What's Tony Thinking

Number One in 2019


In my last post I reviewed my most popular posts of the year. I included numbers 5 through 2. Now it’s time for numero uno.

Two quick notes before going there. This is based on numbers of readers, i.e. “clicks.” That is, it’a quantity, not quality, based assessment. Some of my own favorites don’t make the list. So it goes.

Second, this number one had far and away more clicks than any of the others in the top five. Not even close. Those garnered in the 600 to 1,000 range. This one was well over 4,000. For what reasons, I am not totally sure, but will speculate shortly.

Enough stalling. Number one was Turns Out Millennials Want Church to Be Church, published in September 18, 2019. If the link function does not work for you, go to the site homepage, www.anthonybrobinson.com, and use the archive function to get to the article.

This blog was based on a Barna Group study on what millennials look for in a church. Which I summed up as — surprise — millennials want the church to be church.

Here’s the money paragraph from the study:

“More than anything else, millennials are coming to church to encounter the divine. Though the church’s authority may be minimized in other areas of culture, it is still given primacy in spirituality. When millennials show up, they want to engage in the serious matters of the soul. Attempts by previous generations to make spaces feel less holy and more corporate have less attraction to this generation.”

This fits with my observation of churches that are popular with the millennial generation. There’s an emphasis on God, on experiencing God’s presence through praise, prayer, scripture, sermon, sacrament and community. There is often a good bit of traditional liturgy, e.g. prayers of confession, use of creeds. And they are sacramental, many having Holy Communion each Sunday, baptism being a big deal.

All of this usually goes along with a high degree of informality. People mostly dress down. Often they come late. There’s movement, some coming and going, as the service proceeds. The music may be traditional or contemporary, but most often a mix of both.

Note the final line of the quoted paragraph. “Attempts by previous generations to makes spaces feel less holy and more corporate have less attraction to this generation.”

The Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were the pioneers of that move from tradition. And it worked for them, at least many of them. Why? Well, the boomers, were the last generation to be born in an America where church attendance/ membership was sort of expected, where a sense of obligation still had some pull. And many were fleeing churches that were rigid, bigoted and pretty un-Jesus-like. The boomers rebellion was to make church less “churchy.” That generation grew up with stronger roots and a more traditional culture, which they/ we challenged. But, for better or worse, we had that grounding.

For a host of reasons, generations since then (Gen-X, Millennials, now Gen-Z) have grown up with far less stability, far fewer reliable norms and institutions. Some of that is driven by economic change (globalization and knowledge based economy) and technology (digital/ internet). Some by changes in family patterns, such as later marriage, more singleness, children born later. And fewer (children) in number. There’s also multiculturalism and an emphasis on diversity in ever multiplying forms. Fewer givens. To me drug use is also a factor. Boomers began an experiment that has gone mainstream.

None of these changes can be accurately described as simply bad or good. It’s more complex than that. As always, a mixed bag of pluses and minuses.

But here’s one important implication for the church, which I draw from my experience as a pastor for thirty years and a consultant for fifteen.

The Boomers in churches tend to generalize from their own experience and make it normative. That is, they wanted church to be less churchy, and tend to assume this is true of all subsequent generations and of all younger people.

I heard from a millennial not long ago who tried one of our (UCC) churches, and got into conversation with an old-timer, like me. When the millennial visitor said, “I’m not really sure I believe in God,” the Boomer said, “Great, you’ll like it here, most of us don’t believe in God either.” Perhaps the Boomer was being somewhat facetious. But the millennial later said to me, “I didn’t say I wasn’t interested. I said I wasn’t sure. Actually, I thought, if none of you believe in God, why bother? I was kind of hoping to encounter believers.”

For Boomers, being a skeptic or agnostic or even atheist was some risky kind of protest against a churched culture. But that tends not to be where subsequent generations are coming from. So when Boomers attempts to downplay faith, theology, prayer, spiritual practices, worship, sacraments as their way to make church accessible, it can prove counter-productive. Alas, too many Boomers seem not to have gotten the memo. Many of my generation continue to think the best way to attract young people is to downplay, even pooh-pooh, faith and tradition.

So we return to the blog, “Turns Out Millennials Want Church to Be Church.” It might have been popular because so many churches seem to be struggling to connect with that generation. There’s huge anxiety around that. It might be because the study and my review of it questioned some assumptions that need questioning. Or it might be that the post made it onto a couple of well-used aggregating sites. Who knows?

But this I believe to be true. We now live in a post-church, post-modern, post-Christian(dom) culture. Churches that thrive understand that and aren’t afraid to be the church.




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