“Tradition” is not the Millennials’ problem

I recently attended a discussion for church leaders on ministry with Millennials (the so-called Generation Y, or those who were born from the late 1970’s through to the turn of the century).  Within the discussion it was assumed that members of this generation do not like "traditional" worship, "traditional" Sunday School, "traditional" Bible studies, the "traditional" way of doing church.

But there’s a difference between "tradition" and the way we customarily do things in the church.  Is it "tradition" they don’t like, or is it the (often poorly executed) way we do things in the church they don’t like?

  • That is, do Millennials not like 17th century hymns because they’re old and supposedly irrelevant to today, or do they not like such hymns when they’re played and sung as funeral dirges and inappropriately revered as the highest pinnacle of religious and musical achievement?
  • Do they not like traditional liturgy because it is (supposedly) rigid, or do they not like traditional liturgy because we do a poor job at planning and executing the liturgy faithfully?
  • Do they not like preaching because they are suspicious of authority figures and/or are attuned to a world of constantly-changing multimedia presentations, or do they not like preaching because most preachers are not very good at it?
  • Do they not like traditional Bible studies or Sunday School because such Bible studies are rigid and dogmatic, or because they’re usually poorly planned and unwelcoming?
  • Do they prefer to sleep in on Sunday mornings because that’s their nature, or because we haven’t given them something worth waking up for?

I’m convinced that our churches need to worry less about post-modern ministry techniques than we do about simply doing our "traditional" (modern, ancient, whatever) ministry techniques a whole lot better.  It has been my experience – as a church leader, a church member in non-leadership roles, and an observer of "effective" and "healthy" churches – that churches which engage in intensive planning and preparation, churches that show up on Sunday morning and midweek Bible study ready to proclaim the Gospel, are often doing just fine. 

It’s when we’re planning Sunday School lessons in the car on the way to church that we get in trouble.  It’s when we’re writing sermons exhausted late on Saturday evening – when the time for reflection, review and editing is rapidly waning – that we get in trouble.  It’s when we throw untrained people into leadership roles that we get in trouble.  It’s when we have no cohesive vision to pull this whole church enterprise together that we get in trouble.

Everyday Millennials go to rather traditional schools or universities or workplaces, and they thrive within these "traditional" institutions.  They know how to do the "modern" thing.  That is, they don’t live in an exclusively "post modern" world (oh my, just imagine what that would be like!). 

I don’t deny that the church can learn a few things from the postmodern project.  I’m just not convinced that we need some turn-the-church-on-its-steeple radical reformation.  Perhaps we just need to build a better steeple.  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

10 thoughts on ““Tradition” is not the Millennials’ problem

  1. Chris, I think you’re on to something. Both of my children are millenials. My daughter just recently made her way back to faith and church. She actually prefers the choirs, traditional music etc. to contemporary Christian music. She enjoys the Bible studies, sermons and all the rest. They are done well there however.

  2. Excellent points.
    Hymns: I’ve been blessed to belong to a church with a pianist that plays the music like we are praising God, not attending God’s funeral. I’ve also attended a church where Go Tell it on the Mountain was played like I was walking to go have my leg cut off without anesthesia.
    Liturgy: The US New and World Report article not long ago gave examples of the more free-form churches as adding liturgical elements to have more reverence in the services. One time we had a guest pastor who presided at communion. When he said the words of institution, it was like he was telling the most remarkable story and I was hearing it for the first time, yet it wasn’t really changed. I complemented him on this after the service. He said that after all these years, if he just had to read the words in a boring voice, he wouldn’t be much of a pastor.
    Preaching seems so individual to each preacher and listener that this is hard to address. In some traditions, the preachings seems to be a Bible lesson and when people from those traditions visit one of our churches, they feel something is missing.
    In some groups, only the pastor can “teach” a Bible Study. On a blog, I was criticized by a pastor for saying that attend a lay Bible Study. I’ve enjoyed study groups where we discuss and apply the lesson to our own lives.
    Given that the mothers are often working full time and that sports practices and games consume lots of a family’s free time, sometimes Sunday morning is the only time to sleep in, grocery shop, or be together as a family. Yes, there has to be something to “pull” people to the worship service.

  3. Chris – excellent reflection! I’ve linked to it.
    I’d be interested to know what you propose for making church “excellent”. It has to be more than preparation (though I think that is key).

  4. Thanks, Punk. I do believe we’re called to do excellent, not half-(butt), ministry. I’ll post a follow-up in the coming days on some characteristics of “excellence” in ministry.
    You’re right – it’s more than preparation, for you can prepare and lead a rather dreadful poor liturgy, class, small group ministry, prayer chain, etc. that is informed by bad theology, poor practice, etc.. It’s one thing to prepare, but that which is prepared must also be good.

  5. I agree…as a “Millenial” (I’ve never heard that term before!), I would appreciate it if we could just get together and at least paint the steeple. The church doesn’t need to stand on it, but the second we stop reevaluating ourselves and reflecting on what it is we’re doing (in any situation!) is the second we stop growing. I think so many people are just so used to church the way it’s always been that not many really think too much about it anymore.
    Plus, sleep is nice. There are just so many good reasons to stay home early in the morning, it can be tough to get up and out the door!
    Especially on time. That’s…nearly impossible.

  6. Chris – this is brilliant stuff. I’m also going to link to it – it’s definitely worth considering.
    I’m with you and LP on this one, BTW – I’m fortunate to currently serve a campus ministry with a fabulous musician, and it does wonders for our worship; it turns it into something worth participating in rather than something to endure. Now we’re starting to invite more musicians in and hopefully we’ll get more people DOING things rather than just ATTENDING things (which I feel is another key element in this discussion).

  7. You have hit a hot button here Chris. I agree with you 110%. Last year on internship I put together a small grup of people to help me plan special worship events such as Taize and Lectio Divina, but other than that, we focused on preparing and implementing meaningful Bible studies and devotionals.
    Further proof that, if you do it (with help from the Holy Spirit) they will come.

  8. And the people say…”Amen”!
    I’m not “Milennial” — but I do believe in doing worship like it matters — particularly to the people given the responsibility of leading it.

  9. I agree. Although I do think there is something about the “institutional nature” that is a problem for some millenials. But done well, I don’t think it is the tradition — hymns, liturgy, etc. I was thinking this at a church council meeting, where we were talking about maintenance, as always — we have to, at least sometimes. we have a building, etc. and were talking about how to attract 18-44 year olds, while Tony Jones was speaking down the street at a Barnes & Noble. The irony did not escape me.

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