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5 Surprising Characteristics of Churches That Are Actually Reaching the Next Generation

Everyone talks about reaching the next generation of young adults.

But what really makes a church effective in reaching the next generation?

I’ve visited a few churches this year that are doing a fantastic job at reaching 18-30 year olds—a vastly under-represented demographic in most churches.

I took notes at all the churches. They all shared surprising characteristics, even though they are incredibly diverse.

The surprise (at least for me)?

It wasn’t their model that made them effective. The churches I studied have different models.

It wasn’t their denomination. One was Roman Catholic and attracting tons of young families. Others were cutting edge conservative evangelical church plants.

It wasn’t their facility. Some were portable. Some were permanent.

In many ways, these churches are bending the rule book established by the mega churches of the 90s and 2000s.

Here are 5 things I’ve seen in churches that are killing it with people in their 20s and 30s:

reaching the next generation

1. Passion over Polish

If you attend enough conferences, you can think that you need polish to pull off effective ministry. Another $50,000 in lights or sound and you’ll be good.

The effective churches I’ve visited and seen recently by no means had the best lights, stage or production. Some had almost no stage and no lights, while others had a pretty decent package, but not nearly the level you see at some churches.

What did they all have in common? Passion.

When it comes to reaching the next generation, passion beats polish.

It’s not that polish is bad, but I think it’s increasingly trumped by a raw authenticity that exudes from leaders who will do whatever it takes to reach people with the Gospel.

Smaller facilities and stage sets were more than compensated for by preachers, worship leaders and team members who exuded passion for the mission.

Passion beats polish.

2. Jesus over God

This may seem either self-evident or trivial, but I believe it’s neither; the churches that were packed with young adults talk about Jesus more than they talk about God.

Of course, Jesus is God and God is Jesus.

But God can mean many things in our post-Christian culture. Jesus is far more specific.

I’ve noticed that churches that talk about Jesus and the Holy Spirit are having a greater impact on young adults than churches who talk about God.

3. Progress over Facilities

Several of the churches I’ve visited this year are multisite. And they don’t have massive facilities from which to launch new locations.

Next Level Church in New Hampshire is reaching almost 3000 people over 6 locations. Their largest facility is a 14,000 square foot campus that’s a converted auto repair shop. They’ve done a fantastic job remodelling it, but they’ve done it on a dime and it only seats 400 people. They’re reaching almost 3000 people out of that space across 6 locations.

It’s not the 10 million dollar facility you’d think you need to have to reach 3000 people, but that’s not what Josh Gagnon, their lead pastor, is focused on. (By the way, I was recently a guest on Josh’s Leadership Podcast. Perhaps my favourite interview I’ve given. Raw and so real.)

Josh’s passionate, can-do, no-excuses attitude is in part what’s led them to become one of the ten fastest growing churches in America.

Ditto for National Community Church in DC. They’re doing a superb job reaching young adults with very small permanent facilities. And they’re adding an eighth location without first building out the space they already have.


4. Risk over Certainty

All of the churches I know that are doing a great job with young adults take risks. Big risks.

They’re either at odds with their denomination (I’ve seen a few of these) or are launching locations where no one else would dare plant a church.

They’re figuring out how to accommodate parking and even children’s ministry after they’ve made the decision to open or move. They just want to see the kingdom advance.

And the young adults they’re reaching seem fine with the uncertainty. They just want more space and more locations to invite their friends to.

Lesson? If you’ve got growth and momentum but you’re waiting for certainty before you determine what’s next, you might be waiting too long.

Just act.

5. Mission over Money

The question for many churches is this: does mission follow money, or does money follow mission?

Great question.

The churches I know that are doing a great job with young adults would say ‘money follows mission.’

Do the mission well, and money shows up.

In fact, if you lead with the mission first, everything else shows up: people, money and the resources you need.

Too many churches wait for the day when they have the money to realize their mission.

Realize your mission, and you’ll have the money you need.

What Do You See?

What do you see in churches that are reaching the next generation?

If you want more, listen to my interview with Geoff Surratt on his forthcoming book on churches that reach millennials. His findings (while in beta) are fascinating:

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  • Bryan Avey

    The Jesus over God point is spot on. I’ve seen church leaders purposefully not mention Jesus as much, I even discussed it with some…great article!

    • Anthony Sharp

      Here Here. Jesus is the point!!

  • Yes, to all of this…

    and yet, without the aspects that are contrasted (i.e. “polish”) the older generation may leave. That creates a gap not only in discipleship of the next generation, but also the financial stability needed for the church. While the younger generation is perhaps the most generous to come up in recent years, they are flighty in where they are generous. So somehow we need a “both/and” mentality here.

  • Jono Ingram

    Hey Carey! Thanks for the article.

    Just a question about your observations. It seems to me that each of the 5 characteristics are things that “could” relate to what these Churches are like as a body of people in every day life. However, it seems to me (and I may have read you wrong and I’ll happily be corrected on it) that you have predominately applied these characteristics to “Church as a Sunday gathering”. As I read this I was a little disappointed that it appeared to answer the question, “What are the characteristics of Churches who get millennial to attend their Sunday gathering?”

    Perhaps the exception is number 5, but overall your comments seem to be about Church growth, in terms of attendance of millennials at a Sunday gathering. Have I read that correctly? I suppose I would have preferred to hear how these characteristics demonstrated how these Churches made disciples who make disciples. Just because millennials are attending a gathering, even in large numbers, it doesn’t mean those Churches are making disciples who make disciples (although I am happy to concede some may be doing that well too).

    I hope my comment makes sense…



  • Andy

    Great article! I have found the God and Jesus thing in your second point to be true where I am. For what ever reason people around here don’t trust God or they have a very VERY wide idea of God and don’t tend to hear much when I talk about him. BUT when I frame things around Jesus there is way less confusion because, sadly, not a lot of people around us have heard much about Him.

    great thoughts on this one.

    • Thanks Andy. I find that too! God in Canada means higher power. Jesus means…Jesus.

  • Joe Brosious

    Thanks Carey, thought provoking again. Probably what has become the most loaded and misunderstood or differently interpreted word is “mission.” Would love to see a post on what the “missions” are that are attracting people in these churches. Based on where and how you worship that could mean great multitude of thanks. Blessings to you for getting me thinking this morning!

  • Michael Wilson

    Thanks for this. I am wondering what you mean by “at odds with their denomination?” Can you share some more specifics about this? It would help me a a lot as a denomination exec. I’m not looking to “ding” this but to learn from it.

    • Michael…thanks! That’s very fair and I appreciate the heart behind it. I’m tempted to write a full post on this but I want to be careful about tone. Basically, a lot of leaders I meet find their affinity these days by church size, church model and even church ‘vibe’ than they do by denomination. They may be part of their denomination but disagree with the overall direction, and actually find more affinity with churches not in their denomination than in their denomination. Does that make sense? Have you seen this?

      • Michael Wilson

        Very helpful.. Thank you. I’d be interested in more reflection from you about this, because it is very important to my own work (certainly not a lot of people in my own category, but lots of people thinking about the future of denominations, for sure!). Thanks.

        • Love denominational leaders with a heart like yours. Thanks Michael.

  • Jonathon Hunt

    #2 – “But God can mean many things in our post-Christian culture.” Sorry, God can only mean one thing.
    #4 – “They’re either at odds with their denomination”. How are they at odds with their denomination? Are they going against biblical principles to reach people who don’t want to follow the whole Bible (or as one pastor of a large church in a mainline denomination puts it “maybe Jesus exaggerated”)? The article is not very clear on that point and if that is what they are doing, they are going against Jesus.

  • Paul Gillam

    Hey, Carey. Great post. Would you be able to give an example of the passion you saw/experienced?

  • slbarton

    One of the things I believe we need to do for Christians today is rethink how we are teaching in our classes. As I sit through droning lecture style classes, I long for personal, relational classes where we get to talk about how we are applying the BIble, and searching the Bible for answers to the battles we are in.. I go to EVERY small, interactive class that is offered, and I notice many of my gen-X peers do to, but they will skip out on class all together when the classes are large, impersonal and not interactive. We’ve got to rethink Bible classes, we need to train our teachers, and we need make using the scriptures as our sword, the purpose. It is a mighty tool…let’s be excited about it. If we don’t do this, we lose brothers and sisters to the world, when they aren’t being sharpened and grown within the church.

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  • Mark

    The clergy in those churches say what needs to be said. The cross nor crucifix fell down nor did anyone have a heart attack. They understand and can convey how the gospel relates to people today and how people can apply it in their daily lives. Some old priests can make you squirm in your seat but will not issue a blanket condemnation to everyone.

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  • Alex Verdun

    Carey, thanks for this timely post. For me the hardest one is #4 taking the risk. I believe we evangelicals need to take the risk to honour and accept the role that women can and do play in the leadership of the church. That may put us at odds with our denomination… but it may also lead to a change in our denomination.

  • 4dtruthonly

    Great and it’ll help a lot

  • Melissa Toon

    thanks for this insight Carey! I love your podcast and blog. Your variety of topics is just what I have been looking for. Also thanks for suggesting Tim ferriss as a person to learn from. His interview with Brene Brown is a must hear! Thanks again for all you do!

  • Chet Haney

    nice blog, thanks

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