Winning Back Generation Y

Millennial-Man235x275Recent surveys suggest Millennials are frustrated with today’s churches. As a twenty-something myself, I can understand why. But with a little more creativity and vision, we can show today’s young adults that the church still has something to offer them.

An article at The Root asking the question why so many Generation Yers are abandoning the church caught my attention this week. Written by a member of my own Gen-Y or Millennial generation (born in the 1980s and ’90s), the piece attempts to explain the restlessness and dissatisfaction many young adults are feeling regarding the church. While I disagree with several of the author’s points, it’s obvious that the church’s appeal among younger generations has decreased.

I’ve been in the church all my life. I’ve been interested in activist organizations that speak to the plight of the disadvantaged and underprivileged for as long as I can remember. I see much value in church and in many of these organizations.

Much of my talent was honed in the church. Most of my gifts were developed in the church. I was afforded opportunities to lead, speak, sing, and express myself in ways that have distinguished me from my peers who did not have as many opportunities in other places. I was also affirmed in the church which gave me a sense of confidence and pride I would not have had otherwise.

I am naturally disappointed, then, when I see the decline of participation of my generation and the generations around mine in church and other social organizations. Interesting as it may sound, I can understand many of my peers who are tired of “church as usual.” I can sympathize with their desire to take a break from the weekly routine of going to church to sit in the pew for a few hours, often fighting sleep.

While we are not the only generation to feel this way, we are unique in a few ways. We are one of the first generations where no significant movement for social progress has been led by the church. Before his death, Michael Jackson said he planned to do his final series of concerts so that his children could see him perform. They were not old enough to have witnessed him in his heyday. Similarly, our generation has not seen the glory of the church in action.

We are also one of the first generations where the church didn’t heavily influence the music we grew up listening to. It’s now popular culture that has a greater influence on the music of the church.

You must admit that times are changing. So are people. While I believe the church, at its core, should remain the same, there are some things she should consider as she tries to attract wayward youth and young adults — and to keep the ones she has.

1. We Are Searching for Relevance and Meaning.

Everybody, at some point in life, will get to the place where they ask the timeless questions of purpose and meaning: Why am I here? What am I to do while I’m here? What will happen once I die? Though I cannot speak with authority about the degree to which people in past generations sought answers, I get the sense that people in my demographic are interested and willing to travel across traditional, denominational, and even religious lines to collect information. Keeping in mind the fact that we have been trained to be critical thinkers, this quest is very important. The answers that the church provides, though truthful, come off as inadequate because they do not satisfy the quest.

We are also looking for someone to speak to us where we are and help lead us to living our best lives. In my opinion, the church is a great place for this to happen, but pastors and church leaders need to know that it’s not the only place. Oprah is doing a great job where the church is failing. I think a compartmentalized Jesus is part of the reason. Preaching, in other words, should be more than Sunday school stories told from an adult perspective. Church should teach more than Jesus and salvation. We are interested in day-to-day ideas about diet and lifestyle, maintaining healthy relationships, getting a promotion at work, and even understanding the mental and spiritual mysteries.

A pastor who is interested in attracting or keeping young adults should make room for questions and critique. Pastors should not be concerned about confusing our generation. It’s already too late for that. Provide a safe and loving place where we can dialogue about what we are confused about without being condemned to hell. Also understand that the threat of hell is not as potent as it used to be. Overuse of anything tends to increase the tolerance one has for it. Additionally, preach the unadulterated truth. It is embarrassing for me to hear someone from another faith preaching truth and being more relevant than the Christian minister. The pendulum is swinging. The preach-me-happy sermons are overrated and overdone. We want truth. Unadulterated and naked.

2. We Are Looking for a Place to Belong.

I don’t know anyone who likes feeling rejected or unwanted. It’s a part of the human hierarchy of needs. For many in my generation, we have been taught that the church is that place. Most regrettably, too many people in my generation do not feel that way. Just the other day, I saw one of my friend’s Facebook status which said something like, “I have to deal with enough drama from hypocrites in the world as it is. When the church starts acting like the church, let me know — then I’ll return.” While I understand that the politics of human relationships inevitably means some sort of drama, the expectation of people in my generation is that the church should be less stressful than the workplace. If the people there act like the people in the world, the conclusion is, why go? If I still have to wear masks and put on an act around other people wearing masks, what’s the point? Beyond that, if nothing more, the pastor should be someone who is respectable, caring, and available for spiritual counsel. Unfortunately for the church, however, there are too many impostors in the pulpits, and our generation can see through the façade! If the preacher is not seen as someone who is trustworthy and genuinely concerned about my spiritual growth and development, it reflects on that local church — and if there are enough stories, the whole institution.

A pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should be invested in making sure people feel welcomed. S/he should be available for spiritual advice, and warmth should emanate from their countenance. It’s important that a pastor lives the life s/he preaches about. That alone will do wonders for the church.

3. We Are Seeking Work to Do and a Team to Work With.

Personally, I am not interested in sitting in a pew from the time I enter until the time I leave. In fact, I don’t know if anyone wants to (which may explain why some churches have a meet-and-greet period where congregants are allowed to speak to their neighbors and socialize). Unfortunately, this is no longer enough. I like to feel like my presence at church matters, and that I have a meaningful contribution to offer to the flow of the service besides my financial offering. I also want to meet people who are likeminded and work with them in a meaningful ministry. Not just a group of people who meet every two or four weeks to talk about ministry, but a group of people who come together to minister. We want to meet needs, we want to make a difference, we want to change the world. On the surface, it may seem as if we are an individualistic generation that only cares about ourselves and our status, but at the end of the day, we want to fill the void that comes from having such ambitions — and ministry and community service is one important way to achieve that.

A pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should make sure there is work for us to do — and not just busy work. Small groups/teams comprising other people in our demographic are especially attractive because it can meet a social need and a spiritual need simultaneously. Pastors should also be open to us “reinventing the wheel.” I have been involved with too many organizations where momentum and excitement was sucked dry by an adult saying, “That’s already been done.” Why not let us do it again? The quest or process of arriving at a conclusion is better for us than to be spoon fed. Additionally, be aware that some of us are looking for immediate gratification. The more we can see the fruit from our labor, the better.

4. We Are Looking for Solutions.

We are living in a mean and cruel world. Problems are abundant — racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and so many other isms plague our communities. Children are being kidnapped, youth are being killed, students are dropping out of school, and babies are having babies. It seems, at times, that amid all of these problems the only answer the church has is prayer. To people in my generation, as honorable as that may be, it doesn’t seem like enough. If we’re not careful, we will conclude that the church has no clue about what’s going on. I often wonder whether or not the church is equipped to deal with the realities its parishioners are facing in these modern times. In many cases, it is a turn off. The picture churches are painting, whether they intend to or not, is one of a bunch of powerless people begging and pleading to a Suffering Servant to come down and help us navigate through this mean and cruel world in these last and evil days. It’s almost hypocritical. There’s an all-powerful God that Christians claim to know personally, and yet they are poor (in too many cases), unfulfilled, and worst of all, powerless to change the horrid conditions in which they find themselves.

In addition to preaching and praying, a pastor who is interested in attracting/keeping young adults should be active in looking for real-life solutions. The church has resources to the extent that they can be the answer to many of the prayers people are sending up. It must become more intentional about reaching out beyond the walls of the church to serve the people, and more creative in finding ways to address other needs and empower youth and young adults to tackle the problems they face each day.

All of the characteristics about my generation may not be good. We can be selfish, impatient, and shortsighted, no question. Good or bad, though, we are who we are. Knowing this going in is always better, because teaching and training then can be informed rather than ill-informed. One has to know whom they are working with if they are going to reach them. As Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

I love the church. I love people. And it saddens me that two of the things I love don’t love each other. Let’s see what we can do to change that.

About the author, Tim Lee

Tim Lee, a Chicago-based editor and youth minister, is the founder of One Black Man, a leadership consulting firm for Black boys between the ages of 13 and 18. In his free time, Lee actively participates as a member of the Metropolitan Board of the Chicago Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
  1. That article was amazing. You didn`t just nag nor did you talk about the youth as a woe is me generation. You actually thought this through and offered up suggestions. You made very interesting points. I agree with your philosophy on where you basically said that, “its time to stop playing church”. Souls need to be saved, people need comprehensive tools to make it through daily life, especially our young people. Hey, if you run for office you`ve got my vote.

  2. This is an awesome article. I found it insightful and personally relevant. Like the prior commentary, I agree with your philosophy and fundamental message. Great job Big Bro, but I would expect anything else from my fellow Hamptionian. Lol

  3. Very intriguing article. I agree w/ the majority of it. Along with the desire to see the church “adjust” with the times.
    I Also think that consideration must be made concerning the fact that there has to FIRST be the desire to draw nigh to the LORD.
    As the Scripture says, we have to “work out our soul’s salvation with fear and trembling.” We live in what the Bible calls a wicked and perverse generation that seems to know not God or has created what they believe God is w/o even going to His word to really know. That mindset has to be abandoned.
    And I very much agree with your points of where the church can do better. But if the church NEVER does better, it’s still up to each individual to have that relationship w/ Christ. When we stand before the throne of Judgement, God’s not going to say “I understand that you didn’t live right because the church didn’t properly reach out to you.” He’s going to require our souls of us.
    What I like most about the article is that we need to tell the unadulterated TRUTH…And the basis of the truth is that we are all going to hell unless we allow the Lord to be our Fire Escape.
    Too often we try to cater to the times and avoid calling sin what it is….SIN! We can’t want our churches to be full at the expense of compromising to cater to people’s emotions. (But that’s a whole subject in itself)
    Like I said, Great work Tim.

  4. great read. i agree with many of the points you make and i liked the soulution-driven approach… i see you ended with a quote from paul…TIMOTHY traveled with him, correct?

  5. Tim – A friend of mine encouraged me to read this article, and I am glad that I did. Like many of the respondents above, I agree with most of your points. I wholeheartedly believe that we should focus on TRUTH in churches in general. I think there are a lot of practices outside of TRUTH that can turn people away from the church. I am always wary of trying to attract people to the church, especially in this generation because we are constantly bombarded with images and bling and things are constantly changing. Yet, when Jesus was on the scene, He did not try to attract people, He just was. People followed Him because He spoke as one with authority and miracles, signs, and wonders followed Him. We as a body need to get back to the TRUTH, we need to “be about our Father’s business” and we need to live the lives that the Bible describes.
    One last point. You briefly mentioned the money piece. I think we underestimate money in our culture. Many folks in and out of the church are not doing well financially. I think part of the lour in generation is towards those stars with money and some bad employment venture choices can stem from a pursuit of money. In the church, I think there needs to be more financial education in terms of being a good steward of money and leaving a legacy for generations to come. I heard something today that said there are over 2,000 scriptures on money and around 500 on prayer. It’s in the Bible, let’s help people with this in practical steps from the Bible.

  6. Great article. As a suggestion for number 3 in your article, we should all be aware of 1 Corinthians 12. In this chapter Paul discusses spiritual gifts and the church being one body. We were all given spiritual gifts and we should be using them to uplift the church and working together as one body with many parts. My current church home has a handful of ministries, much to my dismay. I was praying and thinking that it was time for me to leave the church because they didn’t have the ministries “I needed.” However, God revealed to me that it was time for me to become a “working member” of the church as opposed to just a “churchgoer.” This excited a part of me that I didn’t know existed. My church is now in the process of developing a Womens’ Ministry and our goal is to meet the need of the Women in the church. Our congregation is a bit older than I am, a lot actually, but we have a core group of young women who are eager and ready to work for God. I encourage you all to pray about your spiritual gifts and see what God reveals to you. We never know what God will use us for but we can rest assured that He’s working His plan through us!

  7. I agree with this article..This stood out to me most:Preaching, in other words, should be more than Sunday school stories told from an adult perspective. Church should teach more than Jesus and salvation. We are interested in day-to-day ideas about diet and lifestyle, maintaining healthy relationships, getting a promotion at work, and even understanding the mental and spiritual mysteries. I believe that there has to be a great enlightenment within the church of the 21st century, but it starts with the youth. However, a problem arises: getting the youth to recognize the importance of starting the wave of change in todays church.

  8. Tim Lee thank you for your so relevant article.I believe the church is in dire of change for the 21st century.Making it more relevant to todays times and our daily lives on life’s terms.There too many youth dying by gun violence,being abused,raped,suicide,plus the other “isms” you mention.There are people outside of the church who are making a Big difference like Oprah who had become disillusioned with her church and so have myself but now I do attend a church where different people from all walks of life and different religious backgrounds can come together
    to worship.In conclusion,I just want to say,I read
    a book(being an African-American Woman)written by
    Marilyn Martin,M.D. with Martin Moss and the passage stated”African and Eastern cultures understood that our health and well-being are intimately tied to our faith.Addressing spirituality in mental health.I am not just addressing to women only. I believe too that healthier life styles and relationships is so needed amongst youth.Finally,better eating habits and nutrition because there is so much obesity among youth more nutritious foods.Thanks again,respectfully.

  9. My Brother,
    God has given His Holy Word to sinful man; the church is functioning out of the flesh and not out of the Spirit. The church has been there and done that. God is in the saving business and one thing is for sure if anybody goes to any church with a made up mine for God they will find Him.
    There is a generation killing one another at the drop of a hat. Those critical thinkers as you call them have undone what the church and African American leaders, sacrificed, fought, and die for. The legacy of our freedom comes from the church. That generation should be tearing down the doors of the church to get in.
    They need to come to church and sit down and learn of the savior Jesus and how to live the lifestyle of Christ. Instead of terrorizing the communities they live in.
    They need to wait on the Lord until the Holy Spirit gets a hold of them and changes them from being who they are; sinners gone amuck, into the image of Christ. Pray changes things; it’s not that pray is not enough, it is we are not praying enough. Christians need to turn over some plates and fast and pray. This would be a good work. My God! If we will get down on our knees and cry out to God for a lose generation and world; an all-powerful God will move. The church is not changing the world because the world is changing the church.
    To obey is better than sacrifice.
    God Bless You!
    Brother Joe

  10. Good post Tim, well thought out and articulated.
    I’d like to raise a few points for discussion: 1. You said that youth are disconnected because “Similarly, our generation has not seen the glory of the church in action.” I’m not sure that’s the case Tim. I think part of the problem is this myth of the all mighty black church being the prophetic vehicle of the past. While black churches were certainly engaged in the struggle many were not and I think this theology of un-engagement and being contently oppressed has trickled down and has persisted in many of our churches today. While I was raised in the church and echo many of your sentiments in regards to the building of my character within – it wasn’t until I spent a year with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd that I understood faithbased social justice … in short, there’s a serious disconnect.
    Secondly, and this is connected to the first point, I think the disconnect stems from a lack of truth – and I’m so glad you brought that up. Many churches, including (and stemming from) their leadership and clergy have been badly miseducated. I’m hoping that our generation and my collegues in the ministry will help to turn this around.

  11. Great article Tim! I’m thankful that you would take the initiative to continue this conversation. My only hope is that at some point the conversation would translate into real action; and, I’ll qualify that by saying that we need some people (like yourself) who are bold enough to disrupt the status quo of today’s church. In fact, as the 20 year-olds of today’s church, it is our responsibility to reinvent the way we do church completely.
    As you stated, young people are exploring other faiths more now than they ever have before. Does the church cater to that? Should they? I argue that they should! I believe that the church must take-on a “rock-star mentality” – a mentality that gives the people what they want, because we sure as hell know what they don’t want.
    They don’t want to be yelled at from a pulpit about how to live/do better. They don’t want to spend all-day Sunday in a church (or any other day of the week for that matter). They don’t want to spend their free time around a bunch of fake people with limited perspectives on life.
    Give them something new! Heavy Metal instead of R&B. Skateboards instead of a basketball. The Internet instead of a book. Ecumenism and the freedom to explore life from a Christ perspective instead of Christianity!!!