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.
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