Millennials and the Worshiping Church

Much of the talk among my social media church people these days is about what we need to do to get the Millennial Generation back in the church.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on’s belief blog about it and then responded further here. I am a big fan of her writing, and even though her religious experience as an evangelical is much different than my mainline protestant journey, she manages to distill situations down to larger truths. And I commend her article, but not just for millennials. I think the problems she describes are true for how to make church better for all ages:

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

She goes on to say:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

And that is all well and good. I completely agree that the presence of a drum set will not bring anyone back to church.

The conversation continued at a gathering of Presbyterians this week in Louisville, KY. The event, called “Big Tent“, is ten different church gatherings all in one place, and I confess I wish I were there. My friend Chad Herring posted this Big Tent reflection on Facebook yesterday:

From a ‪#‎bigtent2013‬ twitter feed on six reasons why churches “lose” kids who are growing into adulthood and are considering the claims of Christianity:

1) teaching is shallow
2) church demonizes everything outside
3) church afraid of other faiths
4) unfriendly to doubters
5) antagonistic to science
6) simplistic sexuality

If I grew up in that kinda church, I would have left too…

And I agree with that list too. Maybe there are people who want a shallow, fearful, unfriendly church, but I don’t know them. Here is another article about that Big Tent conversation.

I see us (“us” being the institutional church–whether at the local or denominational level), I see us making all of these lists, coming up with all of these reasons people have left the church, frantically trying to come up with the magic solution to bring them back to church, and then hoping that everything will be great once our pews are full again and everyone is back where they belong, in worship.

There are, no doubt, some people who would love to come back to worship if they discovered there were progressive, free-thinking, questioning, authentic, and open communities, and yes, let’s have those conversations about how to find them and help them find us.

But here’s the thing.

I think many of those people who would agree with us theologically, politically, and socially know exactly where to find us.

And they still don’t come to worship.

We can make lists and come up with new marketing plans and and write hip music and put our pastors in ironic eye wear or whatever, but it won’t make people come to worship. Because they don’t want to come to worship.

They want to sit in coffee shops with the New York Times. They want to go mountain biking. They want to sleep in. They want to have a day when they don’t have to get the kids up early for school, or soccer games, or swim lessons. They want to do whatever it is they want to do, but whatever that is, it doesn’t seem to be sitting in worship.

And this isn’t just a morning worship service issue. Many churches have tried adding evening services, figuring the crowds would come flocking in the doors. In many of those cases, it hasn’t worked. Because the people who aren’t in church don’t seem to want to be in worship.

They might like Jesus just fine.

They might consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”.

They might volunteer regularly in their community in ways that churches have historically been involved in the community.

But they don’t seem to feel they are missing anything by not being in worship on a regular basis.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about this. But I know many of my readers fall into some of those categories. Because you tell me things like “reading your blog is church for me.”  You send me messages on Facebook about how you agree with Jesus’ message, but you don’t see any reason to deal with the hypocrisy of his followers.

I’d love to hear from those of you who don’t worship in a faith community.

Is there something keeping you from going to church? (schedule/timing, theology, politics, music, etc)

Is there something the church could do to get you back? (stop being jerks who only talk about homosexuality, abortion, and sex immediately comes to mind, but there may be other things we need to change….)

Or do you feel your life is just fine as it is, thank you very much?

And let me broadly define worship for the purposes of our discussion, before someone tells me “I worship when I’m by myself on my morning hike”. You might have a spiritual experience by yourself in the woods, and that is fine. But the worship I’m thinking of is the corporate act of praise of a faith community. The community may be as small as a house church. It might be a mega church. But it is the gathering together of people in praise, study, and prayer.

For those of us in the church world, do we need to reconsider our questions?

Clearly, the rhythm of the church world works for me. I love going to worship. I always have. And I’ve gone to churches with great preachers, and horrible preachers, and amazing choirs, and tone deaf choirs, and with lots of people my age, and with no other people my age.

I love being with other people and sharing in the experience of singing together, of confessing our sins together, of passing the peace and feeling God’s mercy together, of listening to Scripture read and proclaimed, of baptizing babies and promising to be there for those kids as they grow up, of struggling through the questions and the difficulties, of being there for each other. I love worship.

I love the way worship challenges me to take that experience out into the community so the glimpses of God’s kingdom that I experience in worship will become visible in the world around me. I love the way worship reminds me that I am God’s beloved child, that everyone I meet is also God’s beloved child, and that the world is too small for anything but that kind of love.

And churches do things other than Sunday worship. We feed the hungry. We volunteer at schools, shelters, and prisons. We go bowling. We go to camp. We meet in pubs and talk about theology. And people are always welcome to join us in those endeavors.

But, ultimately, it seems our only way to “incorporate” people into our family is by getting them to come to worship. “So glad you had fun at our neighborhood outreach picnic. Now come to church on Sunday morning.”

So, to my church colleagues, while it is all well and good to make worship authentic and awesome (and we should all do that. Just because.) do we need to really think outside the box (throw the box away) and ask ourselves if can imagine people might be seeking the church (might need the church) but have no interest in joining us for worship as we know it?

What if we stopped worrying about why people aren’t in worship, or how to make them come back, and instead, found them where they are and joined in their work?

The 1,001 New Worshiping Communities initiative from my denomination (PCUSA) comes from this new paradigm. And I love it. Here’s the mission:

Seeking to create the conditions that will allow existing worshiping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to flourish, and to give birth to over 1,001 more in the next ten years.

Read about it. These worshiping Communities come together over a very specific identity and acknowledge they may only be together for a specific period of time.   I’ve heard people talking about it, but I still think that while they say, “isn’t that great that this group of bicyclists gather together as the ‘sweaty sheep’ faith community”, I wonder if they are also thinking “which church are the sweaty sheep going to join so they can worship?

This is not an easy paradigm shift for me, I confess. I am a worship person, and I have no intention of canceling worship. But can I imagine making space in my faith community for people to identify as a “Southminsterian” even if they never walk through the door on Sunday morning?

Talk to me.


18 thoughts on “Millennials and the Worshiping Church

  1. A data point from a different perspective: 50% of Jews who have had an extensive religious education in the mainstream groups (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative) *still* marry out.

    I’ve always been a worship person, myself, but I’m interested to hear the replies to your intriguing questions here.


  2. Oh, Marci, THANK YOU! I’ve been struggling to find words to answer these constant questions about “why (fill in the blank) are not attending/leaving/not coming to worship.” Thanks for helping us consider a different question. I’ve said over and over that (fill in the blank) has not left off coming to worship, because they weren’t there in the first place, but I’ve never thought to say out loud “They don’t want to come to worship.” No matter how good and relevant and fun and engaging and user-friendly and image-based and inspiring it is.


  3. A few years ago, when a few of my friends in their 50s-60s who haven’t really been in church for about 15 years, lost all their parents in a short time frame, I asked them whether they regretted not having a church community for the services and the time before and after.

    “Nope,” they all said.

    No interest in corporate worship or corporate anything if it involves church.


  4. I found this post via facebook–someone from my church posted it. This is so very close to the situation I am in. I am 25 and consider myself relatively active in my church: I am in the handbell choir, volunteer with the music minister, mentor youth, help in the office and with mission projects, but I don’t go to worship. I wish I had more of an outlet to talk about these things, so I will ramble a little, since you asked 🙂

    **Is there something keeping you from going to church?
    The time aspect has a lot to do with it. You put it very well–as busy as I am at work during the week and with volunteering on the weekends, I want to sleep in on Sundays. Consider it selfish, but the way I justify it, I would rather put my energy into volunteer projects on Saturday and sleep in on Sunday than give up the volunteering and go to worship. Because….
    Another part is that I don’t feel very spiritually connected to the people in my church. Part of this is my preference, and part of it is not. The fact of the matter is, I go to the church I go to because my parents brought me up there, not because they believe what I believe (they don’t). The church community supports me and I support the church community. That doesn’t mean I believe the same things they do. And that’s okay with me. I think a relationship with God is personal. While I think there’s something awesome to be said for everyone feeling those tingly God-feelings in the same room, I think that trying to produce those tingles by way of announcing “This is what we capital B Believe” may strike a chord with some, but will ultimately alienate some like myself. So this is where I connect the “because” from up above. I don’t get the tingles or the a-ha’s from worship very often. I don’t think that has anything to do with the type of music they play, the sermon topics or the pastor’s outfit. I think it has more to do with the fact that I feel like I’m not really connecting with anyone.

    **Is there something the church could do to get you back? Or do you feel your life is just fine as it is, thank you very much?
    I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy worship because of the way it is set up–sometimes I feel like I could have Skype-d in and gotten the same experience. I can tell you what I do enjoy. I enjoy exploring my own beliefs by discussing openly with others. I don’t mind what they believe, I have found more out about myself and what I believe through conversation with others who believe differently than I do than from sitting in a room full of people nodding in agreement with what one man has to say. In fact–the way I found out how much I appreciate this kind of discussion is through a “Christianity for Skeptics” class offered by my church years ago. I would be very happy to be involved in a group that seeks to evolve and learn through honest, respectful, most importantly, open discussion of belief.

    Not sure if that makes sense or is at all helpful, but I feel better just being able to type out this much! Thanks for your outlet!


    • Marci: I resonate with your appreciation of having an active discussion with some one or ones whose faith belief and tradition are different than yours. My essentially Christian belief system was enhanced by an engaging class on Buddhism! That being said, there is something very distinct, spiritual, and yes, Divine about the act worship. One does not need to worship with carbon copies of oneself. Worship can be done with those who come “just as you are.” To me, that adds a richness to the experience. But worship is more than an intellectual discussion.


      • Maybe that’s part of the issue for me. I don’t want to worship with carbon copies of myself, as you said, but I *do* want us all to be accepting of each other. I don’t feel I get that in my church.
        An interesting thought I just had: Though I don’t feel that updating the music would ‘pull me back in,’ the issue of music is one that made me feel alienated by my church. As a teenager I heard over and over and over again many people in the church trash-talking modern worship music. Having a guitar and drums isn’t something that makes me feel more connected to God,but hearing my church family talk about my generation this way made me feel pretty disrespected. I think that’s probably where that feeling of alienation started. Not sure if that makes sense.


  5. Pingback: Millennials and Adam’s missing rib | kate schell

  6. Good stuff, Marci, and spot on, I think. The line that made me LOL was this: “We can make lists and come up with new marketing plans and and write hip music and put our pastors in ironic eye wear or whatever, but it won’t make people come to worship.” And then the truthful reality in the next sentence, “Because they don’t want to come to worship,” ended my laughter with a screeching halt. You’re right. Harder still for me to get is the people for whom worship is just another choice of things to do on a Sunday morning, never the priority that it has to be for a dual-pastor family, or that it is for many of the folks who think about it / see it differently. Worship is squeezed in and around and between UGA football games, trips to the lake, marathons and half-marathons, and sporting events. What I find that I really have to ask myself honestly is this: If we were not “in the business” of worship, would we go? I think so. We went pre-seminary, we went pre-kids, and we even went occasionally in college. But a lazy Sunday morning at a local coffee shop does have an appealing ring to it.


  7. A few years back I was privileged to attend Triennium, on Purdue’s campus. I took a group of youth from the Ohio Presbytery that included only two youth that I had ever met before: my son and a female from our church. We had a total of 15 youth. My initial plea was, PLEASE DON”T LET THEM BE INTOLERABLE SNOTS! A week with a group of adolescents is a long time! We met up with several other groups. Of course, going as an adult means you lead a reflections group in your dorm. I met with kids I had never seen and was delighted to acknowledge that their questioning God’s existence or his value in their life was in my humble experience a way to find their own faith, a strong faith that belonged to them and NOT to their parents. Some of those kids, I still hear from as they search out their faith. I think the questioning is critical to the coming certainty of faith. An unshakeable faith grows through the testing process. And, we cannot GIVE the 20-somethings our faith. We can share it and support their coming to terms with their own faith.


    • Oh, yes and Marci, I do attend worship in a medium sized Presbyterian Church. A church that offers a traditional Sunday morning service, a Wednesday evening service and a service on Saturday Evening that is as relaxed and laid back as one could possibly imagine. Few people attend all three services…but there is generally at least one service anyone can attend regardless of their schedule. The folks at this church vary in political beliefs from the very conservative to the uber liberal. Many of those I count among my dearest friends disagree with my political views, but find ways of accepting me just as I am. (BTW, I’m not the conservative one)!


  8. My dream is to start a church that would be a dance club that served smoothies and healthy snacks instead of liquor and greasy snacks. I have no idea how that would fly. I’m going to pilot the idea with a 25 minute trance set at Wild Goose next weekend. I definitely feel like we should think more outside the box in terms of how we do worship. I absolutely think it’s important though. A big part of it for me is having communion every week so that we can become one body with everyone else there. But that doesn’t have to happen in a stuffy old building with church pews, I don’t think.


  9. This link was sent to me by my cousin. I found your views very candid and refreshing, not what I expected. As a young man, I returned from Vietnam in bad shape, physically and emotionally.
    I found no support in the extremist, right wing politcal views that dominated (and still dominate) the Southern Baptist church of my youth. I have found a spirtual home in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship that fosters respect for all and celebrates diversity.


    • Joe, thankful you found a home.
      I think your comment speaks to an important point–worship for me has always been most meaningful when I felt I was “home”. Not that everyone was just like me or agreed with me. But where I felt I could rest my soul.

      Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

      I wonder too about geography. Is going to worship still a bigger draw in the South than it is out here in the West? I wonder if there is a regionalism about these questions.


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