Why Millennials are Looking for Church To Be a Place of Rest
"I could come here during lunch to pray."
The young woman's statement during a recent focus group where we visited different local churches surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, she didn't even attend a church. She wasn't someone I'd have expected to be open to an impromptu prayer session during the middle of her workday.
Second, we were in a little chapel within a traditional Episcopal cathedral—St. James, in downtown Chicago. The chapel's entryway is just a few feet from a busy side street. It features opaque windows, hard wooden benches, burning candles, and a low vaulted ceiling. Hardly the place I would expect an unchurched 24-year-old woman to feel comfortable and at peace.
And yet this was the space where she intuitively could envision herself coming to pray.
Before visiting St. James Cathedral, we had stopped at a modern megachurch in the suburbs. Our focus groups were part of a new Millennials and Church Architecture study, commissioned in part by Aspen Group on behalf of the Cornerstone Knowledge Network. The study was conducted to understand how the Millennial generation (18- to 29-year-olds) perceive and interact with religious spaces. This particular focus group, which included 20somethings from a variety of spiritual backgrounds, had found plenty to like about the megachurch, but no one had thought of it as a place to go and pray. Instead, we heard comments like, "I could come do my homework here" when they saw the coffee shop with comfortable couches and free Wi-Fi.
So what was this cathedral chapel, with its overt religious décor, hard floors, and harder seats, able to provide that the luxurious facility outside of town was not?
To answer this question, we identified some key differences between traditional and modern churches. We explored these differences as we took focus groups through urban cathedrals and suburban megachurches, coffee shops, and city parks in Chicago and Atlanta.
Forms and Functions
The old churches were built to connect people to God. The altar, the stained glass windows, the ceiling pointing to the heavens—the very structure and shape were intentionally designed to create a link between the human and the divine. Cathedrals, then, by their very design, were constructed for the primary purpose of drawing people to God. There is very little else such a building could be used for.
Modern churches, on the other hand, are explicitly constructed not to look and feel too much like a religious place. A modern church is designed to host activities, and these activities are to point the congregation to God. But strip away those activities, and as far as the building goes you might just as well be at a community college, or a performing arts center, or—Heaven help us—an airport terminal!
So our churches today are not defined by their form, but by their functions—by the activities and happenings that go on inside. And while that’s not altogether a bad thing, something has been lost along the way.
Our churches are places of action, not places of rest. A place to do rather than a place to be.
This pattern in our churches certainly is not an isolated one. It fits right in with the general pace of life around us. When half of our Millennials check their phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night; when many become physically anxious if they don’t have their phone on them at any given time; when #FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) becomes both a cry for help and a badge of honor; when our moms scour Pinterest to find ways to make life easier and instead end up feeling inadequate because their kids’ lunches don’t feature home-grown cabbage wraps shaped like advanced algebraic equations (so little Johnny can develop math sense and go to Harvard and take his company public), then it’s no wonder our churches are providing what people think they want: more to do and more to see.
But we noticed something in our research: when we walked into those cathedrals our participants all sat down. Churched or unchurched, Christian or non, they intuitively understood that they were in a place where it was fine to sit…and do nothing. Is it no wonder that we are seeing an uptick in Millennials who seek out liturgical forms of worship? Or that Millennials who know about Lent are more likely than their parents to actually practice it? (And often what they are giving up is technology—to find that slower pace if just for a few weeks.)
And it’s not just the pace of life. It’s the complexity. Young adults who are just now making their way in the world are faced with an abundance of choices. This can be a great advantage, but it comes with a hefty price tag. Instead of living out a cultural narrative—finish school, find a job, get married, have kids, build a career (in that order)—they are being given both the opportunity and obligation to create a new narrative from so many, many moving pieces.
This applies to their spirituality as well…instead of simply finding a church and building a faith journey using that church as a central hub, they are independently building a spiritual life that may include multiple churches, multiple peer circles, and even multiple faiths!
Your church. Is it a place of energy and activity? Does it pride itself on offering all sorts of choices for those who want a vibrant faith experience? That’s all well and good. But when do your people stop their labors—even their spiritual labors? Where do they go to experience Jesus’s invitation: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)?