If you were born between 1980 and 2000, congrats—you are what’s called a Millennial. If you were born between 1980 and 2000 and you belong to a church, you are what’s called an anomaly. I was born in 1980, so I am on the fringe of being a Millennial, but I get your generation. I understand how you tick, what your problems are, why you love the church, and why you hate it. After trusting Christ at the age of 22, I’ve spent the last decade ministering to Millennials, primarily through the weekly gathering of The Porch.
There are all kinds of statistics on this elusive group, Christian Millennials. I’ve read stats on how they are leaving the church, returning to the church, wanting liturgy in church, wanting concerts in church, and not—under any circumstance—wanting concerts in church. There are a few “experts” on this group, but I’m never sure where they get their information. Over the past seven years, I’ve watched God grow a weekly gathering of 100 Millennials to more than 3,500. While much of this is Him just showing off, there are a few best practices I’ve noticed that might be a resource for His church. I’ve condensed these practices down to a list of seven things to consider when reaching Millennials.
Be real. I mean, be you. Be honest with your imperfections. I recently spoke at a seminary about reaching Millennials, and when I shared this point, it was met with much pushback. People asked, “how can we influence people if they know our sin struggles?” This made me really sad. I’d discourage anyone who is asking this question from ministering to others, at least until you can see that authenticity is actually an advantage in ministry. The world does not need any more inauthentic pastors. If you want them to think that you are the expert and you have it all together, you are actually unqualified for the job. If, however, you are willing to let them know how you struggle, when you struggle, and that you are a quite literally a mess—that’s the first step. Jesus takes your mess and makes it a message, or even a ministry.
Teach the whole truth. The church has confused people. Is homosexuality a sin? If so, how do we treat sinners? What about sex before marriage? What about masturbation? Can I travel with my girlfriend if we don’t have sex? They are asking lots of questions, but primarily they are asking, “Does the Bible address the issues in my life? Can it be trusted?” Millennials don’t want your opinion, and they don’t care much about how you feel. If an issue is addressed clearly in the Bible, tell them so. If an issue isn’t as clear, help them understand how God’s wisdom can be applied in the situation. Tell them what God thinks, and make sure you point them to the Bible, which is how we know what God thinks.
Hold traditions loosely. Your church is marked by things that inform your unique culture. Many of these things probably aren’t biblical. That doesn’t mean they are wrong; they just aren’t mandated by Scripture. Things like whether you sing traditional hymns or have more modern praise and worship. Do you take communion weekly or monthly? Do you pass a plate? Do a “meet and greet”? Have announcements? If you have strong feelings about any of these things, you may need to stop having strong feelings about them. Change anything you need to change that is not mandated by the Bible, but don’t change anything that is. The areas needing change tend to be blind spots, and you will need help seeing them.
Under-promise and over-deliver. Millennials are tired of being sold. The church has promised to solve all their problems, heal their wounds, and make them happy. When they walk in, they are usually pretty underwhelmed by smoke machines, by inauthentic greetings, or by unfriendly people claiming to have the “joy of the Lord.” Early on, we’d beg people to come to The Porch. We spent all our money on getting them there. We stopped that and began to use all our resources to make the evening excellent in every way. If only two people showed up, those two would be back next week with two more friends. Excellence honors God and inspires people.
Find leaders. You will be able to tell who the leaders are: they’ll have a trail of followers behind them. If these leaders love Jesus, they will make great partners in ministry. If they don’t love Jesus, disciple them. These are guys and girls that corporate America is exploiting. They are being sold the American Dream in exchange for their souls—and that’s a bad trade. So, offer them a better one. Show them how their ability to influence others was given to them by God, for God. I’ve been told time and time again by people who are deployed in this way, “I’ve never felt so alive.” I always respond, “that’s because for the first time you are living as you were intended to.”
Call people to greatness. If you are having to beg people to serve as greeters and ushers, I know why. No one wants to be just a greeter or an usher. Early on at The Porch, we let all of our greeters and ushers go, and recruited evangelists and pastors (many were the same people, but with a new mindset). We called our volunteers to know the Bible and to be able to counsel their peers in situations like abortion, eating disorders, pornography, suicidal thoughts, and other struggles. We helped them realize they are a part of a royal priesthood. We called our volunteers to sobriety and purity. Before raising the bar, we were begging people to serve with us. Now that we actually call them to be and make disciples, they are lining up to serve faster than we can place them on a team.
Give the ministry away. Once you have qualified people serving with you, let them do the fun stuff. In Exodus 18:13-27 Moses’ father-in-law rebukes him for trying to minister to everyone himself, and encourages him to set up a structure of leadership under him. If you are in ministry, you probably struggle with control. It’s a good time to grow through that. Always take someone with you to meetings, and let them respond to the situations in front of you. Make sure your leaders know what success looks like, and ask them if there is anything they need to achieve it. Trust them with a budget, or whatever they need to lead their people. Some of the most gifted “pastors” I know serve as volunteers in our ministry and have secular full-time jobs.
Read everything above again and replace “Millennials" with “everyone”. Millennials aren’t that hard to reach, and if you’re not reaching them, there might be a good reason. My heart is to help you identify that reason. You might be holding onto traditions too tightly, or you might be striking a miserable deal with your congregation: “show up, pay up, and I won’t call you to do much.” Jesus’ call to his followers was to come and die. If you’re not reaching Millennials, your church is dying. You don’t need tricks and tactics; you need to be the church by calling everyone you minister to, to be the church.
My conclusion is that Millennials are leaving the church for the same reasons that so many people from other generations are leaving the church. Don’t lose heart, though; Christ always wins! You can be a part of that victory by calling those you lead to serve Him with all of their lives.
If this post has prompted more questions, I invite you to join us in April for the Church Leaders Conference to learn from like-minded church leaders about reaching Millennials and other church leadership best practices.
If you are a Millennial, how is the church doing at reaching you? What are other things that the church should be doing to reach Millennials?