“It’s not working Daddy”
My family and I were travelling from San Francisco to New York City and Google had just released Google Chrome. To promote their new product, Google were offering passengers use of a laptop and free Wi-Fi for the flight. My whole family took up this generous offer.
Now my five-year-old daughter was sitting in her seat, madly touching the screen of her borrowed laptop complaining “It’s not working Daddy”. She had never seen a laptop and had only ever used an iPad before.
Our world is experiencing rapid change. What once was only in the realm of Sci-Fi movies in my childhood has become reality for my daughter. But it is not just technology where we see this change. There has been huge social upheaval, shaping how we understand our world, life and relationships. For the most part, the church that was once in the centre of Western society now finds itself more and more marginalised.
This is nothing new. We all know the church in the West is in decline. In the UK and in Europe, in Australia and now even in the States that for the longest time seemed immune to this slide. For the last five years I have preached in over one hundred churches throughout New South Wales and Canberra and I have witness this decline first hand. Even churches that have healthy and vibrant older congregations, struggled to connect with Millennials and younger generations.
This too is reflected in the statistics that suggest that while the average age of an Australian is 37 years old, the average church attender in Australia is 53 years old. The church is aging and a generation of young adults is fast disappearing. The church in Australia has been in decline since World War II. However, there has been a more profound shift in the last two decades. It’s no surprise that this shift has coincided with the emergence of Google (registered in 1997), Facebook (open to the public in 2006) and iPhone (released in 2007).
Today, there are whole generations that are growing up digitally connected all the time. Instead of hearing just one narrative, all of a sudden they are open to a diversity of voices, and now they have found their own voice. The world they live in is a world of the 24-hour news cycle and fake news where the loudest and most aggressive voice tends to win out.
How has the church broadly responded to these challenges? Most have responded by simply creating a website and replacing their Hymns and overhead projectors with video projectors. Worse still, the institutional church has responded to its shrinking influence in society like a petulant child, refusing to give up what they feel they are rightly entitled to and demanding that society obey their rules.
Is it any wonder then that a generation growing up in a different world from the world we grew up in, is finding it harder and harder to connect with a church that refuses to express the life giving transformation of Christ in new and fresh ways?
A generation used to platforms that invite them to speak, used to platforms where networks allow them to form opinions by reaching consensus with their peers, and is becoming increasingly suspicious of any expression of institution, power and authority.
Everything must change but where do we start?
Listen. It starts with a genuine willingness to engage and listen to Millennials. Listen to their stories, their values, their hopes and dreams. Maybe the best way to discover how to connect to Millennials is to ask them?
Humility. Instead of imposing our traditional understanding of church through the old structures of power, perhaps we need to let go of control, and cheer the Millennials on from the sidelines?
Courage. It will take courage to allow Millennials to try new things, to give them permission to take risk, to allow them to fail and to be there to help the next generation navigate this brave new world.
Prayer. Finally, we need to recognise that what we are doing “is not working” and to ask God to empower the church to do whatever it takes to make the necessary changes.
Rev. Dr Cameron Eccleston is the Mission Facilitation Consultant at Uniting Mission & Education.