How Millennials Can Reach the Church

There has been a flood of advice in recent years aiming to teach churches how to “reach Millennials.” I think there is a better question: how can Millennials reach the church?

On the one hand, churches are way harder to reach than Millennials. It’s going to take some real intentionality to help the church hear the gospel, and Millennials who care about the kingdom of God are going to have to find a better solution than abandoning stagnant churches. On the other hand, the solution that churches seem to be looking for is likely to be found in a posture of openness to learning and changing rather than in trying to push the right buttons to become appealing to the ever elusive post-Christian Millennial.

I started cataloguing these “how to reach Millennials” articles in order to get a big picture of what the trend seems to be about. It got a bit out of hand, but I figure it might be interesting to others to see the broad strokes. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Be Contemporary and Culturally Engaged
  2. Be Authentic
  3. Care for the Hurting
“7 Ways to Draw Millennials to Your Church” (2014), https://factsandtrends.net/2014/05/20/7-ways-to-draw-millennials-to-your-church/
  1. Be online
  2. Invest outside your walls
  3. Speak honestly
  4. Reach outside your comfort zone
  5. Be open to institutional change
  6. Develop community
  7. Preach Christ
“10 Reasons Churches Are Not Reaching Millennials” (2014), http://frankpowell.me/ten-reasons-church-absent-millennials/
  1. There is a strong resistance to change
  2. A compelling vision is lacking or non-existent
  3. Mediocrity is the expectation
  4. There is a paternalistic approach to leading Millennials
  5. There is a pervasive insider-focused mentality
  6. Transparency and authenticity are not high values
  7. Mentoring is not important
  8. Culture is viewed as the enemy
  9. Community is not valued
  10. The church is a source of division and not unity
“7 Simple Ways to Engage Millennials at Your Church” (2015), https://churchplants.com/articles/10270-7-simple-ways-to-engage-millennials-at-your-church-2.html
  1. Feltneeds must be addressed, no matter the age group.
  2. Young adults want to connect
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of convenience
  4. Engage in their community
  5. Expect more insiders than outsiders
  6. Give them real responsibility
  7. Allow them to make a difference beyond the church
“The Best Ways for the Church to Reach Millennials” (2015), http://www.radicallychristian.com/the-best-ways-for-the-church-to-reach-millennials
  1. Start Focusing on Individuals
  2. Build Relationships
  3. Listen to Them
  4. Serve Those in Need
  5. Teach the Gospel
  1. Authenticity
  2. Relevance
  3. Room For Individual Experience
  4. Compassion
  5. Cyber Savviness
“3 Things Millennials Need From Your Church” (2017), https://prochurchtools.com/reach-millennials/
  1. Millennials want your church to be real
  2. Millennials want to experience community
  3. Millennials want to be included
And lastly, here’s one from a website called . . . wait for it . . . Missional Marketing:

Nope, I can’t do it. There’s the line.

Come on, Millennials! What more evidence do we need? Churches badly needs us to reach them. So how can you reach a church?

  1. Be gracious.
    They mean well, and writing off church culture is a weak move. Quit being so offended and disappointed. Fact of life: the church is disappointing. They think we’re a bunch of entitled, less-holy-than-thou narcissists. Great, we’re all offended and disappointed by each other. Openly practicing forgiveness and bearing with each other is the only Christlike way forward.
  2. Ignore institutional stagnation instead of walking away from it.
    Stop waiting for an invitation. Create community inside the church, invite people in, and create change. The fact that churches have to be told that community is important means they don’t know what real community is. Show them; do the work. The fact that churches have to be told to serve those in need beyond the church isn’t an excuse for bailing. You’re going to do the work anyway, so do it form the inside. This is guerrilla warfare, people. Step up and do the work, whether you have permission or not.
  3. Stop relegating your authenticity to social media and put it in the midst of the congregation.
    If you’re willing to fight, fight where it matters. Speak truth outside the echo chamber, where easily unfriending each other isn’t an option. The reason churches are scrambling to reach you is that they’re in sharp decline, so let’s be clear: there isn’t a lot to loose. There is no version of reaching the church that doesn’t involve conflict, so conflict isn’t an excuse (see Jesus). And anyway, what does your authenticity matter if being who you really are and caring about what you really care about affects no one who doesn’t understand you already?
  4. Make someone mentor you even if it wasn’t their intention.
    We all know we have a lot to learn from others with more experience in faith. Obviously. No, people don’t generally know how to start intimate discipling relationships. Quit waiting. You start. Ask for time; intrude. Ask questions. Open up and be vulnerable. Many older Christians will respond without putting a label or a formal expectations on the relationship. You can lead by aggressively following. If it doesn’t work, try with someone else.

Probably, there are lots of other good suggestions. Feel free to share yours.

3 Comments

  1. I think there’s a major challenge here in the general life experience of Millennials and their vocational trends. As a generation, Millennials are far more likely to be entrepreneurial and create their own career path. They are impatient about promotion and so they chase opportunities to be their own boss. As such, they are far more likely to quit an established church and just plant one of their own. There could be some good rigorous debate if that’s good (a generational impetus for planting growth) or bad (shows lack of maturity and submission). But the reality is there none the less. Before we can get Millennials to “reach their church” we have to convince them it’s worth bothering with instead of just starting over with something new. For me, I can appreciate the pragmatic response I’d anticipate to your point #2. Why do from the inside, hard change when I can just build a new thing without institutional inertia?

    1. I think you’re right on the mark, Caleb. That is my own impulse too. Although, I don’t think Millennials on the whole are much more likely to be church planters—that is still a small percentage, and I’m basically writing to everyone else. We’re talking about a group that, more than any previous, trends toward “nonreligious spirituality.” I still think you’re right, though, because the most positive reading of that tendency is still a sort of not-church planting—the fostering of meaningful community and experience, often with loyalty to the kingdom, on their own terms.

      In part my argument is fairly traditionalist: I think there are some things about church, in essence and in practice, that the church (in the broad sense of the Christian tradition embodied in local contexts) uniquely offers, that nonreligious spirituality as I’m witnessed it cannot replicate. Of course, institutional stagnation is not a feature of the tradition per se, though it is a common enough correlate to justify doubts. But to anyone who wants to plant a church, thereby overcoming inertia, I say Godspeed. (Though, if that’s your only or primary motivation, you’re in trouble from jump.) But, in the first place, there aren’t enough of those nonstagnant alternatives popping up to account for all the Millennials who are bailing or “unreached.” And, in the second place, of the church planting that does happen, there isn’t a lot that’s totally free from ways of life that are still all too familiar. That is the way tradition works, so that the very thing that ensures the resources that make church rightly the Spiritual communion of God’s people in Christ is what also transfers baggage. Planting, it turns out, is not the radical departure one might imagine—and thank God for that.

      Which brings me to the second aspect of my argument: Why is it worth bothering? Because of number 4. Because institutional inertia is not the only dimension of existing churches, and it is deeply foolish to walk away from the wisdom of others just because they are radically different, which is the primary issue behind “stagnation” (not changing = not becoming more like me, even when becoming more like me is the right move). In other words, because there is not such thing as just building a new thing, if it has any continuity with the old thing. And if it doesn’t, we’re in trouble.

      I realize there is a parallel debate within the missional church community—planting vs. renewal. I simply don’t see why it should be one or the other, and I’m far too indebted to my tradition to imagine consigning older churches to the loss of an entire generation of innovators. Nor will I talk about this as though God has nothing to do with the decision in question, as though none are called to help churches move forward (why do we ever do the hard thing?!). But it seems to me (hence numbers 1 and 3) that we have a basic ethos problem that weighs heavily against renewal options. Not only are Millennials usually too immature to bear the fruit of the Spirit necessary for a hard relationship (number 1), we’re talking about a church culture that has forgotten how to have a family fight (number 3). In our tradition specifically, I think the long period of dirty fighting created emotional scarring on a cultural level, so that we’re now basically conflict avoidant, which insulates us against change and makes Millennials despair. But they too carry that baggage, which is part of a bigger cultural trend (away from debate, public discourse, rigorous argumentation, and nonpartisan relationships), and, to generalize, they don’t know how to have strong opinions that are not marks of personal identity. To disagree with me is now to disagree with who I am, which, if it were true, would be a very hostile experience. In short, I believe the church is the best place to learn how to fight again, because both the church and Millennials need it.

      1. I agree with most/all of that. The major challenge does come down to the maturity angle. Your list of things requires a level of maturity that isn’t always present. It feels very chicken and egg. How do you make a case for patience and for the value of institutions when the people you are dealing with don’t have the maturity to be patient or appreciate the other? And how can we expect a young generation, largely absent from spiritual formation process inside the church, to have those things? They don’t have the maturity to stick with the church because they haven’t been in church to develop the maturity.

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