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5 Things Millennials Are Looking For In a Church

Millennials

One of the questions almost every church leader I know is asking is “How do we reach Millennials?”—that demographic of young adults now in their mid-twenties to age 40.

It’s a great question.

They’re hardly kids anymore. They’re today’s adults. And many churches have missed them altogether.

One of the primary missions of every generation of church leaders is to hand the faith and the church over to the next generation. Practically speaking, churches that fail to reach young adults will struggle far more a decade from now than churches that don’t.

Often the conversation goes quickly to what you need to do in the church to reach the next generation.

But is that actually the right question to ask?

The penny dropped for me recently in (yet another) conversation I had with young adults about the church and the future.

Maybe Millennials are asking a very different question.

And the question they’re asking is good news for almost every church leader, because it’s not only about what you do, how many resources you have, or even your model of ministry. It’s bigger than that.

In fact, Millennials might be looking for something bigger than all of that. The good news? It’s something almost every church leader can offer regardless of church size, budget or staffing.

A primary mission of every church leader is to hand the church over to the next generation. Click To Tweet

The Dinner Party Where No One Agreed…Until

I had a free-ranging dinner conversation a while back with 8 young adult church leaders (ranging in age from the mid-twenties to early thirties) and I simply asked them, “If you could design a church for your generation, what would it look like?”

The conversation actually turned out quite similar to a number of conversations I’ve had with young church leaders. No one actually agreed with each other. 

One young leader thought messages should be 20 minutes long. Others thought messages should be ‘deep’ and biblical and length wasn’t that important.

When I drilled down, no one could really agree on what deep or biblical meant.

Some thought worship should be longer while others thought this could be an impediment to inviting their friends.

When it came to community groups or outreach, there were mixed opinions on what to do.

After 45 minutes, no real consensus emerged.

This is quite typical among the many conversations I’ve had with churched and unchurched Millennials.

I’d preached at their church earlier that day and so I asked them for some honest no-holds-barred feedback. They told me the message really resonated, so I pushed deeper (come on, you can tell me the truth) and asked them why. My message was more like 40 minutes, after all (not 20) and I’m old enough to be the dad of some of the people around the table. I was really anxious for their feedback.

“Well”, someone ventured, “you were authentic. You told stories. There was nothing fake about what you said.”

“And I did reference Greek once,” I replied. We all laughed because clearly this meant my teaching was ‘deep.’

Then they started talking about what they valued. Things like integrity, transparency, honesty, grace and truth.

And this is when (finally), they all agreed.

That’s also when things really came together in my mind, and resonated with what we’re learning from Millennials where I serve at Connexus, and what I’ve seen elsewhere: when it comes to reaching Millennials, maybe the question we need to ask isn’t ‘what do we need to do?’ as much as ‘who do we need to be?’

Bottom line? Millennials are asking church leaders who they are…  far more than they’re asking what they’ll do.

Millennials are asking church leaders who they are more than they're asking them what they do. Click To Tweet

So what are the implications for all of us who lead churches?

1. Millennials Think Character Matters Most

Character will determine effectiveness in reaching Millennials far more than competency does.

This is both great news and frightening news.

The good news? An authentic experience in a church with B+ worship experience beats a hollow experience in a church with A+ programming.

That’s good news to every church that doesn’t have the expertise, budget or staff to pull off the experience larger churches offer.

But the frightening part is there’s a high-powered magnifying glass aimed at the character of every church leader, and especially the senior leaders.

So how well is your church doing? Here’s a post that can help determine the kind of people Millennials often want to hang around (and a bit of a diagnostic test for your church).

An authentic B+ worship experience beats a hollow church experience with A+ programming. Click To Tweet

2. Budget Matters Less

The really good news is that things like integrity, authenticity and a deep sense of mission cost nothing financially.  So they are accessible to everyone.

Sure, they will cost you deeply in terms of your personal walk. They will cause you to be brutally honest, to repent, to change, to grow and to trust God at whole new levels, but the cost of discipleship is always worth paying.

But if you live in a space where you think “we can’t reach the next generation because we have no money,” think again.

In fact, here’s a list of other church growth strategies that are absolutely free.

Integrity and authenticity cost you nothing financially but cost deeply in your personal walk. Click To Tweet

3. Relationships Count to Millennials

What do young adults want?

Your time. Your heart. And your attention. And a chance to actually connect with people.

Churches that elevate community will do better with Millennials than churches that don’t.

So prioritize chances to serve, connect, and grow together. A great small group strategy and serving strategy can help so much with this.

What do young adults want? Your time. Your heart. Your attention. Click To Tweet

Community doesn’t mean that everyone has to know everyone (a myth by which many small churches live and die). But it does mean everyone needs to know someone.

The importance of community is something both Orange and Kara Powell believe is critical to reaching the next generation. I agree. Kara’s new book, Growing Young, which comes out this fall (which I’ve had the privilege of pre-reading) highlights this even more.

Relationship is something every church can be great at.

Everyone at your church doesn't need to know everyone. But everyone needs to know someone. Click To Tweet

4. Maybe this is Model Neutral

Every church has a model of ministry. And as we’ve discussed many times on this blog, churches that love their model more than their mission will die.

But does that mean you can only have ONE model (approach) to church that works? Well, no, it doesn’t. Because if Millennials truly appreciate the values of leaders and their faith community more than other things, character can be present in a wide variety of approaches to ministry.

Geoff Surratt is doing some fascinating research on the kinds of churches Millennials love to attend, and he’s discovering that many of the churches doing a great job reaching young adults are very diverse in nature. You can listen to my conversation with Geoff about that on Episode 40 of my Leadership Podcast.

I also shared some of the surprises I found in churches that are absolutely crushing it with young adults in this post.

Findings like this give hope to us all.

5. Leverage Your Skill Set

All that said, this is in no way an excuse to be bad at what you do.

It’s not a license for irrelevance, laziness, or a justification for the status quo.

This is, after all, a generation that has been marketed to more than any generation in human history. They can smell cheese and incompetence a mile away.

But they can also smell fake a mile away. Being real matters more than doing. But doing still matters.

So continue to do the best you can with what you have. Make the changes you feel called to make, regardless of your church size, budget, setting or denomination.

Continue to make your ministry better, but still, work harder on your character than you do on your competency.

Work harder on your character than you do on your competency. Click To Tweet

Want More?

Did you know that 9 out of 10 churches don’t grow? Are you one of them?

You likely didn’t get into ministry to watch your church plateau or, worse yet, decline. You wanted God to use you to reach new people with the good news. You wanted to see your church grow. You wanted to make an impact on your community that would outlast you.

But the odds are, it’s not happening. And the thing is, you’re not alone. We live in an era where 94% of churches aren’t growing or aren’t growing as fast as their communities. Barely 1 out of 20 churches are effectively reaching their neighbors for Jesus. Despite how desperately our communities need to hear and engage with the good news about Jesus, many churches are lost when it comes to reaching a postmodern culture.

That’s why I put together the Church Growth Assessment. I see 10 reasons that most churches don’t grow.

How many apply to your church?

You can take the assessment here. 

What Do You Think?

What are you seeing as you interact with young adults?

Or if you’re a Millennial, what are you experiencing?

Contribute to the conversation by scrolling down and leaving a comment.

5 Things Millennials Are Looking For In a Church

25 Comments

  1. Taylor Hansen on August 10, 2020 at 11:11 am

    As a Millennial in a new city, I am trying to find a new church that I can attend to try and find purpose in my life. I liked that you said how elevated communities appeal more to Millennials. I’ll have to find a church that is hipper and appeals to me in that way.

  2. David Rashers Sedde on June 3, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    Blessings Carey thanks for the discussion to me i find useful for me as a leader i may say you’re blessed to balanced information i lead church called Christ the bridge church in uganda East Africa but here things are deferent all together no research on nothing many of the church leaders here do what comes there way am soon making 40 and the church started last year so we are now one year but most the the things you’ve talked about i saw in my former church and i have used some as my teaching lessons so i can do better but still with less exposure but then thank God i am following you and your teachings which I now think will help greatly although the church here is not at your level but we with this kind of help and support in teachings we are setting off thanks. David Rashers Sedde uganda.

  3. Fate Hagood III on June 3, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Carey… First I love your articles… Second… this article on millennials is only for a certain kind of millennial. “Millennial African Americans are often significantly different. AND significantly diverse. I’d love to see an article that addresses that

    • Ervin L. Wilson on July 27, 2020 at 6:23 pm

      My thoughts as well Fate Hagwood III. It was a good read however !

  4. james jones on June 3, 2020 at 10:07 am

    good thoughts and content.

    Thank you,

  5. Steve Stanton on June 3, 2020 at 9:04 am

    Would love to see these on each generation 🙂

  6. Will Barham on June 3, 2020 at 8:42 am

    Carey:

    Your post is spot on. I am a pastor in a Reformed church in Webster, NY (near lake Ontario). I just became the pastor in November! We are working through a church revitalization process. Two things have surfaced: church is identified with the Western mindset (i.e. we are authentic because we follow the American pattern) and discipleship is not self-conscious. I personally believe when we take biblical discipleship serious (discipling in community through relationships) authenticity and genuineness of the church will be manifestly obvious…and attractive.

    Will

  7. Angel Baggett on May 12, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    Thanks for the read!
    I’m a millennial who was raised in church I was a preachers kid and married a preachers kid. My life was and is still church, but the struggle is real. We’ve always been active in church and that’s our hearts desire. The problem we seem to face at each church we attend is that they really do desire to have young people but never want to give them any responsibility or even allow them to have a voice or option about anything. Things as simple as an input on carpet color for youth room. This to me feels like I can never truly be in their “family”. Let’s face it, millennials view many things differently but still desire the same outcome. Churches need to learn to involve younger people in more decision making and get more inputs and ideas. Just because something was done a certain way for 50 years don’t mean a new different way is a bad idea. Here’s an example. The church we attend has a fellowship hall with tables. Every time after a gathering the tables are cleaned and put away stacked on the wall. Most of the time the younger ones are still eating and carrying on a conversation when they start putting them away. Young people value fellowship and need it. Most of the time the people choose to go out to eat so there’s no needing to set up the table. Maybe it’s just me but I’d love to leave the tables up so we can fellowship more, but they’ve done this for probably 40 years and it’s a really big deal to them. They would never start. We’ve got to be careful our groove don’t become a rut. Ask people including young ones their opinions and take them into consideration ever if you don’t decide that way it will help them feeling like they were a part.

    • Mark on June 25, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      “Ask people including young ones their opinions and take them into consideration ever if you don’t decide that way it will help them feeling like they were a part.” I can pretty much guarantee this won’t ever happen. Most people’s opinions are never solicited or welcome nor are people welcome at any church meeting. Those are held in secret. Only a few people are ever allowed to contribute an idea or be a part of anything. Most of us are/were not even informed of the decision.

  8. Wes on August 15, 2018 at 10:26 am

    I think it was interesting that your initial conversation/questions didn’t bring you to a specific answer from the the group. What I have noticed with millennials (and with most Americans) now is that they/we have choices with everything and everything is customizable. Now, you can watch any show or any movie any time you want. You can stop it or restart it or even binge watch a series. No longer is there a coffee pot in businesses or homes; there are individual coffees with hundreds of ways to modify that cup. To only have 3 networks to choose from seems almost like a horse and buggy (and to have a specific time and day to watch something is even crazier e.g., Charlie Brown Christmas. To have only regular or decaf with one type of cream and one type of sugar is unheard of. So, the church trying to standardize on any aspect of ministry or service is almost impossible and not a consensus is even an option. But we strive anyway. 🙂

  9. […] 5 Things Millennials Are Looking for In Your Church […]

    • Elwin Duarte on August 5, 2018 at 7:17 pm

      Hello how are you, I am an educator in Guatemala and the influence of the Millennials generation starts to form in Guatemala, they started to be a generation that starts to be self-sustaining.

        The problem as mentioned is that they abandoned churches, children of pastors, traditionally Christian families and the analysis that I like because when they open they say strong things, but in this way they are those of that generation.

      I think that the sooner I set the topic the faster it will deal with the millennials, it will be decisive, because they are educating a generation that will be modified with their ideas.

    • Kel on August 11, 2018 at 7:39 am

      Young people are seeking validation and acceptance. Many of them grew up with all the do’s and don’t’s of how to be A Christian. So many of them seemed to have missed out on the message of grace. Rather than try to explain it to them, we need to show them. This is true for all of us, regardless of age. Show them with authenticity , compassion, and non-judgemental unconditional love. Knowing that they are truly loved will lead the way to Christ. Last week I was seated just a row ahead of a young mother with a precocious young child. I turned to smile at them (as the embarrassed Mom kept apologizing for her daughters behavior.) I blew kisses to the beautiful child and reached back to hold the Mother’s hand during prayer. After the service, we both felt a deep connection. Not necessarily to each other, but to our common longing for love. When I looked at her and her child, I saw 2 beautiful people, made on God’s own image. She didn’t receive the scowling looks, or the aloof distance that comes with judgement. She just felt accepted. I pray she felt love. Our human condition calls us to judge and choose who is worthy of our love and attention. When we can set that aside and treat others with true unconditional love, we can display a glimpse of who Jesus is. The generational barriers dissolve when the Lord is present.

    • Adam Grove on August 11, 2018 at 7:21 pm

      Good article I’m 33 and was not raised as a Christian or heard anything about Jesus besides it being a swear word my dad always used. I think your right with relationships and as someone mentioned about masks this has been one of my biggest disappointments that I have noticed with church people pretend on Sunday and act more like they don’t Know Jesus during the week I know we’re only human I agree but I think this has been the hardest thing for millennials that church can be a place of a false reality and there is not a real sense of family. My biggest struggle has been what is church really some like me don’t really engage with sitting still on a Sunday I worship God in my everyday life but mostly when working with people and getting out in to creation Sunday as it is done now is really hard for millennials like I was brought up with hip hop but most church music is rock or pop rock so no Christians have said to me how do you listen to that it’s a struggle I’ve found a balance. But most of a for millennials I think we are after more than a one off week experience it has to be meaningful for all our lives I serve 2 schools and a high school in NZ and have seen 💯 percent more God filled moments then any Sunday or conference I’ve ever been to as well as that and I’m not having a good but it is true where were the previous generation sharing with us I never or my friends had any engagement with any church I did meet some Christians at my college but they were very judgemental and I saw no Jesus if I had been taught about the love of Christ and I think my friends to would have listened but would have had to meet us at rugby, surfing etc no a youth group. And I agree out of all the age groups ours is the almost non existent at most churchs anyway love to talk more on this but I won’t bore you guys/ girls anymore hope this makes sense to I not a great writer LoL

  10. Mohamed M Sesay on March 27, 2018 at 7:57 am

    This is quite direct but releavant.I think church leaders should adopt the”Model Teaching Approach”,to train youths.With their energy,strength,zeal and aspiration it is quite real that youths can achieve great things and are potent to break through rocky barriers…..that makes then relevant in the christian community. By and large,every youth has a figure of focus;in this case,the key church leader.Mere focus on many church leaders has been responsible to make or break many young people in this “christian society.”The leader can either affect youths with disappointment,frustration,anger,grief and disbelief,or choose to be a motivator hope builder and an example of strength.The leader’s character is his teacher to youths.A true leader teaches purposeful lessons….that,wich words can’t explain.He allows young people to read those life transforming lessons in him.Therefore if the church is to impact young people,having true leaders is a crutial issue.

  11. DICK ROBEY on March 19, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    THANKS FOR THE THOUGHTS; THE CHALLENGE TO THINK AGAIN; TO UNDERSTAND THAT REACHING GOD IS NOT A PLACE BUT A PROCESSING OF BECOMING CLOSING TO VIEWING HIM FACE TO FACE. I AM A 78 YR OLD DUDE; WHO GREW UP IN A BOYS HOME; WHO SPENT 15YRS + IN YOUTH MINISTRIES; 15+ YEARS AS AN ELDER IN CH OF CHRIST GARNETT RD TULSA & OVER 30 YRS AS A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER; BUT MOST OF ALL THE REST IS 56YRS MARRIED TO MY COLLEGE SWEETHEART & MY TWO BEST FRIENDS TODAY ARE MY TWO SONS. WE MAY NOT ALWAYS AGREE BUT ONE THING IS FOR SURE; DAD IS NEVER WRONG.

    THANKS AGAIN

  12. John McMartin on March 19, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Great article….I’m looking fir small group resourse for melinials to be word based …to know the foundations of our faith….like..bi Le is authentic …is Jesus god…etc

  13. Derek Satnik on March 19, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    I love this article. Never thought of myself as a millennial (I’m turning 40 this year), but I relate completely with all of this.

    As a leader, I’m finding this even more true with other leaders than it is with the unsaved or the visitor. Those who thrive are embracing relationships, and those I’m watching struggle are struggling with … relationships. They’re struggling to give and receive grace, struggling to take the time to understand people who have different personalities than they do, struggling to put the time and effort in to reconcile their differences, and are struggling not to quit too soon.

    In this generation that’s been marketed too more than any other, that’s been trained to move on to the next brand, experience, or idea as soon as the last one ceases to be interesting, I’ve watched too many Christian leaders quit and move on before they get to the richness of relationship that they were hungry for.

    My biggest struggle right now, as a leader, is in helping other leaders around me to tough it through the hard times to get to that richness that requires work, humility, and grace, when they would often rather just expect those things from others, but not put in their share of the effort. People long for deep relationships where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to be themselves, but they struggle to offer that same safety to others, and it doesn’t work unless it’s two-ways.

    I deeply appreciate the challenge here to be authentic, and by doing so, to model authenticity to others. I’m finding that to be the greatest challenge (and calling) I’m facing right now: modelling authenticity in a way that people can emulate and embrace for themselves. A worthy calling!

    • Mike on March 25, 2018 at 10:35 pm

      I love this sentiment, Derek.

      Do you think the institution around church helps or hurts authentic, deep relationships?

      What I’ve found is we all wear masks wherever we go. The masks just seem to be thicker inside the walls of the institution as compared to outside the walls.

      • Derek Satnik on March 26, 2018 at 9:13 am

        Thanks Mike. I agree.

        I’m not sure, but I think the institution itself struggles, by its very nature, to be anything more than institutional. The Church is Christ’s body and is alive in a greater way than other institutions of course, but still, any organized group of people will typically struggle (proportionate to their size) with feeling more structured than organic, and organic things like relationships need room to grow. Relationships require time more than place, whether they be leadership relationships or peer relationships or any other form of relationship, and it’s dangerously easy to become task driven as opposed to people focused. Then again, the pendulum swings the other way just as easily: I’ve worked with one leader who would gladly have changed every meeting into a support group session (“people over progress”) and never accomplish anything, which doesn’t work either.

        What I’ve found, both inside and outside the church, is that organized groups tend to be focused on the objectives they’ve organized themselves around. Inside the walls that can become things like Sunday attendance or how many new faces were counted at outreach events, but it can also be things like lifegroup attendance or number of baptisms (which are a better indicator of heart change and growth over time). Outside the walls it can be even more diverse.

        I agree with your comment about masks, and have definitely experienced the same. I’ve found that inside formal “church” environments, my experience has been that people expect more, and are more readily disappointed when their expectations are not met. Otherwise they’re just as human, inside or outside the church, and apart from being submitted to Jesus’ transforming/healing work in their lives, I see the same masks in both arenas.

        The institution of church offers the best environment to point people to Jesus, but only Jesus can bring the true integrity / humility / authenticity that everybody longs to see and know. That’s another set of topics of course (ie: how to make sure the church celebrates Jesus and points constantly to Him in everything we say and do), but the masks topic is what you raised that interested me most.

        I have a lot to learn on this yet, but I’m a believer that true authenticity comes only from being deeply submitted to Christ ourselves (which requires extra generous doses of humility), and is contagious, and that the Church (perhaps most especially in small groups / Lifegroups) is the best environment to breed it.

  14. @s.wakefield on March 19, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Carey,

    This article very well represents what I’m seeing as a millennial pastor leading the start of a new church plant.

    I think the reality of or reasoning behind many millenials’ desire for authenticity and real community (not the “turn around and shake three hands on your way back to your seat” version of community) is the fact that so many are not just millenials, they represent a truly DEchurched demographic.

    So many grew up in church to see their parents not “live it” outside of Sunday mornings, or who never felt cared for or noticed by their pastors and leaders, especially when they hit challenging seasons of life, or what the pastor preached was so airy and vague or seemingly angry so it added no practical or positive value to their lives.

    In a recent post you said, “so often people come to church looking to find [and experience] God, but instead they find us.” I think this is also very key to people of every age demograph currently. People do not want to come experience church, people want to come to our churches to experience God and to find a place of true belonging in community – it’s that simple.

    Thanks for digging into this topic!

  15. Randy Starkey on March 19, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Great post Carey! We are seeing this also. True godly character first, presented relationally, which is simply the way Jesus did it, and then doing church in ways, how should I say it, that are “modern”, or simply in ways that present truth in ways that they can connect with. And take good care of their kids!!

  16. Heartspeak on March 19, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Hello Church leaders!

    If it’s all about Families
    If it’s all about Millennials
    If it’s all about the nursery/childcare
    If it’s all about the worship experience
    If it’s all about getting past that 200 mark
    If it’s all about how long the sermon is
    If it’s all about the facilities
    If it’s all about being contemporary
    If it’s all about …. well….

    “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ”

    Church isn’t a machine that you assemble or add a few fancy ingredients, turn the Sunday crank, and out comes cute little growing churches and happily donating club members.

    Sometimes this gets lost in the ‘stuff’ of it all……

  17. Rich Woods on March 19, 2018 at 7:36 am

    Has what millennial want in church changed over the last 5 – 10 years?

  18. Mike on March 19, 2018 at 12:09 am

    Great post, Carey.

    I would agree that character matters most.

    I’ve been burned by both church and business leadership. I’m pretty cynical about all institutions and their leaders. It seems by definition leading an organization means leaders care more about the structure around individuals over the individuals themselves.

    This seems appropriate for business where the purpose of the organization is to deliver a product or service. But if church is about sharing the gospel of Jesus, that God loves people, how can the church do that when its leaders seem more concerned with people in the abstract instead of actual named faces.

    In this post for example, the label “Millenials” is used to categorize and abstract a certain group. In a sense you’ve stripped away their individuality and lumped them into an age bracket. You’ve distilled the relationship down into 5 simple points to follow. How is this any different than what business marketers do?

    Why are readers reading this? Do they genuinely care or are they looking to fill a demographic because their organization will be dead in a few years without this group?

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