What do Millennials know about Worship?

Posted by Wesley on 17 July 2013

There comes a point in every adult’s life when they observe the behaviour of those younger than themselves and think, ‘I have absolutely no idea why they are doing that.’ Our parents thought it of us and our children will think it of their own offspring.

For many in their thirties and older, the current crop of teens and twentysomethings - known as Millennials - are baffling. Theirs is a world of constant status updates, artfully-snapped selfies and aspirations shaped by a world of reality TV and cheap celebrity.

What on earth are they going to do to the world of worship? What do they know that can help the rest of us?

We spoke with Frog Orr-Ewing - vicar, author and thinker who knows more than most about reaching, mentoring and getting the very best out of Millennials.

WAW: Before we get onto the negatives, let’s start with this; what do Millennials bring to the table?

FROG: They bring so many positives to the table. Firstly, there’s such a good side to the fact that they have a greater affinity for heroes. They see the good of celebrating their heroes and their leaders.

Then there’s a holistic thing; they care about issues. Fair trade, the environment, equality, caring for people - for Millennials there’s no question of whether it’s right or wrong for Christians to be engaged in transforming society, so as soon as they hear there is sex trafficking they want to do something about it. Getting involved is a no-brainer.

And the third thing is the hurt. Many of them share a past that comes from a broken or reconstituted home, and that past - or perception of it - has left them wounded. Because of this, there’s no taboo about mental illness, depression or broken homes. The only taboo is having a taboo.

WAW: What about the negatives?

FROG: One of the big social theorists, Jean Twenge, identifies the problem of narcissism in ‘Generation Me’. In the early 1950s only 12 percent of teens aged 14 to 16 agreed with the statement “I am an important person.”  By the late 1980s an incredible 80% percent - almost 7 times as many claimed they were important. Twenge traces it back to back to child rearing and education and the concept in the 80s that what children needed was to have their self-esteem boosted. So they became trophy kids (rewarded just for showing up), self-obsessed, molly-coddled by helicopter parents, allowed to never grow up, locked in a perpetual state of teenagerdom, with little sense of responsibility. Having their self-esteem boosted had the unintended consequence of making people depressed and believing that the universe revolved around them.

In the UK we’ve seen things differently - more positively (highlighting things like volunteerism, optimism, lack of cynicism, communitarianism, heroism, holistic) - but lately we are beginning to hear the dark side of Millennials. There’s a huge gap between being told you’re brilliant all the time and the reality of employment, real life and adulthood. When it hits you it hits you hard. Adulthood, or an even vaguely critical assessment in a job review, can see them bottoming out with few good coping mechanisms for disappointment.

WAW: Not a good time for a recession, then.

FROG: An enormous cultural shift has happened. The consequence of the recession hitting at exactly the time the Millennials left education has meant that there are a lot of large companies that have stopped hiring anyone young. The people in power are worried about the future, and are holding on to their jobs. Because they’re not moving, social mobility comes to a grinding halt. The people who suffer are the ones who have not yet got on the job ladder, and we have seen huge unemployment in graduates, which goes against all they have been brought up to believe. They felt like they had a social contract, that the system would give them a job if they did the right thing. But the system no longer exists.

WAW: And how has this affected the church?

FROG: The church has felt it too. For a lot of churches the numbers of people who were prepared to be lay assistants has almost totally vanished. Many churches used to have people doing a year out and then staying on and volunteering, but not so much now. The combination of debt and the desire to get something out of it for themselves has changed how Millennials see things. They approach volunteering by asking what they are going to get out of it, rather than what they are going to give. So we are seeing more and more adverts for interns that try to upgrade the experience; offering a qualification, access to the senior leader, or just a whole lot of fun by going to big festivals, and events. It has meant that smaller churches are finding it hard to find someone who it happy to serve in the local church context.

WAW: So was it the Millennials who created the Big Worship Show?

FROG: I don’t think so. I don’t even think the church created it, I think we just responded to it. I think it’s just there. And there are positives to it, like recapturing what it means to be a big expression of church, for enjoying loud praise. This often happens when there is social turmoil, like the Metropolitan Tabernacle in late 1800s and Crystal Palace which both saw crowds of thousands of people showing up to worship. At times of social turmoil people like to get together to worship in large numbers.

Worship is meant to be cultural - it’s where culture and theology meet real people, so you see a lot of cultural things in there, and of course big worship events borrow the language and the style of wider culture and try to turn it to a higher purpose. People are increasingly seeing some of these worship events as a show or gig. Instead of going to see Coldplay or Rihanna they’ll head off to a worship event.

What I find intriguing is that while Hillsong, Worship Central and others are among those hosting big expressions of worship, and responding to what people love (which is great), we’re also seeing that people are likely also enjoy peace and reflection. Perhaps a two day Cistercian monastery for a retreat, or a quiet day with a spiritual director or mentor.

Lots of Millennials want to feel like they are on a journey with others who are broken. But they don’t want to be there all the time. In other words, they want a balanced meal. If worship is feasting, then if you just do waffles and syrup all the time it’s no good, but too much protein and steak also doesn’t work. Worship leaders like Matt Redman manage to do both of these. They can blend both a deep-rooted authenticity that is embracing of pain, with a high volume big church stadium service.

It is probably too soon to know what effect the new worship environment may have on the rising generations. Eight years ago people would get their big worship expression for one week a year in the summer, but now, in a big city in the UK you could get it every Sunday at any one of nine different services.

WAW: So how do you work with them?

FROG: I love working with Millennials and young adults, especially where their aspirations are really good. We act more as a mentor, looking at character development, using some less sacred language - personal transformation, reaching one’s potential - and we tell them that it will take five years to develop Christian maturity, not just an 10 week Alpha course. Our capacity to manage hurt and pain should be the hallmark of great churches. We try to prepare them for the crash, and for disappointment, for the moment their initial enthusiasm wears off - and to let them know they are still loved and secure. This means as leaders our relational commitment to them lasts much longer than it might have done before.

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