The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Millennials at Church: The Mobile Generation

Nobody I know is actively promoting church shopping. That modern phenomenon of “finding the right church” that “fits me.” Last week, Rachel Held Evans tried to explain why we Millennials are leaving cool churches in droves, and pointed out that some are turning instead to “high church” traditions with lots of liturgy and even hierarchy. She encouraged pastors to seek out Millennials, sit down with them, and ask them for their thoughts. Bret McCracken, another Millennial evangelical, chimed in with an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, and suggested the opposite: Millennials should seek out their pastors and listen to them. Round and round it goes. Yet another blog argued that no matter whether Millennials opted for cool churches or high churches, it was still all about themselves: The consumeristic, church-shopping mindset pervaded it all.

But one aspect of this discussion is taken for granted, and it’s really at the heart of this whole consumer mentality: Mobility. In my 30 years, I’ve lived in 5 states and have regularly attended 10 churches. And I’m not all that unusual. I’ve been in enough churches to know that when January and August roll around, an influx of new faces will appear in Chicagoland churches: Millennials picking up and moving in some new school or job transition.

Millennials, I would bet, are the most mobile generation ever. Not simply because of mobile phones but more because of automobiles. It wasn’t the millennials who created this culture. Rather, megachurches sprung up sometime after car culture had established itself. Swelling numbers and “stealing sheep” grew out of the fact that parishioners could now drive to any number of different churches. More cars meant more options. They could drive farther and attend a church they liked. Despite the “community church” names, it was out with community, in with consumerism.

Millennials simply inherited this mobile way of life. We grew up with mobile culture and the churches it has promulgated. We don’t know what it was like: to have our options limited by geography—to not be able to go to any church within 30 miles or more. In fact, we drive almost everywhere: parties, grocery stores, coffee shops, friends’ houses, vacation, family reunions, everywhere. So why not also drive to church? We have hundreds of options to choose from.

With so many options, the question then becomes, “How do I pick one?” We need ways to narrow it down. In the end, it might come down to a couple things: familiarity and personal preference. Again, for me, growing up, I was exposed to a few different kinds of churches: Mennonite, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Bible Church, Seeker Sensitive. And now, like many others, I’ve left the low church and gotten high. I left an Evangelical church that was 25 minutes away, and I now attend an Anglican church that is about 10 minutes. But I still pass a lot of churches to get there. There are so many options.

I chose my church based on personal preferences and past experiences. I had certain values and beliefs that I wanted my church to affirm. I also really enjoyed the worship, the people, and the preaching. Honestly, there wasn’t any other way to narrow down my choices. I had to decide based on my own self-reflection. I needed to articulate just exactly what things were important to me. I needed to focus on me. I didn’t have another way to go about it. It became all about what I wanted.

That self-centeredness is what mobility enables. That’s also what it requires. Having so many options demands a decision, and for lack of other constraints, the only relevant filters were my own desires. So, yes, I chose my church for selfish reasons. It’s the blessing and curse of mobility. It’s the mindset of the car. Is there another way around it? Is there a way out of consumerism and church shopping?

While the car has given me so many options, from another point of view it has severely restricted which method I use for choosing a church. The restraints of physical geography are replaced with the restraints of my heart. I’m left with me and my own desires. It seemed great a century ago. And in a lot of ways it still does. That is, until it comes time to lay down my own desires for the needs of someone else. When that day comes, I won’t have had much chance to practice.