Article and photo by Tim Seeberger
Abby Hershberger, 24, grew up attending a conservative Mennonite church in Berlin, Ohio. After high school, church fell to the wayside when she began college at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. When she moved to Manhattan in October 2017, she longed to get connected with young adults at a church but wanted something less ethically and culturally homogenous than what she previously experienced. The Riverside Church, where Manhattan’s Upper West Side meets Harlem, fulfilled that need.
“In general, when I was looking for a church, I wanted women in leadership and queer people and LGBTQ people in leadership, and Riverside has lots of that,” said Hershberger. “I was really excited about that, and that really helped me stay.”
In an increasingly progressive social landscape within the millennial generation, Christian doctrine doesn’t seem to fit into this new-world narrative.
Millennials in America are significantly less religious than the generations that have preceded them. Pew Research’s 2014 “Religious Landscape Study” showed that religious disaffiliation among millennials went up from 25 to 35 percent from 2007-2014, and that only 20 percent of millennials who identify as Christian attend church on a weekly basis.
Rev. Bruce Lamb, Youth and Young Adult Pastor at Riverside, is trying to change the perception of the Church by providing fellowship opportunities to integrate into their church community. One wouldn’t expect Riverside’s Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, to invite young people over to her apartment to have pizza, beer and wine and get to know other leaders of the church, but it’s one of the ways that Riverside is trying to show millennials that what they’ve heard about the Church isn’t the reality everywhere, as Lamb said.
“They want a church that is not nice and warm and inclusive, but they want a church that’s more than just a Sunday morning church,” said Lamb.
The issue of the church’s perception, though, goes beyond attracting new members. The Barna Group reported in 2014 that 59 percent of millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point. The issue is not only about how to bring younger people to church, but how to keep them in the rows and pews of sanctuaries across the nation.
Brendan Christie, 21, a student at Binghamton University and friend of the reporter, was one of the people who fell through the cracks. From pre-school to high school graduation, he was surrounded by faith in school and at home, but his faith fell to the wayside as he transitioned from middle to high school. By his freshman year, he stopped attending mass on a weekly basis.
“Time-wise, I probably went to like five times as much mass as the normal person, said Christie. “Having a 7- or 8-year-old having to do that much – it’s easy to see why people that go to Catholic school aren’t Catholic anymore.”
Today, Christie is more susceptible to faith, but wants something that isn’t as restrictive as the Catholic Church. A church with more real-world applicability that fits into his schedule would make him more open to attending again.
Churches like Centerpoint Church on Long Island are taking up that initiative of creating a larger focus on personal fulfillment in sermons rather than hellfire and brimstone. “Unfollow,” a recent social media-themed sermon series, focused on toxic aspects in the lives of believers such as self-doubt and greed, and offered biblical solutions to help detach from them.
This strategy, combined with a modernized worship service that feels like a rock concert, free coffee and making intentional efforts to integrate new members, has helped Centerpoint grow to have three services every Sunday across four campuses on Long Island with a millennial-heavy congregation.
But the problem of the decline in church attendance goes beyond the way the church is perceived on a societal level. Restructuring the church internally to welcome millennials into church communities is just as vital, according to Rev. Dr. Stephen Gallagher, Professor of Christian Ministries at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn. and Associate Pastor of Camp Hill United Methodist Church in Camp Hill, Penn.
“There’s a whole sense of cultural abandonment on multiple levels with adults for millennials,” said Gallagher. “We have not been making investments in the lives of young people.”
In his 42 years in ministry, the key difference Gallagher has noticed is that churches need to integrate younger people into the larger church community rather than force them to assimilate. To assimilate, as Gallagher said, is to act, dress and practice religion like the church, and is making them change whether or not they want to do so.
“Integration is saying, ‘We are reaching out and inviting you to join in light of the variety of differences that we all share because we find our common ground in Christ, not in whether or not I ascribe to a certain style of music,’” said Gallagher.
In order to meet the needs of millennials, the structure of the church needs to change. Gallagher outlined four major components of how churches can achieve that: moving volunteers to staff positions, making ministries more comprehensive in their operations, the introduction of mentoring and changing worship services.
Ultimately, for Gallagher, he believes this crisis in the Church needs to be focused less on keeping the lights on and more about spreading its message.
“To share this life and this joy that is Christ’s to give is enough reason for anyone of us in the faith community to want to make adjustments necessary,” said Gallagher.