I usually sit in the back quarter of the sanctuary, close enough that the singing is good but far enough back to be inconspicuous. I’m in my 40s, but these days I am one of the youngest present. The heads in front of me are graying or balding. The family with the four little boys doesn’t come anymore.
I used to love watching those boys with their grandma, who always sat beside the family with her bag of Sunday-service tricks — Cheerios, scissors, gum, magnets, markers. I imagined a time when I might be like her with my grandkids. Except that my high school children don’t come to church anymore.
A lot of people don’t.
Since the pandemic, some churches are thriving, and I’m happy for them. But that’s not my experience. My church, and my family’s relationship with our church, picked up a wobble.
My research focuses on millennials — born between 1981 and 1996, ages 26 to 41 in 2022 — but people across age groups are changing how they show up in their faith communities and sometimes not showing up at all.
For many, there is a shift in how we relate to God and each other. It is important to discuss what is going on — and what is not.
To that end, this summer I met with people in my town, Harrisonburg, Va., to talk about their evolving relationship with church.
I’m a social worker, and when I talk to people about church I bring assumptions from the social sciences:
Behavior is communication. When people show up, or don’t, they’re communicating about their lives, their concerns and what works for them.
People want to address the things that concern them and will find the energy to act when they believe it makes a difference.
The people who are frustrated are usually the ones to address a problem. The people who are happy with their church experience probably aren’t the experts on solutions for people who aren’t.
Complex problems require multidimensional responses. Beware of oversimplifying.
To solve a problem, first determine what kind of problem you have. If a person or family stops coming to church, is it a problem of doctrine, changing demands at work, lifestyle rhythms or something else?
Over the summer I sat down with about 20 Mennonite-background millennials and asked: When you go to church, or when you don’t, what are the reasons?
Their answers fell into the following categories:
I don’t go because:
Of scheduling conflicts or travel: I’m often out of town.
I’m concerned about COVID and want to avoid groups.
I feel tired and overwhelmed; I don’t have energy for it, physically, emotionally or socially.
I’m trying to cope with mental health challenges.
The large group makes me feel overexposed; I sometimes crave a sense of privacy.
That time slot is most valuable to me as a relief valve to stay on top of my week.
It works better for me to honor the spirit of the Sabbath in another way.
I’m navigating the competing needs of various family members (the meeting time conflicts with the baby’s nap time; my small children need constant input during the service; older children/spouse will not go to church, etc.).
I want a break from my own quandaries about how and why we do church.
I go because:
It’s social: I value the connection and social intimacy.
It’s about lifestyle and values: I value the network of people who share my values and commitment to a certain way of life.
It’s spiritual: I experience the holy through the sacred practices at church; this nourishes me.
It’s about healthy routines: This spiritual discipline makes me stronger for the week.
It’s about belonging: I want to engage the work of living as a community — mutual support, discernment, deciding how to show up together in our town.
The variety of responses surprised me. Each person had specific push and pull factors. There was no single message, and that alone is useful to know: Changes in church participation are not about just one thing.
I reached out to pastors in Harrisonburg and asked: “What’s going on with the millennials in your church?” They agreed that there seems to be a mismatch between what millennials want and what their churches are doing.
But, they said, we simply don’t have a better way than a weekly worship service to nurture a collective identity as Christ-followers. Where else can people go to pray, seek wisdom and view their lives through the lens of the gospel? This ministry is difficult if people don’t gather.
My study is too localized to represent all Mennonite millennials, but it models a way to approach changes in church participation:
Ask the people who are most affected.
Listen deeply. Don’t oversimplify. Don’t jump to conclusions based on your own opinions;
Stay open to innovation, probably many innovations.
When you find spiritual rhythms that work, celebrate! Stick with them. Deep wells can be hard to find. Let’s not take them for granted.
Church participation is about Jesus, but for some it is just as much about schedules, demands on families, individual concerns and preserving energy to serve the people we love most.
There’s been a shift in what feels needful, how we gather and what gets priority when we’re there. Jesus, I suspect, is not thrown off by this.
If you’re happy with your church experience, great. If you’re uneasy, that’s fine, too. Satisfied or unsatisfied, we need to help each other find a way forward.
Debbi (Diener) DiGennaro teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. Her research interest is the intersection of faith and social behavior. She was Eastern Mennonite Missions’ regional director in East Africa for 11 years.