Many people are pessimistic about millennials, but I believe this generation is poised to transform the culture (and the world) for good. For many churches and leaders, however, millennials are (to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
I would agree with Churchill’s statement on some levels, but the riddle can be solved. Once you find out what makes millennials tick, they are not that puzzling. They simply have a unique set of passions, interests and viewpoints on the culture and the world.
But the church has largely failed to take stock in this generation because millennials are different. This is a problem. A lack of knowledge breeds fear, and this is true of the church in relation to millennials. Many churches do not take the time to know the next generation, so they are stuck with stigmas (many untrue) that have been attached to them.
There are churches, however, that are thriving with millennials, and if you did some investigation I believe you would find similar results, regardless of the church locale.
So, what differentiates a church culture that attracts millennials from one that repels them? There are many factors, but I want to highlight 10 really important ones. If your church wonders why reaching the next generation is difficult, the following points might shed some light on your struggle.
1. There is a strong resistance to change.
The next generation doesn’t understand why churches refuse to change a program, activity or even an entire culture if it isn’t effective. Millennials don’t hold traditions close to their heart. In fact, for many (myself included) traditions are often the enemy because many churches allow traditions to hinder them from moving forward.
Millennials are tired of hearing the phrase, “This is how we have always done it.” That answer is no longer acceptable. Millennials want to change the world. Often, traditions hold them back from this. Change is necessary to remain focused on the vision and staying externally focused, among many other things. The next generation understands this.
2. A compelling vision is lacking.
If creating an environment totally void of the next generation is your goal, especially those with any initiative and talent, refuse to cast vision in your church. That will drive millennials away faster than I ran the time I saw a rattlesnake in the woods and screamed like a girl. Don’t judge me.
It baffles me when a church doesn’t value vision and planning. In no other arena of life do we refuse to cast vision and plan, but for some reason the church is different.
Millennials will not invest in a church that refuses to dream big because they see example after example of an infinitely powerful God doing amazing things through normal people. You might think they are naive, but most millennials don’t believe they have to wait until they receive a certain degree or reach a certain age to start nonprofits, plant churches or lead businesses.
So go ahead and believe “the Spirit is supposed to guide us, not a man-made vision,” or just allow sheer laziness to lead the way, but your church will continue to be void of the next generation.
3. Mediocrity is the expectation.
Quite simply, the next generation is not content with mediocrity. They believe they can (and will) change the world. Good or bad, they have a strong desire for the extraordinary. Failure is not going to drive the train. This also seems like a foreign concept to many in previous generations, but millennials aren’t scared to fail. And they believe churches should operate with a similar mindset.
Failing and being a failure are mutually exclusive. They dream often and dream big because they understand they serve a God who works beyond their abilities.
Millennials have a collective concern for making the world a better place, and mediocrity fits nowhere in those plans.
4. There is a paternalistic approach to leading millennials.
This is one I have experienced personally. If you want to push the next generation away from your church, don’t release them to lead. Simply giving them a title means nothing. Titles are largely irrelevant to the next generation.
Millennials want to be trusted to fulfill the task given to them. If you micromanage them, treat them like a child or refuse to believe they are capable of being leaders because of their age and lack of experience or wisdom, they will be at your church for a short season.
Millennials will not allow age to keep them from leading, and leading well. If you refuse to release them to lead, the next generation will quickly find another church or context where they can use their talents and gifts to their full capacity.
5. There is a pervasive insider-focused mentality.
Traditional or contemporary worship? High church or low church? A plurality of elders, board of directors or staff-led church? While past generations invested a lot of time in these discussions, most millennials see these conversations as sideways energy. There might be a time and place for talking about a cappella versus instrumental or high church versus low church, but the time is very rarely and the place is not from a pulpit or in a small group.
What is important to millennials? How a church responds to the lost people in the world, both locally and globally. How a church responds to the poor, homeless, needy and widowed. If you want to ensure your church has very few millennials, answer the questions nobody is asking, spend most of your resources on your building and have programs that do little to reach anybody outside the church walls.
The next generation is pessimistic toward institutions—the church included. Millennials are not going to give their time and resources to a church that spends massive amounts of money on inefficient and ineffective programs.