Many churches are at a loss as to how to retain Millennials. Recent studies show that more than 50% of Millennials who grew up in church have left. Churches are innovating to accommodate young people, including new programs, facilities, retreats, activities and events. Even many aging churches, aware that kids are their future, have become more open to tweaking traditional services and music to prevent their children from “aging out”. Countless pastors have hired consultants and purchased books written by “experts” offering church rejuvenation strategies.
But it’s not working. Statistics from the U.S. census of those professing to be Christians are:
- Age 53+ = 65%
- Age 35-52 = 35%
- Age 24-34 = 15%
- Age 6-23 = 4%
Making church more attractive, fun and communal may convince some Millennials to attend next Sunday, but those same strategies compromise efforts to turn them into disciples of Jesus Christ. In this blog post, we will disclose a radically different approach to engaging Millennials that will not only keep them coming to your church but lead them to dramatically impact the world around them.
Common Theories: Why Millennials are Leaving Church
Church leaders clearly have a blind spot related to Millennials, either not understanding their true underlying needs or developing the wrong solutions to those issues. Let’s quickly review and debunk 4 common theories that pastors use as a basis for forming their engagement strategies for Millennials.
- Millennials are leaving because they’re searching for a greater sense of community, so our church needs to amp up our youth and singles ministries – Yes, Millennials do value community, but they have other options for finding community outside of church. Many of their friends aren’t Christians or have joined the ranks of the Nones and Dones, so they eventually go where their friends go. Few churches can provide an environment fun and engaging enough to keep them from exploring alternative avenues for “community”.
- Millennials are leaving because they care more about social justice than spirituality, but our church is more about the gospel than social justice – Millennials are civic-minded but according to Barna Research they are the “only generation among whom evangelism is significantly on the rise. Their faith-sharing practices have escalated from 56% in 2010 to 65% in 2013. Not only that, but born again Millennials share their faith more than any other generation today. Nearly two-thirds (65%) have presented the Gospel to another within the past year, in contrast to the national average of about half (52%) of born again Christians”.
- Millennials are leaving because they’re less willing to make commitments – Millennials are often characterized as having short attention spans, conditioned by television and social media to tune in only for short sound bites. That appears to be in keeping with their reputation for lacking loyalty, jumping quickly from job to job and relationship to relationship. However, Millennials not only value community as we stated earlier but also value purpose. That commitment to purpose is why they are more apt to share their faith (point #2 above) and why they are also so socially/cause-minded (point #1 above). When provided biblical teachings and tools, Millennials exhibit signs that they’re even more likely than their parents and grandparents to live out the Great Commission.
- Millennials are leaving because they didn’t get enough attention – They often say things about their church like “We aren’t being reached out to enough”, “We’re not being listened to”, ”We’re not getting the support we need”, or “We’re not empowered to lead”. Hearing those words, leaders have become more intentional about giving Millennials a voice in the affairs of the church. However, deep down every young person wants a mentor, someone to look up to, particularly when it comes to a spiritual leader. When a church begins to shape itself around the opinions and desires of any person or group of people, it loses credibility, even among those same people. It’s similar to when a parent conforms to the desires of a child, giving in to the expressed needs of the one under authority rather than leading the way. The child knows inherently that he/she shouldn’t be in charge, just as the Millennial knows he/she isn’t qualified to lead a church family. They want to have a voice but know they shouldn’t be the center of the church’s attention. Today’s young people are smart and see through attempts to cater to their expressed needs versus standing firm in biblical principles. They recognize church plans and programs designed to attract and retain them and they’re not buying it – 2/3 in a Gallup poll said church is of little to no value. They know what’s real and what’s not, looking for stronger leadership and not a “helicopter pastor” to hover over them like today’s “helicopter moms”.
What Millennials Say They Want vs. What They Need
Jesus wanted young people around, telling His disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Yet Jesus spent nearly all of His time with the parents/adults, leading them and expecting the children to follow the parents. In contrast, too many churches today follow a strategy based on some variation of exactly the opposite – “if we can appeal to the kids, the parents will follow.”
Jesus’ model was to make disciples who make disciples. Foremost among those who disciples are expected to disciple are their own children. However, over the past 30+ years churches have largely abandoned intensive, personalized discipleship, replacing it with Small groups (which are not making disciples). Pastors have attempted to make Christianity and church more easy and fun for young people, but it is backfiring. In stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom of “experts”, churches should do the opposite and make Christianity and church more challenging and real for everyone.
In other words, what Millennials need (and will keep them coming back) are:
- Truth, whereas they seem to want coddling
- Love, whereas they say they want community
- Transformation, whereas many believe all they need is a sense of meaning and purpose in a world that offers little of either
But what churches try to give Millennials (based on common, misguided theories based on what they apparently want) are:
- Catering vs. Truth – Not adequately disclosing the costs of discipleship and expectations of our heavenly Father, but playing to their expectations of pastors and churches
- Companionship vs. Love – Which is why Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can replace church; because he sees the church’s role reduced to providing a sense of community
- Counsel vs. Transformation – Dispensing biblical advice rather than demanding discipleship as Jesus did
Yes, pastors should listen to the opinions of Millennials, but not base church growth strategies on attracting youth and young adults.
Yes, churches should seek to be relevant, but not compromise the reality of what’s involved in following Jesus.
Yes, church leaders should foster community-building, but do so in a way that fits Millennials best – by uniting in service to the hungry and hopeless, leading with compassion as Jesus did, in addition to activities within the 4 walls and learning in classroom settings.
It’s Your Turn…
Studies show that people living a Christian walk now can point back to a person who discipled them when they were younger. Is that true for you? What does that mean for how to engage and disciple Millennials so they won’t leave your church or our faith?