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.
- You have a band? So does the local bar in town.
- You serve coffee? So does the place they frequent with their Mac laptop and their friends.
- Your pastor wears jeans? You might think that's cool. They don't care.
- Your church uses Facebook? Okay, so do their grandmothers now.
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.