So You Want Millennials In Your Church?
1) Take your liturgy seriously
If Millennials do not get the idea that the Holy Eucharist on Sunday morning is the source and summit of Christian worship on earth, they won’t be coming back, especially since we spend so much time on it! The “main event” in our service is not preaching, nor music, nor fellowship, crucial as these are.
I was recently having a conversation with a Millennial who told me he wanted to leave his church, and I asked him why. “Our priest is way too casual about the service, “ he said. “It just seemed like he didn’t care about the ritual and tried way too hard to dumb it down and make it ‘user friendly.’” He said it felt disrespectful, dishonoring to Jesus.
The holy sacrifice of the Eucharist joins us to the worship of heaven, with angels and archangels. If our altar party isn’t there to offer God their selves, souls, and bodies, Millennials will know, and they won’t put up with it. If your preaching has no urgency, if you’re cavalier about your music, if your chalice bearers are wearing purple flip flops…you’re guaranteeing Millennial disinterest.
Our generation was raised to believe that we could create ourselves ex nihilo, that we are the sum of our desires, ambitions, and deepest longings. That our projections on social media have metaphysical significance. Liturgy is the wake-up call, the antidote, theno. It reminds us that we aren't "self-made men," and it connects us to the Transcendent. Our tradition can do for Millennials what the big box megachurches could never do. Lean into it.
2) Don’t assume that making the Church “contemporary” (whatever that means) will automatically attract Millennials.
Our junior warden was taken aback recently when he asked one of our Millennials if we should start a service with contemporary music in a non-churchy space. This millennial said he wouldn’t attend, and his friends wouldn’t either (and this guy is cool, way cooler than I am). Our Young Adults group has been asked on several occasions if they wanted a ‘contemporary’ service, and every time they said no.
You can get a Hillsong-lite concert, presided over by pastors (ahem, spirituality curators) with cool haircuts and Diesel jeans anywhere in Dallas. That [redacted] is a dime a dozen. We offer something wholly other, weird, ancient, beautiful.
Priests, vestry members, parish leaders, I don’t know if y’all know this, but you’re not just “one of the guys/gals,” you’ve devoted your life to the service of a formerly dead Jewish rabbi who reigns as Lord of the Cosmos. You are often the strangest (and yet most reasonable) person in the room. Embrace it. The Lord will call us to account.
3) Show Millennials that Outreach: Evangelism and Social Justice, are two sides of the same coin.
Conservative churches tend to focus on preaching the Good News without concern for the temporal welfare of human beings made in the image of God. Liberal churches work tirelessly to fight back against societal injustices, never once bothering to mention
that they do this on behalf of Christ. In sharp contrast to those models, faithful churches do both. Demonstrate in word and deed to Millennials that evangelism and social justice are mutually constitutive, then set them loose.
4) “All Are Welcome” = No One’s Coming.
If you’re looking for a church that prides itself on inclusivity, seeker-sensitivity, and intellectually bankrupt, milquetoast sentimentalism masquerading as theology, you won’t find a better model than the Episcopal Church, a denomination that by anyone’s estimation is in a total nosedive ("But why? We do so much welcoming!!?"). Take down that gross marquee sign with the jokes on it. Get serious about the Sacraments, catechesis, and social engagement, and stop trying to pretend that we have no distinctive qualities, or that we don’t belong to a legitimate branch within the church catholic.
That “welcoming” sign and the spirit behind it looks like desperation. Churches lead people by confidence in the Spirit of God amongst us, not by handwringing welcome-ish-ness. Ask yourself hard questions like, “what are we welcoming people to belong to?”
5) Make membership matter.
In many churches I’ve been in, nobody in the pews has any idea what’s expected of them as parishioners of St. Jimmy’s. Have a yearly or biyearly St. Jimmy’s 101 course, where you outline your mission statement, your core values, your history, and your vision for the future. We’re already at a big disadvantage because Millennials have such an inherent distrust in institutions/corporations (of which the Church is, blessedly and inescapably, both); why make this even worse by not clearly stating what you’re about?
Draw up something like a membership covenant, and have your parishioners know that members of St. Jimmy’s are expected to do four things: 1) Show up: Be there every Sunday unless they are sick or on vacation, 2) Grow up: Commit to a regular regimen of private devotion and prayer, 3) Offer up: tithing. Do your people understand that nothing in their bank accounts actually belongs to them, and that at least 10% of it needs to be offered back to God, before tax. 4) Build up: that they need to be involved in ministry in some fashion themselves at the parish.
They need to understand that church is not some bizarre Sunday morning country club.
Let them know that if they expect to show up and sit on the bench, St. Jimmy’s is not the church for them. If they just want a nice show, send them to Ignite, Catalyst/Crossroads, The Journey, etc., the coffee and smoothie bars are better there anyway.
6) Become a missionary to Millennials
Go and find them. Go to your local coffee shop, craft brewhouse, record store, that gym with the weird name that doesn’t sound like a gym, etc. Get to know them. Ask them questions like, “What would it take for you to convert to Christianity?” (that’s one of my favorites) or, “What do you think the church needs to know about you and your friends?” Invite them into your homes for dinner. Care about their stories. Our last Dean offered a private confirmation class to a couple who just missed the cutoff for signing up, and they still talk about it to this day, when it happened years ago…they met in his home.
Immerse yourself in the media that is targeted toward Millennials: get on facebook, buzzfeed, twitter, reddit, etc. Watch our shows, learn our language, study us. Know what we care about. Do what any good missionary would do before deployment. And be yourselves. Don’t try to become Millennials in order to reach them.
7) Don’t try too hard to “market” to them.
Millennials are hyper-aware and critical of advertising. If they feel like you’re just trying to get them into the pews because they bring energy, money (hint: they don’t have money: too many student loans), or vigor, and don’t care about them as people, they won’t come back.
If they darken the doors of your church and whole congregation surrounds them like a pack of hungry wolves, this won't bode well either. Instead, have 1 or 2 greeters or ushers who job it is to look out for newcomers and make them feel welcome. Priests, when you’re standing at the door shaking hands, have your 'business' cards on hand. If you see someone new, give them one and say, “Let’s get coffee or lunch sometime soon, I’d love to know what drew you to our church,” or even better, “I’d love to hear your story.”
Instead of marketing to them or making them feel like trophies or spoils of war, put them in leadership positions. Get them on your vestry, let them teach youth group, invest in their development as leaders (and followers) for Christ.
8) If you’re annoyed or resentful at Millennials, maybe don’t show it.
Don’t make fun of them. If one of your favorite soapboxes is how lazy, noncommittal, entitled, and selfish Millennials are, then get on your face and repent. Ask the Lord to put Millennials in your life that you can, love, shepherd, and get to know. No one is bullied or shamed into discipleship.
9) Don’t be partisan, be political.
If your teaching, preaching, Sunday school, and ministries are just really just fronts for the GOP or the DNC, count on Millennial disengagement. Teach your people to leave their political convictions behind and follow Jesus. Show them that our gospel itself is *the* political movement. Teach them that Jesus is Lord over heaven and earth, and about what he demands from the world.
If you’re going to preach on the evil of abortion (which you should), you need to teach also about the Christian obligations toward mothers who can’t afford healthcare. If you’re going to preach about the evils of gun violence (which you should), you also need to be honest about what the Scriptures teach on human sexuality. Do you see what’s happening there? Gospel politics, not partisan politics. The Left and Right Wings of your parish need to be made deeply uncomfortable by the uncompromising ethic of Jesus, and then shown why his way is more true, good, and beautiful than theirs.
10) Millennials are more (and less) important than you think.
If you live in a small, country town, where there aren’t any colleges around, and there aren’t any millennials in your church, don’t sweat it. Generation Z is coming up quicker than we expect, and a church that goes “all in” for Millennials is already behind. Millennials aren’t more or less important than any other demographic. They have the same basic needs as anyone else: to be loved, gospelled, baptized, communed, sanctified.
“May God guide you in your quest.”