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.

 

Sources

Bahler, Ed (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” Exponential. Retrieved from: https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

Barna Group & Cornerstone Knowledge Network (2016). “Making Space for Millennials.” Retrieved from: http://www.theckn.com/making-space-for-millennials/

Cyzewski, Ed (2016). “‘How Do We Get Millennials to Attend Church?’ Why that is the wrong question.” Christian Today. Retrieved from: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/how.do.we.get.millennials.to.attend.church.why.that.is.the.wrong.question/84511.htm

DeGroot, Derek (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from: https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

Dyck, Drew (2014). “Millennials Need A Bigger God, Not A Hipper Pastor.” Aspen Group. Retrieved from: http://aspengroup.com/blog/millennials-need-a-bigger-god-not-a-hipper-pastor

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: https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

Powell, Frank (2015). “10 Reasons Churches Are Not Reaching Millennials.” Frank Powell: Restoring Culture Through Christ.Retrieved from: http://frankpowell.me/ten-reasons-church-absent-millennials/

Ranvestel, Tony (2016). “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from: https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

Rush, Kayla & Smith, Kyle (2014). “What Millennials Need from the Church.” Today’s Christian Woman. Retrieved from: http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2014/october/what-millennials-need-from-church.html

Vaters, Karl (2016). “Ministering to Millennials by Leveraging the Relational Power of Healthy Churches.” Christianity Today: Church & Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2016/october/ministering-millennials-relational-power-healthy-churches.html

Williams, Shawn (2016) “5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.” ExponentialRetrieved from: https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

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