A Different Take on Reaching 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 late teens to mid-thirties.

It’s a great question.

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.

reaching millennials

The Dinner Party Where No One Agreed…Until

I had a free ranging dinner conversation recently 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.

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).

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.

3. Relationships Count to Millennials

What do young adults want?

Your time. Your heart. 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.

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.

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. This is No Excuse to Be Bad At What You Do

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

It’s not a licence 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 work harder on your character than you do on your competency.

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.

6 Comments

  1. […] A Different Take on Reaching Millennials by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  2. Pastor Steve on June 15, 2016 at 10:22 am

    This is a great post! It comes in a timely manner. I have often wondered why some millennial young adults seem so into our church, vision and programming, while others don’t seem to care much at all. There has been a constant struggle enjoying those that seem to be interested and yet trying to discover why there are so many that seem untraceable. I’ve pursued investigating the weaknesses in the programming and timing, but left out the weaknesses in myself. Thank you for the gentle loving slap. It was needed.

  3. […] A Different Take on Reaching Millenials by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  4. Rob Gillen on June 2, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    “Everyone doesn’t have to know everyone. But everyone has to know someone.” So good!

  5. Ben Siemon on June 2, 2016 at 11:22 am

    I think this great and why a lot of larger churches are intentionally starting small campuses to reach younger families in this demo. Thanks for the work!

  6. YoungChurchLeaders on June 2, 2016 at 10:55 am

    You nailed it. As a millennial, I want to follow authentic and transparent leaders more than attend an experience. I believe millennials have one BIG question for leaders in the church… “Do you believe in me?” Leaders that can help millennials find there place on the team and make them feel valued, will have many millennials following. As always, great stuff Carey!

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