(How) Will Millennials Change the Church?

First, apparently, by leaving it.

“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.”

 

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.

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