Superfluous, Supportive or Vital? The Church and Emerging Generations


We’ve seen the signs. Millennials and members of Generation Z have disaffiliated from organized religion. Even those who have grown up in church have become “nones” or “dones.”

Denominational Christianity in the United States has been in decline for decades, individualized spiritualities have increased in popularity, secularism remains a powerful force, and even nondenominational bodies have seen younger generations abandon ship. The alarm has sounded, and, quite naturally, Christian leaders have sought strategies for addressing this state of affairs.

We’ve seen some of the responses. Maybe you’ve tried a few of these strategies. Churches have retooled youth gatherings to be more “relevant” to Gen Zers, or created an alternative worship service for Millennials with a different style of music or visual liturgy. Leaders have upgraded technology, printed a glossy brochure, and purchased ads on social media.

Has it worked?

At best, we can report mixed success. Sure, some communities have flourished and helped younger generations come to know Jesus. But consumer-driven strategies bring baggage--both obvious and insidious.

In her book Reciprocal Church: Becoming a Community Where Faith Flourishes Beyond High School, Professor Sharon Galgay Ketcham of Gordon College argues that our understanding of the individual Christian to the community of faith is vital in helping emerging generations to develop an enduring commitment to Jesus and his Way.

According to Dr. Ketcham, most churches understand the relationship of the Christian to the community of faith to either be superfluous, supportive, or vital. With each view, there is a corresponding ecclesiology, or understanding of the church. The first two are insufficient, while the third holds promise.

In the superfluous view, the church is seen as unnecessary for spiritual maturity. Either resulting from negative experiences with the church or a theology emphasizing an individualistic “me and Jesus” understanding of spirituality, emerging generations have received the message from the church that they can be a Christian without the church. As a result, these persons remain unconnected to a Christian community. If they have a spirituality, it is one they cobble together on their own.

In the supportive view, the church is seen primarily as an community that helps to develop or enrich faith, offering spiritual nourishment. Attendees understand themselves as receivers or consumers of what the church has to offer, and so long as the church helps them to feel as though they are a growing or receiving spiritual nourishment, they remain part of that body. But in the event that feelings changes, they seek a new church that better meets their spiritual needs.

But in the vital view, Ketcham says, “the church carries out the dual task of nurturing an individual’s relationship with God and the community’s relationship with each other” (31). All people, regardless of generation, are participants in the life of the body. They are growing in their relationship to God while experiencing life together as a fellowship, as a people who have been uniquely commissioned and sent to serve in the world.

How would you classify the relationship between Millennials or Gen Zers you know and the community of faith? Does your church send the message that the body of Christ is superfluous, supportive, or absolutely vital for spiritual maturity?

How do you impart those messages? More importantly, how do you create space and encourage the practice of Christian faith as a body? How are emerging generations learning not only what they have to receive, but what they have to give?