Much has been made about the relationship between young adults, particularly millennials and the church today. I’ve spoken with many pastors and church leaders who have confessed they really don’t understand how to reach out to this demographic. Within the American Christian Church, we are witnessing a decline in church attendance nationally which is no coincidence.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of citizens claiming the Christian faith has dropped from nearly 80 percent to 70 percent since 2007. Much of this drop can be attributed to millennials as slightly over one-quarter of this group is half as likely to attend religious services on a weekly basis as are their grandparents. Furthermore, 1 in 3 millennials claim no religious affiliation at all, giving rise to the term “nones.” What is responsible for this shift and decline? While there are many factors from the rise of a technology and consumer-driven society to shifts in work schedules and social patterns, we cannot ignore the role that the Church itself plays in both engaging young adults and millennials or in driving them away.
A generation or two ago, Sunday for most represented a day (literally) of worship, followed by family dinner and conversation. Today, Sunday for many including millennials, represents Sunday brunch, NFL football, a day for errands, socializing and even work. To be certain, millions of young adults still do attend church across the country, but they are less common amongst their peers than they once were and often don’t attend in the same ways or styles of worship. What steps can church leaders take to address this trend and produce a healthy climate for vibrant young adult and millennial outreach?
Well before you splurge on a new fancy lighting design, a worship team or even a new worship service; consider the age old adage of focusing on substance over style. While many churches are indeed growing and enjoying vibrant millennial ministries in a theater church style complete with strobe lights and fog machines, there is more to their success than their music and energy. I’ve had the opportunity to visit churches all over the country as well as lead a growing national young adult group called Christian Young Adults. Certain factors are always present within these successful efforts. Healthy young adult ministries tend to share the following traits:
- They Welcome New Members
There’s nothing worse than visiting a new church and literally leaving the same way you came, without new insight and without new relationships. From social media, to campus outreach, to parking lot welcome signs, to new member receptions, these churches make you feel at home and want to return.
- They Engage their Young Adults
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as not being able to participate. These churches don’t leave their millennials on the sidelines, but rather, engage them not only in activities but in the leadership of the church.
- They Equip their Members
It’s one thing to join and get involved, it’s another thing to belong. These churches provide opportunities for growth and development making young adults capable to succeed within the church.
- They Expand the Circle
In grade school, when that last classmate came into the circle as we held hands, it was time to make room for them. Successful ministries are constantly seeking to include others in their efforts. Nothing says failure quite like a clique.
- They Connect the Dots
Joining and serving in ministry are great, but retention occurs (especially with millennials) when they feel connected to their leaders and to each other. To borrow from the popular TV show Cheers, there’s no substitute for a place “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”
Whether your ministry is a day old or a decade old, remember the importance of substance before you chase after style. Build on a solid foundation of these and similar principles as you seek to grow your ministry. It’s time for the church to heed Apostle Paul’s example and admonition to Timothy, yet in a slightly different way.
“Let no one despise or think less of you because of your youth, but be an example (pattern) for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12.
Successful churches, ministry groups and similar efforts not only embrace millennials and young adults, they encourage them to set examples and to be standard bearers and thought leaders for the congregation and the community. After all, young adults will either be the church of now, or the community of the “nones”.
Jeremy White is President of Christian Young Adults, a national ministry uniting young adults across church barriers. He recently served as East Coast Regional Director for Together 2016, a gathering of over 250,000 millennials and believers in general in worship on the National Mall. His company RestoreHope Consulting has trained thousands of church ministry and nonprofit leaders nationwide in church and community development. He formerly served as Director for Outreach of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
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Jeremy White, President