Mention the word “millennials” and adjectives like “entitled”, “lazy”, and “disrespectful” may pop into your mind. It is no secret that institutional churches in general are having huge difficulties retaining and engaging with them. However, are these stereotypes really true or are millennials just misunderstood like every other generation before them? Does the church need to learn to adapt to them or should we stand our ground and demand that they fit into the current structures and practices which have served us so well for hundreds of years?
Sometime last year, before the world was hit by the pandemic, Graceworks embarked on a research project to better understand how millennial Christians relate to the faith and to the institutional church. This has now been expanded into The Generations Project where we hope to facilitate meaningful conversations between the different generations so that greater unity can be nurtured through deeper empathy.
This is the first in a series of eCommentaries where we will be presenting some trends that have emerged from our ethnographic research with millennial Christians from 17 churches across nine denominations in Singapore. In the following weeks, we will invite a Gen X and a Baby Boomer Christian to comment on our findings. The trends presented are definitely not representative of all millennial Christians but are, in our opinion, still worthy of consideration, especially in this new season that we find ourselves in.
The Institutional Church is Fading but Community Endures
Contrary to popular belief, millennials value community and accountability and in fact view these as the main reasons for the existence of the church. Many expressed that they still remain in their churches solely because of the relationships that had been built in their formative years. However, it is also their opinion that true community and accountability are better nurtured in small groups which need not be formally affiliated to any institution. They feel that without the “institutional baggage” which is often loaded with non-essentials like KPIs and church/denominational agendas, real relationships can flourish.
What of the pulpit and the teaching and preaching of the Word? It seems that they find it just as important as any other generation, but, with technology, this function of the institutional church is slowly diluting. Not only are they able to access the best preachers from anywhere in the world, it is also available on demand (think Netflix).
The “Overstructured” and “Over-programmed” Church
Many millennial Christians we spoke to felt that a large part of the structures and programmes that are currently found in churches can be very detrimental to the building of real community which is of core importance to them. From their point of view, many relationships, especially those between laity and clergy, are largely transactional. This makes the millennials feel like “cogs in a machine” and their worth is determined by the function that they fulfil in the church and how effective they are in achieving outcomes. Other than the use of God and spirituality to justify one’s motivation in ministry, the way modern churches operate is not very different from secular organisations which often regard people only as resources needed to achieve a goal.
The “Performance System” Implicit in Churches
True to the millennial stereotype of having a deep desire to be authentic and “true to oneself”, they abhor the perceived “performance system” which is rampant in our churches. They feel that church members are either explicitly told or implicitly hinted at on what the desired and unwanted behaviours are in church. You will then be “rewarded” or “penalised” based on your level of compliance to these expectations. Beyond the hypocrisy which this encourages, they also feel that it results in a spirituality that aims at and is content with external behavioural modification which ultimately does not result in any real internal change. If church is perceived to be “manipulative”, why should they waste their time and energy in a place where they will not be accepted for who they are?
The Vision and Work of Most Churches is Perceived to be Very Narrow
Millennials in general are not positive about the current “face” of the church that is being portrayed in the public eye. They especially feel that much more can be done to properly address controversial issues like the Christian stance towards LGBTQ+ issues and the impact of mental illness. A major contributor to the current state of affairs is the fact that many churches are primarily interested in reaching out to people who are within the same social strata as the majority of their members and, as a result, tend to overlook the marginalized in society. When this is coupled with what they perceive as the “turf guarding” tendencies of churches and denominations that have caused great disunity in the body of Christ, the institutional church seems to spend a lot more time and energy looking inward rather than outward.
The four trends identified above are not meant to be seen as a justified critique of the institutional church but are simply a reflection of what we have been told by the young Christians we have interviewed. It is not meant to further exacerbate the tensions between the generations but to invite honest conversations that we hope will lead to greater unity through deeper empathy for one another in the body of Christ. If you are a millennial, please let us know if you identify with what has been written. If you are from another generation, we would love to hear how you think the church can begin to build bridges. Comment on our Facebook page GraceworksSG or email firstname.lastname@example.org.