There isn’t a way for churches to reach millennials

My name is Nate, and I’m a millennial. That means I must love liturgy, hate big production in church, want to ask really hard questions about faith all the time, go do organized “social justice” every Saturday, am nowhere near shallow enough (or I’m just far too clever) to attend a church with a hashtag campaign, want a pastor who preaches messages that are “on point” and filled with “authentic, hard truth”, think that the majority of Christians I grew up with were hypocritical bigots who suppressed all of my doubts, love Jesus but question institutionalized Christianity, yet simultaneously desperately desire a church that will help me get back in touch with the “historic roots” of the Christian faith.

So, church leaders… if you want to reach me and all my millennial friends, decipher how all of that fits together, then get busy changing to become exactly like me so that I can have a church that’s perfect for me. But make sure you stay “authentic” along the way, otherwise we will see straight through you and discount you completely.

Heew. What a difficult task you have. Unless, of course, that’s not true for all (I might even argue, most) millennials.

The last couple weeks, there have been several articles posted about how the church can reach millennials. Below are just two examples.

Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’

Dear church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out

These kinds of posts have been rolling out for a few years now. The reason I’ve decided to write this post is because several older believers and pastors I deeply respect have been sharing the articles, almost as if their ministries are completely irrelevant and headed toward extinction.

I simply don’t believe that’s true.

See, there are two primary problems with these articles. First, the authors write as if their preferences are the preferences of all millennials. Second, they dismiss churches for a supposed flaw in philosophy of ministry, yet adhere to the same philosophy in a different form. Let me explain.

PROBLEM 1: Not all millennials are the same.

First, not all millennials are on a never-ending quest to find the truest, most authentic, historically-rooted expression of Christianity and “participate in an ancient-future community.” If that’s your story, that’s awesome. Sincerely! But that’s not for most people.

On Christmas Eve, it’s my tradition to attend a liturgical candlelight service. I find it’s one of the richest experiences of my year. I have truly come to love and appreciate Jesus for the Incarnation so much through these services the last seven or eight years.

But this year something interesting happened. As I was sitting there, having a spiritual moment, in tears thinking about how much love Christ demonstrated by becoming a man, I thought to myself, “See, this is what churches need more of. No fluff. No lights. No fog machines. Just liturgy! Sermons! Sacraments! Simple! How could you miss the beauty of Christmas in such an elegant service?”

Right at that moment, I looked across the aisle, and on the back row there were four young guys about my age. One was completely asleep with his head down in a pseudo-praying posture. The other two were laughing back and forth like some of the middle school students I have in my student ministry. The other guy was on his iPad.

They were in the same service I was, and they were having a completely different experience. That’s really weird though, because the key to reaching millennials is getting them into those kinds of churches, right?

Absolutely not. The key to reaching millennials is getting in touch with the historic roots of the Christian faith, where Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some.” 

I honestly believe the most helpful thing for those four guys on the back row would be to see church in the way that so many of these millennial authors belittle. A church where the pastor looks like a normal guy. The worship leader has a “beard and skinny jeans” like a typical musician would have. An environment that looks like any other event venue they’d go to for a show on Thursday or Friday night. And most importantly, a presentation that’s clear, practical, and gospel-centered.

See, “relevant” and “authentic” are relative. That’s why these authors misrepresent millennials. They talk about authenticity, but what they really mean by “authentic” is “doing things the way I want them to be done.”

The fact is, churches like Hillsong, Cross Point, City Church, Buckhead, Passion City, Soul City, etc. are reaching just as many millennials as anybody. They have cool lights, modern music, put a lot of energy into creating the right vibe, have great coffee and lobby space, dress like hipsters, and utilize technology and social media. According to the articles above, these are things that automatically scream “FAKE!” to millennials.

On the other hand, there are people like Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, Matt Chandler, and Tim Keller. Each reaches millennials at his church. Yet, they are all different from each other, and most certainly different from the churches mentioned above.

PROBLEM 2: Everybody wants to attend a ‘cool’ church.

The second problem is this— those who are advocating that the church doesn’t need to try being so “cool”, “relevant” and “consumer-driven” are treating those terms as if they only apply to churches utilizing lights, modern music, technology, etc. The reality is… they wouldn’t be going to the churches they are going to if they didn’t think they were cool, relevant, and didn’t meet their needs.

Nobody ever really escapes consumerism in our culture. These authors are just as consumeristic as anybody, it’s just that for them what they believe to be cool, relevant, and desirable are liturgy, simplicity, tradition, and more intellectually stimulating dialogue. An argument could be made that those things need to be present in all churches to some degree or another, but that’s not actually the issue at stake when they talk about it. The real issue is that they find these things to be ‘cool’. Thus, their churches are driven just as much by consumerism, because they chose to attend their church because it met certain criteria.

But even most of these people want things to seem “cool” in a mainstream sense as well. For most millennials attending more traditional, liturgical churches, if the church had an ugly, out of date website, and the pastor didn’t look educated or talk eloquently, they wouldn’t go and it wouldn’t grow. Period. You know how I know? Small, liturgical churches have been around forever, but they didn’t become the millennial buzz until “cool” people started representing them.

So, how do we reach millennials? That’s just it. There isn’t a way to reach millennials. There are many ways, because the real truth about millennials is they are people just like every other age group of people. Just like in every other generation, some things will work for some and not for others.

For me, I’d be frustrated out of my mind if I had to go to a traditional church every Sunday. My best friend from high school joined an Anglican church. We both trust and follow Jesus.

The real question for me is— Would I be willing to lay down my preferences and embrace someone else’s if it meant they might meet Jesus? My hope is that the answer to that question will always be yes. My hope for local churches all over the world is that the answer would always be yes. That we would be willing to do whatever it takes to introduce people to Jesus.

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11 comments

  1. Hi Nate, really appreciate your perspective … clearly thought out and presented, Will be sending this to some of my pastor friends who are truly reaching people for Christ, just looks different than maybe the church down the street … the bottom line truly is are people, of whatever age being introduced to Jesus and developing a vibrant growing faith and walk. Blessings and keep up the good writing Mrs. E

  2. Nate, you are a very good communicator! Nice job!

    I have three kids who belong to the “Older Millennial” generation: 32, 30 and 27 years old. Thankfully, they never walked away from the faith during university, but many do. The common statistic everyone hears is that 70-75% of good youth group kids stop attending church during university. I was shocked when I read that statistic so I created a survey and started talking to students on university campuses. The students I talked to thought that number was low.

    When I asked the reasons students leave church, there were lots to choose from. Everyone can pick their favorite reason. But the reason that stood out to me the most from the survey and the conversations after was that students were leaving because they felt science had disproven the Bible. I noticed that reason didn’t make your list. In 2009, Pew Forum asked this question of Millennials who had left the church they grew up in:

    “Has science proven the Bible to be superstition?”

    And 32% of former Catholics and 32% of former Protestants said yes. That was shocking to me. I think Millennials will forgive lots of shortcomings of the church if they can just be sure their faith is reasonable in a scientific age. Many atheist scientists have become Christian in recent decades, precisely because of the science.

    To address this issue, I wrote a booklet titled Why Three Brilliant Atheists Became Christians. It tells the conversion stories of Francis Collins, Allan Sandage and Lee Strobel. Check out my website.

  3. Interesting Nate,

    I think your points are solid: that millenials are a varied generation and so we can’t just cater to a certain generalization. However, I think it was odd that you pointed this out, but then concluded that we need to cater churches to a certain generalization (guys with skinny jeans, venues that look like concerts, etc.).

    Personally, I think the flaw in the articles you cited (and I would gently add that you assume here, though to a lesser extent) is that church liturgy is a matter of style (or more technically, is a circumstance of worship, not elements of worship). The question should not be: what do people want? Or even, what will make people hear the gospel most widely? These are questions that should be asked, but far down the line.

    The initial question must always be: what are we commanded in the scripture to do in our worship, and how? I think really wrestling with this question changes a lot of these questions, because I think many of the requirements limit what we can and cannot do/change in our service.

    I could write a lot on that, but would be interested in some of your counter points first?

    ps. I sound critical here, and I’m sorry about that. I do think it is a helpful article, but I just would want to push back a bit.

    pss. Full disclosure, I am a strong proponent of “high liturgy.” I prefer to wear a robe when preaching and have corporate response and public prayer in worship (no candles though: not in the Bible). I don’t do this because it reaches the most people, but because I think it is most loyal to Scriptural principles of worship.

    1. Haha as you know, I always welcome critique. You have a critical mind and not a critical spirit and I appreciate that about you. Obviously you know we’ll probably land in different places because of my failure to depart from my depraved baptist background, but I’ll be glad to talk it through 🙂

      Your first point is noted. My point is not that we should ‘cater churches to a certain generalization’ but rather that we should be contextual. I would define (tentatively, might work on this definition if it were another forum) contextual as removing unnecessary obstacles so that the message is what stands out. In this sense, a church that has a more traditional feel vs a church that is more modern (skinny jeans, venues, etc.) is a matter of context. My primary point is that we need both (and many more) contexts because there are many different millennials.

      I agree with your second point. I tried to acknowledge this in my post when I said, “An argument could be made that those things need to be present in all churches to some degree or another, but that’s not actually the issue at stake when they talk about it.” My point was that these authors use tradition and liturgy as a form of contextualization while discounting the others. They are using the same argument FOR liturgy/tradition that they use AGAINST modern churches. I think that’s where the flaw in their reasoning is. I would be interested to hear your explanation of what/how worship services should be conducted biblically and what limits that puts on the service. My argument for contextualization being present in the service (your question ‘what will make people hear the gospel most widely?’) is that Paul instructs the Corinthians to be mindful of outsiders. We will probably differ on what is contextual and what is mandated biblically.

      PS. No apology necessary 🙂
      PSS. Again, would love to hear your thoughts on what is required for a biblical service. We have started incorporating public reading and prayer in our student gatherings because I felt it was a biblical mandate (though you would probably condemn the idea itself of a student gathering haha). But I think there are creative ways to accomplish those things. As for the robe… would love to hear the biblical mandate for that 🙂

      1. Nate,

        Unfortunately it’s finals week, so I can’t answer the question very adequately, but don’t despair! I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to write something up to answer the question after finals.

        Briefly, your right that you addressed my concern. My bad on that. I thought you outlined nicely that the question is about contextualization. I think where we differ is what needs to be contextualized. This is much different than the question that your blog is actually raising, which is: how should we contextualize? In contrast to others, you helpfully point out that there are A LOT of different contexts, so people shouldn’t assume that we contextualize one way (liturgical, candles, etc.).

        However, your argument takes place in a sphere that already assumes that vast portions of the service are able to be contextualized. My response is to pump the brakes and take a step back and asked carefully (and slowly) what contextualization actually means. Many take the definition that you put forward: removing unnecessary obstacles so the message stands out.

        I might be okay with this definition, except that it is abused so much. By “unnecessary obstacles” many people mean anything that confuses non-believers, makes them uncomfortable, or seem weird. But these people often don’t consider the biblical data, or reasons for, these odd things we do (like Scripture reading, prayer, or exposition). This leads to a largely subjective application of the word: contextual.

        I would rather say that contextualization is to pastorally take all the elements of worship, as outlined by clear precept or good and necessary consequence from Scripture, and apply them to the particular group of people. Contextualization is not an offensive strategy (to find barriers and tear them down) but rather a pastoral one (seeking to apply concepts to people in the clearest and most accessible, personal way possible).

        Paul did write to Corinth about being aware of outsiders, but he was also immensely concerned with the order of the church; and even the church service!

        Anyway, that’s a little taste of my over zealous keyboard on this account. I’ll write another response outlining the presbyterian (read: “biblical” 😉 ) distinction between the elements and circumstances of worship.

    1. Pastor Edmonson and Andy (my apologies for not knowing your title),

      I was intrigued by the blogpost and am enjoying your all’s discussion on here. I wanted to throw into the discussion the first point made by Pastor Edmonson. “Not all millenials are the same.”

      In terms of personality, preferences, background, and all that jazz, I would agree that not all Millenials are the same. However, at the heart of the purpose/message of Christianity, we are all the same -we are all sinners. We all are sinners in need of a Savior. On those grounds, worship must cater to that need alone. What we proclaim through not only our readings of Scripture but of our actual practices in worship (music, speech) must promote that Gospel message.

      This Gospel message (Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen, for the forgiveness of sins) should then determine our worship style. As Andy is making the case, there are certain Scriptural mandates for that. In the areas that are not commanded or prohibited by God through the Scripture, we definitely have room to be creative. The question then becomes are those creative implementations necessarily reflective of proper worship (i.e. is having a pyrotechnic display proper? Is having candles proper? Should the pastor wear vestments? Calling them robes is a notch below blasphemy in those circles). Ultimately, how we worship corporately will reflect what we think of God and what we prioritize about Him.

      We should question what happens in worship and seek to understand why those elements are done that way, especially if we think those elements are obstacles (i.e. Why do we say a creed?). But if those elements are determined to promote that Gospel message, then maybe they should be promoted in all worship settings.

      Hope this discussion continues.

      Coleman G.

      PS I thought Calvinist were the only ones with “depraved” backgrounds. Just kidding.

  4. Chuck Barnes
    Just Let Go and Let God ! He had it planned out “In the beginning” He doesn’t change and never will, call yourself millennial I call you either a Jesus lover or a Jesus hater their is non other, Either we love God and hate the other! you either except God or the other?? A car doesn’t become a car because you put it in the garage, Grow up and Love as Jesus did or follow the devil, who by the way is a liar!!

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