Young adults and the church (2)

To understand the relationship of young adults and the church, the following is some extra information about GenZ (also known as iGen) and millennials that is helpful for understanding those generations (to supplement the previous post).

The following are some of the most significant shifts in our culture and experience in the last twenty years:

  1. Technology, especially the internet and smart phones.
  2. We’ve become more secular: it has become more normal for people not to believe in God or be associated with church. Even more so, people are not so much for or against God as much as they’re even sure why faith and God are relevant to their lives.
  3. The world is not safe: 9/11 happened and terrorism, financial collapses, and we’re more aware of racism, climate change, school shootings.
  4. The pandemic, the implications of this on society and individuals still to be determined.

These things are affecting all of us, but I believe younger generations are especially negatively affected because they haven’t had the blessing of more perspective of having lived through different cultural emphases and shifts.

To give more specifics, in terms of safety, IGen is the first generation where we’ve seen a significant decrease in drinking, sex, going out to parties, and even driving. They are making decisions based on what is safe for them emotionally, physically, and even in terms of their reputation. They also have great relationships with their parents, although sometimes parents can do too much for their children, organizing everything in their lives from classes, homework, and even getting them out of bed (and this is even in college). Millennials have been told all their lives that they’re great and so there is some disillusionment about their talents and abilities. At the same time, they long for responsibility (which is often kept by older generations) or they get bored.

So what does this mean for faith?

For the millennials, it means finding ways to share responsibility for the church with this generation – even if they’ll make mistakes. Give young adults/ young people the keys to the church is how Kara Powell talks about this in Growing Young. For Igen, it’s important to realize how faith can be one more thing that parents organize for their children and something that they don’t own – or leave behind when they finally differentiate from their parents.

More importantly, one needs to be honest about how God and faith are not safe. The purpose of Christianity isn’t simply to make you happy, well-adjusted, or safe. That’s moralistic therapeutic deism, not true faith. The more we can all be honest with each other about faith – about how God doesn’t save us from hardships but instead walks with us through our sufferings, the more hope we can give to those who long for adventure (like millennials) and/or (like Igen) for safety (but are coming to recognize that it’s ultimately impossible).

In terms of technology, young adults tend to be distracted and don’t know how to interact with each other. We’re also curating our images and lives. We’re deeply lonely and disillusioned. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic affects this tendency. For millennials, technology has hindered an ability to have work/life balance. Millennials will often define themselves by how productive they are. So they’re often overwhelmed.

So what does this mean for faith?

While younger generations crave responsibility and ought to be given more, this not true when they’re overwhelmed. Sometimes we all – young and old(er) – desperately need to be able simply to show up without worrying about how we might fail or do it imperfectly. 

The church offers community; but this means also that we need to be willing to be honest about how our lives are not as perfect as we might like to pretend they are – because how else will others around us know that it’s okay for them to speak about how messy their own lives are?

When it comes to secularity, (as noted in the previous post), the bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

Young adults and the church (1)

The following was mostly written before the pandemic. The pandemic has only increased the questions and uncertainty about how connected young people are (and will be) to church.

Recent Pew Survey results tell us that less people are identifying as Christian, especially among millennials. This has raised a lot of questions about (young) people leaving the church.

The good news is that other studies have shown that the number of committed Christians, both young and old, has not decreased by much. Many of the young people growing up in Christian families and actively participating in the church continue to be committed to church. On top of this, there are a number of great resources available to help us with that (see below for a list of resources).

The bad news is that millennials are no longer coming back to church when they ‘settle down’ and raise a family, which is when we as a church have expected people to come back (since this is what used to happen). Something has shifted in our culture that has made people less interested in church: part of it might be the rise of secularity (for more on this, see books by Andrew Root); part of it might be a misunderstanding of the purpose of church:

“If I can be a good person by going to a city council meeting, or by reading the features in The New Republic, or by volunteering at a charity, why do I need Jesus? Why do I need Christianity at all? The answer would be, you don’t. You might credit Jesus as a model citizen, acknowledge his death as unfortunate for him, but it takes a sense of sin, and grace, to really feel a particular allegiance to the man and his mission.”

CJ Green

At the same time, though, the Washington Post article written by Christine Emba, a millennial, argues that even though millennials are not coming back to church they are still looking for transcendence and fellowship with others. The longing for community has only increased with the pandemic, especially with the loss of social trust.

The (other) bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

Further resources connected to the above and on young adults and the church:

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

Millennial Burnout

A recent article on millennial burnout points to the challenges that millennials face in growing up in a culture that has valued being busy over one’s well-being. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, notes the following:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.