5 Ways To Be A Church Home For Millennials (and Everyone Else)
Young adults making sandwiches for Smart Lunch, Smart Kid at the 2014 Conference Young Adult Retreat. Photo by Ansley Brackin.
By Rachel Reiff Ellis
Take a peek in any roll book of a typical church and you’ll see a familiar pattern: Noticeable dips in attendance of post-adolescent to not-yet-30 churchgoers. Studies have confirmed it:
over half of 18-29 year-olds with Christian backgrounds are less active in the church now than they were at 15.
It’s not that the church is ignoring the issue. Appealing to the “spiritually homeless” young adult set has long been a goal for many congregations. But attempts to create a millennial-friendly faith community can sometimes be misguided at best and off-putting at worst. So where’s the disconnect?
Some say the push to rebrand church is a big part of the problem. In her recent Washington Post article
, Christian columnist and author Rachel Held Evans argues that the movement to make the church “cool” to attract millennials misses the point -- it’s authenticity 20-somethings are really looking for.
Her suggestion: focus instead on the sacraments; those rituals that make the church unique. And offer them freely.
“[B]aptiz[e] sinners, shar[e] meals, confess sins and help one another through difficult times,” she writes. “I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out.”
In truth, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for funneling a stream of young adults through your church doors. But there are ways to be intentional in your outreach and mission and church life that can help you show them (and everyone else) that they are welcome and wanted:
1.Think outside the pew.
Make it clear to those you connect with that “you are part of us no matter how you meet us.” In other words, look beyond Sunday morning attendance as the benchmark for faithful membership.
“There’s a transient nature to young adults,” says Rev. Michael McCord, Executive Director for the Georgia United Methodist Commission on Higher Education and Campus Ministry. For example, he says, young adults are often the “gap-fillers” in the workplace -- the ones working the odd hours or weekend shifts. They’re also often in school, trying to balance a heavy academic load with a social life.
“Life for them is to some extent uncertain,” says McCord. “Older churches in particular seem to be hurt when a person doesn’t come every Sunday, but for young adults, it’s a big commitment when they come once a month.”
Volunteering with your church to serve at a soup kitchen every other week may be their church, and that’s okay.
Impact, a United Methodist church in East Point whose congregation is comprised of a robust 20-30% young adult population, holds once-a-week topic-centered meetings called Connection groups all over Atlanta.
“None of the small groups are at the church,” says Serena Coleman, Director of Community Outreach and Missions. “Our Connection groups meet everywhere, and at all different times. But we consider those who attend very much a part of the Impact church family.”
2.Let them lead.
Remember that 20-somethings are establishing themselves as adults, not just “taller youth.” Often, churches assume that young adults are best suited for youth group leadership. But while the nurture and mentorship of church youth is a worthy role in which to serve, using age as an automatic prerequisite for the job unfairly pigeonholes both the would-be leader and the youth they’re asked to lead.
“Young adults need leadership opportunities that provide direction for the congregation,” says McCord. Both millennials and the church stand to benefit when you provide a chance for them to lead in a variety of ways. Valuing them for the unique gifts they bring helps them know they’re vital to the core mission of the church.
3. Keep church intergenerational.
In an interview for Christianity Today
, Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute At Fuller Theological Seminary, says the old model of segmenting church by age is falling away -- and should fall away.
“Graduates are telling us that they don’t know how to find a church,” she says. “After years at the kids’ table, they know what youth group is, but they don’t know what church is.”
Powell says one solution to this is involving youth in intergenerational relationships and worship. It’s these relationships that improve the chance that 15 year-olds will stay present in a faith community after graduation and through young adulthood.
Most young adults don’t seek out church for a young-adults-only experience. They (like most people) are searching for models, mentors, a network. Young adulthood is a time of forming your family -- what better way to do that than by surrounding yourself with people who’ve gone before you?
4.Lean in to your mission.
More than ever, young adults are seeking opportunities to be part of mission work through serving in hands-on experiences. The more opportunities you can provide for this mission work, the better. This includes volunteer work, but also activism.
“When it comes to young adults and their desire to be in the church, the word that comes to mind of instead of ‘thinking’ or even ‘doing’ is ‘meaningfulness,’” says McCord.
A recent Huffington Post article
exploring why millennials are missing from worship suggests that the church’s tendency to shy away from politically charged topics in the pulpit is hurting their appeal to a generation hungry to jump into the social justice movement with both feet.
“We want more than just a group of people to sing songs and hold hands with,” writes author Christian Chiakulas. “Those of us that are open to such things are the same ones who are active and engaged in the world around us, which, unfortunately for mainline denominations, includes politics.”
Impact’s Marketing Coordinator Raisa Hunter, who is also a member, says current events like the shooting of Michael Brown and corresponding protests in Ferguson, Missouri, often shape the message for Sunday worship, and serve as a call to action.
“The sermons reference the issues that are happening, but also ask us as a church: ‘How do we respond to this? How can we be part of the solution to this problem?’”
5. Be yourself.
At its core, the Church is about following Jesus Christ and transforming the world as his disciples. Each church’s version of that is unique, but these are the common threads that tie churches together.
As Held Evans says, “If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.”
Coleman says making worship welcoming is one of Impact’s strengths, and likely what keeps members of all ages coming back week after week.
“There is no façade here,” she says. “You can come in your jeans, you can come all tatted up, or you can come in shorts. You can drink coffee while you worship. We’re about helping people discover who they are and what they love. We all need Christ. We don’t put up a show like you need to be anything else than who you are.”
Discern your church’s existing strengths and build your outreach based on those. If your small church holds the best potluck dinners around, make sure people know it. Throw open your doors. Pull up another chair. Lay an extra place setting. Let all God’s children know there’s room for them at the table.
Rachel Reiff Ellis is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga.