Why aren't Gen X and Y in church? Ask them...
I attended a conference called SECTS and the City here in Chicago last weekend on liturgy and young adults; it focused primarily on liturgy in mainline Protestant congregations, but included a Catholic laywomen who works for the Jesuit young adult outreach Charis Ministries.
Liturgy professor Benjamin Stewart from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago opened with a sociological look at the issue. A couple things of note:
1. We keep measuring church attendance numbers in relation to the U.S. in the 1950s—a time of abnormally high church attendance.
2. The only Gen Xers and millennials who have any interest in church attendance are those who had significant spiritual experiences as teenagers—not just church attendance. These experiences were almost mystical and weren’t necessarily connected with Sunday worship, but obviously the teens were religiously connected. The takeaway: Do religious stuff with your teens--more than just pizza and game nights. All the Gen X and Y at the conference agreed (me included as Gen X) that the stat resonated with their experience. As Stewart put it, churches should "aim low"--at teens--if they want to see young adults in church.
3. Gen Y/millennials especially hates anything that smacks of exclusion or discrimination, which is why they are opting out of conservative and evangelical churches, particularly over the issue of homosexuality. Congregations that are succeeding with younger adults openly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
On the liturgy side, my takeaway was that whatever you do, it better be authentic to your community. But there has to be more than good liturgy: community, community, community. One thing I found interesting from a young Lutheran seminarian (early 20s): No Gen Y person would come back to a liturgy that began w the “general confession”—the Lutheran version of the Confiteor also found in Episcopal liturgy. You have to find another way to talk about sin and healing for a generation that’s grown up with a strong appreciation for self-esteem.
The conference inspired me to want to talk to more Gen X and Y folks to just ask them questions about their view of church institutions, what they'd be looking for if they wanted a congregation, and so forth. With only about 18 percent of millennials in church on Sunday, I think there are some questions worth asking.