“Take me to church” is a song by Hozier, an Irish musician. If you’ve not heard it, it’s, er, not about going to church. The title (and refrain line) is a metaphor for something else, physical love. But it’s a powerful, wrenching wail of a song, and I don’t clutch my pearls or run to a fainting couch over its overtly sexual message or its lament over how churches can unnecessarily burden people with shame. (There’s a parental warning on the music video. It contains violence and love between two men, but no graphic sex.)
I’m sure it speaks to many young people. And that leads me to the question at the heart of my little essay here: How do we who enjoy church, who believe it is valuable, get young people, the same ones, say, who are moved by Hozier’s song, to go to church, to participate in religions they might have grown up in but now turn away from?
A recent article posted by Sam Eaton at the Faith It website addresses this question with a list of 12 suggestions. You can read it here. Many of Eaton’s ideas are great, but I’ll confess I shrugged my shoulders at some, wondering if they’d really make a difference.
But the article stuck with me, taking me back to my own days of being a “yute,” thinking of my own three children, who fall into the millennial category. Two of them are regular churchgoers while the other is spiritual and goes to church, quite willingly, with family but isn’t attached to a particular one she seeks out regularly.
To think about the questions I posed above, though, you first have to ask a question many millennials probably pose to themselves: Is church necessary? Is it absolutely necessary for salvation, for a relationship with God, for living a Godly life or being a good Christian. And, to be brutally frank, the answer is…probably not. One can live a perfectly beautiful life as a loving, giving Christian, as a devout believer to the depths of one’s soul, and I somehow doubt God will be checking your church attendance record when you stand at the pearly gates.
Without consulting any surveys or polls, I suspect that’s where many young people are today, not going to church because they don’t see it as the be-all and end-all of how to lead a good, spiritual life with a daily connection to God or the gospel. It doesn’t mean they don’t think about God.
We have to face that if we want to attract young people to church, we people of a certain, ahem, age (when asked the year of my birth now, I tend to mumble…). We have to understand that for many young people, church simply isn’t a priority, and they don’t view nonattendance as sinful.
Okay, then, if that’s the case, what will lure them to the red doors? And to answer that question, I ask myself: What do I get out of church, and what do I want young folks to get out of it?
First, if young people showed up at my church, they’d see a sea of white and gray hair. The average age of our parishioners is in the mumble-mumble area. And while millennials are perfectly capable of being polite and nice to their elders, chatting up a granny probably isn’t high on their list of fun things to do.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to look for ways to make worship “fun” or “relevant” for them. If they come to worship, the focus is on God and away from our own needs. Sometimes it’s about boosting our neighbor up in his/her focus on God. There are Sundays when I’m tired and don’t want to go to church, but I go because I know there might be people there who need to see other people standing with them.
And that’s a ministry of sorts that kindhearted millennials will surely understand…once we get them through the doors. They’ll understand, because they’re smart, that going to church is about gathering in a community of love and support where people lift each other up…to God.
So my one big suggestion for getting them there is to first attract them to the idea of church community by ministering to their needs, lifting them up by helping them. And–don’t laugh at me–but I think one of those needs is fairly simple: the need for a place to socialize that doesn’t cost anything.
Back in the day (before I mumbled my birth year), the Catholic church was my home (now the Episcopalian one is). One of the Catholic church’s ministries was the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. I’m sure CYOs did lots of things, but the one thing I remember most about them was their social aspect. CYOs sponsored dances–at churches, Catholic schools. The CYO at my parents’ last church was a regular weekend gathering place, a meeting of youths in the rectory basement where they’d chat, laugh, and play cards with the pastor.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches provided that kind of space, even bringing bands in sometimes, for young people who don’t have much money to spend but who have time on their hands on Friday nights? What a ministry that would be, not just for the church’s youth but for youth in the wider community! (And I’m sure there are churches that do this.)
If you’re still reading — I do go on! — I’ll repeat my general suggestion about attracting young people. It’s pretty simple. We need to find ways to minister to them, to show, rather than tell the Gospel message by thinking about what they need, what they want, and…providing it. With no strings attached, no looking over the tops of our reading glasses and tapping our feet waiting for them to walk the few steps from the parish hall into the church itself. Our job isn’t to judge, it’s to love.
Maybe they will take those few steps…eventually. Maybe not right away, maybe when they’re down the road a little, when they’re starting families of their own. And maybe sporadic church attendance will turn into regular attendance as they realize this place, this Godly place, has been good to them, it has filled them with hope, it has shielded them and will do so “as long as life endures,” that it is a place of…Amazing Grace.
Libby Sternberg is an author whose novel Fall from Grace will be released this fall by Bancroft Press.