Young people are leaving church in record numbers … and they’re not returning. Of course, this is far from new information. In the past decade, Christian research experts like Barna Group, LifeWay Research and Rainer Research have widely reported on this reality.
But a study—”Making Space for Millennials,” a joint project of Barna and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network—uncovers key findings that help reveal unique characteristics about the Millennial generation, plus practical ways churches can connect with and engage today’s young adults. Below, we offer five questions to ask yourself and your team as you pray and plan to reach this unique group:
1. Is our church real or relevant for young people leaving church?
Millennials are looking for authenticity. Unfortunately, a lot of churches today are striving to win over young adults by being relevant. Consider what Leadership Journal managing editor Drew Dyck identifies as the potential point of connection:
“Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well” (from the blog post “Millennials Don’t Need a Hipper Pastor, They Need a Bigger God”).
The church’s reason for being is the same as it was when Jesus gave us the Great Commission: Make disciples. And yet many of today’s leaders aren’t sure how to grab hold of this generation and help them catch a vision for following Jesus. They’re unsure how to convey authenticity. After all, what does it mean to “be real”?
Taylor Snodgrass of Church of the 20somethings offers some firsthand insights: “Our generation has been advertised at our whole life, and even now on social media,” he says. “Consequently, when a company isn’t being authentic with their story, we can easily see through this. 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.”
Brian Coffey, senior pastor at First Baptist Church East in Geneva, Ill., and himself the father of four Millennial sons, agrees, “Millennials don’t like to be programmed to. They can hear honesty. They have a radar for that.”
This fall, Coffey’s co-pastor, Jeff Frazier, launched a new worship experience service in the church’s newly renovated space. Called New Word and Table, the service will be simple, says Frazier. “We’ll meet twice a month, and it’ll have tables for people to share communion. It’ll feature one person on a piano or guitar. It won’t be driven by the pipe organ or by one worship leader or praise team, but by the content,” he says.
“The single voice is plaintive and honest,” Coffey adds. His hunch is that this new “ancient-modern” service will draw former Catholics, Millennials and people who want a more contemplative worship.
“The days of the light and fog machines and overly produced church services are a gone era,” says Tony Ranvestel, lead pastor at Clear River Church in Lafayette, Ind., located near Purdue University. “Young adults are used to Photoshop. They want reality TV. They want to see real people and what they go through. The building we’re in is an old auto body shop. It’s kind of ‘janky,’” he admits. “But it feels real. We try to do this with our teaching too, being authentic.”
2. Is our church clear in our visual messaging for young people leaving church?
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, who led a church road trip to discover churches that were doing a good job of reaching 20-somethings. “We walked into a few churches that didn’t have good signage, and we just wandered around. We weren’t sure where to go—and Millennials don’t want to ask. We just want to go in and experience the space without having to ask someone, especially if it’s our first time at church.”
Practically speaking, Millennials in the Barna/CKN study expressed an appreciation for clear signage for where to go once they enter the church and where to find information.
“We don’t want to feel stress when we go into church,” Snodgrass says. “The logistics of a building shouldn’t be a barrier for people coming into church. The biggest thing is to create a welcoming space that isn’t confusing.”
“More philosophically, Millennials want to be able to answer the questions ‘Where am I?’ and ’What’s expected of me?’ by looking for cues in their surroundings,” says Barna Group President, David Kinnaman.
“Old church [buildings] were built to connect people to God,” Kinnaman says. “The altar, the stained glass windows, the soaring ceiling that pointed to the heavens—every element was designed to create a link between human and divine.”
“The cathedral is powerfully symbolic, connecting our world to the one above,” says Derek DeGroot, a church architect for Aspen Group. “But it’s also a common symbol of church in the secular world, frequently featured in TV shows, movies and in literature. Perhaps this standard Hollywood depiction has allowed the traditional church to be a standout symbol of Christianity, where the modern day church works so hard to blend into its culture.”
Many modern churches are explicitly constructed not to look and feel too much like a religious place. “A modern church is designed to host activities, and these activities point the people to God. But strip away those activities, and you might as well be at a community college or a performing arts center or, heaven help us, an airport terminal,” Kinnaman observes.
Clarity, not more cathedrals.
So do we need to start building cathedrals again just because so many unchurched people are fond of them? Not so fast.
When Barna Research asked Millennials to choose from word pairings to describe their vision of the ideal church, a two-thirds majority or greater picked “community” (78 percent) over “privacy” (22 percent) and “casual” (64 percent) over “dignified” (36 percent).
Words like “sanctuary,” “classic” and “quiet” could be associated with more traditional church buildings—yet less than half of survey respondents preferred the word “traditional” over “modern.”
“Though many of them aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious,” says Kinnaman.
Instead of building cathedral-type structures, churches would do well to focus on designing for clarity.
“Someone once told me that when you walk into a space, you decide within three seconds if you like the space or not,” says Snodgrass. “It’s true. I’d walk in and say, ‘I hate this space,’ or ‘I love this space.’”
He recalls a visit to Door of Hope in Portland, Ore., a church housed in an old church building without “slick Helvetica signs.”
“But it wasn’t a problem because there was just a flight of stairs to walk up into the worship area,” Snodgrass says. “No lobby. Upstairs there was a rag-tag bunch of chairs set up everywhere and a drum set that had never been used, and people walking around with coffee. There were no pews. Something about it was very Portland.”
Door of Hope didn’t offer any traditional visual cues of it being a church, and yet Snodgrass’ experience highlights the power of visual clarity—when people can tell immediately what a space is for and what they should do next, and the physical space rings true to the culture of the church itself. This is another example of how Millennials say they sniff out authenticity.
Good design can make it crystal clear who they are, what they believe and what they are there to do. “Budgets are and may always be the biggest hurdle to overcome in creating great space,” says DeGroot.
So how do you create great spaces on a shoestring budget that resonate with Millennials?
DeGroot advises churches to first concentrate on one or two areas and make those spaces feel special. “Instead of spreading funds equally throughout the facility, make your spaces utilitarian in general but go the extra mile in a few areas. Keep your structures simple, and instead invest more of your building budget on finishes, furniture and technology that display great thought and care. Limit expensive materials to a few choice facades or a special landscape feature.”
Landscape features, it turns out, may be a one of the best areas for a church to invest design dollars. According to the Barna/CKN research, nature is a key way Millennials connect with God.
3. Is our church setting a place of action or rest for young people leaving church?
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. Millennials say nature helps them connect with God and it helps provide an antidote to a need they voiced in the “Making Space for Millennials” research—the need for respite.
“Our culture is highly fragmented and frenetic, and there are few places to take a breather and gain much-needed perspective,” Kinnaman says. “Ironically, most churches offer what they think people want: more to do, more to see. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what many young adults crave when it comes to sacred space.”
Most church buildings today are places of action, not rest, and spaces to “do” rather than “be.” The activities, of course, are designed to connect people with God and each other—and some Millennials hope for that, too—but many just want an opportunity to explore spiritual life on their own terms, free to decide for themselves when to stay on the edges of a church experience and when to fully enter in.
“As church architects, we’re exploring what a church that’s designed for non-activity would look like,” says DeGroot.
With so much emphasis on being the hands and feet of Jesus and putting love into action—all of which is well-intended activity designed to help people grow as followers of Christ—church buildings still need to be a place where people can experience Jesus’ invitation: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“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,” 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.
“Many churches think of their facility as everything inside the walls, but it is worth considering how we might make better use of our external spaces,” says Kinnaman. “Instead of using landscaping simply as a frame for the building, could we use it as a legitimate ministry space—a sacred place in its own right?”
4. Is our church being Jesus for young people leaving church?
At Clear River Church, where 80 percent 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.”
About half of Clear River’s congregation is comprised of college students who live and work in the community. All who attend worship are encouraged to become members and join a small group. That’s it.
Clear River’s approach, though somewhat countercultural even in the church world, has struck a chord with Millennials. The church is unapologetically a place of worship, learning and experiencing community. Young adults in this congregation have found a place that’s decidedly different from any other aspects of their life. In other words, the church is offering something they can’t get anywhere else.
“Every young adult is trying to figure out what they exist for. What’s my purpose in life?” Ranvestel says. “We present this and try to show them the goodness of God, the goodness of being in community. We’re heavy on person-to-person discipleship and believe this happens best in relationships. We take young people and talk with them about real things—here’s why you should stay sexually pure until marriage. Here’s why it’s good to tithe.”
This kind of real-world teaching gets at another aspect that attracts Millennials: challenge. “Twenties want to be challenged to think about difficult messages,” says Snodgrass. “We don’t just want to have easy topics each week. We want to dive into difficult-to-understand topics and passages and explore how they apply.”
“The challenge for faith communities is to help young adults identify what pieces of ‘church’ are inadequate, misshapen or missing in their modular lives and help them rebuild or fill in the gaps—and connect the pieces of family, work, church and faith into a cohesive, whole, Jesus-shaped life,” says Kinnaman.
Shawn Williams, campus pastor at Community Christian Church-Yellow Box (so named for its yellow exterior) in Naperville, Ill., agrees with Kinnaman, adding that Millennials want a role to play. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines and observe. If they’re going to be part of a church, it must have value and meaning. In generations like the Boomers, people attend church out of some moral obligation to do so. Millennials won’t have any of that. If it doesn’t provide meaning and value to them, they won’t participate. They’ll go and find something that does have meaning and value.”
Williams’ perspective jives with Barna’s research. Millennials want to be taken seriously today. They’re not interested in earning their place at the table at some future date; they want a seat there now. Their desire to be taken seriously and to be given real responsibility is something Kinnaman says churches should take note of—and be eager to fulfill.
5. Is our church helping Millennials find mentors?
Millennials don’t feel the same sense of obligation to attend church that previous generations may have. At the same time, being part of a faith community can provide young adults with exactly the mentorship and guidance they crave from older adults.
Barna’s research shows that young adults who remain involved in a local church beyond their teen years are twice as likely as those who don’t to have a close personal friendship with an older adult in their faith community (59 percent versus 31 percent among church dropouts). They’re also twice as likely to have had a mentor other than a pastor or youth minister (28 percent versus 11 percent).
“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.”
When Community Christian Church unveiled its major renovation at their flagship Yellow Box campus recently, it included an innovative training center. With floor to ceiling glass walls, the center gives everyone a glimpse into what it looks like to train and equip future leaders.
Lead Pastor Dave Ferguson, known for his napkin sketch concepts on reproducing churches and president of Exponential, a ministry for church planters, says, “The sanctuary we just built seats up to 1,200. It’ll help us reach hundreds. But the training center is a space that will help us reach tens or hundreds of thousands because it’s used to mentor and train new pastors and leaders. I think we’ll look back and see that our greatest investment will be in the training center.”
Effective ministry to Millennials means helping young believers discover their own mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn, Kinnaman says. It also means calling out Millennials to share their knowledge about how to navigate life in this digital age. The term “reverse mentoring” describes the reciprocal sharing between young and established leaders, and Community Christian’s training center is an excellent example of how churches can literally make space for this type of intergenerational connection.
Ultimately, says Bahler, the future of the church rests on our ability to connect the generations. “It’s not about attracting Millennials to church,” he says. “It’s about making a remarkable hand-off. How we do that as Boomers is our legacy.”
And as one church leader told Taylor Snodgrass on his cross-country church road trip, “At the end of the day, if you don’t have Millennials, you don’t have anyone to hand off the church to.”
What is your church plant doing now to ensure it thrives for generations to come?