Christian leaders and writers in America have spent the better part of the past decade laboring over this question: "How do we get millennials to attend church?" While there are debates over the interpretation of the data on millennial church attendance, there's no denying that overall church attendance for American millennials (born after 1981) has dropped with no sign of abating. In the midst of this seeming crisis, we can't blame anyone for asking how to reverse a negative trend. However, it's likely that these leaders and writers are asking the wrong question.
A Simple Place to Begin with Young Adults
For starters, if your church is genuinely lacking the presence of the younger generation (20-somethings in particular), then the most helpful question isn't how to attract them back to the church. That assumes the best step is to get them to listen to us, and in most cases they already have heard us and just aren't interested. We won't make progress by essentially repackaging our messages and services.
The better question we need to ask is something like this: "How can we start new conversations with young adults?" Forget about the generational labels for a moment. People are more complex than a generational trend after all. Rather than trying to get people to come and listen to us, let's find ways we can listen to them. What if they even told us why they won't come to church? Are we prepared to hear their honest answers, or will we hide behind generational stereotypes?
A Better Question about Young Adults and Church
Alongside a commitment to listening, we could replace questions about getting millennials to "attend" church with questions about how we can get millennials to "lead" the church. I'm not suggesting that pastors resign in favor of younger, inexperienced leaders. Rather, young leaders need a place at the table too so that they can take ownership of the church and help the church represent the perspectives of every generation.
We all have different suspicions about why millennials don't find church relevant or don't want to attend church. Some may say it's because of Bible teaching or cultural compromise. I may suggest that young adults have not encountered the life-changing love of God in most churches. Our suspicions and isolated observations mean very little in the grand scheme of things if young adults don't have a respected place at the table as full members and leaders in training with voices that are valued and considered.
That isn't to say we cater to the whims of the younger generation. Rather, we may learn that the whims of the older generations have left some young adults feeling like they don't have a place to belong. I've been the young adult in the circle of older church leaders, and I know what it feels like to be ignored and given a token place.
We shouldn't be surprised that young adults will step on some toes when they aren't included in the life of the church. My experiences today in a church that welcomes and nurtures young leaders has only convinced me that many churches are disconnected from young adults because they've become a population to be reached rather than integral parts of the life of the church.
What We Can't Change about Young Adults in Church
During a question and answer session at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing, an audience member asked pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, "How do we get millennials to attend church again?" She wisely replied that no one can "make" someone want to go to church. She added that too many older adults feel responsible for convincing their children or younger generations to attend church, but that guilt is not healthy or helpful.
Perhaps we worry about this issue so deeply because we believe that their lack of interest reflects poorly on us. While we should do everything we can to listen to the perspectives of young adults and to ensure we aren't alienating them unnecessarily, there's only so much we can do. Some young adults may be recovering from negative church experiences, others may be processing doubts, and still others may not have space in their lives to even consider church. A "no" to church today is not a "no" forever.
As we reach out to young adults who may not have an interest in our churches, we can be prepared to listen and to invite them to participate, but we shouldn't take their lack of interest as a personal nock on us and our ministries. Rather than giving up on them or pressuring them to join us, we can remain open to them, listening and prepared to receive them when they discover their need for God and sacred space in their lives.
Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Pray, Write, Grow. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com and is the founder of www.thecontemplativewriter.com. Find him on Twitter: @edcyzewski.