Much has been written by the church pundits about reaching millennials with the Gospel. In most of those articles is a litany of why attracting that age demographic to things Christian is problematic at best, requiring a process of several different steps often at variance with the usual established “order” found in many established fellowships, some of which are rightly “aging” congregations because of the preponderance of older folks and the absence of millennials attending.
I have no intention here of surveying even a thimble’s worth of the literature published on the subject of millennials and the faith; a Google search online would provide weeks of almost non-stop reading on this subject. Instead, the focus is on the premise of just one article, and as I sit here typing these words, I cannot remember who penned that information. Certainly, I do not want to be cast as a vile and reprehensible plagiarist, which might be assiduously avoided by noting the basic concepts that follow are not original with me, and need to be attributed to someone with far more insight on the subject of millennials than this old guy has on his own. But the impact of what that article conveyed has stayed with me, long after other articles have been perused and forgotten.
Essentially, what needs to be done to attract millennials is a complete reordering of the way an established church has probably done things for years — a concept which may cause chills to waft up and down the backs of ministers and governing boards alike. Change in some churches is viewed — inaccurately — as tampering with the will of God or some other major celestial trespass. Since things have been “that way” for forty, fifty or sixty years, there is no call to be messing around with what has worked so well for so long. My own experience has been two-fold on this: (1) “That way”, that long entrenched habituation of routine, works “well” only in the minds of those who have become way too comfortable in the faith; and (2) If it really did work “well”, the church would be growing, not slowly shrinking with every funeral or relocation. What gets sixty-somethings excited about worship and preaching may prove to be deadly irrelevant to someone in their mid-twenties. Millennials simply stay away from the local church simply because what is touted as “working well” has no cultural or social attraction to them. Thus the slow strangulation of what was once a well-working church; the older members get even older, and no one younger is their to pick up the baton, so to speak, to keep things going.
In many fellowships, the “order” of experience is “believe, belong, become”. You need to believe what we teach, then you can join as a member, and once you have done that, you can get involved in some ministry aspect as long as it doesn’t upset one of the long-time folks. Now, that model may have worked for the Beaver Cleaver generation, but to borrow from a once-popular folk song, “That was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.” The essence of being a millennial is one of relationship, of building bridges to both mutual and divergent experiences, of touting post-modern rejection of absolutism in order to maintain an “open mind”. To insist the first step of relationship with a church is to believe is to send the millennial back to Starbucks for a relaxed enjoyment of whatever venti concoction was ordered. Millennials are not wired to believe just because someone says “believe”. Their post-modern mind cannot conceive of any kind of absolute anything; their world is all about fluidity and personal preference without necessarily burdening another with that preference. They espouse the “true for you, but not true for me” mantra, holding to the erroneous philosophy that there are many ways of truth, and all are truth, even when they by their design wind up competing or even contradicting. It is all about personal reflection and journey and existential events. It is about acceptance of others regardless of how different, even bizarre, their beliefs might be.
The better model to reach millennials involves a paradigm shift in church methodology. The same three elements as before remain, only in this order: “belong, become, believe.” A millennial needs to be given the opportunity to establish relationships, to explore on his or her own, to have the time to think through, evaluate, question and sometimes doubt. Having them belong without any strings of performance or position attached gives the opportunity for establishing relationships, making connections, getting to know people as people, not just as names on the attendance roll. As they belong, millennials will look for ways to “become”; they, for the most part, want to help out, lend their assistance — it is still about building those needed relationships. Some in the church may squawk about using someone in ministry that has no profession of faith in Christ, and I reply this is not about making someone who is not saved into the adult Sunday school teacher or pulpit fill when the pastor is out of town. It is, however, about involvement, about finding avenues where the millennial is a valuable asset in the non-doctrinal life of the church. Schedule a time for church folks to go rake leaves in the fall, clearing the lawns of shut-ins and elderly folks, and millennials will show up armed with rake and trash bag, ready to conquer piles of brown, crackly leaves. This is still about building relationship; they want to see how others live being a Christian. They do not want to just hear it; they’ve heard it, and sadly, it has often come from someone who talks a good Christian line but lives as if the Holy Spirit is a completely foreign entity.
Over time, as genuine relationships are forged and exposure to Christianity lived, not just talked about, millennials will gravitate to asking deep and often very insightful questions about the faith. Here is the power of the relationship: they will listen to someone whom they have learned to trust. Millennials will embrace the truth of the Gospel in their way and in their time, which may not be at the end of the altar call on the third night of the revival after a powerful word from Brother Evangelist Anonymous. When they have, in their minds, overcome their post-modern preconceptions, when they have feasted on the joy of genuine Christian connections, having seen the depth of faith and the joy of genuinely transformed behavior, then their attention will be drawn to the truth of the message of the Gospel, and then, they will believe.
Methods are, and must be, fluid. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” when it comes to the “how” of doing ministry. What cannot and must not change in the message. For whatever age bracket one might be found, there is in Christian faith only one Savior, one way to be saved, and one Book which is the authoritative rule of faith and practice. How the baby boomers are reached and how the millennials are reached will be two different things, but both will be reached through the Gospel. Boomers can be told; millennials need to experience.
In the end, though, is methodology the issue, or is it seeing people respond to the Savior’s gracious invitation? Taking the time to build relationship, to allow belonging and becoming long before believing, is to demonstrate to someone their importance and their value in the sight of God, not that they need to be another statistic of the “noses and nickels” crowd.
Jesus said, “Come”. He didn’t say how to come. He just said “come”. Our task is, like the apostle Paul, to become all things to all men that if by any means some might be won to the Savior. And if it takes lots of coffee, conversation and involvement to get there, then what’s the rub?