7 Ways to Welcome Young People to the Mainline

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

It’s been such a thrill to see my Washington Post op-ed, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’” generate so much conversation over the last few days. Thanks for sharing it so widely! One common and helpful pushback to the article has been the question: “Well, if millennials in the U.S. are dissatisfied with highly-produced hip expressions of Christianity, why aren’t they flocking to the mainline?” 

I’m as uncomfortable as many of you with claiming to speak on behalf of an entire generation or an entire denomination. That’s never been my aim. When it comes to talking about the future of faith, there are about a million angles to take, and most of mine have admittedly focused on specific questions facing (mostly) white Protestants in the U.S. and are therefore limited in scope. So, as always, take what I offer here with a grain of salt. 

Still, given the fact that studies show continued decline in the U.S. mainline, I think the question is worth addressing, even from my own limited experience. My guess is that folks dissatisfied with highly-produced, hip expressions of Christianity also struggle with classic mainline liberalism as their only alternative.  With all of this in mind, and in response to common questions I receive when speaking at mainline churches, I’ve dusted off and updated this older post from 2013 with seven ways to welcome young people to the mainline: 

1. Update your Web site. 

While millennials aren’t necessarily looking for a highly-produced show or the latest and greatest technology, they are often looking for your address. And maybe a belief statement of some sort.  Young adults tend to start their search for anything—be it a church or an apartment or even a date— on the Internet, so if your site is difficult to navigate and embarrassingly out-of-date, they may not bother to come for a visit. I also appreciate it when a church’s Web site includes information about beliefs, ministries, worship, ministerial staff, educational programs, etc.  And if your church is located in a more conservative area (say, East Tennessee), you might even want to make special note of the fact that you welcome LGBT people and affirm women in ministry.  Just keep in mind that often our first "visit" to your church is via the Web site. So it might be worth putting some extra time and resources into it. 

2.  Take risks on unconventional church plants. 

In Searching for Sunday I feature several unusual church plants that are thriving in their communities, and many are associated with mainline Protestant denominations that were willing to take a risk on unconventional models. One such church is St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn—a small “dinner church” centered around the Eucharist as both a sacred ritual and a meal. (St. Lydia's is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.) Another church that comes to mind is Missiongathering in San Diego, which is associated with the progressive denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but which has a very evangelical “feel” to its worship because it attracts a lot of folks who come from evangelical traditions and enjoy evangelical worship but are looking for a church that welcomes LGBT people. I think too of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, also associated with the ELCA, or Bushwick Abbey and Thad’s Episcopal Community, both associated with the Episcopal Church. 

I’m no expert on church planting, but what these churches seem to have in common are pastors and laypeople who share a vision for ministering in a unique way to a specific group of people in a specific neighborhood, partnering with a denomination that can help with resources and accountability. These days, it’s less about getting people to come to you and more about going out, serving the people, and then letting them build the church together. 

St. Lydia's, Brooklyn 

St. Lydia's, Brooklyn 

3.  Infuse the traditional liturgy and sacraments with some creativity. 

A lot of young, disenfranchised evangelicals like me are drawn to the beautiful and ancient liturgy of more traditional churches. For us, it’s a refreshing alternative to the highly-produced contemporary worship services we’ve grown used to (conversely, folks who grew up with more traditional worship may love the contemporary worship of an evangelical church; with church, we often crave what we feel like we’ve been missing). So you don’t have to replace your smells and bells with electric guitars to welcome young disenfranchised evangelicals. But it’s nice to see a little creativity infused into the liturgy.  

House for All Sinners and Saints seems to do this beautifully. On their Web site, they explain:

“We follow the ancient liturgy of the church (chanting the Kyrie, readings from scripture, chanting the Psalm, sermon, prayers of the people, Eucharist, benediction, etc.) We also sing the old hymns of the church. So there's lots of ancient tradition at HFASS, but there's also some innovation. We always include poetry and a time called ‘Open Space’ in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community's Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver. We like to say that we are ‘anti-excellence/pro-participation’, meaning that the liturgy is led by the people who show up…”

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco also takes a creative approach to their traditional liturgy. Check out the worship section of their Web site

You don’t have to make any radical changes all at once, or go as far as HFASS and Gregory of Nyssa, but doing things differently now and then enriches the inherent beauty of the liturgy and reminds both longtime members and newbies why it's so central and so important to the life of your church.  

It may also be helpful to take cues from evangelical groups that are actively recovering more traditional, liturgical worship and practice in their communities. Check out Aaron Niequist's work with The Practice, for example.

4. Relax a little. 

I know this may not reflect national trends, but the Episcopal Church Dan and I attend—St. Luke’s in Cleveland, Tennessee—is incredibly diverse as far as the ages of people sitting in the pews. We have retirees sitting next to hipsters sitting next to moms bouncing toddlers on their laps sitting next to middle-aged professionals. In the parking lot you’ll spot as many Romney/Ryan bumper stickers as Obama/Biden ones, and theological views are pretty diverse too.   

There are many reasons for this of course (see points 5-7), but one is that even amidst the traditional worship and liturgy, St. Luke’s has a relaxed atmosphere. The church is located in a conservative part of the country (in a town that serves as the national headquarters for the Church of God and home to one of the largest Pentecostal universities in the country), so it attracts a lot of people who grew up Southern Baptist or Pentecostal or non-denominational. The rector was raised Southern Baptist and the worship leader Pentecostal, so both speak fluent evangelical. While there is great respect for the traditional liturgy and worship of the Episcopal Church, the place is totally devoid of the stuffiness and stiffness you encounter in some more traditional churches whose favorite refrain seems to be, “we’ve always done it this way” with a subtle undertone of “please don’t break anything.” At St. Luke’s, no one’s going to look down their nose at me if I wear jeans one Sunday, and no one’s going to freak out if a little kid shouts, “NEXT COMES THE BLOOD!” while taking communion (this actually happened, to a chorus of chuckles). Everyone is laughs easily, lets the small stuff slide, and from time to time offers helpful reminders like “the red book is the Book of Common Prayer and the blue book is the hymnal.” 

5.  Don’t assume we know why you believe what you believe, or why you do what you do. 

The other day I had a conversation with a young woman who grew up Methodist. She explained to me that when she went to college and began attending a conservative complementarian church with her friends, she felt ill-prepared to explain why she supported women in ministry. “They had all the Bible verses,” she said. “And I had no idea how to respond to them. I guess growing up Methodist I’d always taken women pastors for granted.” She grew up knowing her church affirmed women in ministry, but she never learned why her church affirmed women in ministry.

I also hear from a lot of evangelicals who have begun attending Mainline Protestant churches precisely because they welcome LGBT people, accept scientific findings regarding climate change and evolution, practice traditional worship, preach from the lectionary, affirm women in ministry, etc., but these new attendees never hear the leadership of the church explain why this is the case.  This need not happen from the pulpit, but perhaps a Sunday school class or Bible study addressing these issues would be helpful, not only for those new to the church but also for those who grew up in the tradition and need a refresher. 

Our church holds “Episcopal 101” classes that serve as both an introduction to Anglican theology and practice and also as a confirmation classes. We were unable to attend due to travel, but two of our friends did, and they were confirmed last spring. They said some in the class were longtime Episcopalians there for a refresher while others were disenfranchised evangelicals just learning the ropes. 

6. Challenge us. 

Perhaps the most annoying assumption mainline church leaders seem to make about millennials is that we require a dumbed-down, inoffensive, and unobtrusive faith. As happy as I am about shorter sermons on Sunday mornings that pull the attention away from the pastor and onto the Table, I still long for the intense Bible study and training so common in the evangelical churches I’ve loved. St. Luke’s offers this through those Episcopal 101 classes I referenced earlier as well as challenging Sunday school offerings. (We have one right now on world religions that is incredibly comprehensive.)  The church also partners with a local rabbi from time to time for conversation around Hebrew Scripture and offers a variety of Bible study/book club options.  

Sometimes I get the idea that folks in the mainline are so frustrated with how evangelicals have wielded the Bible and faith in the public square, they avoid language, practices, and teaching that might be construed as overly religious, overly biblical, or overly exclusive. To them I want to plead: Please, please don’t be afraid of being distinctly and unapologetically Christian! Don’t be afraid of pushing and challenging us! 

I once spoke with a young woman who was raised in a very liberal mainline tradition who told me she left the church because, “I wasn’t learning anything there about tolerance, love, and good stewardship of the planet that I wasn’t learning at my public high school, so what was the point?” As passionate as young Christians are about social issues, we realize that both Jesus without social justice and social justice without Jesus leaves something to be desired. 

If you don’t like how conservative evangelicals talk about the Bible, then talk about it better, but don’t not talk about it at all. If you don’t like how conservative evangelicals proselytize, then preach the gospel better, but don’t not preach it at all. 

7. Help us build lasting relationships. 

I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Mainline Protestant churches are less likely to have “small groups” where members gather together in one another’s homes to simply share life together. (If I’m making an unfair assumption or generalization, let me know.) Obviously, such groups can be less-than-helpful when they divide everyone up by age group and marital status, but I’ve also seen them represent what is most powerful about church as members become deeply invested in one another’s lives. Weekday Bible studies can also serve this purpose, or perhaps even certain Sunday school gatherings. I’m convinced that one thing folks from my generation long for is the chance to talk openly and honestly about our faith, our doubts, our questions, our ideas, our struggles, our joys, etc. in the context of a faith community.


What else? How can progressive Mainline Protestant churches welcome young people and disenfranchised evangelicals? 

For my own church story, coupled with reflections on the sacraments, check out Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. 

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