How to Keep Millennials Engaged in Church

What does the future hold for the church? While it seems to be thriving in some parts of the world, results of various studies (like this one) suggest that the church in the West is in steady decline. Millennials are walking out in record numbers, leaving church leaders and ageing congregations wondering what on earth they can do to engage with a generation who seem almost entirely disinterested. If the current trends continue, many churches could find themselves quite literally dying out within a few years. Depending on your point of view, this could be a sign of healthy cultural progression or a near-apocalyptic catastrophe. In any case, it certainly raises some interesting questions.

As a 31-year-old lifelong church-goer, I am a millennial who has stayed put. Although I share the frustrations of many in my generation who have left, I have never lost hope in the potential for church to be a force for love and transformation in the world.  There is so much that the church does right, I for one am not giving up on it yet.

Every church is different, as is every millennial, so I’m not about to offer any straight-forward answers or foolproof solutions. I’m aware that as someone who has never led a church, I cannot fully appreciate the difficulties and stresses it entails, particularly during times of change. But for those seeking to engage millennials more successfully in church, I have some suggestions based on positive things I have observed or experienced firsthand. I hope they will be at the very least a useful insight into the mind of a millennial.


9 Tips for Engaging Millennials in Church

1. Relationships come first.

In our increasingly transient culture, true community and connection are hard to find. Young people crave that sense of home, of having a safe place where they are known and loved; a family network to support, nurture and care for them. This is where churches can shine. Think of as many ways as you can to get people talking to each other. Really talking, not just superficial coffee-after-the-service chit-chat. Midweek small groups can be brilliant, but no matter how much you plug them, many people simply don’t have the time for anything other than the Sunday service. What if every service was more like a hilariously awkward family gathering than a performance? It wouldn’t be as polished, but more people might leave feeling known. Don’t underestimate the value of that.

2. Be vulnerable, and admit when you’re not sure.

In some ways, this is a very easy thing to do, and in some ways it could be the biggest challenge of all. Perhaps members of older generations tend to prefer their church leaders to be strong, unwavering, all-knowing and seemingly super-human. But millennials will tend to assume someone who appears this way is either faking it or deluding themselves. Be passionate about what moves you, and honest in your times of weakness. Be human. Your real strength, wisdom and integrity will shine through whether you realise it or not, and your willingness to be vulnerable will make the world of difference.

3. Encourage dialogue and allow disagreement.

There will be certain core values that you want your church members to agree on. That’s fine, but it’s a good idea to keep these to a minimum. Insisting that everyone should agree on contentious issues is a surefire way to lose people. If the church takes a firm stand on a secondary issue (and most things are secondary issues), anyone who strongly disagrees might feel compelled to leave. If instead there is space for dialogue and dissent without risk of expulsion, people are far more likely to stay. It’s OK to disagree, even on the big stuff. Let your community grow its roots and its vision based on the values you have in common, and see disagreement and debate as normal, healthy aspects of family life.

4. Be genuinely inclusive and promote equality.

The oppression of women and the rejection and abuse of LGBT+ people by the church have to be among the biggest turn-offs for millennials. We live in a world that is moving (albeit slowly) towards full equality, acceptance and inclusion, and this isn’t about to change direction. The more the church resists this movement, the more backward and oppressive it looks to the outside world. The churches that actively promote love and inclusion, even when there’s disagreement, will be the ones that attract and keep the younger generations in years to come.

5. Prioritise social action.

I’m sure you already do this. Can you do it more? As much as possible, foster within your congregations a deep concern for the suffering within your community and in the wider world, and find practical ways to use your combined resources and make a real difference. Encourage your members to be active participants in a movement of hope rather than passive observers. That sort of countercultural, radical selflessness can be surprisingly attractive to those drowning in a culture of superficiality, individualism and mindless consumerism.

6. Take environmental issues seriously.

The climate is changing. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate and plastic is filling our oceans. Our world cannot sustain the pressures of growing population, increasing consumption and destruction of the environment. We’re not going to be able to ignore these facts for much longer. If we don’t take drastic action now, the consequences for life on Earth will be even more catastrophic. Be proactive and forward-thinking. Make caring for our planet central to the vision of your church, not a peripheral interest. Followers of Christ have the opportunity to lead the way here, demonstrating God’s love for all of creation. Time is running out, and as a leader you have a responsibility to educate, inspire and motivate people to take action.

7. Allow space for questions and doubt.

Millennials are so bombarded with information and conflicting opinions, sooner or later we are bound to start asking difficult questions about our faith. When we do, the way our churches respond is critical. If we are made to feel bad for asking questions, the chances are we will start to seek answers elsewhere. But if asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt are welcomed as signs of a healthy faith, we will feel more comfortable staying in church despite our uncertainty.

8. Be more aware of mental health issues.

When churches know how to handle mental health issues well, they can be a lifeline for people in need of support. But sadly I’ve heard too many stories from people suffering mental health problems who have been damaged further by the church. People suffering from clinical depression or severe mood disorders being told by well-meaning Christians that they’re not praying hard enough or need to study their Bible more. Depression and anxiety are rampant in our culture, so you can almost guarantee there will be people in your church suffering from mental health problems of some kind. Get educated about mental health and you’ll stand a better chance of genuinely helping them rather than inadvertently making them feel worse.

9. Don’t stress about the superficial stuff.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate proper coffee, a beautiful church building or a super talented worship band. Of course those things are nice to have. But I honestly don’t think they are as important as we often make them out to be. Church was never meant to be about putting on a good show. If you find yourself becoming disproportionately concerned about the superficial stuff, it might be worth taking a step back to see if there are bigger issues lurking beneath the surface.


Image via Pixabay

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  • jekylldoc

    Good list. I might add this one: support initiatives from the congregation. One of the most successful was from a relatively little-churched lady who was in the church for the right reasons: caring, concerned, people-centered. She started a bunch of us parents sharing about the difficulties we were having raising kids. It was such a lift, knowing others faced the same problems, swapping a few tips but mostly giving each other space to talk. The parent group is still close, 20 years later, and I would swear our kids benefited from our helping each other stay calm.

  • Emma Higgs

    Love it. Good addition!

  • Timothy Weston

    Another thing that could help too is have a worship experience, not a concert experience.

  • Well said, Emma! I think you did a great job on your specific suggestions.

  • Robert Limb

    THAT would help across the board in my not-very-humble opinion

  • Robert Limb

    Yes!

  • Robert Limb

    Start off listening to the millenials, and end up thinking: ‘Hey, this is what church should really be like for all generations! Great article, Emma.

  • Ursula L

    There is, of course a tension between #3, and numbers 4,5, and 6. Because, unfortunately, human equality, social justice, and protecting the environment are “controversial” to too many people.

    If bigots are allowed to proclaim, in your church, that women should be silent, that gays shouldn’t marry, etc. then you can’t be welcoming to women and LGBT people. And that means taking a stand on issues that are “controversial”, and perhaps even making them articles of faith – that all humans are created equal. But that will mean that bigots will have to choose between your church and their bigotry.

    There is no “avoiding controversy.” You can either welcome the bigots, or you can welcome those who are persecuted by them. But welcoming both is mutually incompatible.

  • Susan Granade

    Great article! I am so glad you included paying attention to people’s concerns about the environment. Most young people do not view this as a peripheral issue. Neither do I, and I’m not young anymore! Our offhand treatment of the only home we have keeps me awake at night.

  • Mr. James Parson

    The problem with this kind of list is that it really can’t be complete. Still it is an interesting start.

  • What a great post, I will have to reread this more carefully, but I love the mere fact that someone is tackling the Milennial issue as it pertains to religion – and it is really cool that you are one and being self reflective about this issue – my quick perusal, I see a definite clash with the whole open mindedness of the Milennials and the old traditions of the Church – being Catholic, I thought it was great that the Holy Father commented that he would not judge homosexual marriages, but, Emma, I doubt you will get much more than that…

  • Talfan

    My 50 cents: it should all be about Jesus following true repentance (only by the unadulterated gospel being preached), and then everything will fall into to place. But the Holy Spirit is not welcome in most churches because He “causes havoc/messes up the program”. Meanwhile, that is what the gifts of the Spirit are for; managing the chaos, with the Word of God as the stabilizer. Also, Jesus was not an entertainer – so why do we keep trying to be? He was real, relational, and went out touching people right where their need was at. Regarding people leaving – LET THEM! Have you never read John 6:66?? Jesus was prepared to bid his disciples farewell too! That is LOVE – present facts; leave people to decide and don’t try manipulate them! Entertaining in church bodies in order to attract and retain the masses is junk (and no wonder the church looks so unattractive to people as it is disproportionately full of false converts and people who have never repented), but “Playing skillfully on the harp to Lord” is awesome! We must get the balance right! REPENTANCE keeps people in the church by the gift of the Holy Spirit that they received (if the elders/disciples/etc bothered to lay hands on them for such)… Read the book of ACTS and realize what keeps people in the church. These tips certainly have their place, but they exclude the major factor as I wrote about above. Without the above this is worldly advice, and pragmatism.
    1 John 2:19 19 They
    went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us,
    they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they
    might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

  • Nick G

    My prediction is that none of these suggestions, nor any others, will make a significant difference: in the rich, traditionally Christian parts of the world, the decline will continue inexorably. The total number of Christians in the world is likely to continue to grow, at least up to 2050, but this is overwhelmingly a result of population growth – primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of switching of religious allegiances, there is a significant projected net loss of Christians over the next few decades – with most switches being to non-affiliated. There is no reason to think anything the churches can do will change this. According to your own link, the most common reason Americans raised as Christians say they become non-affiliated is that: “they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%)” (other reasons may be given as well). Since Christianity’s teachings are not rationally credible, but it can’t really abandon them without ceasing to be Christianity, there is nothing the churches can do about the largest cause of declining membership. A more interesting question is whether the decline will spread to other parts of the world. My hunch is that it will, but I’m much less certain about that.