I am one of three pastors at a multisite church, Resurrection & Life Lutheran in Rochester, MN.
Over the past several years, I’ve gathered information from a variety of influential churches within Rochester (non-WELS) who seem to be making concerted efforts to reach Millennials. When I’ve asked what’s been tried, they’ve suggested many items I’ve read elsewhere – small groups, studies tailored to Millennial interests, and special services with a more Millennial feel (i.e. heavy video content, dimmed lighting, modern music that uses a large band, etc.). The churches reported varying degrees of success with the methodology. However, one consistent seemed to be that they were more successful at reaching young families, less successful at reaching singles, who tend to bounce from church to church, or even to reach young newlyweds. That last bit sounds relatively WELS – once young adult couples have a child and realize their decisions affect another soul, this tends to be a jolt to their desire to pursue church involvement. This is nothing really new. What’s different is that Millennials, for a variety of reasons, are waiting longer to get married and have kids, if they do that at all. And even if they do, they’re simply not “coming back to church” at the rate previous generations did. This an issue irrespective of denomination.
When we started our second site over four years ago, truth be told, I was a bit terrified.
We structured a second campus with, in my opinion, a bit of a “Goldilocks” feel to it, i.e. everything was designed to be “just right” for people searching for a church. Our second site had a highly desirable worship time (9:30am). It was a casual atmosphere with great coffee, comfortable seats, eager musicians who played a combination of traditional and contemporary songs, and the amenities of a new facility. Sixty to eighty of our most active, exuberant members claimed that second site as “home” and were eager to welcome visitors. On top of all that, we built an indoor children’s playplace right into our second site, available throughout the week to members and the community alike, which has been incredibly successful in getting people from our city onto our campus.
“Sounds great,” you say. So, why was I a bit terrified? The reason is…I was serving primarily at the original site, not the second site. Here we had built a facility and tailored it to appeal to people in their twenties and thirties, the most common age of those seeking a church. It stood in contrast to our more traditionally WELS site only five miles away. For about a year I was filled with panic, feeling like I was constantly fighting upstream, that the deck was stacked against our more traditional site. I prayed about this A LOT. Literally, every night I prayed about this exact topic. And I had almost no suggestions to offer to God either (which is unusual for me). I simply could not see how Resurrection would survive after creating a nearby option that would seemingly appeal more to worship visitors. I started tracking worship attendance very carefully, counting “worship units.” Single adults, married couples, singles with kids, and couples with kids, all counted as just one worship unit. I divided worship attenders into three categories – people in their 20s & 30s, 40s & 50s, and 60s+.
Fast forward three years. In that span, the 20s & 30s age bracket (again, by far your largest segment of worship visitors) has now become our largest demographic group at Resurrection (see Fig. 1).
What happened? How did we not only replace the attenders at our original site, but actually get comparatively younger than we were before? Well, the only thing I know is that God’s grace is powerful. And God hears prayers. Beyond that, I can only speculate. I did, however, poll the Millennials at Resurrection and got more than enough responses to be representative.
It would appear that the items that most strongly affected the Millennial-aged attenders were relationships and variety (our worship style in recent years has varied a decent amount from week to week). (see Fig. 2)
You might be surprised that something like “theological integrity” wasn’t an option in the polling. That was because there are other WELS church options in the area. In other words, theology, while of utmost importance in these Millennials’ decision for a church, didn’t fully account for the choice of attending Resurrection.
So far as I could tell from the comments, it’s nearly half and half as far as worship style preference. In other words, some feel quite strongly that we should be more traditional and reverent and others feel quite strongly that we should be more contemporary and casual. So, amongst Millennial attenders, those feelings coexist, but the final outcome seems to be that all appreciate some variety. At our church, we talk quite frequently about not becoming sinfully dogmatic in areas we are free, that this is as serious an offense as taking away from God’s Word (Rev. 22:18; Deut. 4:2). And we spend time explaining why humans get so self-righteous. As a result, people have become quite open, accepting of the beauty of variety.
Overall, the comments that survey respondents gave largely supported the high premium that Millennials place on relationships.
For instance, many responses included thoughts like:
“Through all this I have formed friendships and bonds and even though life is busy during the week with different schedules, I enjoy seeing fellow believers and friends on Sunday…it is encouraging to know there is a support system when I need to talk to a fellow Christian friend.”
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn about a living and active group for young adults.”
“Our family chooses to go to Resurrection mainly because of the connections with friends that we have there.”
“Most of my friends are young adults without kids that attend Resurrection.”
“Resurrection has a very welcoming group of young people and it has been refreshing to worship with this group and make some meaningful friendships from it. The lasting friendships have stemmed from the small Bible Study groups that have been formed.”
“We have a core group of friends that we enjoy worshipping and visiting with…”
“I like the small groups…”
“I chose Resurrection because it seems to have quite a few young people.”
Seemingly, nothing attracts relationally-minded young people like… young people.
Furthermore, if we had done a better job in the past several years of strategically fostering relationships, offering additional levels of variety, implementing new technology, and promoting more social causes that young adults could get behind, I wouldn’t be surprised if the statistics would have reflected even greater change.
The bottom line is that my congregation is living proof that a fifty-plus-year-old site with several factors working against it and few Millennials can still reach Millennials. I’d personally recommend starting with prayer and offering God no suggestions.
While I’ve spent a great deal of time studying, thinking about, writing about, and praying about this topic of ministering to Millennials, I hope you have not gotten the impression that I think I have everything figured out. I don’t. Not even close.
What I do have is a deeper appreciation for the brilliance of a gospel that “works” at every level for every generation. Imagine a Savior so unalterable, so uncompromising, and yet so culturally flexible that a large segment from every generation in the past 2000 years has considered him their best friend. I count myself as one. And to think, he invites us to come along on the journey of introducing him, THE Answer, to a generation of people who’ve got questions.