How to handle millennial-focused pushback

I was talking to “Lisa” recently, who was concerned about her 20-something daughter no longer coming to church. She and many parents in her situation are agonizing that they raised kids who don’t go to church. Lisa approached me for advice on how to help her daughter. I listened for a while and offered some basic suggestions, but ultimately this conversation led where these conversations seem to always go. I ended with this piece of advice: 

“Your young adult doesn’t come to church because it doesn’t feel like the church is for them. It’s for older people. Her parents. Her grandparents. No one asking what she wants or what connects with her. If you want her to come to church, you have to be the biggest advocate for her age group. You need to pound the drum of change so your kid feels like someone in charge had them in mind when they were planning church.” 

Her response? 

“Well, I just feel that she needs to appreciate the traditions in the way we learned the traditions.”

Did you catch that? She wasn’t asking me how to adapt her community to be more welcoming to her child. She was asking me how to convince a young adult to like exactly what she liked. 

Her personal preferences out-weighed her desire for her young adult child to come to church. 

This is, unfortunately, common. 

One of the hardest realizations for a church community is that who they are isn’t “enough.”

You’re going to hear this one from people who like things as they are. But you have to remember, the people who are in your community are the ones who have stayed. You’re going to hear voices and opinions from these people because they haven’t quit yet. You don’t hear the other side because the other side voted with their feet and left. They might have quit church entirely, gone somewhere else, or came once and never came back. But they are not around to express their side of things. When you hear pushback about change, you have to remember it’s only part of the story. 

Here’s why you’re going to get pushback: One of the hardest realizations for a church community is that who they are isn’t “enough.” It’s understandable that they take it personally. To reach young adults, we have to essentially say “the way you’ve been doing it isn’t going to work.” It might have worked for decades, and your people have gotten used to thinking that the way they do church is how church should be done. We can be compassionate to this. It will be hard for them. But they have two options. 

  1. Stay the same and continue declining and aging until the inevitable closure of the church, or
  2. Face hard truths and make some challenging changes, but reach people who aren’t being reached.  

I have a friend who is dating again after a nasty divorce. Years of struggle left this person in less than stellar physical shape. And whether we admit it or not, physical health plays into the dating world. A person who takes care of herself or himself is going to attract more people than someone who doesn’t. So my friend got in shape, and now feels better, has more confidence, and is facing an unknown future with some positivity. 

In a lot of ways, we’re helping churches get back in shape. And there’s a moment where a community has to look in the mirror and say “it’s time to make some changes.” But it takes the hard truth of realizing we got off track somewhere back there. 

You will face pushback. But so did Jesus. He came to reach people who weren’t being reached. And the changes he focused on were so threatening to people he was put to death. It wasn’t simply that they were evil. They were scared of change and Jesus represented a lot of change. Now we’re not the Son of God—but truth be told, most of us err on the side of keeping the status quo than leaning into change. 

Just remember—for Jesus and for us, change is not about change. It’s about reaching people we’re not reaching.