“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
1 Timothy 4:12-16 ESV
What do millennials want in the church?
What do millennials value?
What does it take to attract and keep millennials?
I DON’T CLAIM TO HAVE THE ANSWERS. I don’t have a degree in Psychology, Sociology or even an MDiv with an emphasis in Young Adult Ministry. I didn’t write my Masters thesis on Contemporary church Methods, and actually, I don’t even have a Masters degree. I haven’t interviewed anyone, followed a focus group for 5 years, or formally studied the latest research on social trends. In the last decade, I’ve seldom watched TV or taken a selfie. I can’t say that I’ve ever streamed a reality series or stalked a celebrity. I’ve never participated in a flash mob wedding proposal, and I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t wear skinny jeans, shave one side of my head, or hang out with my fam at Starbucks for hours at a time drinking organically roasted, sustainably sourced lattes with four shots through biodegradable straws while scrolling my Facebook newsfeed for lunch ideas and simultaneously drafting my fantasy football team. I’ve never tried 30 days of a fad diet or even thought about going vegan. That being the case, I readily admit that from a scholarly perspective or otherwise, this may be the worst blog post on reaching millennials… ever.
Having thoroughly discredited myself, I do have one humble qualifying credential: I am a “millennial.” I can speak for myself, and if I may suggest, we can let God speak. After all, he is the Creator of all mankind. As surprising as it may seem to some, millennials haven’t suddenly evolved into some kind of new species with needs and wants that none before them, including their Creator, could possibly understand. I guess I’m just not convinced that there’s anything dramatically unique about the spiritual needs of millennials, and since the purpose and mission of the church is primarily spiritual, then perhaps the answer to these questions should be sought in God’s scriptures rather than in mans’ surveys.
First, what this “millennial” doesn’t want in the church:
- To be stereotyped by my age – I think for myself.
- Isolation from my elders – Some of my closest friends are not my age.
- Special treatment and concierge programs – You don’t need to cater to me.
- Outsourced parenting – I will come to church even if I “have” to care for my own children.
- Entertainment and gimmicks – I can get that anywhere and everywhere; give me what I can’t get anywhere else.
- Values based on contemporary culture – I can see through the fallacy of today’s upside down value systems.
- Constant fire and brimstone “gospel” messages – These make me physically ill when overdone.
- Watered down, cotton candy “gospel” messages – I am starving to get in the word deeply.
- Controlling authority figures – Rigid, fear-based leadership styles are self-limiting.
- Authority figures who lack conviction and assertiveness – I can see through wacky progressive notions that defy common sense. Leaders gotta lead!
- Outward focused religion – Fancy clothes and a calendar filled with corporate gatherings leave me feeling empty and alone among hundreds, not to mention stressed out and exhausted.
- Superficial relationships – I will not live another day pretending to be perfect.
- The way we’ve always done it – I can see the difference between mans’ tradition and God’s. Only one of the two is sacred.
- Wholesale replacement of anything older than 5 years (theology, music, dress, ministry staff, etc.) – I am not so naive as to think that in the last 5 years my generation has improved virtually everything and rendered the best work of the billions before us utterly obsolete.
Okay, so it’s no surprise that this millennial is not particularly enamored with the 1950s era church culture, but what may surprise some is that neither does contemporary culture fill the void in my heart as the pendulum swings. Quite the opposite. What I believe I need is what I am convinced people have always needed—simple, biblical Christianity. Then, I can hardly be so presumptuous as to entitle the next section “what this ‘millennial’ wants in the church,” but rather…
What God directed for the church:
- The young demonstrate spiritual maturity through biblical knowledge and discernment – 1 Timothy 4:12-16; 2 Timothy 2:15
- The older teach the younger – Titus 2:1-8
- The younger respect and care for the older – 1 Timothy 5:1-19
- Parents train their children in the Lord – Ephesians 6:4; 2 Timothy 3:15
- All serve others – John 13:12-17
- A spiritual purpose and mission – Ecclesiastes 12:13; Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31
- Eternal biblical values – Luke 21:33; 1 Timothy 3:15
- Speak the whole truth in love at all times – Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5
- Christlike leadership and shepherding – 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Ephesians 5:22-32
- Inward transformative relationship with Jesus overflowing with the obedience of faith in religious practice – Romans 12:1, 2; Matthew 23:23; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15
- Intimate, genuine, life-changing fellowship – Acts 2:42-47; Galatians 6:1, 2; James 5:16; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
- Timeless truths in passionate preaching, teaching, and singing simple psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – Colossians 3:16, 17; Ephesians 5:19-21
The above is obviously not intended to serve as a comprehensive list of God’s direction for the church, but rather as a contrast against some prevalent ideas often promoted as what the church needs to become to reach millennials. What absolutely stunned me as I wrote this post, by no intention of my own, was how many of the passages that address this topic were written to young preachers, youths, parents of young children, or to relatively new Christians. These truths were relevant to the young adults of their day; and I dare say, if we will be so courageous as to continue in them, they will prove themselves relevant to young adults today. More than that, they will prove themselves to be the saving power of God.
I know what some of you are thinking: I’m weird. I’m fairly certain you are correct about that! But I hope something in this worst… ever. blog post will cause the older to look at my generation with a little less skepticism and the younger to embrace the counter-cultural call of Christ to follow the ancient paths. We need not seek to discover some new thing, but rather to uncover what perhaps has been forgotten over the centuries; for the answers to our deepest need have been in Jesus all along.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that elders and church leaders don’t need to listen to the input of young people. But I am saying that these conversations need to take place over open Bibles with open hearts. If the plea of the young for change is not given upon a scriptural basis, it must not influence the future of the faith and practice of the local church. Rather than endeavoring to change the church for the young, may the simplicity and the power of the gospel transform the young for Christ.
Our elders, long in battle years,
Alas, begin to fade;
But from the ranks, young men appear
And lead their first crusade.
The Army of Our Lord
C. A. Roberts (1994)