One of the questions that is being bantered about in the meeting rooms of nearly every church is “What are millennials looking for in a church?” The question is natural and vital. The millennial is the demographic lf young adults now in their mid-20s to about age 40. Many churches are missing them altogether.
Research shows that millennials have been leaving the church in alarming numbers. One study shows that 59 percent of the millennials who were raised in the church have already left. The conversation in the board room quickly to what needs to be done to reach the next generation. One of the primary missions of the church is to hand the faith over to younger people.
We are counting down the days after Easter, remembering the blessings that God has given us through His church and through those who serve as their ministers. When we get to 50 we will celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the traditional beginning of Christianity as recorded in the second chapter of Acts. The Jewish background for this counts the 50 days after Passover to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, remembering the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
According to Drew Dyck, the managing editor of Leadership Journal, the ideas for reaching millennials tend to fall into two camps. The first group seems to think that the church needs to be more hip and relevant. Drop traditions, eliminate churchy words, play louder music. The other group insists that the church soften its positions on key doctrines and social issues. They want the church to abandon supernatural beliefs and moral teachings that are restrictive.
Dyke says both approaches are flawed. You cannot chase coolness and get ahead of the curve. What is cool today becomes archaic tomorrow. If you water down the foundations of the faith, you end up compromising essentials of the faith, an approach that historically has never led to church growth.
The desire for the church to be an answer to the world’s constant pressure to be relevant and cool is a sentiment that is echoed by the majority of church leaders according to Barna research called “Making Space for Millennials.” But is it the right answer?
Rachel Held Evans was an extremely popular Christian author, speaker and blogger. A millennial herself, her articles have appeared in major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. She has made guest appearances on CNN and “The Today Show.” Her journey tells the story of a young adult raised in the church who wandered away and returned. The voice shouting to a generation of wandering Christians wrestling with their faith became silent the first week of March of this year when she passed away.
Held Evans returned to faith in the Episcopalian church. In a blog she wrote that she was done trying to end the church’s fights with culture. Instead she wanted to focus on building a community among women who wanted to become ministers, the segment of the gay community that wanted to embrace Christianity, and with those who refuse to choose between intellectual integrity and their faith. As such she often came into head-to-head conflict with evangelical church leaders.
In an article published in The Washington Post on April 30, 2015, she was incredibly blunt. “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make the church cool.” Amy Peterson, another Christian blogger wrote, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashing or particularly relevant. I can be entertained anywhere. At church I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
On a blog listing “5 Things Millennials Want at Church” Carey Nieuwhof compiles a sobering list. First, millennials think character matters most. Millennials are asking church leaders who they are more than what they do. That is both good news and bad news. An authentic church with an average worship service beats a hollow experience in church. But the character of leaders in the church continues to be in question in almost every major denomination.
Second, budgets matter less. You cannot win the majority of millennials by spending money on them. Integrity and authenticity cost you nothing financially. Relationships count to millennials, the third desire they have in the church. Young adults want your time and your attention. They would like to build relationships and actually connect with people. They may do it differently than other generations, but it is still vital to them.
The fourth point in this list challenges an attitude or approach to ministry that many churches are using, trying to reach the millennials. The marketing strategy of many churches is to use one approach, one model for ministry. We cannot talk about what we do for elderly members if we are trying to talk about how we are going to reach younger people.
Millennials appreciate the value and integrity of their church and its leaders. Character can be present in a wide variety of approaches to ministry, even approaches that don’t specifically speak to their needs. Diversity appeals to them because they are diverse. Ministry – actually feeding the poor or helping the elderly – appeals to them because they find hope in service.
Finally, millennials are looking for a church that has excellence. They can smell “fake” a mile away. Be authentic. Make ministry better. Work diligently to serve effectively. But work harder on your character than your programs.
As we approach Pentecost and the anniversary of the founding of the church, we will take several weeks to look at the essentials of our faith – the things that we cannot compromise – and how we relate faith to a changing culture.
— Tom May is a freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.