I went to hear a prominent Christian speaker today and she was excellent. She spoke about our current cultural dynamics, broken down by generation and religious affiliation, and that the future of the church is now.
The speaker mentioned how those in the 18-29 age range are adults.
Then an older woman made the comment, “Legally.”
And we wonder why millennials are not in the church?
Right after the woman made that comment, several people shouted back, “NO” to the woman, and “They are adults!” The speaker confirmed gently that yes, they are adults and we need to reframe our thinking.
But this comment by one woman is a symptom of a much greater problem in the church. The fact is, we treat young adults like they are children and what used to be middle-age like they are adolescents.
Look at your church board. Is there anyone under 40 on it? Anyone under 30?
I have seen this happen in the churches I have served. As a young pastor, I’ve been called “kid” many times. Ironically, when my hairdresser recently asked me about coloring my hair I said no. I need my grays that are streaking in. However, the larger issue is that regularly, people in their 30’s and 40’s in the churches I have served and known are referred to as kids (because everyone probably remembers when they were kids and their parents probably still attend that church), but what’s worse, they are often treated like kids. I have seen adults in their 70’s and 80's scold the 40-year-olds in the church over various things—their attire, their tattoos, the way they teach Sunday School—and we wonder why even younger adults are not there.
We have to stop this symptom. We have to change our attitudes. We have to treat millennials and Gen-Xers as adults. Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Millennials vote and work. We are adults. We have a vested interest—perhaps even more than others—in the future of the church and if we are not included right now, treated with equal value and respect—then why in the world would we want to stay in an institution that doesn’t treat us this way?
This symptom, of course, is a symptom of a greater issue—power and control. I remember in a previous church a group of young 30-somethings complaining about some of the decision-making in the church and how they were excluded from it. Even though they served on the board, their ideas were dismissed and opinions ignored. They often joked, “When we get to be their age, then we can be ornery and stubborn and make the church the way we want it!” That was said tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected the behavior of the boomers and the seniors in the church leadership at that time.
We shouldn’t divide on generational lines, and as was shared by another participant in this conversation, the church is one of the last institutions that can be truly intergenerational and was intended to be that way. There is value of all people of all generations being together, and we know the value of diversity within those generations. But all too often, we are dismissing “younger” adults as not being an adult, not capable of participating or making decisions or being trustworthy or having the right skills. News flash: if your church is in decline and all your leadership is above fifty, you might want to consider that you may not have the right skills for leadership today.
We cannot change all of the reasons why younger adults are leaving the church, or why they haven’t come in the first place (that would take another article, plus we would need to address the assumption that we still need to get people in to the church, and that perhaps we need to rethink our models of church, but I digress). But we can do better. The first step is changing our attitudes about younger adults. The second is to be intentionally intergernational and to break down our stereotypes of all generations. It’s going to take all of us, together, to nip this in the bud.