Can Targeting Millennials Backfire?
Burlap “exists to help churches reach Millennials and Generation Z by weaving new stories of faith and culture.” We’re here to help pastors, congregations, and other church leaders connect with emerging generations and invite them into a life with God. That’s why we exist. We want to be obedient to Jesus and make disciples of all people, including those who, at present, aren’t all that interested in Christianity.
But how do we do that?
Based on my observations, the answer given by the majority of church leaders has been to emulate congregations with a lower median age, adopting their approach to preaching, communication strategy, and worship styles. We’ve been formulaic. Often we’ve neglected the substance and gone all in on flash. And we haven’t always been discerning. Rather than connecting with congregants, conversing about future possibilities, carefully considering the nature and make up of our communities, and asking God to lead us into a new chapter, we’ve sometimes charged ahead believing that more electric guitar, a better sound system, or an espresso machine will lead more Millennials to attend our weekend gatherings.
At Baptist News Global, Jeff Brumley interviewed a Millennial named Jonathan Aigner. Aigner had written a blog post titled “Dear Church: It’s Time We Stop Idolizing the Millennials.” His article has been read over 30,000 times. This got Brumley’s attention. Brumley now has mine.
In the initial post, Aigner recounts his experience visiting churches and finding congregations that were seeking to appeal to Millennials. His response: “Stop. All of it. Stop trying. Stop marketing. Stop targeting.” Aigner believes that for some churches reaching Millennials has become an idol. The point of their gatherings are no longer to worship God, but to reach a certain demographic. In the process, these churches are losing both Millennials and their own soul. They are worshipping another god.
In following up with Aigner, Brumley noted that there is now an industry dedicated to reaching Millennials, and, as such, he wondered aloud if churches would ever let go of their approach. Aigner expressed his doubts, saying:
The short answer is no, not really. I think it will be one thing or another as long as the church continues to employ a consumerist mentality, using marketing principles to lure whichever group they are targeting. And especially when we tailor our look to be attractive to a certain group, we are selling a product — music, programming, whatever — and calling it “Jesus.” That is just the way so many churches begin. It’s staggering. When having a big, growing church is the goal, the methods are always going to be to grab themselves the biggest possible market share of these potential customers. And that’s when the church bows down at an idol’s feet.
Chris Folmsbee has noted that churches possess “already-existing assets” for reaching Millennials and Gen Zers. Your church already has a theological narrative, a shared history, and a commitment to good in your community that gives witness to Jesus Christ. And Millennials and Gen Zers are not requiring you to adopt a new worship style, sexy programs, and skinny jeans.
Foremost, they’re asking you to be real, to live according to the best of your convictions, to love your neighbors, and to give witness to the manifold reasons we have for hope. God has not abandoned the church. God is with his people, the Spirit is among us, and Christ is for us. God might call you to some change, but let those changes be organic and true to who your community is. Ask Millennials and Gen Zers for input, and listen seriously to them. Don’t change to attract those “outside,” but instead respond by listening to what God is saying to your church and through your people. Otherwise, you’ll come off as fake.
Targeting Millennials can backfire. So target God instead, and invite Millennials to join you in setting your eyes on Jesus.