When I was a kid, our church held a “Youth Group Sunday” service once a year, usually right after we got back from church camp. Generally it was an evening service—we were Baptist and it was the 90s, so that was something we still did. Also, our AM service was televised. (Again, we were Baptist and it was the 90s.) So letting the youth group take control of an evening service seemed a bit… safer.
During “Youth Group Sunday,” the music was a little more contemporary. We performed badly acted skits. In place of the sermon, we’d share post-camp testimonies—a chance for us to tell everyone how “on fire for God” we were going to be (for the next couple of weeks).
Then everything went back to the way it was.
We were expected to be quiet in church once again. As a reward for our (relative) silence, we were entertained with our own activities, our own Bible studies with the requisite “edgy” videos, even the annual ski trip. Everything was carefully structured to cater to our demographic niche.
Strangely, the greatest impact on my spiritual formation during those years came not from all the age-specific programming, but from a handful of older members who crossed the generational divide to mentor some of us. Their presence did more to show us we mattered than anything else the church did.
Today, the defection of Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) is no small source of hand-wringing among church leaders. And here’s the kicker:
All that age-specific programming, along with token gestures like “Youth Group Sundays,” aren’t the answer to keeping them in church. In fact, they might be part of the problem.
Tom Fuerst, a UMC pastor, suggests Millennials aren’t attending church because, well, they’ve never had to. All our specialized programming has effectively kept them out of the sanctuary for most of their formative years.
Hear me out on this: age-appropriate spiritual formation opportunities are a GOOD thing. But, taken to an extreme, they might be sending an unintended message to our kids: you don’t matter.
You created structures and systems of “doing church” that taught us that our presence in the communal gatherings were relatively irrelevant. We learned from your structures, not necessarily your example.
Millennials who grew up in churched families sometimes don’t feel like they belong in church because they have never participated in church on a week-to-week basis. We’ve never believed (because we’ve never been taught) that our weekly presence, despite age, matters to the vitality and mission of the church.
To echo something another writer, Amy Peterson, shared this week, I want my kids to have an intergenerational church experience. That’s one reason why I, like Amy, have found a home in the Episcopal Church. But church isn’t intergenerational unless the kids are truly part of it. We need to welcome kids into the sancutary…yes, even the fidgety ones. They need to be more than passive observers, too. They need to be shown they are fully valued members of our communities—token gestures like the occasional “Youth Group Sunday” will not do that. They need to see that our worship is incomplete without their participation. They need to see that, as Tom put it, “their voice matters to the mission of God in the world.”
I guess that’s why I like the fact we have acolytes in our services. But I wonder if that’s enough. Is there more we can do to engage kids—without patronizing gestures—to show them that their presence and participation matter every bit as much as the adults’?
And not just so we can boost our numbers, but because participation is vital to spiritual formation. Kids learn by doing. They learn by being included. As I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t learn the faith so we can belong; we belong so that we might learn. In a lot of our churches, we get this backward. It’s no wonder so many of our kids check out when they reach adulthood.
And that’s where the final caveat comes in: it’s not enough to welcome kids into your worship if it’s not participatory. If your worship is primarily a passive experience for all but those on stage—if the main event is someone lecturing for 30-60 minutes while everyone sits in silence—then you might need to rethink how you do church before you ask younger people to take part. Otherwise the question will be, take part in what?
I don’t have all the answers to how we go about welcoming kids as integral members of our worship and mission. But until we figure how to do this better, there’s not much point worrying about how we’re going to get Millennials to come back to church.
First, we need give them something to come back to.