Congregational Life and Ministry, Millennials

Millennials Want a Community Church


In his 1983 acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] recalled the words he heard as a child when his elders sought to explain the ruinous upheavals in Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” He added, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘men have forgotten God.'”  – John Wilson, reviewing “Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World, in Christianity Today, Feb 7, 1994, p. 57.

Interesting that even back in 1983 a shift was happening; more and more people were drifting away from God.  As millennials enter adulthood that trend has reached a critical mass. Millennials defined as 18-34 by 2015 are not attending church as much as some previous generations.  Barna Research reports, “about one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds are practicing Christians, meaning they attend church at least once a month and strongly affirm that their religious faith is very important in their life.”  What are the factors keeping them away? To be clear I am speaking in generalities here.  Not all Millennials fall into this category. It is always a bit dangerous to peg an entire group based on market research, so keep that in mind as you read this.  Millennials are individuals.  Millennials are also a very talented group, with enormous potential to radically change the world.  When Millennials find their unique calling, watch out world.

Millennials want Authentic Community.  

Community is nurtured through intentional, authentic, honest, real relationships.   A community is not a Sunday morning only experience.  This unique relationship is formed by living life together.  It is forged over the hot coals of brokenness and restoration.  Over the coals of tackling difficult faith issues, and societal contradictions through this journey of faith. Community means daring to have uncomfortable faith conversations.

Millennials Want an Active Role in the Church’s Transformational Story

“Millennials aren’t looking for the perfect church, they’re looking for a captivating story to join.” Rusty Gates

Millennials are seeking a more prominent role to play in the Gospel story than merely sitting in the pews.

They have heard countless sermons on all of the various parts of the body of Christ and the many spiritual gifts given to the people of God.  Now they are looking for a way to put their talents and passions to work as a vital part of the church and school.  Before you get overly excited and think, great now, we can put their names on the ballot or all those vacant board positions, don’t! Pump the brakes on that one. It not about serving on some board it is about joining fellow believers on a faith journey where relationships are formed.  Being a Sunday-morning-only church does not produce, deep, meaningful relationships for Millennials. If we are honest, that doesn’t create deep, meaningful relationships with most Christians.

Among those Millennials remaining active and connected to the church, relationships are the glue that connects them.  The most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational.

“Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult, and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.” David Kinnaman

Before you start thinking their demands are unrealistic.  That desire to connect relationally with the church is biblical.  Here what Jesus says in John 15, Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.” (CEV) My call to the church that wants to reach Millennials be a John 15 relationally connecting church.

In summary, Millennials are seeking anything different than anyone else.  It is not rocket science.  It does not require you to change your worship and your constitutions.  It requires you to focus on the Work of God, teach and preach the truth.  Focus on God’s mission and carry out that mission in that impacts the people in your community.

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Five Key Ways to Connect With Millennials


Dear Millennials,

This is the Church writing to you. We have been trying to reach you for decades, although admittedly with little to no success. We have tried all kinds of methods to connect with you. We have dumped our traditional service, fired our organists and replaced them with a praise band leader and more edgy music. Still, you do not come. We have put away our suits and ties and dress more casually, yet you still do not come. We have moved our worship service out of the sanctuary into the gym, added mood lighting changed worship time to later on Sunday, and still, you do not come. We have abandoned the assigned Scripture readings for Sunday and replaced them with sermon series more in touch with today’s challenges and you know what happened?  You still did not come. So this is an open letter to Millennials with a simple plea. Help us figure you out.


The Frustrated Church

Maybe this letter could appear in your local newspaper as you feel this frustration. How do we reach what some have called the “Lost Generation?” I pray this blog today will give you some insights. It is based on some very telling research from the Barna Group.

In a study about Millennials, the Barna Group uncovered some key details:

  • The unchurched segment among Millennials has increased in the last decade, from 44% to 52%, mirroring a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing among the nation’s population.
  • Nearly six in ten (59%) of young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.
  • Third, when asked what has helped their faith grow, “church” does not make even the top 10 factors. Instead, the most common drivers of spiritual growth, as identified by Millennials themselves, are prayer, family and friends, the Bible, having children, and their relationship with Jesus.

Now you may look at this information and come away feeling even more hopeless than before. Well, fear not, hopefully, this blog will give you five simple things, within the capabilities of your local congregation, that will not bust your budget yet still make a kingdom impact with that lost generation every congregation is seeking to connect with. So do I have your attention now? Good, here is why you should be encouraged. From the Barna research:

About one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds are practicing Christians, meaning they attend church at least once a month and strongly affirm that their religious faith is very important in their life. A majority of Millennials claim to pray each week, one-quarter say they’ve read the Bible or attended a religious small group this week, and one in seven have volunteered at a church in the past seven days.

The Top Three Reasons the Research Says They Attend Church:

54% To be closer to God
31% To learn more about God
16% See the church as God’s hands and feet in the world
So in good Lutheran fashion what does this mean?

  1. Make room for meaningful relationships.

The first factor that will engage Millennials at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.

My ministry twin Mike Mast would love this. He talks to congregations all the time about the fact that if you want to connect with those outside your walls you have to build relationships with them. Sounds simple, right? Yes and no, because the type of relationships Millennials seek is to develop a close personal friendship with adults in the church. If that kind of deep relationship is formed the studies show that fifty-nine percent (59%) of Millennials will stay at that kind of congregations versus thirty-one percent who are no longer active in a congregation.

So the coaching questions for you Frustrated Church is: What systems do you have in place or could develop to create and environment where deep relationships can be formed?

2. Teach Cultural Discernment

I remember working with a call committee who wanted diversity in their team so that added a millennial. As we were discussing what they wanted in their next pastor an OWL (Older Wiser Lutheran) said, “We have to make sure this next pastor is against gay marriage.” The millennial responded, “I don’t see anything wrong with gay marriage because you love who you love.” Boom goes the cultural clash of values.

Barna’s study found that Frustrate Church needs to provide a vehicle to help Millennials navigate this strange new world of post-Christian values. So it is important that one of the ministry outcomes is to help today’s Millennials to develop discernment skills, especially when it comes to understanding and interpreting today’s culture. To better serve this generation that is lamenting the complexity of life, the Frustrated Church can provide clarity to this frustrated generation. Millennials need help learning how to apply what is in their hearts and minds to today’s cultural realities.

3. Make Reverse Mentoring a Priority.

The Frustrated Church often talks about the leaders of the future. In other words, when I am too old and tired to serve who will take my place? So often the thinking behind that statement is we need some “youngins” to join so we can step down. The Barna Group has learned that an effective ministry to Millennials involves understanding that young people want to be taken seriously today— and not just seen for some distant future leadership position. So how does the Church make room for them to lead now? However, this is the kicker, Millennials don’t want to necessarily lead our Church structure they want to lead a Church that is making an immediate, transformational impact in the community around them and the world. So the idea of sitting in meetings three or four times a month is not what they have in mind. A meeting to plan a community event?  Now you’ve got something.

4. Embrace the Potency of Vocational Discipleship

A fourth way churches can deepen their connection with Millennials is to teach a more potent theology of vocation or calling. This is what Kinnaman calls it “vocational discipleship,” a way to help Millennials connect to the rich history of Christianity with their own unique work God has called them to. Help them find their God-given calling in life, what is the purpose for which God created them. As the sainted Dr. Martin Luther wrote”…the works of monks and priests, however, holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.” The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

5. Facilitate connection with Jesus.

Finally, Millennials look to the church to generate a lasting faith by facilitating a deeper sense of intimacy with God. For those in the church who argue they want a watered down version of God’s truth, no. Millennials seek a deeper connection with the crucified and risen Savior. The challenge to the Frustrated Church is: “How do we take them on a deeper spiritual journey?” “How do we create a worship, Bible Study, fellowship culture that leads to a more in-depth, intense, relationship-forming connection with Jesus? A tough challenge I would say, but boy would that be an exciting opportunity not just for Millennials, but for every Christian who currently sits in the pews? So Frustrated Church all is not lost. I would say what the lost generation is seeking, we already have, Truth, Relationships, a sense of Calling and a deeper connection with the Savior. They want we all want, to be a better disciple in this age.

So Frustrated Church, all is not lost. I would say what the lost generation is seeking, what we already have: Truth, Relationships, a sense of Calling and a deeper connection with the Savior. They want what we all want, to be a better disciple in this age.

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Millennials Are More Than A Target Market

Young Men and Women of Different Ethnic Groups

Here is some breaking news for all those congregations trying to market their ministry to reach Millennials.

Millennials are people.  They are more than a group to target market. They are not just a set of numbers that add to the gross national product.  Millennials are the salvation of the local church. They are not a bunch of group marketing test subjects. They do not all think alike anymore that Generation X’s are all the same. Millennials are not a bunch of whiney, entitled, self-centered adults as some in my generation have pegged them.  What this generation offers to the world is a passion and knowledge base not seen in previous generations.  They are people who have hurts, pain, struggles, and an ambition for a better life for their families.  In that regard, they are like everyone else. To understand this talented group, you need to stop reading studies, stop studying statistics about them and be willing to have a conversation with them.

“We were completely surprised,” said J. Walter Thompson’s Ann Mack. “There has been a faulty portrayal of millennials by the media. These people are not the self-entitled, coddled slackers they’re made out to be. Misnomers and myths about them are all over the place.” (UPI 3/30/08)

Here are some things I have discovered to talking with Millennials. I will say this upfront, I am by no means an expert, but I do love to study people. So, this is not scientific, and I would like my Millennial followers to fill in the gaps of my observations.

Observation 1: Millennials tend to have an inner calling to give and make a difference in the world.

I would describe this in Biblical terms. In a John 13 mindset. Here is that section of Scripture.

 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”

When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he sent a message to the world that the idea of power, prestige, and position has been turned upside down.  How can the King of the universe take on the passive role of a servant?  I love how William Barclay describes the meaning of the foot washing event.

“Jesus knew all things had been given into his hands. He knew that his hour of humiliation was near, but he was aware that his hour of glory was also near. Such a consciousness might well have filled him with pride; and yet, with the knowledge of the power and the glory that were his, he washed his disciples’ feet. At that moment when he might have had supreme pride, he had supreme humility. Love is always like that.”[1] 

In this foot washing context, a Millennial might see this strange Rabbi as a compassionate leader.  What a shift, a leader who is a servant first.  They would connect with a leader who sees the bigger picture.  Jesus noticed the hurting.  He had compassion on the masses.  Jesus stopped to impact and transform the lives of the community.  All things that the Millennials I have the pleasure of interacting and connecting with value.

Observation Two: A Different Kind of Leadership Needed.

What I have noticed with this Millennial generation is that they get service.  What I see in many Millennials is a desire to make an immediate positive impact on the world in which they live. My generation tended to emphasize that winning at all costs is the goal.  We were taught to value rugged individualism.  So, we struggle to understand this generation that leans toward working as a collective.  Millennials that I have collaborated with value servant leadership.  Give me the problem and then stand back and let us as a team figure out creative solutions.  They learned to think more about people than themselves. Millennials tend to function better with social interaction.  So, this servant leadership model that Jesus lays out for the disciples resonates with this generation.

In a book by David Stark, he includes this quote, “Ordinary people, concerned by a problem, an issue, or injustice, have been empowered to become extraordinary champions of change. This is the Millennial approach to activism, as well as to business, personal attitudes, and sometimes overall life choices…Millennials have high ideals. But they also know their ideal must be actionable and realizable.”

To engage with some of these passionate young people, remember they are more well-rounded, intelligent and loving than many have reported.

Stay tuned more observations to come. In the meantime here are other posts.

[1]  Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of John (Vol. 2, p. 160). Louisville, KY: Edinburgh.