4 Simple Ways to Engage Millennials

Impacting Millennials in church is the topic of the day. To give us insight into how I asked a long-time friend, fellow staff member and one of the sharpest young leaders I know for help. Morgan Tomberlin is a 24 year old young lady who serves as Director of Volunteers with me. Her insight and practical honesty is helping shape our team. I believe it will help yours too. To hear more from Morgan you can follow her lifestyle site Everyday Wholeness.


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As I sat in a church service with two friends of mine a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking, “The people on this stage who are trying to tell me something…they don’t even know me. They have no idea about the way I see the world, or the way I live my life, my priorities or interests.” As I listened to the music and to the sermon, the feeling of disconnection I’ve experienced for quite a while became clear. I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t because they don’t actually know me. In fact, I work alongside them. I’m on staff at this church. I’ve worn many hats here and I consider the staff and leadership to be dear, dear friends to me. But still, the disconnection persists.

I began to wonder if my friends experiences were similar. Knowing that I am deeply rooted in this church community, I can only imagine that they had an even more profound sense of disconnection. After asking a few questions, I realized that this was true. One of them characterized it this way, “Every [Millennial] I know who likes the church and wants to be a part of it, feels like they can’t because of some of the beliefs they have.”

The way we see the world often makes it difficult for us to meaningfully connect with the local church.

What I love about church leaders is that they are driven by this honest desire to serve people and reach those who are far from God. And what I notice so often is that those well-meaning church leaders are creating barriers for Millennials without even realizing it. The good news is, we can change this. It just takes some intentionality. Here are four simple things church leaders need to do in order to engage Millennials:

1. Listen to perspectives that are different than yours.

This generation has had more exposure to different cultures, perspectives, and points of view, than most who came before us. We have the world at our fingertips. This has created in us the expectation that there are more than even two sides to every story or idea.

What causes the disconnect:  

Speaking from the posture of a lecture, telling us what you think we need to know rather than having a two-way conversation with us.

This is a quick way to disconnect from Millennials, who will not simply “take your word for it” that what you’re saying is true. We do not want you to shrink from speaking about your authentic beliefs and perspectives, but we need you to acknowledge that we might think and live differently.

What you can do about it:

Make a habit out of listening to perspectives that are different from yours, and acknowledge these when you have to address “prickly” topics like politics or science.

This will inform your speaking, your preaching, your service planning, and you personal leadership. Watch more than one news channel, read books by authors who are not Christian, follow people on Twitter who express points of view that are the opposite of yours. We do not expect you to change your beliefs to agree with ours, but we do expect you to acknowledge that we may not fit the mold of “Christian” that you’re used to.

We also live in a digital age where it’s easy to engage in a conversation with those who attend your church. Don’t shy away from this. Don’t use social media to just further your agenda, use it to listen to us and talk to us about things you feel are important.

2. Be authentic.

Just because we might think differently than you does not mean that we want you to pretend to be like us if you are not. One by-product of the noisy entertainment-driven world we’ve grown up in is that we can spot a phony a mile away. We are magnetically attracted to people who we see as truly authentic.

What causes the disconnect:

Pretending to be an expert on non-religious things.

Millennials expect pastors and leaders in the church to be experts in who Christ is and what it means to have a relationship with God. We trust you on this, we want to learn from you, so focus on this. Construct services and campaigns around the basics of our faith, and don’t shy away from history and tradition. We love spirituality and art and symbolism, and the church is full of that. Keep it honest by staying in your lane.

What you can do about it:

Be willing to admit that there are things you don’t understand, and don’t try to “sell” something to us.

We believe you are authentic when you do not pretend to be an expert if you’re not (especially as it relates to politics, foreign policy, or science). Be willing to admit that there are things you may not fully know or understand. And be willing to admit that you’ve learned something new.

3. Don’t overdo the programming.

The great thing about Millennials is that they expect churches to be spiritual. They do not need us to sing pop songs or talk about movies in order to get their attention. Those things can still serve a purpose in the church, but in themselves they do not make Millennials pay attention. If we feel you are trying to perform for us to sell us something, we will quickly lose respect for you. So, be who you honestly are and we will listen!

What causes the disconnect:

Using stunts and gimmicks to get our attention.

We’re the most advertised-to generation in history. We can spot a gimmick a mile away. Many contemporary churches will use elements from pop-culture like popular songs or references to major movies in order to increase interest in their church service. There is nothing wrong with this on its face, but Millennials tend to view this as the church trying to “sell” them something. And for us, that is untrustworthy. It makes it difficult for us to trust that you’re being honest with us.

What you can do about it:

Simplify your programming, and focus on spiritual content.

Millennials are well-trained learners. When we have a question, we google it and have an answer immediately. We want to learn, and if we’re showing up at your church we want to learn about your church and your faith. Teach us about it. Do it in plain language, with an understanding of the world we live in, but don’t feel like you need to mask it with “cool” things. We think honesty is cool.

And as a side note, we’ll be interested in what you talk about, and we’ll want to talk about it. Give us space and time to do that. Don’t herd us out of your service like ants. Make spaces where we can hang out and discuss what we heard.

4. Show us you’re creating meaningful, positive change in your backyard.

The best (and sometimes most annoying) thing about Millennials is that we truly believe we can change the world. This type of energy, paired with the mission of the local church, has the potential to actually change the world.

A positive result of this kind of exposure to the world is that Millennials are one of the most cause-driven generations in history. Call it altruism or self-branding, either way we are very interested in serving our communities and our world in practical ways. This is the church’s niche! This is an incredible opportunity the church can seize in both doing its work through service, and engaging the next generation.

What causes the disconnect:

You don’t tell the story in a compelling and actionable way.

Your church is doing good things everyday. I’m sure that you’re serving the homeless somewhere, donating money to support a missionary around the world, taking care of the widows in your congregation, and more. These are the kinds of things we can immediately celebrate and get behind, we just need to know about it and how we can participate.

What you can do about it:

Tell us what you’re doing, and make it easy for us to participate and share online. 

Yes, share online. It’s likely that we have more “social clout” than you do, and our friends will listen when we tell them about something cool. Make sure that whatever service you want us to do is easy to do, and easy to share. We’re willing to work hard, give money, raise money, and spend our time on things that matter. To communicate with us, be brief, be shareable, and be actionable.

And with your digital platforms, don’t just use them to invite us to church. Use them to bring attention to your cause. That gets our attention.

Here are a couple of practical ways to get us involved in your cause:

  • Make it cheap for us to participate. Missions trips are great, but they happen less frequently and cost money that we honestly don’t have. There are things we can do in our own community (serving the poor and homeless, taking care of the elderly, etc.) that are simple and free.

  • Make it about relationships. We don’t want to feel like a cog in the machine, and we also connect with new people quickly over causes. Whenever and wherever you let us serve, make it possible for us to build relationships in the process. This could mean creating small groups out of a big service project, or planning a lunch or dinner after an event.

  • Make it frequent. Let us be able to do it often.

  • Make it simple. We should be able to communicate exactly what it is, who it serves, and how to participate, in 140 characters or less.

As a strong believer in the potential of the local church, a church staff-member, and a Millennial myself, I am optimistic that, just as it has done before, the church can and will learn to speak the language of this new generation. When we do, we will not only reach more people who are far from God, but we will also gain the energy and engagement of a big, bright, mobilized generation which can bring the message of hope in Christ strongly into the future.