Think Bigger: The Challenge of Reaching Millennials

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We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get the millennial generation to come to our churches. We think if we can just implement the right programs, worship formats, or welcome strategies, younger adults will fill us up again like a good rain will end the California drought. I wish both were that easy.

Finding ways to engage the millennials and the younger generations that follow in their wake is the single, biggest challenge confronting the church (and the seminary) today. It is a problem that cannot be solved by tinkering around the edges of our current ways of doing church or educating people for ministry.

Thomas Kuhn, in his groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), caused us to think about scientific progress differently. Kuhn said, normally we think of change happening as “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories. But this process of continuous change is interrupted by periods of revolutionary science, which happen when “anomalies” lead to new paradigms. These change the rules of the game and ask new questions of old data. They are leaps of faith. I think we are in a similar moment in the history of the church.

Finding ways to engage the millennials and the younger generations that follow in their wake is the single, biggest challenge confronting the church and the seminary today.

How can we discover our own paradigm-shifting anomalies and take our own leaps of faith? I took the advice of another science author, Steven Johnson, who says: “Chance favors the connected mind.” Two months ago, I convened a symposium at Wesley that brought together thought leaders from a wide range of faith traditions who work in youth and young adult ministries to hear what they are discovering. The challenge of the day was to “think bigger” and engage in the kind of creative, collaborative dialogue that might spark new ideas. I took away three insights which may prepare us to leap.

New Ways of Being Church

We must devote some part of our time thinking about “being the church” we are called to be instead of “going to the church” we are trying to hold together. Our preoccupation with people in the pews and money in the plate has led us to think about ministry too narrowly. It has blinded us to alternative expressions of what it means to be the Body of Christ.

What would it mean really to ask what God is doing through people who are not part of the church? To be a resource in their spiritual quest without insisting that our current formulation of church is sufficient? New forms of spiritual expressions and Christian community are taking shape at the edge of what we think of as church — or even beyond it entirely. We must be attentive to where God’s Spirit is already active in the lives of millennials and acknowledge that necessary change may come from the outside in.

Leading from Brokenness

I think we will discover that “authenticity” is the particular yearning of this generation. It isn’t about styles — new worship vs. old worship, or generations, young vs. old. Like Jesus, they have a finely-tuned radar for hypocrisy. They don’t want to pray for one thing and prepare for another. They think we expect them to be perfect, yet they know we are not perfect. What if, instead of continuing to act as if we have answers to all the questions, we invited young people into our struggles and our uncertainties?

Young adults face major life challenges in matters related to employment, finances, and relationships. They come back from war or out of chronic underemployment yearning for healing and wholeness. We have offered them programs when what they long for is the experience of community and care. What if, instead of focusing on “church questions,” we made the church a truly safe place to talk together about how to do life?

Incubators of Change

What if, instead of training people to run churches and serve on committees, we prepared people to innovate? What if our seminaries became incubators for change in the church, and churches became incubators for change in the world — learning laboratories where rising leaders could experiment with new approaches to ministry free from institutional pressures and fear of failure? Of course that means, instead of ministering to young adults, we would place them in leadership.

I think we would find, as all successful revolutions discover, that movement precedes institution, which means mission and service precede membership.

Glimpsing Grace

As Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the conveners of our symposium, put it, “Young people today are grasping for an offering of grace. They smell it. Even though they have no language to express it, when they experience it through a relationship or a community, it clears the way for them to live in a new way.”

When we strip away the institutional trappings of church, the Christian faith still offers answers to the fundamental questions of purpose and identity that every person, in every age, must grapple with. With this as our cornerstone, seeking new ways of being church may not be as novel and difficult as we think, as we now peer through the glass dimly.

As science must do this in its pursuit of the truth about how creation works, the church must do this in pursuit of the truth of the Gospel, about why creation exists and our purpose in it. We will have to take our own leap of faith, which begins by ignoring, for a little while, our concern about the survival of our particular institutions.


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About Author

Photo of David McAllister-Wilson

David McAllister-Wilson is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is author of A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.


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