How Do You Reach Millennials?
Aaron Randle of The Kansas City Star recently went in-depth on two churches, City of Truth and The Cause, two area congregations who are reaching Millennials. Mark Kellner of Get Religion provides nice analysis of one neglected angle here. But overall the coverage is great. Randle shows how these congregations have made Millennials their focus and succeeded in ministering with large numbers of them.
Randle’s reporting captures common tactics that are often employed by church leaders in reaching younger generations. There is a de-emphasis on tradition, a “modern” worship style, relaxed dress codes, relational approaches to ministry, abandoning pews and pulpits, a willingness to engage difficult topics, and the slick use of technology. Randle writes, “Technology can’t be escaped, so instead it’s embraced: Worshippers are encouraged to follow sermons via Bible apps on their phones or tablets.”
But you also may have noticed one of the congregations, City of Truth, shed older members in favor of reaching new people. Pastor Armour D. Stephenson III referred to these loses as “casualties.” That’s sad.
While The Star’s report is informative, there is nothing in this report that says that The Cause and City of Truth are normative, representing the only way churches can reach Millennials.
About ten or fifteen years ago, churches that wanted to reach younger generations were those that used pop songs as welcoming hymns on Sunday mornings, lit candles, had prayer stations and experiential worship services, and asked more questions than they offered answers. Older pastors and congregants wondered what was wrong with the traditional liturgies, or if they would have to change if they wanted to have any hope of connecting with the next generation. They bought the myth that if they wanted to reach swaths of younger people they needed to abandon all of their habits and completely embrace new rhythms. For some that was a cost they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pay. They left the task of reaching younger people to a new wave of church leaders, hoping God would call someone else to fill the void.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There is an alternative. Regarding how we make congregational decisions, Sarah Bachelard recently observed, “More and more I think our church communities have forgotten authentic formation in discernment, and replaced it with SWOT analyses and strategic planning.” Instead, Dr. Bachelard points to the values that are found in Christianity’s contemplative stream, which “involves a non-anxious, heart-awakened community prepared to listen and wait without rushing to fill the space. It involves unthreatened hospitable conversation, a high tolerance for holding what is unresolved and mature spiritual leadership.” Dr. Bachelard’s larger theme addresses how we, as Christians, pursue justice, but her insights on deep listening and seeking the Lord through prayer are applicable to how churches might create space for younger generations.
Established congregations that are comprised of older generations do not have to abandon tradition, a style of dress, or a way of communicating if they are to reach Millennials or Gen Z. But they do need to pray, ask the Lord’s direction, and listen. And they must trust the future wellbeing of the church to the Lord. Some local congregations do eventually close their doors, and there is a scattering of the saints as they find new church communities to join. But that isn’t always the case. Old bones can live again.
There is no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all approach to reaching Millennials. Churches can approach the task millions of different ways. But the work itself must be “unto the Lord,” and the Spirit must lead.