Millennials & The Church: What To Expect From The Next Generation

News Image By Tom Olago September 07, 2016
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It is commonly said that the youth - also primarily referred to by the term 'Millennials' - are the future of the church. It has also been said that the youth are not just its future but its present - at the very core of the church and its current vibrancy. 

Whichever the case, are there any indications of what role these Millennials will play in the church after the present generation? Or how the church will eventually shape them? 

Christian Post reporter Kevin Porter recently posed the question: 'Can a church survive without young people?' Porter notes that Millennials comprise 20 percent of the entire U.S. population with 83 million people -- even more than Baby Boomers -- and by 2020 this figure will grow to 30 percent. 

This group is "a progressive bunch who is the most racially diverse generation with 60 percent Anglo and 15 percent immigrants; the most educated with more college degrees than any generation in history, and the most single".

How can Churches tap into and best harness this significant social demographic group? Leadership Network's Eric Swanson offered six noteworthy points to help churches in their quest to reach, retain and grow Millennials:

1. Only 4 percent of Millennials have a relationship with Christ

Porter pointed to statistics from 1,300 interviews conducted in the year 2000 that illustrate a significant drop in the percentage of people who are Christian, from one generation to the next.

Thom Rainer, then dean of the Billy Graham School of Ministries, Evangelism and Church Growth at Kentucky's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said:  "Of these people, 75 percent of them became Christians before the age of 14. ... If we really look at the data and are objective, we will look at our preschoolers and children and become intentionally evangelistic. If you don't have a plan to reach these children, you've blown it," he concluded.

2. Millennials don't want to work for you, they want to work with you

Linda Hill, a Harvard professor and co-author of the book Collective Genius, said in a recent TED Talk, "Talented people don't want to follow me anywhere. They want to co-create, with me, the future." 

Leadership Network's Eric Swanson said Millennials want to be able to contribute from day one, which is a very positive thing when developing a leadership pipeline, he explained.
3. Millennials are different than portrayed

Swanson said Millennials are often mischaracterized as entitled and self-centered, and are often said to represent what's wrong with America.

Yet some of the 'positives' attributed to them include the following: More than half of Millennials donate to charity (63%), actively volunteer (43%), said their career is central to their identity (70%), want to start their own business or already have done so (54%) and would rather have no job than one that they hate (50%).

4. Millennials will actually cause churches and pastors to be more authentic, participatory, externally focused, inclusive and more diverse

This is based on Discovery No. 3. Swanson asserted that the church has more to learn about authenticity, inclusion, entrepreneurship, diversity, and living on purpose than it has to teach. He added that the Church should not presume that as Millennials age they will simply assume the roles of the Boomer and Gen X worlds.

5. Nearly 25 million Millennials said, "Church is very important in their lives"

Instead of worrying about the 29 percent of Millennials who have lost any interest in church, Swanson asked, "What if the key to reaching these 'Nones' was their relationship with the Millennials who are connected to God?

6. Millennials Have 3 Top Priorities

According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, Millennials have 3 top priorities:

" Being a good parent -- 52 percent

" Having a successful marriage -- 30 percent

" Helping others in need -- 21 percent

Based on his research and the findings of other scholars and theologians, Swanson concluded that "a church without Millennials is a church without a future."

In a similar analysis early 2016, Shane Pruitt for the Christian Post drew some observations of his own regarding Millennials. He emphasized the need to understand them so as to best reach out to them and help them as "faithful missionaries with the Gospel to them".

Pruitt offered 10 common views of Millennials that may help us understand this large and diverse generation. These are summarised below:

1. Millennials Don't Promote Ageism

People tend to think that Millennials don't want to have anything to do with the older generation. However, this generation is in desperate need for older generations to invest into them.
2. Millennials Value Experience Over Heritage

For the most part, Millennials don't value "heritage." For example, a young person is not typically going to be Southern Baptist just because his parents were. Their experience with something or someone will dictate their views more than history will.

3. Millennials Are Fairly Non-Committal

Previous generations may have valued commitment over enjoyment by making statements such as, "I've hated my job for over 40 years, but I'm committed to it." However, you'll probably never hear a millennial say that because they tend to value enjoyment over commitment. 

Pruitt says a great way to keep Millennials engaged is by constantly communicating, illustrating, and empowering participation in the vision and mission of the church. 

4. Millennials Mainly Think About Today

Because there is so much focus on today, there will be very little preparation for the future in most Millennials. This is also the reason for a lot of debt with this generation. "I need money today, so I'll take out this loan, and worry about how to pay for it tomorrow."

This is a great way for the church to utilize the urgency of each day with this generation, while also discipling them in the values of planning.

5. Millennials Are More Globally Minded

Most Millennials are up-to-date on world news and affairs. However, they may seem to be less patriotic to the USA than previous generations. They tend to view things from a global perspective while still valuing their country. It's very possible that the Lord may accomplish the Great Commission through their interest in the nations.

6. Millennials Know Public Shaming All Too Well

Public shaming was once a thing of the past but now has been revived with social media. Millennials have grown-up afraid. They've felt the sting of cyber-bullying and may even have participated in viral trends. 

This is an incredible opportunity for the church to teach this generation that a true identity found in Christ is better than a false identity created online.

7. Millennials See Brokenness At An Earlier Age

They are exposed to more violence, graphic images, and evil at an earlier age. Internet exposure, media coverage, and broken homes are unfortunately the norm for far too many. Mass shootings are mainly a new phenomenon in their generation. It's a pornography-saturated generation with 90% of guys admitting to interaction with Internet pornography, and 60% of girls.

This generation is looking for solutions at a much earlier time in their lives. Share it [the Gospel] with them, because they're starving for it, whether they know it or not.

8. Millennials Are Cause-Oriented

This generation wants to be a part of "doing" something. They'll want more out of their church than sitting on a pew, listening to sermons, going to pot-luck dinners, while waiting on the 'Rapture Bus' to swoop down to pick them all up.
They're more interested in being noticed relationally and in what the church is doing outside the walls of the building. Sometimes you'll find a greater percentage of Millennials in smaller churches or church plants because of the assumed accessibility of the leaders to cultivate a relationship.

9. Millennials Are an ADD/ADHD Generation

Surprising to some, they usually don't mind long sermons. The communicators most popular amongst Millennials commonly preach 45-50-minute sermons. However, Millennials have about a 7-10-minute attention span at the most.

In communicating, teaching, preaching, it is a must to break up the message several times with a story, illustration, or practical application. Also, teaching has to be more than relaying content. This generation is visual. If they can't see it or envision it, they have difficulty understanding it.

10. Millennials Value Doctrine

Mature, Christ-following Millennials deeply value doctrine, verse-by-verse preaching, and missions. In preaching, the more raw, transparent, and vulnerable the communicator is, the more Millennials connect. 

Recent research does illustrate though that overall churches still have a lot of work to do to on Millennials. A study-based analysis published in several months back revealed some rich insights into Millennial Bible reading habits. 

As Sarah Zylstra wrote several months back in a piece for, this generation is overall less likely to read or trust the Bible than any other. More than half (55%) are "Bible-neutral" or "Bible-skeptical," compared to 45% of teens, 51% of Gen-X'ers, 40% of boomers, and 40% of elders.

Yet Christian youth who go to church and care about their faith may know the Bible better than older Christians. Practicing Millennials are more likely to believe the Bible came from God and read it multiple times a week than any other generation (87%), according to a six-year American Bible Society (ABS) and Barna Group study of Bible engagement in the United States.

These reviews help create a better understanding of Millennials but there are more pointers with regards to how best to reach and engage them. According to a Barna-research based article in, there are five questions that need to be prayerfully considered in order to reach this unique group:

1. Is our church real or relevant?

Millennials are looking for authenticity or 'being real'. Taylor Snodgrass of Church of the '20 Somethings' offers some firsthand insights: "... If the church isn't giving you the whole story, if it's sugarcoated and they're trying to put on an act on stage, people in their 20s will see through this. This causes us to leave. We're good at seeing when people are lying to us."

2. Is our church clear in our visual messaging?

One of the key ways your church can convey authenticity is by ensuring that what a person sees and experiences when he or she walks into your worship service is consistent with the messages heard or communicated in the service. The new Barna/CKN study refers to this consistency between experience and messaging as 'visual clarity'. "Visual clarity is huge," says Snodgrass.
3. Is our church setting a place of action or rest?

One of the ways churches can help point people to God regardless of their facility's architecture is by bringing nature into the church setting.  "Most of our modern churches have excellent areas set aside for corporate worship, group learning and community building. But they leave something to be desired when it comes to personal reflection and prayer," Barna Group President David Kinnaman says.

Incorporating natural elements such as bamboo flooring instead of carpet, and even design features that imitated nature such as leaf motifs in light fixtures help to hint at the created world and ultimately remind people of the Creator.

4. Is our church being Jesus?

At Clear River Church where 80% of the congregation is 39 years old and under, activity takes a backseat. "We don't do a lot of activity," says Lead Pastor Tony Ranvestel. "We call people to follow Jesus; that's our primary activity. If you follow Jesus, this leads to serving and justice."

5. Is our church helping Millennials find mentors?

 "Mentoring and discipling this next generation is everything," says Aspen Group CEO Ed Bahler, a founding partner of the Cornerstone Knowledge Network. Baby Boomers, Bahler says, hold all the financial, intellectual, professional and relational capital. "The golden opportunity for the Church is learning how to tap into all of this capital and leverage it to equip the next generation to lead in the church."

How well will this next generation lead? Tyler Francke in an article for titled 'Six Reasons Millennial Christians Will Change Everything' believes that there is reason to be optimistic about the future and impact of Millennials for the following reasons:

1. They're Poised for Revival.

While it's true that roughly three in 10 Millennials (29 percent) claim no religious affiliation, 86 percent still profess belief in God, which doesn't really sound like an atheists' society.

2. They're More Individualistic.

According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, individualism is the one denominator underlying all of Millennial's generational trends. It's why they're optimistic about their personal futures but distrust society as a whole; why they're fleeing congregations Exodus-style while still maintaining private beliefs in high numbers; why they're addicted to selfies and sharing their latest exploits on Facebook.

3. They Speak Tech.

Pew describes Millennials as "digital natives"--the first generation that has not had to adapt to new technology and the Internet.

To reach one's audience with the truth of the Gospel or any other message, you have to speak their language. In 2014 and beyond, the language of our culture is increasingly becoming digitized. And Millennials are fluent.

4. They Question Everything.

You hear Millennials being called the "Why?" generation. It also reflects their tendency to be wary of institutions, political parties and even other people in general (less than 20 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement that "most people can be trusted").

Such radical skepticism may seem distasteful or inherently combative, until you remember the high premium Scripture places on shrewdness and "testing everything". 

5. They Don't Toe the Party Line.

What's happening is they're going back to the words of Jesus, and realizing He didn't say a lot about exact political stances, but He did seem to emphasize things like loving others and serving the poor. So they're breaking rank from the polarizing two-party system and trying to find a third way instead.

6. They are Relentless Optimists.

Millennials tend to pretty upbeat about the future--both their own and that of the country as a whole. While only 32 percent said they're now earning as much as they need (far lower than the other generations), 53 percent said they will earn enough to meet their financial needs in the future (which is far higher).

Despite all these positive aspects and possibilities, there are certain areas of concern that Millennials need to watch out for or correct. 

A year ago, John Reid wrote about 'Five Trends Christian Millennials Must Stop Doing'. In it, he listed the ways that many Christian Millennials are hurting their delivery of the Gospel to a world that desperately needs it:

1) Tolerance

Millennials have it in their minds that hating people's sin means hating the individual. This message is due in part to the liberal media but many young Christian Millennials sing the same tune. Instead of hating sin for the separation that it causes between us and God, they accept the sins of others in the name of "loving them for who they are."

But the problem with that is when we accept people for who they want to be, we neglect the people that Jesus made them to be. Jesus was the prime example of love, but never does He display an ounce of tolerance for sin.

2) Neglecting Theology

Consider the etymology of the word theology; theo- God, logy-study: the study of God. A trendy message among young Christians these days is "theology is good, but loving like Jesus is better." 

The problem here is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Not only are they not mutually exclusive but rather they are dependent on each other. When theology is neglected Christian Millennials succumb to weak cultural ideas and defective scriptural interpretation such as "Jesus just said to love people, so why should we be opposed to gay marriage?" and "the Bible says not to judge, so don't tell me that I shouldn't be sleeping with my boyfriend!" 

3) Separation from the World

We're quick to sing popular worship songs like "O to Be like You" and "Jesus, Be the Center Of My Life" but how practical do we allow this to be? We need to be Daniels, Esthers, and Joshuas: People of faith who love without ceasing and represent without compromise.

Also, I understand that nobody is perfect but it's one thing to sin and try to justify it while it's another to sin and repent; confessing and turning away from sin. Stop flirting with what you can get away with, and instead pursue the holiness that we have through Jesus Christ.

4) Bashing the Church

Christian Millennials are quick to throw the Church under the bus. Blogs are constantly cycling the internet like "3 reasons why I left my youth group" (and of course it's the youth group/youth pastor's fault, not the student who left). 

Whereas the Church isn't perfect, it is much more effective to celebrate the good that the Church is doing than the negative, which a lot of times isn't even negative, it's rhetoric. 

5) Declining Accountability

The same group of Christian Millennials will be the first to dish out accountability, usually in the form of Church-bashing, but will be the last to receive it. It'll be presented to them, but they won't accept it. If you identify as Christian, then you, oh beloved, fall within the God-appointed jurisdiction of judgment from your sibling in Christ. 

To be clear, judgment should be understood and offered as corrective counsel in an attempt to hold one accountable. Thus, the objective is restoration.

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