Millennials haven’t completely deserted Anchorage churches

For several years, I’ve written about issues churches face in the failure of attracting millennials — at least as we currently understand that word.

Pew Research defines millennials as the demographic group that fell between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015 and projects that they number about 75.3 million, slightly surpassing the projected 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51 to 69).

As I visit churches, in many I’m seeing fewer attendees I would identify as being in the 18-29 year range. In any organization, this group would ordinarily be the lifeblood that carries an organization into the future. (This is true not only for churches but also for civic and fraternal organizations such as Rotary Clubs and Masonic Lodges.) But not all churches are losing millennials.

In mid-November I attended Sunday services at TrueNorth Anchorage. This fairly recent church plant was meeting Sundays at the Loussac Library’s Wilda Marston Theatre but outgrew that space. Now they are meeting at Clark Middle School. I was warmly greeted by millennials as I entered Clark. The church met in the multipurpose room decorated with TrueNorth banners, and full of tables, information and helpful people. There were areas for children’s instruction as well. Many millennials attended the service, which started with a brief 15-minute musical service led by a seven-piece worship band.

The pastor introduced himself as Jason and warmly welcomed guests, explaining that the regular pastor, Brent, was at an Outside conference for pastors. Few pastors take the time to warmly welcome members and guests, much less to identify themselves by name. Jason, a millennial himself, identified as the key text for his sermon Nehemiah 3, which described rebuilding a gate and wall in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. It shows how almost everyone pitched in to accomplish this common goal. Jason tied this to TrueNorth’s mission of “reaching people in this state who do not know Jesus’ name,” a brilliant take on the meaning of Gospel. Following communion, the pastor challenged worshippers to consider inviting just one person to church during the week, and talked briefly about TrueNorth’s life groups. I can see why millennials might be drawn to such a service: It was brief and friendly and featured good music and excellent preaching. I’ve seen similarly effective services at Great Land Christian Church (Central Middle School), Clear Water (Wendler Middle School) and C3 (Begich Middle School). Attending services of all of them, I’ve found millennials well-represented at each.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, released a research-based book, “You Lost Me,” several years ago detailing how this young generation is giving up on church. There are many issues involved, but a few key ones were: failure of older members to connect, sexuality, perceptions of hypocrisy, not addressing science and faith and church exclusivity. In a recent interview titled “Q&A: Why Millennials are less religious than older Americans,” published by the Pew Research Center, New York University sociologist Michael Hout contends that millennials, the children of baby boomers, were raised to think for themselves, to “find their own moral compass,” rejecting “the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid,” approaching religion with a “do-it-yourself attitude.” He also notes millennials reject more than religion, citing “lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life.”

Ray Nadon, pastor of Great Land Christian notes they’ve achieved positive results with “personal contact, meaning young people caring about other young people. Building relationships with them, learning to talk with them and not be ‘religious,’ but real and honest.” Sounds a bit like Kinnaman’s observations to me. Nadon further notes that training and teaching is important, aided by personal dives into Scripture, community service and active involvement by everyone. He did express a concern that too many churches try “to play in the millennials’ weaknesses by making ‘church’ about entertainment.” I agree with Nadon that’s a mistake, and isn’t really what millennials are looking for.

Brian Cook, lead pastor at ACF Church in Eagle River, another millennial-heavy church, thinks “that many current cultural issues are polarizing the church, which is reducing the number of nominal Christians, especially in the millennial generation. This is causing many to weigh the cost of aligning with the label of ‘Christianity.’” He notes that ACF is “a community of grace, where doubts and questions are welcomed. People don’t have to ‘believe’ to ‘belong.’” Cook believes “millennials are simply looking for honest and loving community with a real vision to make life better in our cities.”

Many churches continue to conduct church in traditional ways that frankly do not address millennial needs. Millennials are searching for authenticity in an unauthentic world. Churches could provide more of this if they really tried. Mentoring could help in many, but the big question is, will it happen?

However, I’m encouraged that millennials in Anchorage are finding places of worship that address their various backgrounds and needs, places that extend themselves in ways that are not claustrophobic.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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