Last modified: Oct 8, 2018

Many churches have an identity crisis. An older generation often clashes with millennials on matters of vision and strategy, leaving phenomenal young leaders and faithful members either in flux or wholly uninspired. This is especially true in ethnic-specific churches. Here’s why resolving this disconnect is critical for the future of your church.


A Little Storm

As he sat at the foot of the bed, he stared silently at the wood floor.

The planks were worn and ragged, but his eyes weren’t focusing on the nuances of the flooring on this night. He was staring at something deeper. Thinking about something that wasn’t there.

The last few days — weeks, even — were long. The weather was uneven and unpredictable as his travels had taken him over country and through city, going days without adequate food and rest. He definitely needed rest.

And his feet were hurting for all of it now. All the way in the corner, peeking through deep black shadows — where the candlelight from his lantern couldn’t reach — were the torn leather straps of his sandals. They were worn and ragged like the flooring.

He looked at them for a moment, smiling.

It was a good few days. Weeks, even.

He turned to blow out the flickering flame and fixed the pillows, passing out for the night before he even gathered the energy to pull the covers over himself.

Crash.

The lantern crashed to the floor just as the room started shaking. The sandals slid across the base of the wall to a darker part of the room.

The door was kicked in, the visitor — who was just a young man — pale as snow and body hunched over, out of breath. His eyes were huge like he had seen a horde of ghosts.  And even in the sudden and escalating chaos, the young man saw his friend just laying there. Still sleeping.

Running over to him, the young man shouted at the top of his lungs, “The boat is sinking! The storm is too much!”

sea in a storm

The first exclamation was enough to get his sleeping friend’s eyes open. The second got him to rise.

He looked at the young man, grabbing his shoulder. He responded with a question, the corner of his lips curling into a smirk — his calmness incongruent with the rocking of the boat and the terror in the young man’s eyes.

“Really? A little storm has you worried?”

He rose and walked calmly to the doorway, water pouring over his feet in thick waves.

It was too late. The boat was going to sink.

The young man stared hard at the bed in shock, his friend walking past him. He was appalled that the gravity of the moment wasn’t resonating with his friend. He turned, yelling out in a stutter,”A li— A little storm?!”

His words reached nobody. His friend was already walking up the staircase. The young man gave chase, kicking up water with each stride. And as he reached the deck, he saw the other members of the boat’s crew frantically running around. A few had buckets in hand and were tossing water back into the sea where it belonged. But to no avail. The rain was coming down hard and the sea was raging harder.

The boat was rocking harder now. The sails were torn. The railings along the edge of the boat were getting swallowed whole by the strong waters.

It was too late. The boat was going to sink.

Through the beating rain and thick vapor, and past all the panicking friends fighting to keep the boat above water, the young man saw his friend standing at the bow.

Calm as ever, he was taking a moment to look out into the water. The rumbling dark clouds licked the edge of the raging dark sea right where the horizon should have been. There was no longer horizon.

The man stared out into the darkness, smiling. Behind him, his friends were frenetic. Sobbing. Screaming. Horrified. Expecting the worst.

A shout.

Everyone on the ship heard the words piercing through the tense air and turned to watch him.

“Be still!”

And as the last word rolled off the tip of the man’s tongue, the storm began to dissipate.

The very last of the rain hit the deck. The very last of the waves crashed against the hull. The very last of the thick black clouds collapsed in on themselves to reveal the light from the sun peeking through.

He stared into the water, smiling.

Turning his head a bit to the side, he yelled out to his friends who had stopped what they were doing to watch the storm miraculously unravel in awe — and disbelief.

“You guys need to start trusting me — it was just a little storm!”

Laughing, he turned again to catch the horizon in the distance, resting between calm sky and placid water.

The young man — who had been watching the whole scene in utter bewilderment — stood across the deck and mumbled out loud. More like a whisper this time.

“A li— A little storm?”

what millennials want technology

What Do Millennials Value?

Millennials — a generation that includes anyone from the ages of 18 to 34 — recently overtook Baby Boomers as America’s single largest generational cohort. According to research, there are over 75 million of us now.

So, let’s face it: We’ll be here for a while.

A number like 75 million is a big one if we’re affording it just a cursory glance. That’s 75 with six zeroes after it. That’s kinda big.

But it’s an even bigger deal to the folks who look at these numbers for a living. You may know them as advertisers.

Advertisers have begun to crack the code of what millennials want. They know they have exceptional purchasing power, and they’re beginning to understand that the generation knows what it wants and when it wants it.

Long story short, millennials have finally come into their own. (And I’m reminded of this daily when friends at work point out the strong gray in my beard. Not funny, y’all.)

Advertisers especially know that millennials are glued to digital touchpoints. So they have found ways to transition from traditional print media ad spending to more diverse marketing spending. Single-minded ad spending efforts in newspapers and television have fallen by the wayside in favor of broader digital initiatives — including content marketing, SEO, paid marketing, and social media marketing.

While advertisers have had to adapt to the millennial push by broadening their sales touchpoints, brands have had to adapt by trying to wrap their minds around what millennials truly value.

This hasn’t been so easy.

Many brands have had a difficult time figuring out just what millennials want.

Knowing what millennials want requires understanding what millennials truly value.Click To Tweet

So what do millennials value?

Here are two things.


Authenticity

Some call it keeping it real. Others call it authenticity. Tomato, tomahto.

Whatever term best applies doesn’t change the fact that millennials have state-of-the-art, built-in bullshit detectors. If you say you stand for something, then stand for it. If you say you’re providing goods and services to help people, then provide goods and services to help people.

It’s why no matter how much advertising and brand messaging have pivoted to connect across digital touchpoints over the last decade, only about 1% of millennials trust advertising at all. A lot of it — as they understand it — is spin. A lot of it is clickbait. A lot of it is wholly not authentic at all. And they get that.

Being inauthentic creeps into brand messaging. Even iconic, tried-and-true brands have not been immune to these gaffes:

  • McDonald’s – The fast food giant is losing millennial buyers because of a shift in the generation’s core nutritional values. They’ve tried launching experimental hipster cafes and serving all-day breakfast menus as sales continue to plummet.
  • Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – The once-popular product is losing market share — significantly — to healthier, less-processed, and organic mac ‘n cheese alternatives. Kraft has begun to phase out its use of synthetic coloring and artificial preservatives from the product in hopes they can regain consumer confidence.
  • Diet Coke – While it’s the most popular diet drink among millennials, growing consumer concerns regarding its sweetener aspartame and links to weight gain have led to dips in overall sales.

So when these brands say they align with us on our values of being more conscious about taking care of our bodies, then they’d absolutely, positively better get on board.

Recent studies show that 75% of millennials feel that businesses care more about their own agendas than they care about improving society — like most of them promise to do. To put it another way, millennials are being lied to. And trust me: They don’t like being lied to.

Keeping it real is the only thing that ties millennials to the reputations brands have staked at all.

“That message has to be consistent at all touch points where the consumer interfaces or comes into contact with the brand.”
Americus Reed, Marketing Professor at Wharton School of Business

The brands that are authentic in their messaging, in their vision, and in their relationship-building manage to keep millennials engaged. The ones that don’t? They can stuff it.

millennial working on laptop with coffee

Purpose

As a rule of thumb, millennials want to be a part of organizations that matter. And they also want to be treated like they matter.

In other words, millennials value purpose, and they want to be trusted enough to be a part of the mission.

While what millennials want from work and organizations may have more nuance, this sense of purpose is critical. A recent Gallup poll found that 71% of millennials who understand both their organization’s purpose and vision say they plan to stick around with the organization.

It’s similar to what brands have to do to keep up with millennial tastes and demands. If an organization says they stand for something, then they’d absolutely, positively stand for it.

And remember, their built-in bullshit detectors work extremely well. All the pomp and circumstance in the world can’t hide inauthenticity that will inevitably bleed out to the surface.

Whether it’s synthetic coloring, or sketchy artificial sweetener, or promises that an organization is fighting to do good for the world, lying about it makes millennials sound the alarms.

“Don’t mistake window dressing for reality. How nice the appearance of an office is has nothing to do with meaning and purpose.”
Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade

The same Gallup poll found that 87% of millennials value professional development as an important part in their work. A Deloitte study revealed that 7 out of 10 believe their personal values are shared by the organizations they work for.

In other words, millennials want to learn and grow. They want to be trusted on to be a part of the overarching purpose of that organization. And they know they can make an impact because they believe deeply in what the organization’s purpose is already rooted in.

The organizations that take their time to identify their strengths, invest time and training in them, and integrate their ideas into overarching organizational goals are the ones that resonate at all with the oft-unattached and independent generation.

But the value-add millennials provide is often lost on organizations:

  • Instead of creating avenues for mentorship and skills acquisition, millennials are often left to figure things out on their own.
  • Instead of co-leadership opportunities, millennials are often unheard and unwelcome in future-focused initiatives.
  • Instead of being noticed, millennials — and the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the table — are often disregarded.

The organizations that listen to millennials and find ways to integrate them into their ongoing and long-term strategies are the ones that resonate. The ones that don’t? They can stuff it.

young millennials and church

Millennials and the Church

I bring up businesses and brands and advertising because a lot of the millennial disconnect we see around us is often loudest on Sundays.

Maybe loudest isn’t the right term. How about pin drop silence?

Millennials are disengaging from the church.

A Barna study revealed that 59% of millennials who grew up in church “disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.” And according to Pew Research Center, older millennials are generally less religious than they were a decade ago. All of this stands in stark contrast to the religious affinities of the Generation Xers, the Baby Boomers and the Silent generation that preceded it.

The immediate reaction to this news is often to praise generations of old as being more godly. There must clearly be a problem with young people now if they don’t think God deserves more of their attention. This must be why millennials are leaving the church.

But the problem with this line of thinking is that critics of the millennial generation gloss over the points that matter most to that generation at all. The whole being authentic thing. The whole having purpose thing. And churches are sometimes the biggest culprits of them all.

Churches often paint the picture of a commitment to a mission, while thriving on admonition instead.Click To Tweet

The admonishment and disconnect of modern churches often run deep.

  • 36% of millennials can’t ask “pressing life questions” in church
  • 23% believe they can’t express “intellectual doubts” regarding faith
  • 17% feel judged in church because of mistakes they’ve made
  • 25% believe the church demonizes things that happen/exist outside church
  • 22% believe the church ignores the problems happening in the world around them
  • 33% leave church entirely because of their discriminatory and hateful teachings regarding gay Christians and homosexuality in general

Are millennials — and young people in general — leaving the church? Yes.

But can you blame them if you already know their values require churches to be authentic and to have a purpose that includes them at all?

“A lack of knowledge breeds fear, and this is true of the church in relation to millennials. Many churches do not take the time to know the next generation, so they are stuck with attaching stigmas (many untrue) to them.”
Frank Powell, Outreach Editor at ChurchLeaders.com

Churches — like brands — often struggle to connect with millennials. A decade ago, these were high school rebels and upstart middle schoolers; now, they’re gifted, impactful people that can truly make a difference. But somewhere along the way, a failure to understand and effectively integrate this cohort into the church’s mission… just didn’t happen.

opening doors to church

Millennials Switching Churches

In many cases, millennials aren’t necessarily leaving the church entirely. They’re just leaving the churches they grew up in.

This is especially true in ethnic-specific churches. Growing up in an Indian church, I saw peers sit on the sidelines with their big questions and even bigger talents. At my church. At other churches.

At some point, it wasn’t enough for us to be told the church cared about the communities we were in. It wasn’t enough for us to be told that the church needed us to stick around.

Eventually, it was necessary to be looked in the eye and not be lied to. About authenticity. About purpose.

So a lot of millennials switch churches.

And in their new environments, I’ve seen friends who never got a chance to sing, or play an instrument, or speak, or drive marketing strategies, or spearhead conferences, or give lectures on topics like “Design and the Church”… do all of those things.

The truth is that often, it’s not about young people murmuring I don’t like church or finding excuses not to go to church at all. In many cases, millennials just want to have a chance to be a part of something that truly, authentically matters. They want to be an active part in all the world-changing — or what I refer to as “kingdom culture” — work that’s possible.

It’s what they look for in brands. It’s what they look for in careers.

It’s what they look for in churches.

Sometimes, churches lie. Sometimes, they fail. Sometimes, you need to leave to change the world at all.Click To Tweet

Why Millennials Matter

Other than for the whole keeping-religion-alive thing, there are important reasons why churches need to retain — or even attract — millennials.

They’re Socially Aware

Millennials are a cohort that believes every person truly matters. Ok, so you might think that this is the default setting for churches. Because, you know. Jesus would want it to be and stuff.

It should be the default setting. It often isn’t.

Older generations are more likely to be sociologically and philosophically rigid and unwavering than millennials. What they’ve believed to be true regarding social justice, sexuality, and theology for over 40 years already tends to stand strong — no matter how much the world changes around them.

(Remember: It’s only been 50+ years since interracial marriage was considered an abomination. Fallacious Biblical interpretation often softens its rigid stigmas over time.)

Millennials, on the other hand, battle for social justice, fight to end global slavery, and prick the government to afford more rights to ethnic minorities and women. It’s a reason why they’re so adamant about taking every nuance of the Black Lives Matter movement straight to the streets in protest.

Taking this another way, according to Wharton School of Business’ Marketing Professor Americus Reed, “millennials tend to be very socially aware, are prone to be more public about it, and they are simply more thoughtful and forward-looking about it.”

teddy bear on side of road

They’re Practical

In older generations, the common practice was to stigmatize and assign shame to keep people on the straight and narrow. This was evident in cases of sexuality, where treating it as a taboo was viewed as the best way to combat the evil of fornication. But it’s even more evident in how the generational views on abortion have changed.

(Full disclosure: I’m pro-choice. And there are other Christians like me in the millennial population. Yes — believe it or not — we do love Jesus and we do hate murder.)

For both pro-life and pro-choice Christian millennials, it’s not enough to say they despise the evils of abortion. They look for practical ways to address the desires for abortion at all. And in doing so, they go to root causes:

  • They know educating children about how their bodies work will help them understand and value the nuance and complexities of not just their own life, but of others.
  • They know that helping couples — even married couples — understand birth control can help them, in many cases, avoid unwanted pregnancies.
  • They know that minimizing the stigmas the church and society heaps on unmarried pregnant women may prevent them from having to carry out an abortion just to save face.

None of those things make Christian millennials evil or backward in any sense.

In general, millennials know it's not enough to say you hate evil without a way to replace it with good.Click To Tweet

The contexts behind abortion are far more nuanced and far more sensitive to just leave to stigmatization — which happens far too often.

I have friends who were raped by church leaders and didn’t say a word because they were afraid people in church would find out. Because they were afraid of the stigma. While these instances didn’t outright lead to abortions or unwanted pregnancies, they could have. And the perpetrators ought to have been punished. But how could justice truly be served when how we communicate about sexuality and propriety stifles them when they’re bursting at the seams to talk to somebody?

complicated truth good evil

They Know Truth Is Complicated

Listen, the history of the Church is a complex one. Holy wars have been waged in the name of Jesus. Passages regarding slavery in the Bible were proliferated to defend slavery in the New World. Church fathers fought bitterly regarding which doctrines were more descriptive or prescriptive than others.

Fast forward to today and each and every Bible school around the world leans on a different set of theological tenets. I’ve got family members who were at odds with each other for years regarding infant baptism. And that’s important to point out because the truth is a lot more complicated than any of us want to admit.

While older generations are more likely to be entrenched in what they were taught, millennials who grew up with and are still connected to larger digital pools of knowledge are more likely to have the wherewithal to stop, breathe, and admit to themselves: I don’t have it all figured out.

“This generation will want to know why a church does what it does. The most unacceptable answer is, ‘We have always done it this way.'”
Thom Rainer, President & CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources

It’s not a secret that throughout history, theological truth and substance have been difficult to pin down. Millennials are often just more willing to admit not everything is as black-and-white as we want it to be.


What Churches Can Do

It’s not hopeless. Research reveals that 96% of Christian millennials believe the Bible contains everything you need to know to live a meaningful life; 96% also claim the Bible is the actual or inspired Word of God.

While attendance figures may have dipped — for various reasons — the young people that still value the Bible and what God is all about still care deeply about their commitment to the relevant church and working towards a kingdom culture.

But it’s not just Christian millennials that churches should continue to cater to; Pew Research studies suggest that like many older generational cohorts, people become more religious — and attend church more — as they get older.

So, no, millennials leaving churches doesn’t mean the whole situation is screwed and that your church is hopeless. There are some strategies that can help your church deal with — and even mitigate — this exodus.

Be Authentic

Anybody can throw together a block party for the community and give away free stuff and have cool celebrity speakers. But if your church isn’t equipped to welcome any of those same neighbors to your church service on Sunday morning, then you’re just in it for the show.

Hey, I get it. We do it for the Vine. We do it for the Gram.

But millennials value authenticity. And they know that Jesus Christ’s platform was rooted in and fueled by authenticity. Hanging out with seedy people. Talking to lepers. Including prostitutes in his clique.

Churches that love recklessly are labeled as hipsters. But they're just loving like Jesus would.Click To Tweet

So if you want millennials to tune in to what your church is doing, don’t just talk “making the world a better place” like you’re a running gag from HBO’s Silicon Valley. Do it. For real.

Millennials are the most socially aware generation for a reason, and they’ll stick around if you’re serious about investing your time, money, and influence in your community.

millennials waiting for train

Don’t Make Them “Wait”

There’s nothing more annoying than being sidelined or marginalized because you’re too young. I’ve been there. I’ve “waited my turn” and I’ve seen friends do the same. And we all left our situations and found acceptance elsewhere.

Try to understand millennials don’t want to be treated like second-rate citizens. At their workplaces. At their churches.

The challenge for a lot of churches is finding a balance between an older generation that’s been in leadership for decades and a burgeoning group of game-changers.

The future of your church depends on how well you can build intergenerational relationships.Click To Tweet

Think of your church like an organization. Because, duh, it is. By doing this, you’ll realize there are a few tactics you can immediately employ to be more mindful and inclusive of your young people.

First, church leadership needs to understand that many millennials are starving for mentors and quality older leaders who can teach them how to get the most out of their still-developing skills. Create avenues for mentorship and stay the course.

Secondly, understand the value of co-leadership. Statistically, the most important factor in whether or not a young person in your church sticks with their faith at all is whether that person has a meaningful relationship with an older member of the church.

Other than mentorship planning, find ways to make millennials co-lead campaign planning and church operation. The default setting for churches — especially ethnic-specific ones — is to keep the church’s direction in the hands of an older generation. By letting young people work — and actually co-lead — with older leaders, it can help build bridges that would otherwise be burned.

“No institution, organization, entity, or group on the planet has more reason to turn the lemon of generational tension into the lemonade of generational harmony than the Church.”
David Mathis, Executive Editor at desiringGod.org

Most importantly, find ways to develop the talent that already exists in your church. Again, think of your church like an organization. Are there creative people in your pews? Are there marketers? Event planners? Educators? Chefs? There are ministries and operations in a church that can truly leverage all of these diverse skills. Build out specialized teams and give them the autonomy to find new methods of ministry that can work for your church and your community.

And if your church doesn’t have a way to use these skills, find a way. By making room for additional skills in your church, you’ll naturally begin to rely on a millennial’s unique expertise and perspective. You’ll be surprised what you can learn from what they have to bring to the table.

make church cool cat with glasses

Stop Trying to Be Cool

Millennials don’t need bigger lights, or bigger stages, or bigger effects, or bigger explosions.

They don’t need you to paint a picture of a Jesus with hipster glasses, skinny jeans, and a deep V-neck shirt.

That doesn’t equate to a relevant church.

Instead, focus on what made walls of ancient fortified cities come crashing down. Focus on what made psalmists awestruck. Focus on what made a father throw the biggest celebration the neighborhood ever saw just because his prodigal son returned home… when he could have just rubbed an I told you so in his face.

Don’t dress it up. Don’t make it hipper or cooler than it needs to be.

Why do we exaggerate about a man who commanded nature to stop its storming... and it listened?Click To Tweet

Focus on an unrelenting, ravishing love by an ever-present God.

Studies show that millennials still want to be blown away by the sheer gravity of who God is. And while the production value helps amplify our church experience, it’s not what keeps young people staying in your church long-term. If your church lacks substantive sermons and doesn’t care to go past the surface level into deep scriptural exposition, you’ll lose out on an entire generation that actually seeks this stuff.

Millennials understand God isn’t some cosmic genie in a bottle. He isn’t there just to make sure they have awesome jobs and families. He’s not a feel-good pill for bad stuff that happens. While generations past often relied on these ideas to get them through the longest nights, all of that is effectively white noise for young people who inherently know that God is bigger than how the modern Christian church often frames him.


Resources

If you want to be better about reaching millennials, don’t overcomplicate things. Focus on authenticity and purpose, and you’ll naturally resonate with young people who want to be a part of the kingdom culture you’re preaching about.

Jesus doesn’t need to be hip. He woke up in the middle of the night to stop a raging storm from tossing him and his bros back into the sea. By just his words. Communicate that instead of spending your energy on trying to game the system.

Millennials aren’t so easily duped.

Here are some resources that can help your church:

  • If Bill Hybels’ Courageous Leadership isn’t already a part of your church leader summer reading list, make it the top priority. This book can help shift the paradigm that stifles your church’s growth and forward progress.
  • Thom Rainer is the President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. His blog is a smorgasbord of practical tools and compelling research that can help equip church leaders with the insight the need to strengthen their churches.
  • Stephen Altrogge wrote Untamable God to help explain an incalculably awesome God in a very digestible way.
  • Rachel Held Evans wrote Searching for Sunday to explain how there’s hope in church — despite the very natural cynicism millennials harbor towards it.
  • Barna Group does the research so the rest of us don’t have to. Their studies and public opinion research provides church leaders clarity in trying to balance what they already believe and where culture says we’re headed.

Young people will carry the church forward like the great leaders that came before them. And with that expectation comes great responsibility. As a church, find ways to work with them. But understand that the line between alienating their generation and appreciating them is a fine one.

As society changes, they’re the ones best equipped with keeping the world focused on a God big enough to fix what’s messed up.

Together, we can forge kingdom culture. ■