Simple ways your church can keep and reach Millennials

November 11, 2014

It seems that everywhere we look in the pop Christian blogosphere, someone is talking about Millennials. The conversation is usually focused on what these Millennials want and how the local church can reach them.

For example, in a September article on their website, Barna Research Group offered new survey findings to produce “5 Ways to Connect with Millennials.” As a pastor of a church that reaches over 1,000 Millennials each Sunday, I personally believe the vast conversation focused on Millennials is a little overblown. It has become more of a content-generating selling point than actually helping us come any closer to reaching Millennials.

Two issues we’re facing

My suggestion is that we not make this generation so complicated. There are some simple truths we need to understand about the Church and Millennials, but once we know them, we should not overcomplicate how Millennials are reached and connected to the local Church.

There are two glaring issues the Church is facing with Millennials:

1. We need to keep those Millennials who are in the Church.

2. We need to reach the ones who are not.

Worldview is key to keeping Millennials

The Great Commission calls us to both of these important aspects of Christian mission: evangelism and discipleship. Figuring out how to answer this call for Millennials should not be any different, and I do not think we need yet another study, book, or conference. Starting with Sundays, the simple fact is that many churches have services and programs that people don't want to attend, especially a generation with ever-decreasing loyalties. It isn't worth people’s time or energy to come to a Sunday morning service that is, in their eyes, lame, cheesy and awkward. Millennials are also obsessed with an “experience,” and they aren't getting that at most churches. While I'm not suggesting we create consumer cultures or even more “attractional” models, I am claiming we need to make Sundays worth the drive and time.

There is another reason why many churches are not able to keep Millennials in their gatherings, and it has everything to do with worldview. The Barna article states,

“Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today's cultural realities. Millennials need guidance on engaging culture meaningfully, and from a distinctly Christian perspective.”

Barna concludes from research that Millennial Christians are more than twice as likely to say their church helped them learn “about how Christians can positively contribute to society” compared to those who drop out of church (46 percent versus 20 percent). The conclusion of that research is obviously important, but that is far from the biggest issue. As this generation grows increasingly progressive, we are seeing a decline in their confidence in the Scriptures, beginning with the exclusive belief that Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation, along with other essential Biblical truths. The Church must teach convictional confidence in the Scriptures in order to keep Millennial Christians and help them develop a Biblical worldview.

So while many want to point to steps and essentials to recapture this generation, I'm not sure we ever had them in the first place. For many Millennials, views on faith and church were shaped by or inherited from their parents and grandparents. When you’ve been part of a church for years out of family obligation, image, or tradition, that shelf life will eventually expire. Keeping Millennials in the Church might begin with actually helping them move from a cultural faith of heritage to a convictional belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must create environments, reason from the Scriptures, and help this generation see why the local church matters.

Reaching Millennials requires non-Christian relationships

We must also understand the different challenges between keeping Millennials in the Church, and reaching those who have yet to come. Changing your service style and increasing confidence in the Scriptures can help you keep Millennials, but it won't help you reach them.

The truth is that people of all generations come to church on the arm of a trusted friend. So why isn’t the Church reaching Millennials? I think the answer is actually simple, but rarely discussed. Christian Millennials largely do not have relationships with non-believers.

If one asked what the greatest hindrance to the Great Commission in America is today, likely answers would be militant secularism, religious liberty, rapidly vanishing Christian influence in the public square, and the rise of the “nones.” These would all qualify as urgent matters the Church is facing and must be addressing. However, I believe the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the Church, especially within this Millennial generation, is the bubble of the Christian subculture.

The hindrance of two Christian subcultures

Today, the subculture is represented by two types of Millennial Christians. One group I am going to call the “Savvy Millennials” (SMs). They use buzzwords, such as “authentic” and “transparent,” while modeling what it looks like to be a hip and cool Christian. They dress in the latest trends, love bands that haven't been discovered by the mainstream and have no problem spending their Friday evening sipping wine at the local hot spot. “Cultural engagement” is the name of their game, and this generation of Christians plays it with pride. Putting on the latest threads from Urban Outfitters, these SMs head out to a concert or a bar for the night, posting pictures later that display newfound freedom from their separatist forefathers. To SMs, this lifestyle is sometimes even considered being on mission as they take part in the culture around them.

Yet, I continue to find myself asking this perplexing question: If a generation of Christians is so missional, authentic, and culturally engaged, then why do we face the dilemma of a missing generation in the Church? While only God can open the eyes of one’s heart to the gospel, something still doesn't add up. Yes, there is a major absence of Christians who simply are not sharing the gospel, in all circles. But, I believe there is a larger issue in this missing generation being unreached. Many Christians who profess to be culturally engaged and missional are really not either of those.

The Savvy Millennials love a good social justice cause but are often indifferent to the Great Commission. They love to be as cool as the world and join in on some the fun, but the dirty little secret is that they are doing this with their Christian friends and not the lost. Without even realizing it or admitting it, the SMs are in the center of Christian bubble they love to hate. In reality this cool crew has no more interaction with non-Christians than their culturally removed ancestors they are trying so hard to distance themselves from.

There is another group within the Christian subculture bubble that isn't as hip or trendy, but they are very engaged . . . online . . . with each other. We will call these folks the “Gospel Centered Millennials” (GCMs). They critique books, listen to sermon podcasts, debate theology and work at refining the definitions of “missional” and “cultural engagement.” Social media is big within this camp. It allows them to link articles and quote the gospel definitions of their heroes. They talk and write about evangelism and will share their faith as a cold call next to the person on an airplane. While any evangelism is better than no evangelism, you won't find this group actually building relationships with non-Christians. In other words, you won’t find them being missional, you’ll just find them talking about it.

Theologically, this camp is orthodox and, thankfully, unashamed of the gospel. Unfortunately, the gospel message they possess does not reach being on mission frequently enough in the day-to-day of their lives. They will go preach to hundreds in unreached countries but have never engaged with the lost through relationships in their own city. They are separatists without even realizing it because they aren’t aware that the conversations they are having about gospel and mission are actually not linking gospel with mission. GCMs are very aware of every church controversy taking place in the Christian sub-culture and seem to know more about their favorite blogger than their own neighbor. It seems this group never gets questioned, due to appreciation for their gospel convictions. While I do affirm those convictions strongly, any conversation about effectively reaching Millennials has to critique this tribe and their practice of commenting on culture without engaging in relationships.

The solution is in merging subcultures

What is the solution for Christians to move beyond the subculture bubble and reach lost people? I believe it is a full blending of the best practices of each of these types of Millennial Christians. If the culturally aware practices of the Savvy Millennials could be merged with the theological convictions of the Gospel Centered Millennials, I believe it would inevitably lead to a localized fulfillment of the Great Commission. If an everlasting truth was taken to an ever-changing culture, if cultural engagement accompanied a proper gospel proclamation, then Millennials would be reached for Christ and connected to local churches.

Eating with tax collectors and sinners still works. Those coffee shop conversations must lead to truth telling. Cultural engagement only works if the culture is actually, well, engaged. This is difficult to accomplish when the SM thinks the mission of the Church is to make it “cooler” and uphold social justice, while the GCM makes theological dialogue and gospel policing the mission.

Christianity will never be made cool in a society that thinks we are nuts. We need theological vigor that leads to relational urgency with those who do not know Christ. We must be able to explain, reason, apply and model the message of Christ. I've never met someone who came to Christ because they thought a Christian had great taste in skinny jeans and obscure folk rock bands. I've also never met someone who came to Christ because a friend can make the case for elder rule in Church government. I am not trying to set up false dichotomies but rather stating that if a generation is going be reached, we must actually try to reach them and actually reach them to something. The SM must be challenged to ask whether they truly are engaging or just trying to be like the culture. The GCM must put feet to their tweets and blog posts about being gospel centered and on mission.

I've learned that people who are actually gospel centered and “on mission” don't really talk and tweet about it. They just do it. It is an intentional and purposeful lifestyle. They are unashamed of the message of Christ and live life along those who need Christ. It’s that simple: have friends, and open your mouth about the gospel—that's how you reach Millennials.  

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24