Millennials and the Church

by Sena Hughes, '15

In March 2014, the Barna Group reported that only two in 10 "millennials" (young adults ages 18-30) are likely to value church attendance.

Surprise, surprise.

These statistics aren't groundbreaking, as this isn't the first time church and organized religion of any kind have received a bad rap within millennial communities. But that then prompts the question: are any millennials still attending church?

The simple answer is yes. The better question to ask is Why?

Sarah Tunall, '10, though raised in church, refers to her church experience growing up as "country-club church -- where God is a great moral teacher, and cookies are served afterward. Now a recent alumna of Princeton Theological Seminary, Tunall has experienced a much richer, deeper side of the church, which sent her life on an entirely different trajectory. Because of that, Tunall, who just accepted a call as associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, in Bloomington, Ill., has hope for her generation's place in the church.

"[The church is unique because] not many places in the world today accept you based on the fact that you are you," Tunall said. "Most places expect you to do something, be something, or want you to accomplish something. At church, all you have to be is you because you are already a child of God. It's a place of value even in your moments of failure. It's a place of love even when you don't succeed in a particular relationship. You find value in this community because of Jesus Christ."

Tunall's story isn't unique. Research shows that while most teenagers adhere to the faith of their parents, "it actually functions more like background noise," said Jerry Sittser, theology department chair at Whitworth.

Christian Smith, author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, refers to the faith commonly imparted to American adolescents such as it was to Tunall, as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." In essence, one should learn to be a moral person and believe in a good higher power, but don't worry about drastic commitment.

Not surprisingly, sometime in young adulthood, these so-called millennials ditch the watered-down faith, which Sittser hypothesizes is a product of moving away from home and getting out of the habit of attending church. While youth-group soda-chugging contests can be fun (and, if examined closely, may even hold some inherent value), they probably won't be enough to sustain Christian faith as a priority down the road.

Research groups like Barna define millennials as young adults approximately ages 18-30, or people who reached young adulthood after the turn of the millennium (post-2000).  Pew Research reports that only 60 percent of millenials were raised in two-parent households. Just 19 percent of millennials say most people can be trusted; a significantly lower number than the previous two generations who were asked this question.

Because economic tumult has coincided with the rise of the millenial generation, nearly 40 percent of millenials are unemployed; however, this is also predicted to be the most educated generation in American history, and there has been a boom in college education to prove it. Some would say this level of knowledge and education has led to a distrust and skepticism of institution and authority. Politically and religiously, millennials want to be "unaffiliated."

In short, millennials are disenchanted with the way things have been. They want change. Sittser senses "not a tidal wave, but a small current" of millennials moving toward a holistic, healthy life. This can be characterized in trends like healthful eating, a revisiting of family values, a desire to do more than just make money, and a tug to social justice.

The pervasive self-help guides to a wholesome life certainly have appeal to this generation, but Sittser sees a millennial attraction to substance, including theological substance. He added that millennials willingly sit through 50-minute sermons, as long as they feel like they are intellectually stimulating and spiritually challenging. In other words, it's not about relevance per se. It's about being connected to a community and engaged with truth.

Michael Carlson, '07, is a pastor of Chrio Communities, in Mesa, Ariz. As a millenial himself, as well as a pastor to many millenials, he still has hope for his generation and its place in the universal body of Christ. Carlson thinks millenials need the church and the church needs millenials. And yes, he's read the statistics.

Carlson believes authenticity will drive millennials to a church. "Authenticity" is a cultural buzzword amongst millennials, a quality for which they strive.

"It almost goes, 'faith, hope, love, and authenticity,'" Sittser said with a laugh. "Authenticity has been adopted as a cultural virtue."

The millennial generation has grown up with trends like the Internet, social media, and the onset of virtual-reality technology. Carlson talks about millenials in his congregation who often express a desire for authentic relationship.  At Chrio, he said, they have tried to establish an atmosphere of family through an emphasis on small groups, or community groups, within the larger church congregation of around 80 people.

"We are God's children, we are family," Carlson said. "Family eats together, celebrates together, and mourns together. Community group is a small environment in which we seek to live this out."

But how does the church community differ from community they may find in any other social setting?

In a workplace, a person may find people with skills and interests similar to his or hers. In an educational program, a student may associate largely with other students in his or her area of study. In a neighborhood, a family will likely have neighbors of a similar socioeconomic status.

But in the church, it's all up for grabs.

"Life with Jesus is about being a part of people who are not like us," Carlson said. "That means spending time with people who are different from us, think differently from us, come from different socioeconomics brackets, speak different languages, and have different levels of education."

Because Christians believe that Jesus Christ has opened the way for salvation for all, people of every variety are welcome. Rather than letting that create fear and nervousness among young adults, Carlson thinks it's a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate the dynamism of the larger body of Christ and also to stretch millennials socially in a way that may not happen otherwise.

"It's good to be with people who make us uncomfortable, to sit next to them on Sunday morning and know there is nothing else in the world that would've brought us together [other] than the gospel," Carlson said.

Sittser is more skeptical of romanticized diversity within the church. Though diversity is good, he also recognizes the needs for maintenance of cultural reverence, understanding that some groups practice faith differently. But rather than condemn the other side, Christians should reach out to brothers and sisters of differing traditions and certainly learn from that. Within one church family, Sittser sees generational diversity as key to the health and future of millennial disciples.

"I have noticed that the age group of the 'millennials' is really open to adult relationships," Sittser said. "They want to be connected. They're not suspicious or defensive. Any church that has any brains would figure out a way to tie people in their 20s to people in their 50s and 60s."

Sittser's view is true of Tunall, who credits adult mentors in her life as a large part of the reason why she even stuck with the church to begin with. Whitworth was the first place that Tunall said she first felt cared for and supported by key professors and staff members who mentored her on her Christian walk.

"I don't think I would've even stayed at Whitworth six months if it weren't for those people who grabbed me and said, 'Hey guess what? You're really cool and we see God's hand in your life,'" Tunall said.

In 2013, Barna reported that nearly nine out of 10 millennials who left the church were not connected to an adult mentor.

"God's grace encompassed me and grabbed me even when I tried to go the other way," Tunall said. "He did that through mentors. They guided me in hearing God's voice and seeing the grace of Jesus Christ. In that there is hope, and I think a lot of millennials are looking for hope."

Not surprisingly, Tunall is excited about both being a mentor and encouraging the church to be a place of love and mentorship for the many young millenials like her, acknowledging that this time of life is full of many questions and doubts. She hopes to welcome those who might still be skeptical of church, but who are open to relationship.

Andrea Palpant Dilley, '00, is author of the book Faith and Other Flat Tires, which directly addresses the issue of young adults rejecting faith. As one who rejected faith herself as a young 20-something, she finds herself now a committed Christian and church member, "trying to answer the probing questions who find fault with the church and with faith itself." Dilley's renewed hope in the church didn't come from a rocking worship band and a killer cup of joe for new visitors. It came from realizing that church is safe place to doubt, because the tradition of the church is much older and broader than an individual or the tendencies of any one generation.

"Both my doubt and my faith, and even my ongoing frustrations with the church itself, are part of a tradition that started before I was born and will continue after I die," Dilley writes. "I rest in the assurance that I have something to lean against."

Christianity is a unique and dynamic body. Pick up any history book and discover that though Christian history may not be the glossiest, the church has weathered some blows and has yet to crumble. Something keeps bringing people back.

People like Carlson, Dilley, Tunall, and Sittser — at their various levels and in their various roles — all testify to a belief in a community intimate yet universal, diverse yet common, broken yet whole.

"As someone who left the church and returned," Dilley writes, "I know we have the power to affect this generation of doubters. And that power is less about answers than it is about tone, space, and spirit."