When millennials come to embrace the Christian faith they are faced with a major problem when it comes to becoming connected with the life of most congregations. I have witnessed this again and again and saw it plainly during my recent week in Phoenix. In short, I witnessed a new form of separation that has raised a dividing wall between people in the church. This time it is not about race but marriage, children and singleness.
Large numbers of millennials are single. Many will remain single for a long time, at least well into their 30s. And many who do marry will not have children, or at least not more than one child. There are a number of reasons why this is true but none of them have to do with deep convictions so much as fears rooted in the shared experience of millennials who come from broken homes and thus have marriage and parent-child anxieties. Many tell me they want to marry but just not yet. They are very unsure about the institution and have every reason to question it based upon their experience. They have seen their parents split, marry again and then divorce again. They have been reared in homes with mixed families, or by single parents, and they have shared life with peers who have traveled the same road. Time and again they resist early marriage for these reasons. And some want to invest their lives in something that has transcendent purpose before they “settle down” and start a family.
So here is what happens all too frequently. A young adult comes to faith in Christ, perhaps through a ministry like PhoenixONE, or in a simple service project where relationships matter very deeply. They are encouraged, quite rightly, to find a local church. They start looking only to run into a glass wall that no one talks about. It is the wall called: “Unmarried Young Adults Not Celebrated Here!”
Typically local churches are structured by and for families. We have programs for dad, for mom, for the divorced and for people who struggle with substance abuse, We even try to create programs for singles but the emphasis is generally on “finding you mate.” Rarely do these single adults find churches willing to embrace them openly and then invite them into important roles of service and leadership. They are told, in effect, “Come be like us and join our membership and when you’ve done that, and you’ve been here awhile, we will slot you into one of our programs.” I know that I am overstating things here but the general point is true. I have met scores of young adults who love Jesus but cannot find a church. To the surprise of most pastors, and churches, they do not want a “millennial church” service or young adults program. They actually want to be part of a family that welcomes them and listens to them. This generation is just not interested in another “generational” split in the church. This is why they are so responsive to my vision of missional-ecumenism. They do not care about labels, denominations or age groups.
Look around your own church. If it is less than 200 people then you have few or no single adults under 33 years of age who are post-high school. If you are larger in number then you might have a few such single adults but on the whole you are reaching the couples who are married with babies. Your nursery might be active but it is being used by parents who grew up in conservative churches and conservative subculture, at least in most cases. They are the “loyal” remaining remnant but they are much smaller in number than twenty years ago. When I last pastored (1992) having an active, happy, busy nursery was important but today only large churches need such a place. And do not even get me started about what we still call Sunday School. It is several decades past its usefulness. Further more, we need to stop running kids clubs inside the church and get volunteers out into the schools around us with a passion to mentor, share and present Christ to young people in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Simply put, we need to get the salt-shaker outside the church building and start spreading our salt and light in the community around us. And we need to do this with Christians from other churches beside our own. Large churches are really slow on getting this message.
My friend Jeff Gokee (in photo with me at left after we climbed 2,600 feet to the top of Squaw Mountain in Phoenix) shared with me about a single Christian he knew who lived on 40% of their income and gave 60% of it away to Christ and kingdom service. He then told me this person would be celebrated as a role model, openly embraced by every pastor that he knew, if he was married with a family. But because he is single, and a completely dedicated servant of Jesus, he was an outsider to the visible life and celebrations of the local church. I took several days to process this story.
I was stunned when I first began to hear that churches were most unwelcoming to singles and married young adults without children. In fact, I was angry! This is so far from the reality of Christ’s kingdom that it makes no sense at all. We can be “family friendly” without segregating and shunning. We must be both family-friendly and openly embrace the lives and gifts of singles.
I see many young Christians around the country who have a vision to reach non-Christian millennials but I see very few congregations who are truly prepared to welcome these new young Christians into their fellowship. This is a tragedy. Worse than that, it is sin against Jesus Christ and his gospel.