Want Millennials Back in the Pews?

The term “Millennials” refers to those born from the early 1980s to the 2000’s. This generation is hard to define in most ways save one: They are not very religious. According to a Huffington Post survey of Canadian millennials, 51% of respondents said they had NEVER attended a religious institution, and only 12% said they attend weekly – highest at 23% in Central Canada, and lowest with only 3% in Quebec.[1]

Most churchgoers will not be surprised by these statistics as the obvious decline in church attendance among millennials (and most other demographics) has been well documented for years now.

But what can we do? A popular blog by the newly Episcopalian convert Rachel Held Evans is provocatively titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’”[2] The article employs statistics from Barna to generalize Ms. Held Evans’ experience of transitioning from American Evangelicalism to Episcopalianism. Citing the widespread disillusionment in specific critiques that Christianity is “judgmental” (87% of non-Christians polled), and “hypocritical” (85%),[3] Ms Held Evans suggests that congregations that practice their faith in an “authentic” and “inclusive” way can be a home for disaffected Evangelicals like her. She cites a separate Barna poll where only 8% say they don’t attend because the church is “out of date” which undercuts “the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’”[4]

Reading this blog I found myself simultaneously affirmed and frustrated. I am one of these “millennials” who has found a home in the mainline. I wear cassocks, not skinny jeans, my Sundays contain more Latin than powerpoint, and you are more likely to leave our church on a Sunday smelling of incense than having won an iPad. I was affirmed by Rachel Held Evans’ encouragement not to throw out the baby of tradition with the bathwater of “we’ve always done it that way” in order to attract younger people. But therein lies the problem. Mainline churches in Canada – for the most part – have not succumbed to the flashy, electric-guitar blaring, coffee holders and comfy chair worship in the attractional model of American Evangelicalism. It is the American model that has failed for millennials but it seems to me that Ms Held Evans has simply generalized her own experience in reaction to attractional Evangelicalism of her past and suggested a different kind of attractional Episcopalianism of her present.

If that sounds like too harsh a criticism, consider our mainline church in Canada. For the most part we have resisted the kind of American “cool” churches that Ms Held Evans rightly criticizes. Despite our failure to succumb to pandering to “coolness,” despite a good and growing emphasis on “authenticity” and “inclusivity,” the numbers of millennials who stay in churches from childhood in the mainline are as low as 1 in 10 in Canada.[5] If Ms Held Evans was right about tradition, inclusivity and authenticity, we should not be seeing the “hemorrhage” of faith that we are in Canada.[6] But we are seeing an alarming exodus from our places of worship. Is Rachel Held Evans right and will we see growth among millennials if we just get better at authenticity and inclusivity? Or do we have a different problem and is there a different solution?

Simon Davis +


[1]               http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/12/10/generation-y-religion-canada-millennials-faith_n_2244548.html

[2]               http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html

[3]               https://www.barna.org/barna-update/teens-nextgen/94 a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity#.VVyeutJVhBd

[4]               https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/711-what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church#.VVyeatJVhBd

[5]               http://www.apologeticscanada.com/2012/11/16/hemorrhaging-faith-helpful-notes/

[6]               see 2012’s excellent report Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Young Candians are Leaving, Staying and Returning to the Church from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

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3 replies
  1. Margaret Bick
    Margaret Bick says:

    Cool, Classic or Weird?

    I begin with apologies to all experienced anglers for any inadequate vocabulary I’m about to use. I begin with an image. When I was a child I used to go fishing with my dad and my brother and sister in a small creek near our ramshackle rental cottage just outside Markham, Ontario. We’d dig up some worms, grab our little fishing rods and someone would carry the bucket we’d use to haul our catch back home. At the creek, we’d fill the bucket with creek water to keep our catch fresh. Then we’d load a worm on each hook, lower it into the water and wait. Sometimes we even caught something to put in the catch bucket. That’s how fishing goes.

    When I consider Rachel Held Evans’ blog and the responses to it on this blog so far, my mind is called back to Jesus’ threat in Mark and Matthew to make us fish people. And it seems to me that choosing a worship style – cool, classic or weird – in order to “lure” millennials (or people of any age) into our pews, is akin to choosing our best bait and throwing it into the catch bucket instead of placing it on the hook where it will catch the attention of anyone who swims past. What I mean is this: our liturgy is not aimed at evangelization (catching people’s attention). It might do that, but that is not its purpose. Is not liturgy intended to be the outpouring of praise and thanksgiving by the community already dwelling “in the bucket”? If we try to use liturgy to lure others in, we are destined for failure. First, we don’t have their attention out there in the world, so how will they notice our great liturgy? And second, we risk alienating the very community out of which our worship style – whatever it is – has grown.

    Should we not first make sure we have a healthy, vibrant, authentic community life that is at home and active in the world, amidst and in dialogue with the everyday life of people? Surely this will catch their attention. And if our liturgy matches our community life, people will find a home “in our bucket.”

    Margaret Bick

  2. John Wilton
    John Wilton says:

    Making worship “weird”
    Rachel Held Evans encourages churches who wish to include millennials to make worship “weird”. I couldn’t agree more. While Simon Davis is correct, I think, in pointing out that there is a huge difference between American and Canadian millennials when it comes to thinking about the church, I wonder if the notion of weirdness crosses the border well. What Held Evans is saying is that the sacramental nature of Christian worship is what speaks to her soul and the soul of others like her. When we talk about changing worship to attract or keep younger people we usually talk about using new words or new music. But what if we already have the resources within the Christian tradition that, if used well, will speak to the souls of everyone, including young adults?

    In doing baptism preparation with young families, I always ask the parents and sponsors to tell a story about a time when they have felt closer to God, closer to a reality that is beyond the everyday, closer to something that is clearly bigger than themselves. Inevitably in those situations people talk about the birth of their child, about touching the child for the first time, about spending long minutes just looking at the child. When asked about their hopes and dreams for this child and their role in making those hopes and dreams a reality, parents and other adults talk about being a good role model, about wanting to give the child a sense of wonder when looking at the world around them, about helping the child to see where they fit in the world. One young Dad even said, “I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she is mortal and not being afraid of that reality”. These are all spiritual desires, along with the usual ones about being healthy and happy.

    Surely millennials have the same questions and concerns about the big spiritual issues (meaning, suffering, death, etc.) that other generations of human beings have had. Maybe we need to spend more time finding out how to address those issues in a sacramental way that connects with modern ways of thinking and living. I’m not sure exactly what that would look like, but perhaps the culture itself can suggest ways of addressing the problem. I was intrigued by a recent Toronto Star article about work being done in Quebec around the issues of death and grieving, not by the churches but by the circus!

    “Guy Laliberte, founder of the world-famous Quebec company Cirque du Soleil, is reportedly trying to respond to the spiritual hunger that churches are not meeting.”
    “While there are still many questions, Nicole Bouchard, a theologian and researcher, said that what she has heard so far is something that might address what many in the end-of-life industry feel is a “spiritual poverty” that has afflicted modern death rituals. Bouchard says the current absence is crying out to be filled by the mind and talents of someone used to evoking emotions and using earthly symbols to signify something greater than our individual selves. “With the church, there was a code, but now the codes are no longer there and people are reinventing them, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse,” said Bouchard, whose expertise is in life rituals and cultural symbols. If you botch the improvised ritual at a wedding, there’s always the possibility of a do-over. Get it wrong at a loved one’s funeral and it stays wrong forever. “ 1

    Maybe that’s what is meant by making worship weird. The church better get in on the discussion or we’ll be left even further behind.

    1 Article by Allan Woods in Toronto Star, June 5, 2015 “Cirque du Soleil founder wants to breathe new life into how we honour the dead”

    • Peter Wall
      Peter Wall says:

      So both Simon Davis and John Wilton provide helpful questions and observations about where we are and where we might try to go with milennials (and indeed with others who are disaffected or, at the very least, disinterested in what we do behind those big doors of ours.) The reality in which I work and worship is, like Simon’s, a big old church (another Cathedral), located downtown,with soaring beauty and majestic music, stained glass, wood, and stone. Ours is not a worship style which could be described in any way as weird or ‘gimmecky’ – indeed, I think that it is pretty orthodox and almost conservative (I hear those who know me coughing in their beards about me describing this place as ‘conservative’). What we do, we do well, I believe – good music, but accessible, congregationally based music; excellent preaching (luckily I don’t do it all – lucky for the listeners as well as for me – I have wonderful associates and honoraries who provide a rich variety of style and approach to preaching); a serious but unfussy liturgical style; lots of use of alternate liturgical materials and forms. I believe that people ‘drop in’ (and many stay) because they are searching (and sometimes even find) authenticity. honesty. acceptance, and a certian degree of freshness. We have long demonstrated in the church that we can hang on to tried and true fomularies and texts – it is a challenge to change those texts and formulas, and yet I believe that we need to do just that to reach out to an intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful generation of people who want to be challenged and comforted, people who want to be part of something which is relevant and real – not something which is lost in dogma and doctrine. They also, I find, are not interested in something which is simply glitzy or glamorous – I really believe that our liturgy – as long as care is taken to make it relevant and authentic – speaks to milennials and others in powerful ways. They are strongly committed to community action, to outreach, to justice and peace – all currencies in which we deal so well.

      Exciting conversation – let’s keep at it!


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