Remember when it was all the rage in mainline churches to write and preach about how different it was to try to reach Baby Boomers, then Gen Xers? Now we are faced with the same challenge to reach Millennials. It seems that things never change for mainliners – we are always behind the curve, looking out at the independents going about the business of relevantly sharing the Gospel, while we sit in our stain glass buildings, using our church calendars, building our sermons around Lent, Easter, and Epiphany, all the while wondering why when we look out over our congregations we see a sea of gray. We have met the enemy and it is us.
And what gets me is that the average mainliner believes the problem lies with the young people who aren’t in worship rather than the problem lying with us. It’s as if all the church has to do to grow is for the unchurched to change their ways. We never stop to think that we are the ones who must change our ways.
I’m part of a church that is full of Millennials. I watch them fill the auditorium from the front to the back because, like a concert, they want to be where the action is. I see their tattoos, their crop tops, their flip flops, etc. and I watch them lip sink the songs. They are engaged. So why aren’t they found in most mainline churches? The answer is simple –
Want the answer? Most mainline churches aren’t relevant. We don’t understand that we are living on a mission field. On a mission field you must understand the language, technology, and the culture of the people in the mission field. That means leaving behind most of what mainliners consider important like liturgy, hymnals, archaic words, and above all, a phony atmosphere.
The church I attend is full of young adults under twenty-five. It uses hard rock music and talks about things like sex in worship. The pastor spends most of his time outside the four walls of the church. And he wouldn’t know what a Lectionary was if it bit him. He has a Board of three people who aren’t members of the church and has few meetings to go to other than staff meetings and meetings with non-churched individuals. But our church is full of young adults. And yes, I regret to say it’s not a mainline church.
So, yes, it’s harder to reach Millennials. Yes, they don’t like the hypocrisy of church people. Yes, they don’t see the need for organized religion. But so what? None of that changes the Gospel and the mandate for us to “go make disciples,” emphasis on GO. The key to reach Millennials is the same as it was for reaching Gen-X only harder – you have to walk and talk the Gospel in their language and not the language of the church. They don’t know the Gloria Partri; they don’t know what Lent is; they don’t care about religious holidays. But they do care about grace; they do care about taking care of the world they live in; they do care about fun holidays; they do care about honesty and transparency. And they aren’t going to come to your church on their own. So like the father in the Prodigal Son Parable, we must meet them half way instead of waiting for them to come home.
So here is my suggestion. Get over the fact that they don’t like your worship and you sermons and start acting as if you are actually on a mission field where you are the odd person out. You must learn a new way to communicate the same Gospel just like Paul did at Athens when he told them about the Unknown God. Close your office; throw away your Lectionary; quit using an order of worship and canned sermons; and take the colors off the altar. Better yet, get rid of the altar. I read somewhere that Jesus ascended from the dead and sits at the right hand of God. So why the altar? It’s time we began to walk the talk if we want to reach
I agree 100% we are living on a mission field. However, where I get confused is when we only seem to be addressing one segment of that mission field population. It’s all the rage to reach millennials but there are still a large number of gen Xer’s, boomers etc. Shouldn’t the church be addressing the culture of all our country is made of? And the obvious reality (at least to me anyway) that many churches are still trying to figure out the cultural gap between the last two groups I list above, it’s no wonder we’re not relevant for millennials. But what are we to do…become so relevant for the next generation that we forget what is relevant for the previous two? This is why I think the church is struggling and they don’t know how to address it. Possibly lose two (equally important) groups for the sake of reaching another. It’s mixed up and churches are confused about what’s best.
Yep! Luke brought up a good point. I have been part of a worship team for about five years. I really enjoy rockin’ it out. But a Sunday service is not a rock concert. We actually see older people covering their ears because the music is so loud. It makes me feel terrible when I see that.
Our worship leader has been searching for a way to help our church grow. Recently he went to a large growing church and they explained that their target audience is 25 year old guys. The 20 somethings in our group thought that was a great idea. Our 24 y.o. guitarist is also the youth group leader. So I asked him how his youth got to church. He was puzzled. I explained that in order to have a healthy teen group, we need to have their middle-aged parents too. Someone suggested that we could help the older people who didn’t like the new music to find a more appropriate place to worship. Yeah… they are usually the parents of the middle-agers and ride with them as well. What I’m saying is that it is complicated because we have such a wide age range to minister to. But that’s not the fundamental problem.
What young people seek is not just relevance, and I think that’s application to current events, they seek social contacts. So, maybe we could be more of a social club. There was a time when church was a major part of a community’s social life. When I was in my 20’s I had a difficult time finding social events that were not sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. The diminishing role of the church in the community has also decreased the contact between young and old. It’s important for young people to associate with adults who are not their parents.
The growth of social media has made it easier for everyone to communicate with a larger population. But, it also seems to be causing stratification by age. Young people seem to be more isolated from others and focused only on their age group. The young leading the young doesn’t seem like a good idea.
One of the things that I discovered as I got older was that my great new ideas were almost never new. To a young person everything is new. Learning and experience help us to sort out the ideas that just didn’t work out.
So, I think that we could do more to establish a lively social environment by organizing events for each age range. We can certainly communicate the gospel, and the prophets, in the current common language. We can connect those old stories with what we see on TV and the internet.
Try this experiment; choose an Old Testament story, change the names of the towns to your city and the surrounding towns, then change the names of the people to the name of people that you know. Then tell the story to someone without explaining what you did. I’ll bet they will think it’s relevant.
I struggle with event based churches. Not that churches shouldn’t have events at all, but more so, I struggle with the idea that church’s primary role is to create events for the purpose of relevancy among various affinity groups. After all, as the need for events grows, the resources to do them well and maintain relevance for whichever affinity group is the target, wains significantly. You can only resource so many events for so many kinds of people before the money, volunteer pool and real estate diminishes to a point where no one is interested in your event any longer. The result is a church driven to constantly change everything to maintain relevancy. In the process however, you just alienated the people who liked it the old way.
Additionally, I’m always concerned that people might just come to join a church more because they like the events but not necessarily because they love Jesus. For me, there is a lot of American consumerism in that kind of church identity. Are we here to provide events people will like or are we here to make disciples of Jesus? Granted, I realize there is a fine-line-challenge because most of the people the church is hoping to reach are vastly steeped in a consumeristic culture. But I just don’t see how it’s any good to move them from one form of consumerism to another. I believe the church is called to make disciples who make more disciples by transforming people from a worldly culture to God’s Kingdom culture.
For me, the question is then, how do we set up a church that can do so for boomers, Xer’s and Millennials alike? Without giving into the challenges of being a consumer driven church?
That’s why I like the word indigenous. That is, when the church has to do something (like worship especially) that will have an inevitable culturalistic style, I’d think that creating an indigenous “feel” would be far better than looking at Boomer, Xer or millennial. What “style” resonates with the largest number of people?
Other than that one little hat tip to trends, I think the rest of church is about making disciples and sending them out on mission. It’s the mission that is relevant to all generations after all.
Why are we still talking about church growth? We need to stop worrying about the numbers and do what God has called the church to do. How well people are being trained, equipped and whether or not those people get their rears out of the pews and into their communities should be the primary concerns of Church leadership. Neither Jesus nor the disciples set out to “reach” a specific age group. In fact, Jesus was more inclined to warn people off of following him (the son of god has no place to lay his head; sell everything you have and give it to the poor; count the cost; etc.).
I agree that the American church needs a major paradigm shift, but it needs to be in the direction of improving training, support, and equipping of believers. We need to reconsider everything about the way that we do church, including sermons and worship bands (or choirs), and start focusing on what is going to be most effective in getting believers trained to work in their wider communities.
the problem is Julie, when you equip people according to Jesus the end result will be more disciples and that means numbers. The book of Acts recorded the number of new christians several times. Most people misunderstood the initial meaning of “church growth”. It had and has to do with the number of disciples being added to the kingdom
Great article Bill.
I love the idea of less meetings. I love getting out of the church building. I had office hours at Starbucks. We held our small groups at Starbucks at a pizzeria at a nursing home and at each of those places we also ministered to the workers and fellow customers or patients in those locations.
To me, it’s not just about reaching millennials, or another generation, to me, all generations of unchurched are the same, they are unchurched.
I think it’s best to reach people where they are at. We had a church plant that was made up of many micro churches. We never got to where we wanted to be, which was to have multiple groups, and from among those groups, we’d have a larger group that would meet together once a month for a corporate worship event, not a large corporate worship, buy maybe 50-75 people from our among our small groups.
Again, great article and I have many more insights I could share, but will save that for another time.