By Chuck Booher
Fifteen years ago I visited one of the largest churches in the country. I was in awe of its high school ministry: 2,000 high school students passionately worshiping Christ. However, when I recently visited this same church I was disheartened to discover its high school ministry had dropped to 500 students. The church has doubled in size, and yet its youth ministry is dwindling.
The reason definitely isn”t a lack of students in the area. In fact, the city recently opened two new high schools, and its junior college is brimming with college students. Ironically, as I walked around the church, I noticed a huge banner on the wall advertising its upcoming conference on how to do youth ministry.
It amazes me the Christian church in the United States today pours more money into youth ministry and training youth pastors than ever before, and yet we are less effective at reaching the next generation than ever before. In spite of our emphasis on youth ministry in the last decades, the Millennial Generation (the 18- to 32-year-olds who should have been reached by our youth ministries) is the group least likely to attend church services.1 Meanwhile, only one in three students (that is, those younger than the millennials) attends church, and of those who attend, most will not attend after graduating from high school.2 As these young people get married and move into careers, they are not returning to the church.
The millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history, and they value the same things the Christian church values. The church should be bursting at the seams with people from this generation, and yet this age group is absent from our churches.
We are facing a monumental problem that, if not remedied, could cause many churches to close their doors in the next 15 to 20 years. It is imperative we study this generation, find out what makes them tick, adjust our methods accordingly, and bring these young people into the kingdom of God.
Who Are They?
The sheer size of this generation is reason enough for the church to focus on them. The Millennial Generation, or Generation Y, numbers more than 70 million. It is the largest generation in U.S. history; twice as large as the generation that preceded it, Generation X, and a million more than the generation before that, the baby boomers.3
Studies of this generation reveal it is family oriented, selfless, and spiritually hungry.
Unlike Generation X, the young adults of Generation Y value family over friends. The workforce has had to make adjustments to accentuate family time over pay in order to attract millennials.4 Those in Generation Y value family so much that when seeking advice, they turn to mom and dad rather than to friends. They want to hear from an “older voice” and enjoy intergenerational interaction.
This generation is service-oriented; it seeks to meet the needs of others. “In 2007, Deloitte”s annual Volunteer IMPACT survey, which focused on Gen Y”s attitudes to volunteerism and workplace choices, found that 62 percent of respondents preferred to work for a company that provided opportunities to apply skills to benefit nonprofit organizations”5
In addition to valuing family and selflessness, this generation longs for spirituality. However in contrast to past generations, most of the Millennial Generation has not been raised with the knowledge of Christ or the Bible. They have no spiritual foundation and have embraced the Oprah Winfrey belief that all roads lead to God. They highly value spirituality yet refuse to commit to a specific religion because it would make them “intolerant.”
I recently spoke with a student who said he liked my message because it strengthened his Baha”i faith. My sermon was entitled, “Jesus: The Only Way to Heaven.” Another student I met on a university campus proudly informed me, upon learning I was a pastor, that she was a Jewish, Baptist, Hindu. These two encounters clearly depict that this generation is spiritually hungry and yet spiritually confused.
Why Are We Losing Them?
The television industry studied Generation Y and made changes to its programming to attract it. The industry changed from programs such as Friends that emphasized friendship to shows with strong adult characters and family units such as Smallville and One Tree Hill. Hollywood made adjustments to attract this generation, but the church has failed to do the same.
A majority of churches across the country have carried on a model of ministry where students are isolated from the rest of the church. We send students to a separate area on campus and target ministry at their specific age group. Thus, they are given opportunities to interact only with their peers.
However, one of the major characteristics of people of this generation is their appreciation for intergenerational interaction. They want to intermingle with their elders, and yet the church gives them no such opportunity. We expect them to transition in with the rest of the congregation after they graduate college, but we have lost them at that point because they never had the chance to connect with the other generations.
Millennials rally around a common cause more than a common experience. They go to church to do something more than to experience something. They are drawn toward authenticity””a faith that practices what it preaches. They want to make a difference for those in need.
Is the church giving them something to do? I believe one of the reasons this generation is sparse in our congregations is because the church offers them only passive experiences such as Sunday morning service, Bible studies, and small groups. If we want to attract Generation Y, we must offer them consistent opportunities to do something with all the knowledge they gain in those passive experiences.
If the millennials have such a craving for spirituality, why are they not coming to our worship services? Generation Y desires authenticity. They want the preacher to be “for real.” They don”t want to just sing worship songs; they want to feel God and truly praise him. They want to see people put God”s Word into action. If they feel as though people of the church are just going through the motions, that the Word of God has no power and causes no change, then church is a waste of time to them.
How Do We Get Them Back?
If we do not want to continue to lose an entire generation, the church needs to make some drastic changes.
First, we need to change the way we do youth ministry. Instead of always isolating the youth in separate grade-appropriate classes, we need to give them opportunities to interact with the entire congregation. On Sundays, rather than sending our junior and senior high school students to a separate youth service, invite them into the worship services and adjust the worship music so it appeals to them. It shows teens they matter to the church family and it allows them to connect with all ages of people.
We also need to provide this generation with consistent opportunities to serve and be selfless. They want to be part of a story rather than just listening to a story. Have regular service days where students from fifth grade to college can do service projects to spruce up the church campus, do yard work for widows, or feed the homeless. People in this age range want to put their faith in action.
Finally, people in the church need to be authentic in all we do. The Word of God is powerful and life changing. Do we as pastors and staff reflect that in our worship services? Do we worship with passion? Do we preach with conviction? Do we love like Jesus?
This generation of young people does not want to watch us put on a show; they want to see if we are genuine, if our Jesus is real, and if he really does cause people to change. Now is the time to reach out to these 70 million young people and show them true family, true selflessness, and true spirituality.
1Steven Spearie, “Churches Reach Out to the Millennial Generation,” State Journal-Register, 8 March 2009; found at www.sj-r.com/beliefs/x594737966/Churches-reach-out-to-the-Millennial-Generation.
2Kevin Roose, The Unlikely Disciple (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009).
3Morley Winogram and Michael Hais, “The Boomers Had Their Day. Make Way for the Millennials,” The Washington Post, 3 February 2008; found at http://http://legalcareers.about.com/od/practicetips/a/GenerationY.htm.
4Sally Kane, “Generation Y,” About.com; found at http://legalcareers.about.com/od/practicetips/a/GenerationY.htm (accessed 14 October 2009).
5Allison Enright, “The Giving Generation,” Insight Magazine; found at www.icpas.org/hc-insight.aspx?ID=7462 (accessed 14 October 2009).
Chuck Booher is senior pastor with Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California. Prior to moving to Crossroads in 2007, he spent 15 years as youth pastor, and then four years as senior pastor, with Christ”s Church of the Valley in San Dimas, California. Chuck has been married to his high school sweetheart, Pam, for 30 years and has two sons, Rich and Tim, and three grandchildren. He attended Hope International University in Fullerton, California, receiving his degree in youth ministry and biblical studies.