I am constantly reading articles addressing the issue of the church reaching millennials.
A simple google search will prove the point that this is a very talked about issue among Christians and churches alike.
One of my current ministries in my role at the local Church I work at is overseeing a college group. And as a millennial, a college ministry leader, and a recently graduated college student (who still lives in the town of his alma mater), this is a topic very near to my heart.
Most of the articles I read I disagree with. This is not to say they are all bad. For example, I really appreciated the ERLC’s take on the issue. The last line of the article hits the nail exactly on the head,
“It’s that simple: have friends, and open your mouth about the gospel—that’s how you reach Millennials.”
But because I have a decent amount of experience, and even more passion in this area, I wanted to jot down thoughts of my own.
Before I do so, let us define millennials; who are they? A quick online search defines millennials this way:
“A person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000; a Generation Yer.”
Most professional charts define it as people born anywhere from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s. The generation after them are called the “centennials”, and prior to my generation was “the baby boomers” and “Gen-X.”
I think for most folks today, a millennial is someone who is currently in college, or recently graduated. I think an even greater amount of people would consider the 18-30 years old age group the millennial group, even though that technically is not true by definition.
I want to focus primarily on college students right now as that is my ministry field. (Those who could be in college but are not taking classes, or those who graduated within the last 3 years also apply to my ministry as well.) However, I do believe my answers largely apply to all millennials.
Without further ado, 7 reasons the church is not reaching millennials:
This may seem simplistic, obvious, and circular, but allow me explain it this way: the idea of needing techniques to reach millennials presupposes that there is a specific problem reaching this targeted group over others, and I am not sure I believe that.
In other words, your church may not be having a “millennial” crisis any more so than it is having a “baptism” crisis. If most churches are honest with themselves, I think most can agree the church at large is having a hard time reaching people, not (just) millennials. It is equally as hard to win un-churched adults as it is un-churched millennials. It’s simply hard to reach unbelievers.
Statistics which show that churches, by and large, have less millennials in attendance are not sufficient to prove a “millennial crisis”. Many people go to church due to tradition, because they were raised in it, not because the church has effectively reached them specifically.
It is simply unfair to say the church is “reaching” those older than the millennials when the ones in view have been there for such long periods of time.
Certainly the church claims credit for keeping them, however, that is only half of the millennial crisis, thus the comparison is unfair.
The information we need to validate the millennial crisis is reliable surveys which detail consistent numbers of older people being saved, being reached, being brought into the church, and then showing that millennials are far outnumbered by them. We cannot simply look at who is in church; we need to compare who are being brought into it. Comparing those who need to be reached to those who have been reached is bad science.
I am not denying that there is a millennial crisis. In fact, given the state of colleges and universities, I think it is very likely there is.
At the risk of sounding bold, I believe university is possibly the most difficult environment in the entire country to be faithful Christian. The temptations of sin in college are profuse.
The rampant sexual opportunities, the easy availability of porn, drugs, alcohol, and the external pressures to think and behave certain ways from peers and professors is outstanding. And, all of this is happening to younger, less mature people who are completely dislocated from any sensible, reasonable, familial, christian authority and accountability.
It is very difficult to be a Christian in this area of life. High school students have many temptations too, but mom and dad can still give them curfews and question them about their day.
My point then is not that I have some bias or agenda which forces me to deny the millennial crisis, but simply that I do not want to take it a priori.
In fact, the rest of this blog will presuppose/assume the crisis. However, we do need to be open to the fact that the true crisis is actually our inability to reach anyone; including the millennials.
Worldliness wins worldly people. What you win people with is what you win them to.
If millennials are made to want the church, the church needs to be different than the things that are already not satisfying them in the first place. The answer to the millennial crisis is not to take the worldly things which cannot satisfy, and wrap them in Christian veneer. Secularism never comes to the church to put on Christian garb; it comes to the church to die. The weekly gatherings of local bodies are to slay the lies and works of secularism every week.
Millennials need something entirely different. They need holiness. They need the Gospel. And from the world’s perspective, those are never trendy or cool, and it is usually counter productive to try and make these things cool.
This is not to say local churches must purposely refuse to adapt to anything. Technology is not wrong, contemporary music is not sinful, cushioned seats are not displeasing to the Lord.
This is instead to say that the Bible ought to dictate how we do church always. If that is “attractive” or not is irrelevant.
This means we ought not to adapt Sunday morning practices to the world; but rather to the Scriptures. Ecclesiology should never be based on surveys, pragmatics, or trends. It should be based on the Written Word of God. Church should be done God’s way, not the world’s way. Still, too many churches are obsessed with making their messages and styles comfortable and appealing.
Whatever decisions our churches make in terms of their weekly tradition, style, and liturgy must be centered around this question: “How do we honor the Lord, make much of Christ, and stay faithful to the Scriptures?” If that attracts the millennials, glory to God. If not, glory to God.
Do not allow your millennial crisis to dictate how you worship. Millennials are smarter than they get credit for. They can sense cheap knock offs and cheesy attempts at worldliness. It is not as attractive to them in reality as it seems it should be on paper.
Doing things God’s way will carry with it a divine appeal unseen to us, and we need to trust that.
We have jettisoned fire and brimstone, sin repudiating messages with feel good self-empowerment messages.
Young people need leadership, conviction, boldness, and passion. Some of the most influential professors of my college experience were people of passion and conviction. They were passionate, confident in their beliefs, and evangelized their classrooms with ferocity and confidence.
The world today is bombarding our young people with subjective, feelings-based, emotionalism enough as it is. They do not need more feel-good self-empowerment. They need and want zeal. They want to be right and know they are right. They want to win intellectual conversations. They want to be excited about what they are involved in.
And right now passion, intensity, and confidence are found far more in the classroom and on the football field than within the church. Church leaders need to sound less like Oprah and more like the Puritans.
Lead with zeal, passion, appropriate anger, excitement, and confidence, and let that catch fire.
Paul was a loving and relational man (Acts 20: 36-8). However, he was also a man of great zeal (Galatians 1: 14-23). Paul was not afraid to boldly tell his opposition what they needed to hear regardless of the consequences. He cared more for truth than consequences, feelings or reputation.
Let the millennials see that kind of zeal and strength in the church; give them men worthy of being followed.
The millennial generation is unique in this: it is possibly the first generation which has been indoctrinated by a purely secular, anti-Christian worldview system.
Public education has been predominately secular for much longer than the period between the 80’s and mid-90’s. However, Christian values in this nation, were not removed overnight; it was a gradual process.
Over the last 50 years, Christianity has rapidly declined in regards to its influence in the public arena. Eventually, we were going to hit a time when it was virtually erased, and I believe the millennial generation is that time.
Important social issues like abortion, homosexuality, evolution, transgenderism, sex education, sexual ethics, and even other topics like Christian history, specifically in regards to the Puritans, the reformation, the Crusades, etc. are not portrayed or taught in a fair, balanced, two-sided manner. You are instead told what to think about these issues whether explicitly or implicitly.
The secular schools have mandated and legislated opinions on these issues, and their agenda is prevalent.
Any school that would even think about presenting the other side of say the gay marriage debate, or be willing to even suggest that homosexuality is even possibly sinful and harmful is liable to lawsuits and charges of hate speech. They do not discipline students for believing these things (yet), but they cannot present both sides. You simply will not hear a balanced, Christian ethic in the public schools. Students who are now being churned out by the secular schools are entering college with no Christian presuppositions; and are even more foreign and alien to christian teachings than ever before, and this will only worsen.
This is why all of these arguments apply just as much to the centennials, perhaps even more so.
Students were and are indoctrinated and evangelized with secular morality and secular politics that Christian churches now seem like bizarre, fundamentalist cult groups, because even things as simple as “men have male genitalia and cannot have babies” are being challenged by the secular worldview.
There was a day when a non-Christian would at least share basic understandings of reality with the Christian, so the faith did not seem as alien and intimidating.
We have now crossed the precipice of rational thought, and the post-modern, secular, evolutionary worldview is so deeply wedged into the consciences of young students and young adults that when they find themselves in college and beyond, Christian churches stand completely opposed to everything they think and believe.
The church is now having to overcome a deep-seeded indoctrination of anti-Christian bigotry which the Church has never faced before.
This is one I want to be very clear and careful with. It is a huge deal, but is also very easy to misconstrue.
One of the primary issues the church is having with reaching people is that our methods of evangelism are rarely evangelistic. We adopt programs which teach us how to tell people the Gospel, and a vast majority of the steps never involve comunicating the Gospel with anyone. This typically takes the form in what is known as “Friendship Evangelism” (FE).
As an important distinction, I do not have an issue with FE in principle. It is the way it has come to be practiced that is harming our outreach to people, including young adults.
In theory, FE is the basic idea of establishing a personal relationship with someone, and slowly, over time, communicating the Gospel with them.
As I said, I do not have an issue with this. Every Christian should be engaged in this. We should all of have unbelieving friends whom we love, in spite of their unbelief, and be consistently loving and communicating the Gospel to them over time.
I also do not want to only encourage one method of evangelism. All Christians need to be prepared to preach the Gospel in any way. If I convince people there is only one correct way of sharing the Gospel, a lot of people will not hear it. If I discourage evangelism because I communicated that the only right way to share the Gospel is to stand on the street corner, turning evangelism into occasional safari hunts, then many of the day to day interactions we have with people will be wasted. The Gospel needs to be communicated in all ways to all people.
If the Gospel is on our lips; the Lord is pleased, whether that is happening in a coffee shop, in our homes, or in downtown New York city.
However, the idea of FE has been overshadowed by a certain way of practicing it which is devastating. The primary issue with FE as it is practiced is that it rarely ever gets to the Gospel.
Being honest with yourself, how many of your non-believing friends have ever heard the Gospel from you? Yes, they know you are Christian. Yes, they know you go to church. Yes, they know you want them to go with you and to be Christians too. But have you actually looked them in the face, and opened your mouth, telling them they are enemies of God, dead in their sins, headed for an eternity of wrath, and that only by repentance and faith in Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death on the cross, and resurrection from the grave can they be saved?
FE has become an excuse to just be friends with people, never call them to repentance, never offend them, but call it evangelism while we are at it. Having friends who know you’re a Christian is not evangelism. That is not Gospel preaching. Your life cannot save anyone.
We then wonder why we are struggling to reach people, specifically millennials or even centennials. Maybe it is because we have never really tried. Maybe it is because we think that by just being nice and loving they will come.
Along with reaching the young-people, we simultaneously need to focus on keeping the young people. And apologetics is a way to accomplish both.
As a millennial, a college minister, and college graduate, I can personally testify to the intellectually rigorous culture surrounding young adults.
Whether they are in the universities or are graduated, one thing is clear, millennials are encountering intense attacks upon the Christian faith.
We need to train up our young ones to be warriors in college. This pattern will keep young people in the church as well as create a culture of young people inspiring other young people.
Paul made apologetics part of his customary practice (Acts 17:2), both with the Jews and the Gentiles (Acts 17: 16-32). Stephen was murdered in part because of his winning of debates (Acts 6:10). Jude wrote an entire letter dedicated to “contending for the faith once for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3). The Christian faith, from its genesis, was a faith of intellectual rigor and apologetic assault.
This is especially important regarding pastors (which includes yours truly). Paul explicitly calls his pastors to be ready to successfully refute opposition to true, biblical teaching (2nd Tim. 3: 24-25; Titus 1: 10-11).
Peter commands all are to be prepared to defend the hope within us (1 Peter 3: 15). Who will teach young people this if not the church? Who will answer the millennial’s objections if not the church?
The church needs to be a place where young adults are prepared to meet their professors and colleagues on the battle field, and stand up for the faith, and in the process, realize and experience the consistency and coherency of the Scriptural testimony to reality.
I have seen floods of encouragement and excitement when young adults witness the faith defended well. I have also seen many smug and arrogant millennials harden their hearts because so few of their Christian peers can withstand their attacks.
An important way to win the culture is to jettison the increasingly experiential and emotional Christianity so popular today and be ready to embrace an academic approach and prepare our people to meet the culture on the intellectual battlefield. Millennials interested in the Gospel or in attending church are not going to stay if they know they are getting themselves into something the culture will chew up and spit out.
By way of a side, I recommend Presuppositional Apologetics.
Apologetics applies to both reaching unbelievers as well as keeping the believers you have. I saved this particular one for last because it has more to do with keeping young people now as it does reaching them. However, I believe this is one large reason as to why we have a millennial crisis.
All churches need to be on guard against the creating of sub-cultures. We cannot afford to strip young people of the benefits and blessings of the church body.
Many churches, incidentally, have created such hard lines that church is not really church. Youth group is the youth’s church. The college group is the college student’s church, and the Sunday morning worship is for the older people.
By doing this, we train our youth to go seeking social atmospheres which involve a lot of silliness and fun, then, that is what they fall in love with. Eventually, they go off to college and they look for what they know: social atmospheres that are silly and fun, and those are more readily available at parties, not within the local church.
If youth group is more about fun, and if the youth are never surrounded by the church, then they were never experiencing church in the first place, and will then not go looking for it when they leave Mom and Dad’s home.
Our younger generations need to experience the blessing of church. They need to sit under the Word, partake of the Lord’s Supper, eat with older generations, serve the church, get to know people who will instruct them in wisdom. They need to be emotionally and spiritually matured by the local church. They need to experience it and learn to take comfort in it.
They need a church that is altogether different from the world, that keeps them safe, and then when they leave home, actual church, not silliness with their friends, will be what they cannot do without.
That is my list. Many of my points will be disagreed with, some will not. Unifying reminders across the board that we must all keep in mind are both the nature of the unbeliever, and the necessary reliance on the Spirit’s efficiency with the Gospel.
Young adults who are not Christians are being offered much temptation, and like we all once were, they are enslaved to their passions. We must remember the church cannot give them what they want.
Sinners want sin. Millennials, like all before Christ, want money, fame, comfort, sex, alcohol, etc. They want sin.
The Church cannot and will not offer them what they want. We can only proclaim and offer what they need. But without the Gospel and the Spirit of God being active, they will never see that.
So to all you Christians out there reading this: take heart, be faithful, do not get discouraged, and love God.
Keep fighting for the world, including the millennials.
And we would do well to conclude with the same message and application from the ERLC quoted in the introduction:
“It’s that simple: have friends, and open your mouth about the gospel—that’s how you reach Millennials.”