I am a millennial. I was also born and raised in the church and have continued to participate in church my entire life. I am soon to be married in the church, and if my partner and I have children, I plan to raise them in the church. I also went to seminary and currently work with churches all across the state. The results of the Pew Research study released this week were not new to me — churches are shrinking and fewer and fewer people are calling themselves “Christian.” The study talked a lot about millennials and their role in increasing the “nones” (those who identified themselves none of the above in the Pew survey). That started me thinking about my background and role in the church.
I grew up in a Reconciling United Methodist church in Savannah, Georgia. Reconciling means that it recognizes all sexual identities and gender identities in its policies and practices, and I definitely think that this inclusivity had an effect on me staying in the church. The majority of millennials support gay rights, and many see the church’s unwillingness to accept those who are different as close-minded and exclusive. The church needs to be a place that demonstrates Jesus’ love to all in order for millennials, and those of any age, to feel welcome. Millennials often have very few experiences with church other than those that they were raised in, and they may not realize that the beliefs and practices of “church” vary widely across a spectrum from liberal to conservative. The church needs to become mission-centered and focus on a God who is with us, rather than a legalistic idea of what a Christian “should be.”
Rachel Held Evans recently published an article entitled, “Want millenials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” She argues that millennials do not want a sleek, branded worship service featuring popular music and pastors in jeans, but rather an authentic community that “practices the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way.” I stayed in church because I was part of a community, and part of this community’s beliefs was helping the poor and the oppressed. I was proud of my affiliation, not just as a Methodist, but as a member of a congregation and part of my community. Millennials want a church rooted in their communities in which their values and ideals are firmly represented and shared with like-minded individuals. For me, this need that millennials have to belong to a community living out their faith is evident in some emergent churches, such as Emmaus Way in Durham. This missional Christian community was founded out of the hope that “the ‘doing of church’ would not prevent our community from being deeply involved with the work of justice, compassion, community building, and hope in Durham.” This congregation was created not to eschew organized religion, but to fulfill a need for community that wasn’t being met by an institutionalized church.
At the North Carolina Council of Churches, the release of the Pew study did not prompt an emergency staff meeting because our main concern is not metrics; it is doing Kingdom Work. We care about loving God and loving our neighbors, and being a resource to enable churches to do just that. I see churches every day that are creating spaces for people to tell their stories and to be active in their communities. I hope that this Pew study will be a call for a reawakening, reinvention, or maybe even resurrection, in churches. This is a time for something new to be happening in our churches — a chance to connect with our neighbors, the poor, the strangers, and the immigrants, in order to reinvigorate the church. The church began at the margins of communities in the world, where Jesus made God known to us. The “nones” are not a threat to Christianity, but provide an opportunity to build relationships with those at the edges, with those who are leaving. The Pew study motivates me as a Christian advocate and educator to work harder so that the church can use this opportunity to reclaim its Christ-centered identity and be a loving and authentic community, open to all, by breaking out of its comfort zone to follow the Holy Spirit into new life.