is going to work. How can we be the church in the world? Get out there and get working. Get social off the church grounds. Get chatting and reading and engaging online and in homes. Good luck! It’s exciting!

  30. I think this sentence really sums it up so well…”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.” At my church, we do a lot of things to “move out into the neighborhood” and it really does change the way we see the world outside and how the world outside sees us. Even just reading through posts here on WordPress, I’ve learned so much about what other people are thinking and feeling. Thanks for this great post.

  31. Thank you for sharing your experience and your insights, Sarah. It is obvious that these have resonated with a broad spectrum of our brothers and sisters. I have one question for you regarding the experience of abundant grace that is able to counter the feeling of being lost. Though I don’t know how long John Wesley retained his strange heart-warming experience of being found while attending that meeting to which he went so unwillingly on Aldersgate Street, do you think he felt conflicted at that time and thereafter by the continuing need of grace we share?

  32. This is hardly a new problem, though it’s always important and worth addressing. That said, I think one big difference between today’s young generation (and I’m speaking generally, recognizing that there are many exceptions) and previous generations is the sense that the world will bend for them, while changing to meet the world is a sellout. Sometimes we find that as wise and right as we think we are, we’re just wrong. That’s in my experience the essence of the Christian experience – I think I know all but walking with Christ shows me how wrong I was (and sometimes still am). Openness to growth–even when one may not like where that takes one–is an attribute I fear too many millenials resist and explains why they so vigorously resist in too many cases.

  33. I come from the rural small church community, and as a 19 year old who feels called to ministry in the United Methodist Church it is the loneliness I feel on Sunday mornings that has held my declaration back to a point. There are other issues as well, but I would be lying to myself if I said it was not a thing holding me back.

  34. I’m a 33-year-old UMC pastor. This is my 8th year in the pulpit. It “feels” like I wrote every single word of this. Every tiny bit of it connects to my soul. Thank you for writing so perfectly.

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