By Haydn Shaw
Churches have three main options for reaching millennials (those born 1981–2001). When I consult with churches, I usually recommend the first, and sometimes the second, but never the third because it’s the one that doesn’t work.
Option 1: Change the church now
This is the best option for most churches.
It’s important to hear what people who never grew up in the church have to say, so research is invaluable (my Generational IQ book is one resource, but there are many other helpful generational resources). Since 30 percent of the unchurched used to go to church, don’t forget the valuable resource that is (or was) sitting next to you in the services. Ask people of the younger generations who still attend if they’ve thought about leaving or why their neighbors or the people at work don’t come. Or ask the younger people who stopped coming why they quit. You also might want to contact a church health organization or church consultant to help with sorting through everything you’ve learned. They will usually save you months of meetings as you try to determine your next steps.
When you understand what your congregation will need to do differently to reach the younger generations, you will be excited or scared (or likely both). It’s easy to get carried away when we are considering new ideas and possibilities. That’s why we need to pause and ask, Will we be able to do it? It’s funny that while I get hired by churches to help them figure out how to reach the younger generations, I spend more of our time helping them figure out if they are able to do it. Let’s look at the possible answers.
Sometimes the answer is no. I know what you’re thinking: Some consultant you are if you let churches see the need around them and then let them say no. But some congregations don’t want to change the way they do church; the people would just leave and find another church more like theirs used to be.
Sometimes the answer is no because the church doesn’t have the skills. The church staff may be skilled at leading a more traditional congregation but not know how to relate to younger generations. I consulted with a noninstrumental church of Christ in the South whose godly senior minister desperately wanted to reach young families, but after watching him interact with people of different generations, it was obvious he was completely at ease with boomers (born 1946–64) and traditionalists (born before 1945) but awkward with gen Xers (born 1965–80) and millennials. He was a good man, used by God, but communicating with the younger generations would never be his strength, no matter how many conferences he attended. I’ve learned in business, as well as in churches, that there’s nothing worse than taking a person out of a job they’re really good at and putting them in a spot where they are only mediocre.
Most often the answer is not yet. The congregation isn’t ready, they have not yet learned why the younger generations don’t come to church, or they don’t have the right staff or structure. But they could in the future.
A couple of years ago I worked with a Methodist church whose average age was 55; only 10 children were attending. The people were worried their church would eventually die unless they reached younger families. When a Christian church three miles from theirs, which had been their size for years, doubled in size by reaching young families, some people in the congregation pushed for a gymnasium, which was promptly voted down by half the church.
The church hired me to help them decide whether they should build a gymnasium. So for a day and a half, I interviewed the fine people on both sides of the issue and discovered that they understood how to get the money for the gymnasium better than they understood what it would take to fill it with children and young families. That’s why I recommended they target boomers and traditionalists and grow old together.
The chairman of their board told me two years later that they went ahead and built the gymnasium because my questions pushed them to decide what kind of church they wanted to be and whether they were willing to make the changes to do it. They weren’t ready then, but they were later.
Option 2: Grow old together, and serve Millennials
Many people are shocked when I suggest to churches that they grow old together.
They can still serve the younger generations while focusing on the older ones. We need some churches to grow old together because, as more churches target the younger generations, some of the older members will leave because they won’t want to be in a younger church.
I’m not opposed to churches talking about their options and realizing they will not be able to make the transition to a younger congregation. I am opposed to churches that think they’re not growing old together when they are. They insist they want to reach millennials, but their music, graphics, dress code, and social networks appeal to older boomers and traditionalists. All churches target generations; it’s just that most churches do it unconsciously.
I’m also strongly opposed to churches that grow old together but don’t care about or do anything for the other generations. Selfishness has no age limitations, and churches don’t retire. That’s why option two is “grow old together, and serve millennials.” The “and” is what the church determines God is calling them to do beyond flipping months on the calendar.
Your church can target boomers and traditionalists and serve millennials in several healthy ways:
• Start new churches or satellites with very different worship services and structures to reach the younger generations.
• Raise money from their traditionalists and boomers, the generations blessed financially beyond any in history, to fund reaching the next generation here and around the world.
• Send their people around the world to serve and lead.
• Then, and this is huge, before the church shrinks out of existence, hand the keys to the building over to another church that is reaching younger people who don’t have the money to buy it.
Option 3: Pretend you can reach all generations
This is the one approach that doesn’t work, but it’s the one I see most often. In my experience, churches that get stuck in this option use it to protect themselves. As long as they think they can reach all the generations, they don’t have to talk about their fears that another generation will come in and change things. A church that thinks it can reach everyone puts the focus on their church, not on the people they are trying to reach. Go young or grow old together—both benefit the kingdom of God. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do both if you keep doing what you’ve been doing.
Haydn Shaw is an ordained minister who speaks to and consults with churches and religious organizations to help them grow. He is founder of People Driven Results and is a leading expert on helping the four generations work together. This article is excerpted from Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright, which he wrote for churches. Learn more about generations in the church and find free resources at http://christianityisnotdying.com.