Listen to Millennials, Please

Nadia Bolz-Weber posted a great article this past week on Union Theological Seminary’s New Media Project about the Millennial generation in the church. I wanted to post the text of the article because I think it’s just that good. So here it is…

This past weekend I taught a class at Iliff School of Theology on Emerging Church in the US and the UK. Predictably the issue of social media came up as did some expressed discomfort with things like text messaging and Facebook interactions replacing “real community.” A couple of folks cringed when I said that I do a lot of pastoral care via text messaging, which brought up the issues of Millennial culture and authority.

I encouraged folks (as I usually do) to look at Pew Research Center’s work on Millennials and what characterizes Millennial culture. There even is an on-line How Millennial Are You? quiz one can take to see where you rank generationally and culturally. My goal in having people look at this research is to help them see the ways in which mainline Protestant churches are, for the most part, not located culturally in a Millennial context, and yet Millennial culture will only be taking up increasingly more space in the American landscape, not less.

The conversations I hear in the church about young people seem to be people over 50 trying to figure out how we can stop the church from dying—how can we “target” populations (please don’t ever, for any reason, use this term) who aren’t in church, how can we be more “relevant” (same goes here), how can we get young adults to be involved. I realize that these conversations, which happen all over the country, are in large part coming from a place of loving the church and wanting it to be around for the next generations, but I think these conversations are not really helping us. It’s like asking, “How can we make horse and buggies appealing to Baby Boomers?” Just because they may not be in any way interested in a horse and buggy doesn’t mean they don’t care about transportation.

Another way of looking at it is that you can try to market land-lines to teenagers till the cows come home. You can do as much market research as you’d like and lament the fact that kids just don’t care about phones anymore because none of them have land-lines. Or you can get some kids to tell you about cell phones and the ways in which they love to communicate with those they love even though their ways look different than your ways. What I mean is this: If younger generations are not coming to church, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about the Gospel. It just means that their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is culturally different from what they see in most mainline churches. This is not to say that mainline churches are not a faithful expression of the Gospel, only that it is no longer a normative expression of the Gospel.

Conversations about how to save the church should maybe shift in this way: We should find all the people we can who rank high on the Millennial scale (they can be any age, trust me!) and who answered “very” to that one question “how important is it to you personally to lead a deeply religious life?” and then ask them “what does it look like to be the church?” Since they are native to the cultural shift in which we find ourselves, they have an authority to speak to a burgeoning ecclesiology that we may not yet be able to envision.

Here’s what I like about the New Media Project: They seem to recognize that while one side of the church is criticizing the use of new media as a sign of the downfall of the traditional church, the other side sees it as the “answer” which, if adopted quickly, can prevent the downfall of the traditional church. Neither approach is useful they seem to understand. So my hope is that the New Media Project will instead continue to ask those for whom new media is not “new” at all (those who are native to it) and who love the Gospel what it means to them, and how they see it as part of being the body of Christ. They are the ones who can tell us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is the Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, one of the case studies of the New Media Project. She holds an M.Div. from Illiff School of Theology and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? She blogs regularly on Sarcastic Lutheran.

So what caught your eye in this post? What kind of stuff do you do to help incorporate this new generation into the life of your church?



  1. […] a generation of kids who refused to grow up. I know I’ve talked a lot about this in a couple recent posts. But this struck me in a different kind of way. It seems incredibly pejorative. Now there is […]

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