Ministering to Millennials (Part VII – An Attempt to Practice What I Preach)

blog - Res sanctuary

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).

Res Worship Demographics

Figure 1 – Res Site Worship Demographics

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)

Preferences of Res Millennials

Figure 2 – Reasons Given for Attending Resurrection

 

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.

Final Thought

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.

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5 thoughts on “Ministering to Millennials (Part VII – An Attempt to Practice What I Preach)

  1. John Huebner says:

    You didn’t say anything about the “pastor” demographgic that registered the largest response. If I remember correctly, Bruce Becker’s study of turnaround churches had that as a very important factor, also. Could use more information that…is it preaching content and/or style? Is it personality/openness/approachability? Is it age? I understand the sensitivity issue, so it would be good for someone other than yourself to explore that further.. God’s word is powerful and effective and no one can make it more so. But understanding the human factor seems, once again, to be supported by the data you’ve gathered. Would be interested in learning more. Thanks for all you continue to do to raise our awareness and understanding.

  2. In a “social media” society dominated by people who rarely talk to the people “down the street” the need for opportunities to foster relationships has never been more necessary. Singles don’t want more options than hanging out at bars. This isn’t new. Past generations made Sunday a full day with worship, a meal & fellowship that followed, since the horse and buggy didn’t do 60 on the dirt roads. Relationships have always mattered. I’m not sure why we ever forgot that.

  3. Bryan says:

    As a millennial (I’m 18 so I’m on the younger side), I thought I’d offer a few thoughts that popped into my head after reading this and your other posts (Which I think is a topic that needs much discussion, so thanks for starting it!)

    1) Maybe I’m misunderstanding what was stated here, but it sounds like the newer campus is specifically structured to appeal to younger people, which is in and of itself fine, but I think it runs the risk of becoming entertainment more than worship. If worship is focused on God’s Word, the Law will be preached in every service, and that’s not something that can be sugarcoated with informality and a casual atmosphere.

    2) In one of the other posts (I forget which one), it was mentioned that millennials don’t like shallow Christianity and attempts to look cool. What’s being done in this post seems to me to do just that – trying as hard as possible to be casual and comfortable to the point that it just seems like another coffeehouse I could go to.

    3) Millennials were polled about what they like about the church but theological integrity wasn’t an option because “there are other WELS church options in the area” and “didn’t fully account for the choice of attending Resurrection.” Yet in the same sentence it was said that Millennials consider theological integrity to be of the utmost importance. I’m not sure I understand the logic there.

    4) If Millennials don’t like shallow Christianity, why adopt practices that are shallow in the first place? I’m not sure how designing services around coffee and a casual atmosphere is meatier, if you will, than the liturgy where reverence and teaching is stressed already.

    5) If worship preference for traditional vs. contemporary is half and half, why cater just to the contemporary half in this post? Was the liturgy taught and explained to the congregation in the first place? The problems with forcing the liturgy are explained in what seems to me to be a passive-aggressive manner (“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).”), but problems with the flip side of the coin aren’t mentioned, like how the more relevant contemporary services focus more on the individual than God or the shallowness in some modern Christian music.

    Thanks again for the posts!

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