For many of our members, seeing over 30 university students appear in the pews on one particular Sunday in September was a welcoming surprise. After all, our congregation of about 50 members with most being in their 60s and 70s, reflects what a lot of mainline denominational churches look like today. However, while we knew the majority of these students wouldn’t return for another worship service with the following Sunday, we did know that we would see them again. And for us, we considered that way as being church too.
This past June, I began my first call at University Place Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Champaign, Illinois as the Minister for Community and Campus Relations. University Place (UniPlace), has a deeply rooted history in not only the town of Champaign, Illinois, but with the University of Illinois that sits adjacent to our church property. Since its beginnings in the 1900s, UniPlace grew much like most mainline denominational churches in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, like many other mainline denominational churches, the sanctuary, which once was filled with hundreds of church members on a Sunday morning, now only has a scattering of about 40 older adults today. And while this poses a real concern for the future of UniPlace, what we do see is God working through us in ways we did not expect.
Since 2012, UniPlace has operated a weekly community dinner in our church basement which feeds those facing hunger and homeless issues in our community. But we are also seeing a new ministry begin at UniPlace through the collaboration of church members and university students as they build a relationship with one another.
Every week, students from the University of Illinois cook and prepare meals for 100 guests who come through our doors. For our community, our dinners provide a way individuals can have a free cooked meal. And for our older church members, it’s a way they can connect to university students and discover their shared passion of community service outside the context of a worship service.
Like my other mainline millennial clergy counterparts who are beginning their first calls into churches, we are serving in congregations which are smaller than they were in previous generations. And for us, our struggle will be how to engage our “spiritual but not religious” and “nones” (meaning no religious affiliation) millennial counterparts while also continuing to minister to older adults. Particularly by providing spiritual care to the baby boomer generation as they grow older.
While transitioning worship services from hymns to contemporary music and having a pastor trade in their liturgical robe for blue jeans is a method many churches have done in effort to attract millennials, a change in worship style is something that doesn’t often result in blended generational worship services on Sunday mornings.
First, for many older adults who enjoy traditional worship services, this style of worship service often alienates them. One simply can see this reflected in the lack of older adults in many non-denominational churches which offer only contemporary services. And there are many millennials who do enjoy traditional worship services and struggle experiencing the spiritual divine speak to them in a contemporary setting.
What remains is a need for recognition and exploration. A recognition that while many millennials may not be seeking to have a spiritual experience in either traditional or contemporary worship services, they are seeking for a spiritual meaning. And it’s with this recognition comes the process of exploring things which older and younger generations in our communities share while also allowing the opportunity for both of these generations to be a spiritual presence to one another in a diverse way.
For us at UniPlace, it’s our community dinners and our community service projects which have have allowed us to see connections between students at the University of Illinois and our older adult members form. And while we may only see students at our worship services when we have community service project kickoffs during worship such as the one we had in September, we do witness the spiritual presence we see with our older adults and our university students as they learn and engage with one another.
From witnessing an older church member and a university student share their college experience with one another while pulling weeds. To an older church woman and a young university student talk about relationships while they scrubbed pots during our community dinner. What I seek to remind the older adults in our congregation is while university students may not be in worship with them on Sundays, they still seek a spiritual presence in their lives. And for them, they often find that presence in their interactions with older adults who also experienced the many challenges young adults face with today.
While community service is a way we at UniPlace are seeking to connect our millennials and the older adults in our congregation, many faith communities are trying creative and different ways to bridge the generation gap in their faith communities.
At Elkins Park Presbyterian Church in Elkins Park, PA, it was creating a connection through pop-culture and the popular television show “The Walking Dead “that led to building a bridge between older and younger adults.
During Lent in 2014, Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly led a sermon series with a companion evening study series on zombies in current media. During the series, they discussed why depictions of the resurrection are often horrific in modern media in comparison to the Biblical teachings of resurrection found in the healings that Christ performed as well as Christ’s resurrection. Through zombie literature, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows, millennials and older adults explored the struggles we all have with the reality of death.
“Millennials and older adults can learn from one another the same way they always have, with elders sharing life lessons and maturity with the younger generations and the millennials introducing innovations and new ways of approaching life and faith to their elders,” Rev. Betz-Bogoly said.
While altering worship services are a way to attract millennials, faith communities must take a step forward to build a relationship between millennials and older adults they already have in their communities. Through this process they can not only allow for the opportunity for millennials and older adults to be a spiritual presence to one another in a way no traditional or contemporary worship service can provide. But they also can discover they can have a lot of fun together too.