Millennials and Moving the Church Forward

In 1980 a revolution started in a hospital delivery room. That revolution was the start of what has become the largest, most connected, most influential, most tech-savvy, most mobile, and most engaged American generation in history. They became known as the Millennials, and they number around 78 million (according to the Rainer group research). I am part of this generation, a generation who engages through Twitter, reads eBooks, cannot remember how to address an envelope, and looks at typewriters and dot-matrix printers as wonderful relics of a bygone era.

We are also the least religious generation, the products of a culture that increasingly pushes a Christian worldview out of the discussion. We are the least biblically literate (and I say this as a seminary graduate!), and the most convinced that plurality is the way to go. That said, there are millions of devoted Christians in this generation who want to make a global impact for the Kingdom. There are young leaders like David Platt and groups like Baptist 21 who are providing a voice for our generation. Their work is indispensable for giving a reasoned, wise, and practical voice for a generation that is still fighting to gain acceptance and relevance in the workplace and culture.

The questions for the church are two-fold: What will we look like in 10 years? and What will we do with these Millennials? A later post will deal more with the second question, which will deal with the idea of mentoring the Millennials and investing in them for leadership. It allows for the Boomers to leave a legacy and to give what the Millennials don’t have but desire in leadership, wisdom.

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, and I certainly didn’t consult Miss Cleo when writing this list. But, as a Millennial serving in church leadership and observing both my own generation’s tendencies and the church culture I am a part of, I want to present these as some principles or ideas for us to consider in future planning and vision casting.

1) Decentralization

In the past many churches built large campuses with lots of activities happening on site. The goal was to “get people to church” and so out of this (very well-intentioned) activity came the development of church basketball leagues, activities happening every night, care groups, support groups, “fall festivals” (excuse to dress up and get candy without practicing the “devil holiday”) and huge events to draw a crowd. The goal was to attract people to the church and get them there so the gospel could be shared. That worked, until the Millennials showed up. To be honest, and not to sound cynical, we don’t care as much about that as our parents and older peers do. The “Missional Church” does what we need to do in order to reach Millennials (and our communities as a whole). Instead of a “come and see” approach, it relies on a “go and tell” approach. Instead of creating a separate environment and culture, the church engages the culture and gives the gospel as the best of all news.

What does this mean for the church? It means the era of the mega-church may be in its twilight. They’ll still be around, but they won’t be nearly as effective and their cavernous space may not be as full or necessary anymore. It will result in more small groups meeting in homes, doing community life together; the mindset of the local church shifting to a hub approach, that sees the congregation gathering as a source for encouragement, corporate identity, and preparation to go and impact the community, workplace, and home; churches needing to look very hard at their programming and making cuts based on what is most vital and important for the overall mission and purpose of the church.

2) Smaller

Bigger isn’t always better. Oh sure it’s great to depend on Microsoft and McDonalds as giants to always give us a consistent product. But with size comes boring. Smaller organizations give us more connectivity, originality, development of leadership, and room to grow/expand/change/reinvent. Size always drives back to status quo and complacency. The reason Starbucks has smaller tables is to allow for conversation, connection, and the development of a shared community. Smaller also implies commitment. A bigger church provides room to hide and anonymity. A smaller church requires its members to be sacrificial, involved, and serving. Yeah it might mean not having all the bells and whistles, but what it will do is create a Gospel-shaped community that brings people together, not programs. And this real connection, this real community, is something Millennials crave. We live and work on the computer screen but deep down we want something more, we want relationships.

3) Planting new works

Church planting, at least in Southern Baptist circles, is all the rage. Our domestic mission board is overwhelmingly supporting new works, groups like Acts29 are churning out new church planters and church plants every day, and every year hundreds of graduating seminary students enter the ministry world. Why plant new works? I think two reasons:

1) You can never have too many Gospel-driven churches – The very nature of the Gospel says that “there are always more prospects” to reach for Christ. In our small town there are dozens of churches but the most friendly estimates claim our county is still 40-50% unreached. Also, more churches equals more trained and engaging pastors. Leadership development and multiplication are incredible results of a church planting initiative. One church that plants a new work every two years and builds this into the planting culture can have 31 new works and developed pastors engaging the community in 10 years.

2) The goal is the Kingdom, not competition – I met some awesome church planters this summer in Boston. One thing I loved is their friendly cooperation and humble spirit. When a new plant is launched, the other pastors ask for their church members who live in that neighborhood to join the new work and encourage that planter and his family. The goal of church planting is multiplying the Kingdom and seeing more for Christ, not sheep-stealing or competition for limited resources.

4) Intentionality

Another thing a church can do to build for the future is to become more intentional in their ministries and goals. Programs cannot exist for the sake of existing. Everything, from budget line items to calendaring to events and activities must be able to answer: “How does this further the Kingdom and build disciples?” – It may mean the loss of some treasured and long-tenured ministries, but for the sake of the Kingdom it must be done. It also allows for new works to come to fruition. Many things are put aside for the sake of what is already being done. But by removing the unnecessary works, a church can invest in new ministries and develop new leaders.

5) Less Overhead

The diversion of funds is only part of this, it also includes the diversion of people resources and time/energy. But it is financial. It is the reduction of overhead costs (reducing support staff, utilizing more part-time and auxiliary personnel, finding ways to cut excess costs, bringing all office issues under a unified and central budget). It also means, at least for pastoral leadership, the loss of specialization. The Millennial-focused church will require the wearing of many hats (Youth/Education, Music/Youth, Children/Recreation, and any combination you can think of!) in order to divert more funding to the mission work of the church. It also means the consolidation of volunteers and recognizing where volunteers are being wasted and instead deploying them to places that require more help.

6) Innovative

The NFL is known as a “copycat” league. Five years ago everyone starting running the Wildcat formation, until defenses started figuring out how to stop it. In college the hot item is the spread offense, which has resulted in a few Heisman trophies and national championships. It used to be the wishbone, then the I formation, then the shotgun. That will last until defensive coaches figure out how to stop it. The point is this, football recognizes that what works now may not always work, so get on board with what works and be ready to change when your mobile quarterback gets crushed by a middle linebacker who runs a 4.3 40.

Here’s the problem for the church, many are operating under a 1950’s mentality and wonder why they are not getting the results they once did. Let’s face it, revivals are dead. So are rallies and high attendance pushes. If they’re not dead in your church, they will be in a few years. The issue is not pragmatism, and trying to find “what works” because that will always change. What works now may be outdated by the time my son reaches high school.

The greater principle to consider is the church culture to embrace innovation. Innovation is more than slapping a cool name or overpaying for a flashy website. Innovation is a willingness to do whatever, whenever, however, to connect people to Jesus. It requires the box to be smashed and thrown away as a restrictive hindrance to innovation. What doesn’t change, the Gospel. What does, the means, methods, techniques, and how we get there. After all, who still travels by horse when we have jet service anywhere in the world?

7) Change-Driven

You’ve heard the joke before: How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? CHANGE!?

The sad reality is, change in a church is like steering an ocean liner. It takes forever, you hit a few icebergs, and no one can ever agree on what direction you’re supposed to go. Millennials are the most adaptive and flexible generation. We’re used to changing cell phones, upgrading our laptops, and dealing with the fact that every couple years the world we live in shifts dramatically. Sure it has given us a short attention span, but more so it’s given us perspective to see that the only consistency is change.

Change in a church is a product of growth and the assimilation of new people to an organization. Change happens when new leadership comes in. Change should become a regular part of the Millennial church, and leadership should always have an ear to the ground to see what the next tide of change should be. The caveat to this is: Never change for the sake of change. This is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, sure you change things but what does it really accomplish? Change should always be to produce maturity and fruitful disciples in the church.

8) Technologically Savvy

Last, the church that wants to reach and impact the Millennials (and have Millennials reach back and impact the church) needs to be tech savvy. Look around at how people communicate, contact people, get their information, read the news, and conduct business. I can think of maybe 6 paper books I’ve bought in the last year, everything else has been on my Kindle. Most of our bills are paid online (guess we’re part of the reason the USPS is going under), and I have never in my adult life paid for a newspaper subscription (why should I? I can get everything on my iPhone for free). For financial, and common sense, reasons, the church shouldn’t engage in a technology keeping-up-with-the-Joneses to always have the latest and best. But a church should utilize social media, maintain a website presence (Google has replaced the phone book as the primary way of finding things), develop a podcast for sermons and teaching, and utilize technology in how the church communicates and disseminates information to its members. This means reducing postage budgets and using e-mail, Facebook posts, Twitter, and text messages to get information out. It means changing the culture of the church that sees iPhones as great for personal use but when they enter the church building we must retreat away from technology.

The Church maintains a faithful witness to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” and so there are certain confessional and doctrinal statements that cannot nor should be compromised. In the name of cultural relevance the Church must stand for the sufficiency of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the unique nature of Christ’s salvation, and the hope for glory for those in Christ.

Besides that, how can we as a church respond so that the next generation might know the work and wonder of God?

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