Metro Voice interviewed area millennials who spent a summer in Kansas City discovering seven ways to win back a generation of young people that have quit the church.
While at Shawnee Mission Park, I overheard snippets from a couple’s conversation as they hiked.
“Any religion?” the girl asked—a 20-something with bleached, buzz-cut hair.
“Atheist,” the guy replied.
“Amen, hallelujah!” she said laughing. “I can’t stand how Christians think they’re so ‘welcoming’ as long as you believe what they believe and do what they tell you to do.”
The rest of the conversation slipped out of earshot, leaving me to ponder the state of my generation. As a fellow millennial (born between 1980 and 2000), I worry over my generation’s statistics. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of adults under 30 claim no religion. With 75 million millennials in the U.S., that’s just over 24 million that don’t subscribe to any faith whatsoever. Many from my generation didn’t grow up in church, and even those who did are leaving the church by the thousands, discarding God as easily as an old phone.
Why is my age group falling away from God? What can the church do to bring them back?
To find answers, I took to the streets, hoping to hear firsthand what my peers thought of church. First stop was the Country Club Plaza, where I found a few millennials relaxing in Mill Creek Park.
“I was raised Catholic,” one girl said. “We went to church every Sunday, but it was never anything pushed on us; it was just something we did. I’ve definitely grown out of it.”
Nothing turned her away, but nothing compelled her to keep going.
And she wasn’t the only one. In my interviews around the Kansas City area, I heard the same story over and over:
“My parents were Southern Baptist, but I’m atheist.”
“My parents were Catholic, but I don’t really believe in anything.”
“My parents took us to church at Christmas, but now I’m exploring Wicca.”
“I was raised in church, but now I only go when I’m back home.”
Their stories boiled down to the same element: they had tastes of Christianity as kids, and now they were done with it.
What surprised me most about my conversations was that those I interviewed weren’t hostile towards God or church. They simply saw no use for it. They didn’t see how God held any sway on their everyday life.
“I’d rather be out in nature and with friends,” said the girl from the Plaza. “I get more out of that than I ever got out of church.”
Her friend said the same: “My family and my friends are my religion. That’s who I go to for advice and support.”
Church lacked any relevance to real life. It was boring at best, judgmental at worst.
So how can churches connect with millennials? To find out, I drew upon research from National Christian Foundation Heartland’s summer interns, Nathan High, Joe High and Calvin Beck. They had spent their summer interviewing 17 Kansas City pastors and church leaders to find out what local churches were doing to reach millennials. After months of talking with millennials, interviewing churches and pouring over research studies, our interns saw seven trends emerge among churches that were effective in reaching millennials:
- Authenticity. My generation doesn’t play church. They’re tired of hypocrisy, and they want vulnerability.
“I’m not saying you have to air all [your] dirty laundry out in front of everybody, but … there’s gotta be a sense of realness,” one millennial said.
Millennials know they’re messed up. They don’t want anything watered down or sugar-coated. They want real answers for real life, and they’re drawn to churches that encourage authenticity.
- Relationship. I’ve heard it said of my generation, “They don’t want a preacher in front of them; they want a mentor beside them.” Millennials want real relationships, the safety net of love that makes authenticity possible. Churches successful in reaching millennials have learned to be a place millenials can come and feel connected, knowing people care about what they’re going through.
- Tangible ministry results. Millennials don’t care about buildings and programs. They want to see lives changed.
“[Church] can’t just be a country club where you come and hang out,” said one millennial. “Don’t try to entertain people; try to bring them into something.”
Millennials want a church that focuses on changing lives and helping the city. Social justice issues are extremely important to them. If a church is apathetic, they don’t want it, but if it’s effective and revolutionary, they can’t get enough of it.
- Young Leadership. “A lead pastor generally attracts people that are 5 to 10 years younger than them,” said Jim Gum from Jacob’s Well. And the research backs up his statement. Most of the Kansas City churches that said they were doing well at reaching millennials had a lead pastor under the age of 40. Brian Wright from Cedar Ridge Christian Church said the best thing he did to reach millennials was to hire a millennial leader. Young leadership attracts millennials because they feel they can relate to someone their age who shares their vision.
- Involvement. Millennials are star-ved for action and meaning in life. They crave adventure and new experiences. You can meet their need by involving them in your church leadership. Trust them enough to challenge them, and then walk alongside them as they grow. This benefits not just them but your church as well, since they can offer a fresh perspective and new ideas on reaching the younger generation.
- Location. Young adults live in the heart of the city, the Midtown-Westport area, because they’re drawn to a downtown scene filled with unique restaurants, stores and coffee shops, as well as to work opportunities. So they flock to churches close to downtown like Redeemer Fellowship, Jacob’s Well and New Life City Church. While these churches clearly have more to offer than their locations, each church’s leaders recognized that location had a big part in determining who attended their church. Conversely, suburban churches had the smallest number of millennials. Millennials saw suburban churches as not being passionate about the same things as them, and they had a hard time relating to leaders.
- Size. The interns’ research showed that millennials fell at opposite ends of the size spectrum. Big churches drew millennials through resources, programs and the offer of connecting with other millennials. (We go where our peers go.) On the other hand, smaller churches drew millennials through an intimate atmosphere of genuine community. However, the medium-sized churches struggled to reach millennials because they weren’t big enough to have the programs or millennial crowds, and yet they didn’t have the personal feel of a small church.
Millennials are a broken generation. A third of them have completely forsaken God (“Just a third?” one millennial said to me. “Those are the honest third.”) The other two-thirds are struggling to find him. What is your church doing to reach them? Reaching millennials will most definitely mean risk—being vulnerable, admitting faults, making time for new relationships and opening up your heart to the young adults in your life. Whatever it takes, please fight for my generation. Don’t let them pass through life without meeting Christ.
–by Annika Bergen
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in Metro Voice.