We all want to see more millennials active in the church. A simple observation most Sunday mornings bares the statistical truth that this demographic is much smaller than other generations in worship. Although this reality can be explained by several cultural and sociological obstacles, it is discouraging that more emerging adults (ages eighteen to thirty) are not active in the life and work of the church. The gifts and experiences of emerging adults are vital to the church’s flourishing, and the church has much to offer them in community, support, and spiritual formation.
Throughout North America and indeed the world, churches are exploring traditional and innovative paths for ministering to and with millennials. One path that should be tried is worship leadership. Worship leadership, especially in teams, choirs, ensembles, and collaborative projects, provides a playground for meaningful participation and relationship building. As such, it can be a pathway through the many cultural and sociological hurdles that millennials face in the life and work of the church.
Obstacle #1: Major Transitions
One cultural obstacle for millennials is that life is filled with major transitions. According to Christian Smith in his book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009), “major transitions” is perhaps “the most pervasive, consistent theme in the lives of emerging adults” (34). They leave home, change jobs, accept new roommates, enter graduate programs, change majors, dive into romantic relationships, feel the sting of breakups, move to different cities, and so on. Very little in life is “stable or enduring,” and many things that once were so can become “unreliable or unpredictable” (34).
A move to a new city also involves a transition into a new church. It can be daunting to find and join a new community—much harder than it would have been to remain active in one’s home congregation (75–76). In this context, worship leadership can be a simple on-ramp to something familiar to millennials who have talent and prior experience. A winsome invitation to emerging adults to read Scripture, sing in a choir, play bass on a worship team, run sound or projection, or create visuals for worship can be well received, and the competence and willingness to offer these gifts in new communities can quickly open doors to fellowship and meaningful ministry.
Obstacle #2: A Lot to Figure Out
A second hurdle is that millennials have a lot to figure out. Older adults may snicker at this suggestion, but they forget what is was like to be in their twenties. Most emerging adults have left the secure structures that they have known of home and school and are on their own, many for the first time (35). They are faced with a daunting set of new skills, tasks, and responsibilities to master. Renting an apartment, balancing a checkbook, financing a car, purchasing insurance, locating where to groom the dog—“adulting,” as some affectionately call it—can be “one big, macro distraction from religious devotion” and can make learning to navigate the ins and outs of a new congregation one bridge too far (76).
In this context, serving in worship leadership can be a pathway for establishing new networks of support. For example, one may join a worship team to play her guitar. But in time she discovers that the bass player is a real estate agent and is more than happy to help her locate and buy a new home. Another may join the choir to keep his voice in shape. But in rehearsals he gets to know an older couple with a car to give away. Still another meets a young family through an arts ministry who regularly invites her to their home for Sunday lunch. Through their participation in worship leadership, emerging adults find a place to use their gifts but also discover a context in which they meet people willing to share their wisdom, resources, and care.
Obstacle #3: Settling Down is for Later
At the same time, most millennials assume that settling down is for later. Due to the many life transitions and their expectations for continued change, emerging adults tend to see this phase of life as “free, fluid, tentative, experimental, and relatively unbounded” (56). They don’t want adulthood to come too quickly (56). Because of this, an arts ministry or worship team can be an excellent opportunity in the church to “play” and express childlike creativity. Worship team “Jam Nights,” producing an album, attending a songwriting retreat, practicing improvisation skills, developing visuals for projection, designing the sanctuary aesthetics for Holy Week, and more can be vital outlets for some emerging adults who might feel that traditional roles like serving as a deacon or teaching Sunday school are too “adult” and not for them.
Obstacle #4: Keep Options Open
Waiting to settle down goes hand in hand with the tendency of millennials to want to keep options open. Emerging adults don’t like closed doors. They are ever fearful of missing out on something better. Therefore any opportunity or program that locks them in, that limits their autonomy, that requires surrendering some freedoms is often avoided (80). This is a significant cultural barrier for emerging adults to overcome regarding the church. The church and discipleship in general is a call to trust, commit, invest. It requires discipline and demands “worshiping something bigger and authoritative beyond the self” (80).
Worship leadership opportunities can help bridge this cultural gap through short-term opportunities and clear on- and off-ramps. Festival choirs for Easter, a vocal ensemble for the season of Lent, a drama group for Advent, an arts project for a mission emphasis week, and a worship team that schedules three months at a time are examples of church programing that provide millennials an opportunity to serve without locking them in indefinitely. At the same time, the taste of community and the satisfaction of sharing one’s gifts with the church can entice them to make longer and deeper commitments.
Obstacle #5: Invested in Interpersonal Relationships
This may not sound like an obstacle. Investing in interpersonal relationships is a good thing, and millennials are keen to travel this road. However, this cultural tendency can often lead to an avoidance of social and political concerns (73). By and large, Smith writes, they are “withdrawn from the public square” and fail to invest “in community organizations or other change-oriented groups or movements” (73). Instead, they pursue passionately relationships with family and peers and spend a good deal of their time maintaining these relationships (73).
It can be a challenge, therefore, to persuade millennials to contribute to the life and work of the church. Calls to kingdom work, sacrifice for local neighbors, and concern for the global church can fall on deaf ears. As a result, invitations to participate in worship leadership may not immediately be accepted. However, if emerging adults can see and experience personal, deep, and vital relationships on worship-leading teams, they will be more likely to commit. At the same time, as they participate in worship leadership that prays in solidarity with others, that sings cross-culturally, and that receives the gifts of other nations and peoples, the hearts and minds of emerging adults will slowly be turned outward in love and concern for others.
Obstacle #6: The Church is Not a Place of Real Belonging
Finally, the relationships, support, contribution, and commitment that millennials experience in worship-leading teams can counteract the prevailing sentiment among them that the church is not a place of real belonging (152). Though emerging adults may regularly attend a worship service, they often seek a sense of belonging elsewhere. They may enjoy worship, they may be friendly with the people there, but they tend to find real belonging among their friends or family, at college, or at a job they like (152).
Sometimes the social distance that millennials feel is due to minor annoyances or perceived “petty differences” (152). But most emerging adults simply tend to find a sense of belonging outside of the church—athletic teams or fraternities, for example. Worship leadership, however, can be a significant means of developing deep relationships and a sense of belonging. The pride one feels in having her art displayed, the prayer one receives from his worship team during a time of trial, the words of affirmation after singing a solo, or the kind-of camaraderie that a drama or Scripture enactment team experiences all can contribute to a deep sense of purpose and belonging that millennials crave.
Through worship leadership, the church can help millennials navigate the challenges and obstacles they face in emerging adulthood. Major life transitions, anxiety in the present and for the future, and relational expectations can impede their participation, but they need not be a barrier. Rather, as worship leaders, millennials may receive the very grace, support, and community they seek in the midst of their journey.