By: Garrett Best
Friday night, August 29th, fifteen church leaders from four congregations in the Memphis area came together for the first “Night of Dialogue.” The impetus behind this event started months ago when I was asked to speak at the Shepherd’s Network Conference at the Harding School of Theology. I was tasked to speak to a group of elders from across the country on behalf of young ministers. In order to do this, I reached out via Facebook to about 40 Millennial ministers. It was not a comprehensive survey by any means. I asked them to share with me the joys and frustrations of working in their current ministries. The respondents were graduates of Abilene, Harding, Freed-Hardeman, and Faulkner. They are working in youth, family, preaching, college, and education ministry. What I found was that a sizable group of our Millennial ministers are unhappy and frustrated in ministry. They are particularly frustrated with their relationships, or lack thereof, with elders and the older generation. What’s the worst part? These Millennial ministers are frustrated at their churches, but they don’t feel that they are able to talk to their elders (mostly older men) about their frustrations.
So, I did a little digging. I started reading Thom Rainer’s blog and Barna’s research published in You Lost Me. I also read Flavel Yeakley, a statistician in Churches of Christ. What I found was disheartening. Thom Rainer estimates that no more than 15% of Millennials are Christians and that at most, 20% regularly attend church. There are 78 million Millennials (meaning only about 11-12 million are active churchgoers). In You Lost Me, researchers found that 60% of those graduating high school leave the church. Flavel Yeakley confirmed that statistic in Churches of Christ and found that we are losing 55% of our graduating high school seniors during college. You don’t have to look around long to know those statistics are accurate.
A few weeks after the Shepherd’s Network, I was asked to speak on the Summer Series of a local church. I was given the topic, “Reaching Millennials.” I worked on the presentation with my circle of Millennial ministers in town who regularly work with young adults. When I spoke, I told the congregation who Millennials are as a generation, what we are looking for when we come to church, and what a church must do to reach them. It caused quite a stir. I even heard of a gentlemen who was upset at my presentation and said, “Well, if that’s what Millennials want in church, then they can just go somewhere else.” I had stirred up the hornets nest.
I presented that same lesson at two other churches. What I have found in our churches is that the older generation and younger generation spend a lot of time talking about their frustrations with one another, but rarely ever talk to one another. The younger generation does not feel they can approach the elders. The older members of the congregation have a hard time understanding the younger generation. Both groups feel threatened by the other. “These young folks just want to move too fast. We don’t want things to change.” “These older folks don’t want to try anything new. We won’t grow if we don’t change.” Let’s face it, we look at life, work, family, politics, and the church differently.
I began to feel that many of the problems we are facing are caused by a lack of dialogue. We all need to sit down across from one another and have a conversation. We can’t keep pretending the generational differences aren’t causing tensions in our churches. So we decided to do something about it. We planned the first “Night of Dialogue”. Fifteen church leaders from four congregations came together to sit down and talk with one another. There were five Millennial ministers, five experienced ministers, and five elders. The four churches range the conservative-progressive spectrum. Dr. Evertt Huffard, dean of Harding School of Theology, moderated the event.
Some of the questions we discussed were: “What is a strength of your own generation?”; “What are some disappointments with your own generation?”; “What can we do to reach the unchurched (especially unchurched Millennials)?” We discussed these questions for two hours. The Millennial ministers were able to express some of our frustrations and concerns to church leaders. We confessed that we have a hard time trusting the older generation because we don’t feel trusted, respected, or listened to. As a generation, we are questioning the traditions we’ve been taught and we are skeptical of the institutional church, but we don’t feel free in our churches to talk about our questions, doubts, and concerns. As a generation, we believe the church is moving away from the building (home churches, small groups, etc.) rather than towards large edifices with pews, hymnbooks, and shag carpet. We feel that we are expected to maintain the programs, buildings, and structures that were designed by and for previous generations leaving us little time for the relational ministry that young adults need. As a group, we value relationships and are craving small group interactions. We feel a huge burden for our Millennial peers who are not in church (because many of us have siblings in this age group that are not connected to the church). Whoosh… There… We said it.
The older ministers and elders shared some of their concerns about the Millennial generation (concerns which most of us Millennial ministers also share). Some elders confessed that they had not been transparent enough with the younger generation. They confessed that they needed to do a better job of being open to the concerns of Millennials in their churches. We all realized that we share a common goal: we love the church and we want to see a united church effectively reach the unchurched. We talked about the need for innovation and change in evangelism while tempering our discussion with the need to be sensitive to the concerns of older Christians. We ended the meeting with an elder and Millennial praying together.
Where do we go from here? We decided that each of the four congregations represented needed to have a “Night of Dialogue” within their own congregation. Once we open up the lines of communication, walls begin coming down. What we discover is that we all want the same thing. We are working on the same team. We believe the gospel is powerful and can change the lives of an 80 year old and an 18 year old.