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.


2 questions an audience wants to know

One of the coolest parts about my internship at Seacoast is getting to spend some time with Greg Surratt. He’s an incredible leader, and it’s a huge privilege getting to hang around him occasionally.

Recently we were discussing worship services and he made an interesting statement.

“When people walk into a room they want to know two things. 1) Who’s in charge? 2) Where are we going?”

The more I think about, the more I think he’s right. When I enter an environment, subconsciously I want to know those 2 things. So, what are the implications?

1. Who’s in charge?

  • In our environments, we need to have volunteers in place who are clearly ‘in charge’. In the parking lots, in the foyer, in the kids’ check-in, in the service. This makes it easy on people. They’re not left asking, “Who do I need to talk to?”
  • The people with a microphone need to understand their role, and develop a presence of leadership. Just because a worship leader is the one singing a song doesn’t mean he/she is leading people. That’s another post for another time.

2. Where are we going?

  • Our environments need to be easy to navigate, and people need to be there helping the ‘audience’ know where to go.
  • The purpose of the service needs to be clear. Why are we here? What are you expecting of me as an audience member? What are you hoping God does in this service?

I’m all about bringing clarity and organization to church environments. I think these 2 questions help steer things in clarity’s direction. What are some other implications of these questions? Do you even agree people are asking these questions?

Theology and church practice

My systematic theology professor last semester gave us an assignment that forced me to think critically about my theological convictions. The assignment was to take our view on a particular subject in systematic theology, and then analyze how our particular view should inform our ministry practice.

For example: If I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, how should that inform the way I teach the Bible?

I think this discipline is critical for church leaders. Why? Our ministries should be shaped by our theological convictions. 

Because of this, I think it’s interesting to consider why churches do church the way they do. What beliefs are informing their practice?

Here are some questions for consideration:

What theological conviction leads your church to do…

  • Small groups or Sunday school?
  • Seeker-sensitive or Insider-focused services?
  • Contemporary or Traditional music?
  • Verse-verse or Topical preaching?
  • Multi-site?
  • Missions the way you do it?
  • Church membership the way you do it?

I think we’re doing a lot of stuff in the church just because we think it “works”. But what theological conviction helps us define what it means to “work”? You owe it to yourself and your ministry to think about these things. Unless you’re clear on why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re setting yourself up to waste a lot of time and energy, and even worse, to lead your people and your ministry away from the truth that should be shaping your people and your ministry.

Praying like Jeremiah

You will be righteous, Lord,
even if I bring a case against You.
Yet, I wish to contend with You:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the treacherous live at ease?

Jeremiah 12:1 HCSB

I love Jeremiah’s prayer here. He’s looking around at all of this terrible mess in Judah, just wondering what God’s up to.

  • God’s not making sense.
  • God seems absent. Aloof.

And look how he begins His prayer. You will be righteous, Lord.

Even though You’re not making sense, and even though I can’t see why You’re doing things the way You’re doing them, You’re right, Lord. You’re always right.

What if we prayed that way?

  • God, things aren’t making sense to me, but You’re always right, so please help me see how You see.
  • God, before I even complain or ask why You’re doing this, I just want to acknowledge that You know what You’re doing.

We’ll always have questions and concerns, but before we voice them, let’s remember who we’re talking to.

Be expository, regardless of your style

Typically when you hear the label “expository preaching” it’s in reference to someone who teaches verse by verse through the Bible. It describes a preacher’s style. This understanding puts expository preaching in contrast to topical preaching… right before one of them is jokingly bashed by those in a different evangelical camp.

This is how I’ve always understood “expository”. I’ve tended to lean towards the topical camp just because that’s who I’ve been shaped by.

After reading Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson, I wrote a new realization in my notebook of thoughts: Expository preaching isn’t a style, it’s a philosophy.

Expository preaching is a commitment to preaching what the Bible says. It’s a commitment to start with the text and then let the text speak. It’s an approach to preaching, not a format.

Preachers are constantly tempted to make up a point and then search Scripture for support. That’s not expository. That’s proof texting.

My goal is to always be expository, regardless of how the truth is packaged.

How do you maintain expository philosophy while being topical in style?

  • Pick a topic
  • Search Scripture for where the topic is talked about.
  • Pick a text (a text… not 5)
  • Exegete the text
  • Teach what the text says about the topic

My hope is that we’d all embrace expository preaching, regardless of our style. People are searching for answers to life’s questions. Those answers are found in the Bible. Let’s just teach it.