What millennials crave and how the church can relate

It’s hard to keep up. It seems that every time we open our social media feeds, we are greeted with yet another article about how millennials are leaving the church. Most of these articles are worth each and every second we spend reading and reflecting on them. When we read and reflect, it often leads to a strategic plan to reverse the trend, because we are missionally determined to discover the best possible ways to be relevant to a generation we are aggressively trying to better comprehend. Any discussion of evangelism and hospitality must include a particular focus on this generation.

Concern for millennials who are leaving their churches is important. Concern for millennials who have never even thought about attending a church is equally important. We must not only be concerned with the impending shrinking of our churches; we must be equally optimistic of the impending growth of our churches. We can choose to be driven by fear, or we can choose to be inspired by hope. Hope isn’t an add-on or a plug-in to our faith. Hope is the very essence of what Christianity is all about. We’re people of hope, of resurrection.

Barkley, an advertising agency in Kansas City, conducted two of the largest millennial research studies in the US, called “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation.” The results of Barkley’s studies can cooperatively inform churches and church leaders with several key insights about how to better comprehend millennials. These insights will help churches reach out through ongoing intentional, generous efforts, and they’re essential to discovering ways to inspire millennials to consider the church as a relevant agency to transform the world.

  1. Millennials seek out experiences. They want to live life to the fullest. They want adventure. They want risk. Is there a better agency to provide an experience than the church?
  2. Millennials want to leave the world a better place. If your church isn’t concerned about social justice issues, environmental ethics, physical wellness, and so on, on both a global and local level, you’ll quickly be considered irrelevant.
  3. Millennials have redefined what it means to have a successful career. For many, money and fame are not the goal. The mission is the goal. Communicate to millennials the “why” behind the “what” and “how,” and you’ll engage the hearts of many.
  4. Millennials thrive through creative optimism. Encourage millennials to engage the world not based on what’s wrong with it, but based on what can be right with it. Millennials are just as creative as any other generation we’ve seen, and they have a passionate desire to create things that others love and love to be a part of. For relevancy’s sake, invite their creativity.
  5. Millennials strive for diverse relationships. Diversity in theology, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on isn’t just something millennials are okay with — it’s something they seek and endeavor to cultivate. Give them the space to make it happen.
  6. Millennials expect all aspects of life to be anytime and anywhere. Real-time communication is a must for a generation whose native impulse is to check their mobile phone for any and all information. Churches must find meaningful ways to engage millennials when they are ready (which is always), not only when the church doors are unlocked.
  7. Millennials have a digital worldview. The stories we tell through our communication efforts, such as websites, social media outlets, videos, music, and so on, are immensely important to what a millennial sees as real and relevant.
  8. Millennials expect real-time conversations. Marketing experts refer to millennials as the “perpetually connected consumer,” which means that millennials expect to be able to connect and engage in meaningful conversations with their community frequently, through multiple devices, and in multiple locations.

These insights, when carefully applied through contextual consideration, can be helpful to new and old churches alike as they desperately seek to connect with a post-Christian generation.

Andrew Root, professor of youth ministry and practical theology at Luther Seminary, said in a recent Christianity Today article, “I wonder if millennial anxiety is about our concern for real young people, or if it’s about the church’s desire to possess a youthful spirit. Do we want departing millennials and nones to encounter the gospel—or to merely become members? Are we worried more about their spiritual health or about the health of our institutions?” Churches and leaders that are interested in the spiritual health of millennials and their families will change their way of outreach from an anxious model based primarily on fear to a more faithful model based on hope.

One way this might look is for our churches to choose to move toward a new model of outreach that invites millennials into a deeper level of engagement and participation — one that fits with millennials’ way of life.

Interruption vs. Engagement: Churches that intend to reach out to millennials will commit to creating a message that says, “Don’t stop your life to come to church. Come to church as a part or even the basis of your life.”

Reaction vs. Interaction: Churches desiring to connect with millennials will not only give instruction for something to do but instead will give them something to do with the church.

Attendance vs. Empowered Participants: This new model approach relies on the old cliché “Don’t come to church, be the church!” In order to be the church, how­ever, millennials will need to be empower­ed and released to create new ways of doing church and connecting to others.

Big Promises vs. Personal Gestures: Millennials will continue to require that churches not only tell them about what God promises to do for the world but show them what Christians choose to do every day to make the world whole.

Members vs. Partners: Churches will need to communicate to millennials the churches’ invitation to not only belong as members but to become partners. To belong is boring. To become, together as a community, is an adventure.

The bottom line is that millennials desire to be a part of a community that is collaborative, creative, and curious. Over half of all millennials say they are spiritual, but only a third are part of a faith community. The issue is relevancy and engagement. To connect with millennials — not because our churches are dying but because our churches can be growing — investigate and experiment with a new approach to reaching millennials in an intentional, generous way; a way that seeks to accomplish God’s mission to restore the world toward its intended wholeness.

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