How Does the Church Reach Millennials? Hint: It’s Not Flashing Lights or Rock Band Worship

Do Millennials want to be impressed with an out-of-this-world church experience? Yes — but not in the way that you might think.

By Nancy Flory Published on October 23, 2016

Don’t lie to a Millennial. They will smell it a mile away.

At least that’s what the latest research from Barna and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network shows in a detailed report called “Making Space for Millennials.” The study explored key characteristics of people from 18-30 years old and discussed how churches can make room for their ideas and influence.

Millennials are leaving the church in large numbers: 70 percent of those raised in the church leave by the time they are in their 20s; one-third of those under 30 in the United States claim to have “no religion.” As more and more Millennials leave the church, ministry leaders are asking “why?” and “what can we do about it?”

Here’s what Millennials really want in a church.

Millennials Can Handle the Truth

Millennials want authenticity — a genuine Christianity and a legitimate worship experience. Taylor Snodgrass of the Church & Its 20-somethings has pointed out that if churches are not authentic, Millennials will leave. “Our generation has been advertised at our whole life, and even now on social media. Consequently, when a company isn’t being authentic with their story we can easily see through this. If the church isn’t giving you the whole story, if it’s sugarcoated and they’re trying to put on an act on stage, people in their 20s will see through this. This causes us to leave. We’re good at seeing when people are lying to us.”

Millennials are “not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,” says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Millennials are tired of big box churches marketing entertainment to them rather than following Jesus. They want an authentic Christianity.

“Millennials are not looking for perfect people,” says Frank Powell. “Jesus already handled that. Millennials are looking for people to be real and honest about struggles and temptations.”

Part of being an authentic Christian and living authentically is digging deeper — becoming the mature Christian who eats meat rather than drinks milk as described in Hebrews 5:12-14. And Millennials want that. Snodgrass says that Millennials want to be challenged to think about real-world issues. “We don’t just want to have easy topics each week. We want to dive into difficult-to-understand topics and passages and explore how they apply.”

Kayla Rush and Kyle Smith, authors of “What Millennials Need from the Church,” say that few have bothered to ask Millennials why they’re leaving the church, but being intellectually bored is part of the problem. “In our youth groups we were taught — exhorted, in fact — to want to go deeper, and we’re not getting that from grown-up church,” they said, adding that while churches seem to have a fear of questioning, “questioning is at the heart of education: it leads us into deeper knowledge, not unbelief. We need intellectual engagement.”

Give Me the Real Jesus

Drew Dyck, in his blog article “Millennials Need a Bigger God, Not a Hipper Pastor,” addresses the concerns over why many Millennials are disinterested in church:

Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches, and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well (Emphasis added).

Millennials need to experience the life-changing love of God through other people — and be able to give it as well. According to Powell, Millennials are optimistic about the culture because this is the “model of Jesus.” “He loves all types of people, does ministry in the city, and engages the culture,” said Powell. “To reach people today, the church must be immersed in the community for the glory of God.”

Connecting With God in the Worship Space — Keep it Simple

For Millennials, the worship experience begins at the door. Millennials want to know where to go and what is expected of them right away. “Visual clarity is huge,” said Snodgrass. “We walked into a few churches that didn’t have good signage, and we just wandered around. We weren’t sure where to go — and Millennials don’t want to ask. We just want to go in and experience the space without having to ask someone, especially if it’s our first time at church … the biggest thing is to create a welcoming space that isn’t confusing.”

While the research indicated that Millennials tend to want more traditional services, they want a space where they can feel comfortable — like Door of Hope in Portland, Oregon, said Snodgrass. Housed in an old church building without signage and just a stairway up to the sanctuary, the worship area held “rag-tag bunch of chairs set up everywhere and a drum set that had never been used, and people walking around with coffee. There were no pews.”

Research suggests that Millennials prefer more utilitarian spaces with landscape features. Nature helps Millennials connect with God, they said, and they also want a place to rest, rather than a church full of activities. “Our culture is highly fragmented and frenetic, and there are few places to take a breather and gain much-needed perspective,” Kinnaman said. “Ironically, most churches offer what they think people want: more to do, more to see. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what many young adults crave when it comes to sacred space.”

According to Aspen Group architect Derek DeGroot, church architects are still exploring what a church built for non-activity would look like. Although busy church activities are meant to bring people to God and others, DeGroot said that “church buildings still need to be a place where people can experience Jesus’ invitation: ‘Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'”

Some churches with younger parishioners have scrapped activities altogether. Pastor Tony Ranvestel at Clear River Church has a congregation largely composed of Millennials. “We call people to follow Jesus; that’s our primary activity,” Ranvestel said. “If you follow Jesus, this leads to serving and justice.” This method seems to be just what Millennials want: a simple, clear, authentic Christian message with no frills. Clear River Church is “unapologetically a place of worship, learning and experiencing community,” and Millennials there have found that it’s a different kind of place than they’ve found anywhere else.

One-on-One Relationships

Millennials crave relationships within the church. They do not want to be just a number. They don’t want to slip in after the music and out before the closing prayer. Millennials want a more individualized approach — and some churches are beginning to do just that. According to pastor and Christianity Today writer Karl Vaters, “By forcing us out of a group approach to church and into a more individualized way of seeing people, Millennials may be poised to bring about the biggest shift in the way churches do ministry since the Reformation.” The relational component of church, said Vaters, is more relevant than any program, method or musical style. The number one way to reach Millennials, he said, is through the church-as-relational-community model: love God and love others.

Ranvestel said Millennials are trying to figure out the purpose of their life. “We present this and try to show them the goodness of God, the goodness of being in community,” he said, “We’re heavy on person-to-person discipleship and believe this happens best in relationships,” adding that he talks to young people about how God’s principles apply to everyday situations.

The way to create a sense of community for Millennials is acknowledging them, greeting them, learning (and using) their names, and engaging them in conversations.

“[W]e’re raising a generation that’s rich in material goods, but poor in relationships,” said Vaters. “That’s the need we should be finding and fulfilling.”

Closing the Generation Gap: Guidance Through Mentorship

Unlike Generation X before them, Millennials want to make connections with and learn from older adults. Boomers (and Gen-Xers) used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” Vaters says that simply isn’t the case with Millennials. “[T]his generation is hungry for connection with the wisdom and friendship of previous generations.”  Barna’s research indicated that young people who have an older mentor from their faith community are 59 percent more likely to stay in church than those who do not.

Founding partner of Cornerstone Knowledge Network Ed Bahler said that “Mentoring and discipling this next generation is everything,” especially if we wish to equip Millennials to lead the church in the coming years.

But it isn’t a one-way street. The church should be open to “reverse mentoring,” said Kinnaman. This means asking Millennials to share knowledge about how to “navigate life in this digital age,” and reciprocal sharing between generations. According to Bahler, “Ultimately,” the future of the church “rests on our ability to connect the generations.”

Millennial Role Play

Just as Millennials don’t want to take the back seat in church, they don’t want to take a back seat in participation, either. Vaters said the churches that are successfully reaching current generations are “doing ministry with active participants.” Millennials want to have a seat at the table and be involved in meaningful discussions. Shawn Williams, pastor at Community Christian Church-Yellow Box said Millennials want a role to play. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines and observe. If they’re going to be part of a church, it must have value and meaning … If it doesn’t provide meaning and value to them, they won’t participate. They’ll go and find something that does have meaning and value.”

Millennials want to be taken seriously — and given real responsibility. Ed Cyzewski, in his article “‘How Do We Get Millennials to Attend Church?’ Why that is the wrong question,” said if church leaders don’t have Millennials’ input, they cannot know why they are leaving church. “We all have different suspicions about why millennials don’t find church relevant or don’t want to attend church. Some may say it’s because of Bible teaching or cultural compromise … Our suspicions and isolated observations mean very little in the grand scheme of things if young adults don’t have a respected place at the table as full members and leaders in training with voices that are valued and considered.”

Rush and Smith said that church leadership is dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — so they don’t have a voice in the church. “[Y]outh groups … give teenagers a voice. They speak their minds, they state their preferences, and they are heard. When we graduate and head out into the big bad world of grown-up church, this changes … we no longer have a pastor whose primary job is to listen to our needs and concerns as young people and respond. We have good ideas … but no one seems to care. … So we’re back to square one, having to work our way up through the ranks in hopes of maybe one day having our voices heard and being able to change the status quo … We need to be taken seriously.”

What Now?

It would seem that all of the effort put into large, elaborate, flashy and overdone churches has been all for naught. Millennials are the hippies of the Christian movement: they want simple and honest Christianity in a utilitarian but natural space where they can rest and connect with a very real and authentic God; they crave relationships and connections with older adults, drawing from their wisdom and insight; and they want a participatory experience where they have a seat at the table in shaping the church of the future — their church.

As Powell said, “Millennials want to go far and want their life to have meaning. In their minds this is not possible without deep, authentic, Christ-centered community.” Millennials can be encouraged to come back to church as ministry leaders seek to understand generational differences and what is meaningful to this demographic; not as a group of people, but as individuals; not as a person who warms a pew, but a person who warms a heart through a real relationship.



Bahler, Ed (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” Exponential. Retrieved from:

Barna Group & Cornerstone Knowledge Network (2016). “Making Space for Millennials.” Retrieved from:

Cyzewski, Ed (2016). “‘How Do We Get Millennials to Attend Church?’ Why that is the wrong question.” Christian Today. Retrieved from:

DeGroot, Derek (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from:

Dyck, Drew (2014). “Millennials Need A Bigger God, Not A Hipper Pastor.” Aspen Group. Retrieved from:

Kinnaman, David (2011). You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.

Snodgrass, Taylor (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from:

Powell, Frank (2015). “10 Reasons Churches Are Not Reaching Millennials.” Frank Powell: Restoring Culture Through Christ.Retrieved from:

Ranvestel, Tony (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from:

Rush, Kayla & Smith, Kyle (2014). “What Millennials Need from the Church.” Today’s Christian Woman. Retrieved from:

Vaters, Karl (2016). “Ministering to Millennials by Leveraging the Relational Power of Healthy Churches.” Christianity Today: Church & Culture. Retrieved from:

Williams, Shawn (2016) “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from:

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • Paul

    It’s not only one age group wanting this, been saying the same thing since the 80’s but no one would listen. But how could they, they were losing their hearing from the loud music and blinded by the lights.

  • john appleseed

    There’s a lot of good stuff in this article–keep it simple & authentic. But I also see “We want to rest, avoid all the activities, but (contradictorily) there should be individual ministry, a ministry with Millenials & older folks together, & lots of access to the pastor.”
    Sinners don’t really know what they need.
    They need the Law of God preached, the bad news that teaches us our need for the Good News.
    They need to hear preaching about Christ being crucified at least every week.
    They need to know that God calls us to die to self. The Church has become Osteened, with lots of bless-me talk & no willingness to suffer for Jesus’ sake. No wonder we’re not fulfilling the Great Commission.

    • john appleseed

      Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad this article is here. I was thinking about dumping Stream as a source now that Dr Brown has gone over to the dark side & is supporting an incredibly evil man for president.

      • spadestick

        please go. If you can’t see that Trump has got meaningful authentic relationships with his own children, some of which are millennials and with his business teams, associates and friends. in fact, I have yet to come across people who have personally met a Trump that truly despise him, despite his past character flaws, yet you despise him from afar. None of which has that secret evil agendas, hateful vitriol, backstabbing vibe from the Clinton Campaign, you truly are a lost cause for that hate and bigotry.

      • AugustineThomas

        It’s always interesting to me when people call Trump evil while supporting a mass baby murderer who covered up her husband’s sexual assaults and bragged about getting a pedophile off for raping a 12 year old with the defense that “the 12 year old wanted it”.

  • Eric Baylor

    Making disciples as stated in Matthew 28:19-20 requires one on one teaching or at least very small groups. I believe this is needed not only for the Millennials but for adult parishioners, as well. I assume the writer is writing about people that have received/accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Paul

    From the article: “Rush and Smith said that church leadership is dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — so they don’t have a voice in the church”

    Does Rush and Smith actually think this is something new?

    Leadership isn’t handed out like some graduation trophy, it’s earned. If young adults want to be taken seriously then be serious. If young adults want responsibility then be responsible. Study the Bible and live it out. Develop wisdom. Demonstrate a life guided by scriptural principles. If current leaders are doing their jobs then they are using biblical standards to evaluate those they include in leadership.

    This has been going on for as long as there has been a church.

    • parquet

      If they won’t even submit to adult authority, there’s no reason to think they would submit to the final Authority. The mentality of “That’s not fair!” has wreaked havoc in churches. Church is not a democracy, never has been.

      • AugustineThomas

        Yep now imagine all the Boomers trying to argue with God that Woodstock really was a mind expanding experience. And imagine the Gen-Xers trying to argue that “sex sells”.
        You guys better be careful. You might go all the way to Hell casting the Millennials to Hell inside your mind.

    • AugustineThomas

      Maybe if you guys weren’t always so corrupt and mediocre we would be willing to follow you. As it stands you’re all lazy sellouts who never stop complaining about “Millennials” but never do anything to fix the problem yourselves and are often the ones ring-leading the behavior you accuse “Millennials” of.

      • Paul

        I never mentioned ‘Millennials’, was noting this situation happens with every new generation that moves into young adulthood.

        Perhaps In time you’ll come to understand that calling everyone in an age group lazy sellouts is not just disrespectful but plain wrong. If you think you know every ‘boomer or ‘Gen-Xer’ you’re a fool. Unfortunately though I know some older folks who are quick to judge entire demographics, and I doubt they ever will come to understand how foolish and wrong they are as well.

        The characteristics of diligence and laziness are written of in Proverbs, we’ve been dealing with that for a very long time. Today there’s lazy or hard working people of every age, that is nothing new.

        • AugustineThomas

          I would agree that there are good and bad Millennials but only bad Boomers and Xers! 🙂

          • Paul

            Well I gather the time for understanding isn’t now.

          • AugustineThomas

            I was joking. I agree that it’s ridiculous to generalize entire generations. There are similarities though. Many Millennials are neurotic “snowflakes” and many Boomers are bitter hypocrites and many Xers are hopelessly still pretending to rebel against something that was already dead when they were young.

          • Paul

            I can honestly say I have no idea what you’re talking about, sounds like more pointless stereotypes though. Regardless I’d like to know how it relates to the topic of young adults wanting to be involved in church leadership. The article implies this is somehow a new issue but it isn’t, every generation deals with this, not only in church but the secular world as well.

            Do you even care about church?

          • AugustineThomas

            You sound like an angry little man, so I won’t respond to your petulant attitude.

            My comment was quite clearly stated. Tell me specifically what part you’re confused on. Otherwise stop acting like a little boy throwing a tantrum.

            I think you’re a fool if you don’t recognize that the last 50-100 years have been as devastating as any other period in Church history. Sure, people in the past also went through horrific things. That doesn’t change the fact that we need to get on with fixing our own problems and stop pretending that more acceptance of perversion and other sins is going to usher in utopia.

            It’s going to be hard not to sin until Christ returns in glory and until then there will be tension around going to Confession and being honest about our sins. Pretending that our sins no longer offends God only leads to ruin. That’s why the Church is nearly empty and the Secularists are ready to outlaw anything that resembles Christian orthodoxy.

          • Paul

            Let me know when you want to get back to the topic of young adults and church leadership, until then have a nice day

          • AugustineThomas

            I never left the subject. You’re the one who got his feelings hurt and started slinging barbs like a mad little boy.

            I’m actually a young adult. I’ll tell you why I’m not a part of church leadership–they reject me because I want to talk about how to encourage orthodoxy rather than how to help them with their next government deal.
            They’re absolute rats in shepherd’s clothing.

          • Paul

            If you talk like you write then I suspect they’re rejecting you for other reasons. But assuming you’re correct, consider visiting another church.

          • AugustineThomas

            You have a lovely attitude. Something about the log in your own eye.

            Anyway, for all their flaws, Protestants/”Evangelicals” are much better at welcoming in new members. It’s not like it’s rocket science. The Church in the West is just full of people who treat it like it’s their personal social club, meant to please them, not to fulfill God’s mission of spreading the Gospel. Truly sad and a lot of comfortable Catholics will be answering for it on Judgement Day.

          • Paul

            Speaking of logs, reread your posts about boomers and gen X.

            As for churches, I’ve experienced the social club mentality quite often. It’s part of the dichotomy of church, on one hand people are encouraged to develop relationships with fellow Christians, and once you actually do that it can take on the character of a social club. Where I’ve seen it succeed is when those relationships involve doing the work of the Church as opposed to simply going through the motions. Are people talking sports, politics, and debating the finer points of doctrine, or are they working together to spread Christs love by meeting needs.

            Every church I’ve participated in had an opportunity to love others, but there certainly are those who make it a greater emphasis in their Church culture. But it’s ultimately up to each of us as individuals to love our neighbor, blaming our denomination won’t fly at the pearly gates.

          • AugustineThomas

            You can tell by my last post that I’m no expert, but I know that the Church is not a denomination. I know the Holy See is a diocese that all rites report to, so in that sense rites aren’t “made up of dioceses”.
            Still, we all know the way the church is organized. There are rites for different cultural groups and, beyond Rome and a few other major religious cities, every diocese is a part of its respective rite.
            The Church isn’t made up of denominations and it is not a denomination.

          • Paul

            My local church has no connection to the Roman Catholic Church. It is affiliated with a denomination, which in turn has no connection to the Roman Catholic Church. My local church’s denomination is organized by regional and national entities that each have their own Corporate filings, each have their own articles of incorporation, Constitutions and Bylaws, and they share doctrinal statements. The use of the denomination trademark by the local church is dependent on a contractual agreement between the local church and the regional office.

            There are many variants on this model, but these are how many Churches are organized and administered at least in the US. These legal frameworks are needed since legal entities are needed to own land, receive donations, employ staff, open bank accounts, etc.

            Many of these recognize there is a catholic (little ‘c’) church, the broad-based, universal church that goes far beyond these multitude of legal entities. I don’t think God cares about denominational brands, he cares about the hearts of people, their devotion to following Christ and carrying out his commandments here on earth. In my experience some denominations can get in the way of that with greater focus on their own rules and traditions than on Christ. But regardless each of us has individual responsibility to follow Him.

          • AugustineThomas

            You’re discussing the legal system of a Protestant country. I’m discussing what the Church is–God’s universal (aka catholic), holy and apostolic Church.
            The Church defines itself, not some post-Protestant legal system, and as far as I know the Church never refers to herself in any way as a “denomination”.

            Anyway, we should both go do charity now, am I right? 🙂

          • AugustineThomas

            I’ve been to dozens of churches. Unfortunately I can’t move to a less Secularist Leftist area of the country. It’d be great of the hierarchy just started promoted orthodoxy among all dioceses again, am I right? (The proper Mass sure would be a great start!)

          • Paul

            I’m not deeply familiar with the traditions of Roman Catholicism, what constitutes orthodoxy and a proper Mass and how would that differ to what you experience today?

          • AugustineThomas

            “…what constitutes orthodoxy and a proper Mass…”
            Some people call it the Tridentine Mass, others the Latin Mass, others still the Vetus Ordo or “Old Order”, but I believe it to be simply the proper evolution of the Mas of the Roman Rite. You can Google any of the above names and watch a video. This is the Mass that kept everyone in church and made non-Catholics love and desire the Church. (The one you see in all the old gangster movies where the priest speaks Latin, people kneel and women desire to wear mantillas as a sign of their devotion to Christ.)

            “…how would that differ to what you experience today?”
            Please Googe: Clown Mass, Liturgical Dancing, “pop goes the Mass”/bad modernist liturgical music, altar girls, Communion in the hand, Novus Ordo irreverence, etc. The videos are worth a billion words.

          • Paul

            So I did some of the searches you suggested, looked at Tridentine mass, Novus Ordo Missae, communion in hand vs tongue, and a few others that showed up from these searches. From my perspective it’s kinda like debating the proper arrangement of the deck chairs on the titanic. I look at these debates through the lens of the Bible and see how pointless they are. It’s mostly a debate of traditions, a hurting world is going to hell and Christians get caught up in debates about stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter and isn’t a focus of scripture.

            As I said earlier I have little experience with the Roman Catholic Church, but I’ve experienced this same nonsense in Protestant denominations. Arguing over orders of worship, what instruments are played if any, sit vs stand vs kneel and when, raise hands or not, what clothes are proper, whether to have pews or chairs and padded or not, having plain or ornate architecture, the list goes on and on of things Christians argue about that has no solid scriptural merit or context.

            Here’s what Christ cares about: Feeding his sheep, loving one another, worshiping him in spirit and truth, spreading the good news, following his commandments and teachings. I think a lot of todays Church activity grieves God, a bunch of pointless tradition and ceremony.

          • AugustineThomas

            That sounds great in theory, but the reality is that all “Latin Mass” communities are thriving. They’re full of healthy families and a proper mix of old and young and women and men. At Novus Ordo Masses, it’s a bunch of old ladies and feminized men who like to hear themselves sing (which is ironic because they’re like American Idol rejects and the choirs at the proper Mass are always absolutely beautiful despite being made up of amateurs).

            You really should look more into the proper Mass, aka “the Latin Mass”. The regions where it is strong seem like paradise compared to the Secularist hellholes most of us live in. Wherever it is celebrated, there are more priests and more faithful. (You can easily look this up and how healthy “Latin Mass” seminaries are.)

            God bless you! I hope you find the truth you’re looking for!

          • AugustineThomas

            By the way, where is there pointless tradition and ceremony? Most Protestant/”Evangelical” and now most Catholic “worship services” are as dumbed down and entertaining to Novus Ordo “Catholics” as possible. At my mom’s church, they even ride a dirtbike on stage (there aren’t altars as the Lord shows us in the Bible).

            Anyway, it’s clear that God gives us commands and hints of how to worship in the Bible. That’s all religion is. People are so confused when they suggest we get rid of religion. Humans will always have religion. The question is whether we will choose the True Religion, which is taught by the One True Church.

  • AugustineThomas

    “Boomers” and “Gen-Xers” were the worst parents in history. Only God can save the “Millennials” from what our parents have turned us into.

    • Paul

      God is the only one who saves any generation.

If the Foundations are Destroyed, What Can the Righteous Do?
David Kyle Foster
More from The Stream
Connect with Us