Work as a catalyst for millennial outreach

By Caitlyn Stenerson, Bethel Seminary St. Paul

Walk into any given American church this Sunday and you’re bound to see generations gathering for worship, service, and teaching. One generation, however, is missing: Millennials. The statistics surrounding millennial religious participation are dismal, at best:

  • 1 out of 4 millennials are unaffiliated with any faith tradition.
  • Less than half of all millennials pray daily.
  • 18% of millennials attend religious services once a week. (source)

In response to these statistics, many churches turn to doing more: more technology, more contemporary music, more eye-catching graphics and millennial-focused events. While relevancy is certainly a valuable asset, what if attracting more millennials was as easy as teaching better: a better work-based theology that teaches millennials that the work that they do 40+ hours a week matters a great deal in the Kingdom of God? Attracting millennials to church is as easy as presenting a theology that affirms the church, informs work, and ultimately mobilizes millennials to transform their world.

A Theology that Affirms the Church

Millennial church-going statistics are dismal in part due to millennial distrust of institutions in general, including religious institutions. Only 55% of millennials believe that churches have had a positive impact on America – an 18-point drop from statistics compiled six years ago (source). If churches want to attract millennials, they must begin by revitalizing the ways that millennials view the church – ultimately demonstrating the importance of attending religious services.

While millennials distrust churches, they also believe that churches should speak into social and political issues, and should inform issues of morality (source). Churches, then, should utilize this to teach on how to respond to morally gray areas – taking careful concern to speak to issues of morality that one might encounter in today’s economy, the workplace, and their personal lives.

As economist William McGurn writes in Is The Market Moral?, the market depends on virtues that it cannot create itself – “self-restraint, honesty, courage, diligence, and the wiliness to defer gratification.” The church can speak into these issues and more by reevaluating the way the church views itself. The church, as Amy Sherman writes in Kingdom Calling, is an aircraft carrier, not a cruise ship. Its primary goal is to launch its congregants into their week with more preparation to encounter the “real world” using Godly principles than they were when they entered on Sunday morning.

In order to do this well, the church should pay attention to speak into moral issues by mirroring biblical examples with real-world situations – for instance, mirroring the story of David and Bathsheba with a story of a person encountering sexual temptation in the workplace and responding with integrity, or the story of Nehemiah with a story of a congregant who has worked well to avoid cutting corners in their business. This not only affirms the importance of application of biblical principles for Monday-through-Friday work, but also demonstrates that the pastoral staff cares for, understands, and is involved in the work lives of their congregants. This reduces the amount of institutional distrust by demonstrating relational care and elevates the position of the church as a moral teacher among millennials, who already view that as a main objective of the church.

A Theology that Informs Work

Searching for a higher meaning than simply punching the clock in a forty-hour workweek, millennials are seeking a theology of work that explains the joy and pain of work in its present state.

Frequently, work is explained in the context of the fall – a curse of the fall, human beings are destined to be joyless in their work, only experiencing thorns and thistles (Genesis 3). Contrary to that disheartening theology, work was a gift of creation – a beautiful reflection of a Creator that worked to form this planet and continues to work to protect and guide it.

Work continues to hold great significance in the created world today. Work is necessary for the feeding of the human body and of the human soul. By being involved in congregant’s work lives and highlighting the importance of every job – not just jobs within the church – the church can help millennials to see that what they do in 40-hours a week holds eternal impact in God’s kingdom.

A work-based theology helps congregants to see that work feeds both the soul and the body in practical, concrete ways – no job lacks importance in God’s kingdom.

A Theology that Mobilizes Millennials

 Millennials are hungry for meaning within their work, especially when it comes to their work contributing to the general wellbeing of the planet and their community. 70% of millennials list “giving back” and “being civically engaged as their top priorities – demonstrating both their willingness to engage in society, and the deep meaning found in seeing work as restorative and redemptive.

Mobilizing millennials for change begins by explaining to millennials that their calling – what they were created to do – fills an intentional gap within creation. As Tom Nelson writes in Work Matters, “there is a place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet –” and that is their calling, to live within that space and to work out of it. In fact, living out of a place between personal gladness and the world’s hunger produces people who seek to balance individualism and a concern for community, making Christian workers more apt to become world changers who place others before themselves.

An Invitation to Speak to Millennials in Their Language

The church has done a disservice by speaking only of calling as primarily a spiritual call to a position of ecclesiastical authority. In doing so, the church has alienated and pushed away those who feel a calling to “secular” careers, and the church has only further promoted the dualistic concept that there is, in fact, “sacred” work and “secular” work – an idea negated by the sheer fact that Jesus Christ worked as a manual laborer for much longer that his public ministry.

Without breaking down the dualism, the church cannot even begin to have a conversation with millennials about why work matters and how the church can speak into that. Therefore, the church must begin by talking to millennials in their language.

In some ways, this involves connecting with millennials on areas of strong religious agreement – the presence of the church as a moral teacher, the existence of God and of moral authority, and the concept that there is a kingdom seen beyond this world. In speaking to millennials about their work within the context of the Christian faith, then, congregations can speak to the moral compass that guides the work that is done, a call to fill the gap and bring the kingdom here on earth, and the supremacy of God over all things.

Individuals were created to work – were created to fill the gap between the here-and-now and the kingdom to come. By helping millennials to understand their calling in concrete terms, and by speaking of the theology of work in helpful ways, the church can develop a theology of work that informs work, affirms the church, and mobilizes millennials towards social change and meaningful engagement in civil society.

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