Catholic News Service
Students pray during Ash Wednesday at University of Texas.
Catholic News Service
Students pray during Ash Wednesday at University of Texas.

Portland is a millennial haven and it would be too bad if Catholics assume they can’t help millennials get to heaven.

Many Christian groups observe the dearth of young worshippers and have assumed it’s necessary to have pastors with tattoos, giant screens in church and espresso machines in the vestibule. Some big churches have marketing departments. Many have eased up on moral teachings, seeking wider acceptance.

Is that what millennials really want? 

The blogger and author Rachel Held Evans, a millennial herself, writes that trying to be cool might be making things worse for churches.

Think of your favorite high school teacher, in retrospect. Chances are, it was the no-nonsense, old-school curmudgeon who really stood for something, not the mercurial young scholar desperately weaving through cultural traffic in hope of being relevant. It turns out the same goes for churches.

Research from the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Barna Group found that two-thirds of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.”

Evans explains that millennials are bombarded with advertising and digital hucksterism all day and what they really want on Sunday is authenticity. They want to enter into a timeless realm where the divine has always been and always will be. 

“You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality,” she writes.

If this is true, why aren’t Catholic churches packed with millennials? There are likely many answers, but in the end, that is the wrong question. It’s another marketing inquiry that would only lead to chasing market share. What we really should ask is, “Why do we have any millennials? And how has the Catholic Church survived and even thrived when surrounding culture has so often veered away from it?” When we answer, we will have a genuine path to take — and others will follow.