For most boomer churches, the community was perceived to be a place where prospects could be found. Entire systems of outreach were devised to find people to increase the membership of the church. In many of these churches, the community was seen to be a source of greater attendance and increased financial gifts.
Millennial Christians (those born between 1980 and 2000) resist this view of the community. For them, community is not a place where we look for prospects to help our church; it is a place where Christians are called to serve and minister. Millennials don't ask what the community can do for the church; they ask what they can do for the community.
Listening to Millennials
My son Jess Rainer and I are working on a book based on a comprehensive research project on the Millennials. Karen was one of 1,300 Millennials we interviewed. She was 24 years old at the time of our interview with her. She grew up in a more established Southern Baptist church in South Carolina. Though Karen still resides in her home state, she now attends a church with no denominational affiliation.
"I love the town where I live," she began. "But I've learned to love this community from my church. The pastor and other leaders in the church are constantly letting us know how we can have an impact where we live. Our church has been so consistent with caring for and loving our community that leaders from town now turn to us when they have a need. We don't have to have a formal outreach program," she said, remembering her former church, "because we are already in the community and because the community comes to us."
Missional and Incarnational
Two of the buzzwords used by Millennial Christians are missional and incarnational. Missional means that Christians are sent in the community, that they are on mission in the community. The community is not just a place where the church is located; it is a place where Christians are sent to demonstrate the love of Christ. For most Christian Millennials, they do not go to work, to the shopping center, or to the schools merely to carry out transactions. They see themselves as missionaries wherever they are in the community.
The Milllennials also are committed to being incarnational in the community as well. The word literally means "in the flesh" or physically present. But for this younger generation it has the deeper meaning of being present as a representative for Christ. As Karen told our research team, "When I am in my community, I try to see the people I encounter through the eyes of Christ. It makes all the difference in the world."
Millennial Christians will reject those churches that tend to view the community as little more than a population pool from which growth in attendance and budget can come. But they will embrace those churches that teach its members to love the community.
How Churches Understand Community
You can tell the difference in these churches rather easily. In many churches, efforts to reach the community may be limited to distributing flyers telling the residents what church events they can or should attend.
"I don't criticize those churches," Karen told us. "But I want to be helping repair homes, caring for merchants who lost loved ones, and cleaning up trash for elderly residents. I know it's cliché, but I want to ask the question, 'What would Jesus do?' I want to be in the churches that view the community that way."
The Millennials are on mission for the community. Is your church doing likewise?