Many Millennials are “anti-institutional.”  I’m not talking about just church institutions, but institutions in general.  Government institutions, political parties, banks, public school, the media—all those institutions have lost popularity among many Millennials as well.  Why?  Because many feel like these institutions and systems have failed them in some way or another.  There is a lack of trust with institutions.

The Thom and Jess Rainer say this lack of trust is not limited to non-Christian Millennials either:

“The Millennial Generation is largely anti-institutional church in its attitude.  An amazing 70 percent of these young adults agree that American churches are irrelevant today.  This skepticism is not limited to non-Christians.  Even Millennial Christians express doubts about the effectiveness of local churches around our nation.  Throughout our interviews we heard comments like “tradition bound” and “irrelevant” and “focus on themselves” to describe American churches” (Rainers, The Millennials, p. 244).

Why is there such a lack of trust?  Why do churches no longer seem relevant?

The church is too focused inward

“Most Millennial Christians see local churches as business as usual, focused inwardly, more concerned about the needs of members than the needs of the community and the nations” (Rainers, The Millennials, p. 257).  Many Millennials are not impressed with churches.  To them churches seem more like “religious social clubs.”  In my last post I used the following quote to talk about Millennials and “causes,” but it’s important to quote it again here.

“Millennials care about issues, not organizations.  In other words, Millennials don’t want to be part of a club for the sake of being part of a club.  They don’t want to just be.  They want to be about something.  If a congregation appears too self-centered and not focused externally on the community and world around it, and particularly on the issues around it, the rebel Millennial will not consider being an active member of the congregation.” (Luke Thompson, “Rebel Without a Cause” Preach the Word, Vol. 19 No. 4)

Notice the church is often viewed as “too self-centered and not focused externally on the community.” 

We as a church have to ask ourselves, are we guilty of adding to this negative impression?  How does the community know us as a church?  If the people in the community only recognize our building and a message on our sign, then that’s a problem.  I’m sure some neighbors drive by the church building and ask themselves, “What goes on in there?”  If that’s the impression that we have on the community, then yes we are guilty of adding to this impression.  We are mostly living for ourselves and not for others in the community.

Many Millennials have the desire for community, but for this reason they are looking other places besides the church.  They just don’t find the church essential to their lives.  “Our nation is full of people seeking religious connections, but they are not connecting with the church” (Thom and Sam Rainer, Essential Church, p. 58).  Historically, this is a problem.

The church is meant to be a community

Since the Garden of Eden we have been a society built on relationships.  God created the universe and all of it was “good,” but then God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  So God created Eve—a companion and helper, for Adam.  Humans are created to have relationships and community—both with God and each other.  Since the Garden of Eden, everyone has a desire to belong and be loved by others.  Even I, an introverted, only child, desire to be part of a community and have relationships.  So it’s natural that Millennials want this.  

The church has always had a focus on the community because of this, but views have changed throughout the generations.  There is a difference between how many Boomers have viewed the community and how Millennials view the community.  For Boomers the community is where they could find prospects.  They formed systems to find people so they could increase attendance and financial gifts.  For Millennials, a community is not where you find prospects, but it is a place where you serve and minister to the people.  “Millennials don’t ask what the community can do for the church; they ask what they can do for the community” (Rainers, The Millennials, p 260).  You can see the “cause-driven” nature in Millennials.

How do we connect with community-loving Millennials?

Simple, become a community-loving church.  The people of the church create community.  “The most outwardly focused churches are many times the healthiest on the inside. … The people of the church must make a conscious decision to stop looking inwardly and begin to reach outwardly.  An inwardly focused church community is a dying community because they are letting go of the bond that holds them together” (Thom and Sam Rainer, Essential Church, p. 50).  That bond is the gospel of Christ, which naturally motivates Christians to go and tell.

One Millennial, who loves what her church is doing in the community, commented, “I love the town where I live. But I’ve learned to love this community from my church.  The pastor and other leaders in the church are constantly letting us know how we can have an impact where we live.  Our church has been so consistent with caring for and loving our community that leaders from town now turn to us when they have a need.   We don’t have to have an outreach program…because we are already in the community and because the community comes to us” (Rainers, The Millennials, p. 260, emphasis added).  There is some great wisdom in these words that we can all learn from.  Yes, we may need to start with organized programs to accomplish large things in the community.  Yet we shouldn’t need many programs if we just naturally spend time in our community.

Christians Millennials, my generation, want to take the twenty-first century church back to the first century.  Take a look at how the early church formed a community:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

We want to have a community like this.  No, not a full “communal” type community, but a community that includes “the desire to forfeit material gain for the sake of others, a devotion to Bible study, an intense prayer life, and a total commitment to reach and minister to others in their communities and among the nations” (Rainers, The Millennials, p. 259).

When non-Christian Millennials see this kind of activity going on in the community by a church, they will get curious.  “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

The church is not an institution, but a movement.  Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor, preached a very practical sermon based on 1 Peter 2 about this topic.  Here are some highlights of what Keller means by that.  “Sociologists say human organizations exist along a spectrum.  At one end we have institution and at the other end we have movements.  An institution is high structured.  A movement is fluid.  An institution is hard to change.  A movement is dynamic.  An institution is top down.  A movement is bottom up.  An institution is united by rules.  A movement is united by a common vision.” … “The church exists for its non-members.  We are not a church for ourselves.”  While as a church we need the structure of  institutions, that is not all that we are…

We need to make it known that we are not an institution.  Instead we are a movement, a community, a close-knit family built on Christ desiring to expand that family.  How do we make it known that we are not an institution?  We as a church need to be both missional and incarnational.  “Missional means that Christians are sent in the community, that they are on mission in the community.  The community is not just a place where the church is located; it is a place where Christians are sent to demonstrate the love of Christ.”  To be incarnational literally mean “in the flesh” or physically present.  We as the church are representatives of Christ in the flesh.  One Millennial put it, “When I am in my community, I try to see the people I encounter through the eyes of Christ.  It makes all the difference in the world” (Rainers, The Millennials, p. 260-261). 

Here is a great summary about how the church is the community that everyone needs:

“This community is one where hard-to-love people are loved.  It’s one where unity in diversity is found.  It’s a community where people learn to engage a world yearning for truth.  It’s one where scarlet sins are washed white as snow.  It’s an inclusive community where the exclusive gospel is proclaimed.  It’s a community where people think outwardly instead of inwardly.  It’s a different kind of community, but it’s one where Jesus lives” (Rainers, Essential Church, p. 67).

So let’s get out in the community.  Let’s put faces and actions to the church building people see.  Let’s focus outwardly and not just inwardly.  Let’s look at the world through the eyes of Christ.  It truly will make a difference.