The loneliness of being a millennial in church

A few weeks ago I saw an article get shared dozens of times by millennial friends with whom I went to seminary. It was called “The Loneliness of Being a Millennial in Church.” If you haven’t read it yet, you should. The author, Sarah Howell, says, when it comes to church that “there are people in their 20s and 30s who are faithful participants at my mainline church, and they are wonderfully engaged and active. But for the most part, when I look around the room, I see kids and teenagers, then gen-Xers on up—and a gap in between. This troubles me. I’m already plagued with a sense of not fitting in, of not being cool enough to my peers, of struggling more than I think I should with cultivating a 'normal' social life.”

Sarah goes on to share her struggles with being a young leader and the pressures of reaching other millennials—how she's not sure what needs to change in order to draw in people her age. I loved her transparency and I loved the blog. 

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing!

So I wanted to take a few moments and add to the conversation. I’m 33, single, and working as a young adult pastor for a large mainline Protestant church. I’m in a different pastoral role than Sarah, but my role is solely dedicated to reaching millennials. And I get everything she is saying. Sometimes I feel like my role is to stop the hemorrhage of young adults bleeding out of the church. 

But I don’t think it’s church young adults are turning away from. Millennials aren’t quitting church—we’re remaking church. Sarah wrote, “Millennials, far from being lost souls secretly in need of what the church has to offer (how unintentionally patronizing our evangelical efforts can be), are constantly creating community in their own ways.”

One new phenomenon spreading around the country is called “dinner party.” Their website only exists to help connect young people to eat and talk about grief and loss. When you fill out an interest form, they ask you about what loss in your life you need to talk! 

Millennials aren’t running from the church because of what it represents—we want the things that church should be. We want deep conversations, and meals to share, and people to lean on. (I’ll be attending “the dinner party” soon, so expect an article about it). 

Last weekend I went to an addiction recovery shelter in downtown Kansas City. They do a free dinner and a talk about Christianity. I led last week’s lesson, “What is Church?” and taught from the Alpha curriculum . The lesson spells it out really simply. Church is not a building or a service. Church is friends, family, home, Jesus, and love. Those are literally the bullet points of the lesson. To be honest, I felt embarrassed teaching it because it’s that simple. (Ever afraid to waste people’s time with a lesson they don’t need?)

People ate it up. Seriously. Loved it. 

Why? Because no one has told them that before. We assume people know this, but they don’t. Your congregation needs to know that you know this. They need to hear you say it. They need their leader reminding them that “church” is not about a service, but about the people who ekklesia, who gather or fellowship. 

Church is us. 

So, yeah, it’s lonely to be a millennial in church… when we’re not doing actual church. Just like it’s normal to be hungry when you don’t eat, or tired when you don’t sleep. Millennials, like everyone, are naturally tuned into the desire for community. We need it like we need to eat or sleep. We need church to be what it was meant to be: 

Friends.

Family. 

Home.

Jesus. 

Love.

There’s a lot of questions of “how?” and “what do we do?” but we need to start with the heart. Millennials aren’t anti-church. They yearn for connection and are fascinated with Jesus. And that’s a beautiful place to start.