Depending on who you ask, the generation known as Millennials has a problematic relationship with evangelical Christian church. Some more than others may claim that the situation is dire, but most agree that at least a certain subset of the generation is disappearing from church rolls. Among the young, educated, urban professionals, church affiliation is historically low on their priority list.
Faith, however, is a different matter. Harder to measure, faith, even faith in Jesus Christ is less and less essentially tied to church membership. Especially for Millennials, whose inherent iconoclasm and anti-institutional tendencies make them leery of attendance keeping, capital campaigns, and 50-year plans.
Fr. William Eavenson, Jr. serves as the lead pastor for student ministry at The Mission Chattanooga in Tennessee. He’s devoted the past 10 years to ministering to his own generation, and seen considerable fruit where many have struggled to gain traction.
“Millennials reject a Church that to us seems outdated, overly political, anti-homosexual, anti-science, doubtless, power and cash obsessed and generally hypocritical. We like and in many cases even love Jesus and want to know and maybe even follow Him, but refuse to believe we have to take on the vestiges of cultural religion in order to do so,” Eavenson said.
As the population of city center young professionals continues to grow in San Antonio, several Christian pastors have found deep resonance with the passions, skepticism, and concerns of the educated, professional 18-35 demographic. The very demographic that seems to be vacating the pews of their parents’ churches is flocking to their authenticity, generosity, and tangibility.
These pastors seem to look at the state of the Christian faith with prophetic eyes. Prophetic in sense of the Biblical Old Testament prophets. Some see the Millennial generation as a wake up call to the institutional church.
In a study conducted by the Barna Group, only 30% of Millennials of any faith felt that church was very important. Most evangelical pastors would probably support those statistics, as they try to figure out how to minister to this huge and increasingly unchurched population.
For the pastors whose ministries are filled with active, passionate Millennials, there is little disconnect between the generation and the Christian faith. In fact, they’ve found that by speaking to the needs, hang-ups and quirks of many Millennials they are able love the disillusioned, forgotten, and hurting of every generation. Which is a lot like the Jesus they keep talking about.
Doug Robbins is the pastor of City Church Downtown. It’s immediately obvious why Millennials are drawn to his ministry.
“I’m not trying to reach Millennials,” Robbins said.
In 2008 Robbins felt called by God to start a church downtown. City Church Downtown’s sister campuses, Bandera Road City Church and City Church West look like the communities they serve on the northwest and far west of San Antonio, respectively. Robbins wanted the downtown campus to reflect its neighborhood as well. Since they meet at the Cameo Theater in St. Paul Square, the crowd is diverse. As the church’s website proudly proclaims, “We welcome everyone from bikers to bankers, PhD’s to G.E.D.’s, hipsters to homeless, blue collar, white collar, and a few who wear dog collars.”
When visitors arrive on Sunday morning, they may or may not realize that the usher greeting them at the door falls in and out of homelessness. But they won’t see someone who looks like them strategically placed to make them feel comfortable.
The church, which is 70% minority and multi-generational appeals to real San Antonio, not a target demographic. Diversity means that social justice and healing, key values of the Millennial generation, are a necessary component of the ministry.
“There aren’t enough hipsters to fill a church. Why not love the people who are here?” Robbins said.
Well, hipsters love that. Young people love that. Hurt people love that. People of all ages who don’t fit into the shiny, polite churches of the 20th century love that. Millennials crave authenticity, which, by definition, can’t be manufactured.
So Robbins keeps loving the people around him, and the crowd keeps growing.
The homegrown appeal is another key to the Millennial puzzle. The generation that loves to eat and buy “local” also loves to worship that way. They don’t seek stability in the establishment or name brand franchises. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Drew Witt’s ministry, The Gathering Church, almost feels like an underground network. Their Sunday worship gathering in the Star Storage Facility (the former Borden Milk Plant) is not easy to find. Few do so without a personal invitation.
Fortunately for Witt, who calls himself “the reluctant church planter,” the ministry is made up of some of the most passionate people in downtown. By relying on word of mouth and relationships to bring people to the church, The Gathering Church emphasizes connectivity over publicity or programming.
That is intentional on Witt’s part. When he felt God moving him toward the River North area four years ago, he had no intention of starting a church.
“The last thing San Antonio needs is another church service,” he said, recalling his thoughts at the time.
So they didn’t start a church, in the traditional sense. They started meeting people and listening to them. From his graphic design/videography office at Geekdom, Witt watched as a network of people formed around he and his wife, and eventually began worshipping together on Sundays.
“We didn't want to start a church, we just wanted to serve people,” Witt said.
To that end, he’s kept his ministry “light weight and low maintenance.” Rather than imposing a calendar of committees and church events, Witt encourages people to do stuff with the people in their neighborhoods and workplaces. Theologically, he’s commissioning them to go live like Jesus in their ordinary lives. Practically, he’s freeing them up to invest in the activities that mean something to them. Kickball, beer nights, Habitat for Humanity, whatever it is.
For Millennials, whose lives are packed with vocational, relational, and recreational activity this model works. Millennials love purpose. They love finding fulfillment in their jobs, friends, and volunteering. Rather than replacing that with church activity, Witt blesses their activity and commissions them to do it like Jesus would.
Far from eschewing history and rootedness, people in their 20s are looking for exactly that. The institutions of their parents and grandparents may have disappointed them, but so has the internet. They want something to hold on to, that still looks like the original. The original here being Jesus.
“Everything in our world is cheap and disposable. A faith that is ancient, transcendent, beautiful, proven true, and found meaningful through many times and places is compelling … it feeds the part of us that craves having causes to fight for in a way that is anti-consumerist,” Eavenson said.
This has led many young adults who were raised in evangelical or main stream churches back to the ultra-tangible, high-church traditions like Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Patrick Burnham, 26, fits this profile of a young urban professional perfectly. He lives in Dignowity Hill, works at Lake|Flato, and after growing up Baptist and nondenominational he now worships at St. Anthony the Great Eastern Orthodox Church.
“I love that my church is truly ancient, that it's not trying to recreate or imitate how the early church worshipped and practiced their faith, because it is the uninterrupted continuation of that earliest church,” Burnham said.
The tangibility and history appeal to Burnham and other young converts to the ancient traditions, but within these practices they have also found a spirituality that appeals to their values.
“My church is a loving and compassionate community of sinners who love Christ and understand that each of us are still being healed by God. It is the safest and most peaceful place I've ever known, it is how I envision heaven,” Burnham said.
Millennials want authenticity, honesty, and compassion. They want to be led in how to care for the underserved and disenfranchised. They want to have real friendships with people outside their faith community. They want to know that when life’s storms come (and they are often still to come for the Millennials) that they won’t be alone. They want something that wasn’t invented by their grandparents.
That’s actually a lot like Biblical Christianity, the way Jesus did it.
*Featured/top image: Doug Robbins leads a worship service for City Church Downtown during Easter Service at Sunset Station. Courtesy photo.