By Mark A. Taylor
Those concerned about millennials and their relationship to the church can be encouraged by research reported by the Barna Group in September. Although the news release, titled “Five Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church,” minced no words about “the harsh realities of Millennial Faith,” it also offered research to show why many 18- to 29-year-olds stay connected to God by being connected to a local church.
But first the bad news: 59 percent of millennials raised in Christian churches eventually leave them. In the last decade, according to this research, the number of unchurched millennials has increased from 44 to 52 percent. And “when asked what has helped their faith grow, ‘church’ does not make even the top 10 factors.” According to Barna, millennials identify other “common drivers” for spiritual growth: “prayer, family and friends, the Bible, having children, and their relationship with Jesus.”
So what can the church do? The report suggests five strategies:
1. Make room for meaningful relationships. Millennials who stay in the church are “twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church” as those who drop out.
2. Teach cultural discernment. “Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today’s cultural realities.”
3. Emphasize reverse mentoring. Help them discover a sense of mission by listening to them and using their skills now instead of insisting they wait their turn to contribute something meaningful.
4. Create a vision for “vocational discipleship.” “Millennials who have remained active are three times more likely than dropouts to say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God’s calling.”
5. Help them connect to Jesus. Churches “can help Millennials generate a lasting faith by facilitating a deeper sense of intimacy with God.”
Longtime campus minister Greg Swinney believes the findings are “spot on.”
James Donovan, professor at Point University, agrees and added, “We can learn much from listening” to millennials. Another observation: “Many of these young adults come from broken homes and are looking for role models/mentors to help guide and shape them.”
Swinney confirmed this with comments from a roundtable discussion among longtime campus ministers earlier this year. They expressed concerns about “brokenness of recent students. . . . Divorce, abuse, and addictions seem to be more and more common among the incoming classes of freshmen.” He said some campus ministers “feel caught between ministering to the broken and reaching out to the lost.”
Phil Allen, young adult minister with Shepherd of the Hills Church, Porter Ranch, California, spoke of the “culture of discipleship” central to the strategies of his ministry. “This article confirms for me why we do what we do.”
The conclusion seems clear. Today’s youngest adults will respond to God’s good news when we approach them with open ears, accepting hearts, and a commitment to helping them build relationships with God and with other Christians. With those as our strategies, we can help assure millennials will stay connected to the local church.