I groan a little as the alarm starts blaring. It’s 5.30am. Why did I agree to do this? I’d signed up to the church leadership team a couple of years ago and with it came weekly Tuesday morning prayer meetings at church. This morning it’s particularly cold and damp as I wait for my lift and I shiver, wondering if I could pack it in. As we drive through our deprived inner-city and arrive near our church building I see prostitutes out on the street. I’m always surprised they’re here at this time, but their presence reminds me of the help our church has given them through our outreach work. It’s a small reminder of why I’m here. We get to putting out chairs and tables. They’ll be used by the elderly to have dinner and activities together – for people who otherwise would be isolated and alone. The tables are then left out for our homeless outreach where we serve more than 80 vulnerable people a free meal on a weekly basis. Yes, now I’m remembering why I do this.
This particular meeting, though, I decide it’s time to do more – because another reason I’m here is to speak up for my generation. The service on Sunday had been a bit different, but the small number of younger people and many others in the service had really connected with it. It’s good to point out bright spots so we can learn from them and do more of the good in it. I launch enthusiastically into my spiel, expecting nods of agreement and an exciting move to a small service change that may help my friends feel more engaged. But there was silence. This then gave way to comments of disapproval. The service, it seemed, had actually been received badly by everyone else.
I feebly pointed out that unless we changed something, the few young people that were left may not be with us much longer and certainly no one new would join; but I was getting that feeling that I’d sensed for a while now – that I was becoming an annoyance. I’m really not sure why I do this. No one is listening.
It was probably a self-aggrandising messianic complex that drove me to join the leadership team with a belief that I could be the voice of my generation to the others, but there’s still genuinely a problem. When I sit on a Sunday service I feel out of place. There are few my age in the seats, and the few that are there are often close to leaving.
Millennials may have a particularly strong feeling of being unheard, but I have a suspicion that by hearing us, the Church won’t just meet that innate need, but will also find out lots of other reasons why we’re often not engaging with God or traditional church communities. It’s a cornerstone problem. If you don’t fix this issue you won’t find out about the others.
Let’s be honest, the stakes are high. A refusal to listen now may mean people who never find salvation, hope and their God-given purpose in life.
Church, please start listening. Here are just three suggestions I think might help my church and maybe they’ll help yours:
- Realise things need to change.
At the moment things are comfortable enough that you can ignore the voices calling out for change. A healthy income from giving and a good number of ‘bums on seats’ can blind people to the fact that much of the congregation may be older people who, bluntly speaking, will one day no longer be around. Similarly having a few faithful people in their 20s and 30s on the membership books and even fewer attending services is not the same as a healthy cohort of young church attendees. These people are more likely to be the faithful few who have other specific reasons to choose your church such as a missional calling to an ageing church or a family connection, or even a denomination they’re unwilling to give up. These are not the majority of church attendees. Realising you have a problem now will sharpen your senses!
- Listen to the voices of those not in the room:
If your church is made up mostly older people, then their voice will be the loudest. Hear the voice of people not in the room and when making decisions weigh the millennial voice as if it were the same in number as the other generational voices in your church. It should change the flavour of your decisions and the numbers may one day then start to match.
- Look to the future:
Most differences millennials seek won’t actually be controversial, but some may unsettle existing members. If it comes to a point where change is being resisted and yet it’s a biblically sound decision, err on the side of the future and of the lost. Jesus left the 99 sheep that had already found him to reach the one that was lost. He often allows members of his global Church to face risk in order to reach people. We need congregations to be biased against their own comfort and preferences, for the greater good. I pray that when my generation’s time comes – when we are the older generation – that I too will follow that bias.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.