Will the American Church Engage Emerging Generations?

David Brown
Pinnacle Consulting Coordinator

Much ink has been spilled - or more accurately keystrokes pounded - in attempts to pinpoint the struggles of the American Church to relate to the Millennial Generation.

This type of thinking proves deficient insofar as it insists on a capital “C” Church and capital “M” Millennials. Both the twenty-first century church and this generation of emerging adults tend to be painted with a broad brush. What might be more helpful, instead, would be to consider a particular church and the millennials with whom it shares a community.

In our rapidly changing world, churches are beginning to adapt from and shift out of the models for ministry that were successful over the last century, but which have become less effective in recent years. Vibrant churches are asking foundational questions, exploring their core identity, and making missional forays into their communities. They are asking the question: “What does it mean to be follow Jesus together in the twenty-first century?”

There is no manual describing this process; no denominational guidebook; no one-size-fits-all approach. If our churches are to effectively engage our changing culture, they will do so out of their particular strengths and identities, gifts and limitations. We are called to join God’s mission in the world from our particular place and in our particular time.

In a similar vein, there is no “typical” millennial human who inhabits our communities. Generational labels are social contrivances, describing big-picture trends that help us to see both similarities and difference across the population born in a particular time. There is no singular way that any generation interacts with religion or pursues faith. The same is true with this most recent generation to reach adulthood.

There are at least four distinct pathways by which millennials have learned to relate to the institutional church. (Again, these should not be seen as definitive, but descriptive - and inadequate in that. Approaches to faith are as unique as the individual doing the approaching.)

1. Millennials who grew up on the edge of church
2. Millennials who grew up deeply connected to youth groups
3. Millennials who grew up with no exposure to or connection with church
4. Millennials who grew up with active hostility to organized religion

Instead of viewing the millennials in our community through a singular lens, and either lamenting our inability to connect with them or imagining new ways to market faith to them, perhaps we church-types ought to begin with a posture of listening and learning. Approach the people you meet in your communities from the place of their own perspective, experience, and wisdom. Realize that God is already at work in the people and places outside of your doors.

The real question should not be “Can the Church engage emerging generations?” but rather “Will the Church engage emerging generations?”

What are some basic first steps (in addition to listening and learning)?
Be who you are, authentically and intentionally growing toward the church God has gifted and called you to be
Take following Jesus seriously; center your life as a church around discipleship and mission
Begin with relationships not programs; build connections around following Jesus together
Hire millennials as ministers; empower millennials to lead and serve in your congregations

Oh, and by the way: the leading edge of the next generation, Generation Z, is reaching adolescence. They are being called “screen-agers!” Get ready - they’ll provide new energy, challenge, and opportunity for our life and work together!

For a more in-depth conversation around building connections with emerging generations, see several of David’s upcoming webinars on this topic.