A Pastoral Response to Millennial Autonomy


A few weeks ago I was sitting down with a church member who owns a start-up. He shares a common challenge for many businesses today: retaining millennials. Millennials value autonomy in the workplace. It’s not that they don’t want to work with a team, but they want autonomy when it comes to doing what they do, when they want to, and who they do it with. They want a place where work and play aren’t separated, where their weekly toiling also offers a sense of meaning and purpose. And most of all, they want work to be a place centered around relationships—where the boss isn’t just a boss, but a friend. If that’s not happening, then millennials probably aren’t sticking around.

This demand for autonomy might create problems for others. But more than that, it creates a tension within the individual, namely, an often unfulfilled longing to be a part of something bigger than oneself. As David Wells says, “The self was never intended to carry this weight.”

So, how does the church care for this generation of people? After all, the church is well-equipped to meet this challenge without needing to learn a new strategy. We simply must lean on biblical practices that serve every human being in every generation.


Entrepreneur Kevin O’Rourke says that millennials view their workplace as more of a passion than an obligation. Money isn’t as important as meaning. They want their work and their consumerism tied to a good cause. Well, is there a greater cause than what Jesus himself is doing in this world? Of course there isn’t. Yet too often, Christians don’t know that membership in the church is tied to the kingdom of God, to Jesus’ work in the world. Sadly, too often membership looks like nothing more than a name in a defunct database. Whether they’re a church member or not, it doesn’t make a difference in their life as a Christian.

Who wants to be a part of an organization like that? What’s even the point?

But Jesus makes membership in the church a much bigger deal. He’s given the gathered church his authority to preach the gospel and live as the people of the gospel. It’s a call to action that can’t be done alone. For example, if a brother or sister falls into sin, a member feels a sense of responsibility to begin the steps of church discipline (Matt. 18:15) by going to them and speaking the truth in love. Church members should feel a desire—and even an obligation—to give of their finances, to gather together, to share the gospel, and to do good works in the world together. This is often the stuff of church covenants, because by doing these things local churches not only testify to the truth of the saving gospel to the world, they also preserve and strengthen the church as she waits for the return of Christ. Churches help Christians, including and perhaps especially millennials, by giving them the responsibility of church membership—a responsibility to which many will respond wonderfully. So . . .


Millennials have grown up with an unbelievable array of options for every part of their life. But as psychologist Barry Schwartz has argued, the more options we have the more likely we are to do nothing. It’s why a couple ends up staying home when they can’t decide on a place to eat.

I wonder if this is why so many people remain consistent attendees rather than committed members. We design our churches for the consumer rather than the committed Christ follower. Come when you want. Get what you want.

This philosophy of ministry might attract millennials and some of them might even stay for a while. But the Bible is clear that it’s a contradiction in terms to say you follow Jesus while remaining an autonomous (and often anonymous) Christian. If we can’t commit ourselves to God’s people and love those who are different than us, even when it’s inconvenient, then perhaps we aren’t following Jesus at the most basic level (John 13:35).

In other words, offering a lot of options for connecting with the church without committing to the church won’t help people spiritually—and it certainly won’t help them respond well to godly authority. If someone can’t submit themselves to the rest of the body in a local church, then we shouldn’t give them the illusion that they belong to the body of Christ. They should feel like they’re outside the body and that the way to obey many of Christ’s commands is to join a church and submit to its authority. So . . .


When trying to discern the pastoral responses to millennial autonomy, this sounds counterintuitive. Don’t millennials value tolerance and inclusiveness? But part of what makes it possible to commit yourself to a church in a meaningful way is by being able to clearly identify who’s in and who’s out. It’s to know that being inside the church comes with unique privileges and responsibilities that are not for those outside the church.

We must make this distinction clear. Churches can do this by faithfully practicing church discipline, that is, by withholding the Lord’s Supper from church members who are given to a particular unrepentant sin. In 1 Corinthians 5:2–8, Paul tells the Corinthians to put an immoral brother out of their fellowship. He implies they are to do this by barring him from the Lord’s Supper.

There are still other ways to make these inside-outside distinctions. For example, we can hold meetings for members only or have a directory that includes only members. Whatever we decide, exclusivity is part of what makes membership meaningful to those who are part of it. And making the distinction clear helps Christians know who they’re committing to live out their faith with, according to his commands. So . . .


Millennials have a different view of authority figures. They’ll sometimes describe their parents as their biggest cheerleaders and friends, but not as their authority. But in the gospel of Christ, it’s not one or the other. The gospel of Jesus is about the King who is deserving of our worship. Every knee will bow to him as Lord. He has the authority to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10:18). He’s a friend of sinners. He’s coming back to rule over his kingdom, and all those who are in it will enjoy everlasting peace and joy under his Lordship. That’s a message that should resonate with both millennials and every human heart.

Jesus’ humble authority should be experienced in the church. Pastors should watch over the church for the spiritual good of every member, because they’re men who are themselves under authority. And members should humbly submit to this authority for their own personal good (Hebrews 13:17). The authority of Jesus makes the authority of a good church a great source of joy and blessing. We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace it in the church’s ministry, especially in our preaching.


There is, of course, the potential to abuse each of the above points. We must remember that the church herself is under the authority of Christ, and we can’t bind the conscience where Scripture doesn’t. Some people will respond to this call to submission differently depending on where they are on their spiritual journey. So even if they choose not to stick around for what we think are immature reasons, it’s our responsibility to bear with them in patience and love. By God’s grace, perhaps they’ll stay—or perhaps they’ll flourish elsewhere.

Ultimately, the church gives millennials the joys of intimate relationship and meaning, but not in ways most might naturally think. It comes to them through commitment, exclusivity, and even authority used well.

Kevin McKay

Kevin McKay is the senior pastor of Grace Harbor Church in Providence, Rhode Island.

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