Dear Church: Your Mission Isn’t to Attract Millennials

A common refrain I hear particularly in American, “seeker-friendly” church staff meetings is, “How can we attract millennials and young families?”

I know this is common because I’ve heard it while serving on three different American, “seeker-friendly” church staffs, and because of numerous articles written in the last ten years on this topic.

For some reason, millennials and young families have become the hottest commodities in many local churches. These churches spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art sound equipment, on blacking out windows and installing bright LED lights and fog machines, and on creating children’s spaces that look like amusement parks, all to attract specific groups of people. And while this has resulted in large numbers of people walking in the doors, it also has resulted in large numbers of people walking out.

Church trends in the past twenty years have leaned toward concerts in lieu of congregational worship, inspirational topical talks in lieu of Bible-based and expository sermons, and small groups (usually divided by life stage) in lieu of congregational care. And while those strategies worked for a while, both younger and older generations are now looking for something else. Church trends in the past twenty years have leaned toward concerts in lieu of congregational worship, inspirational topical talks in lieu of Bible-based and expository sermons, and small groups in lieu of congregational care. Click To Tweet

In his annual prediction of church trends, Carey Nieuwof noted that the bright lights and loud music employed by churches seeking to attract a younger demographic are beginning to fail. He writes, “Churches who use the approach of ‘come to us…we’re the best/coolest/hippest/most orthodox/most whatever’ won’t have enough of a basis to hold people together in an era where content can be consumed anywhere/anyhow/anywhere.” Instead, this demographic will end up leaving local churches all together in search of genuine community and spiritual experiences elsewhere.

Meanwhile, older generations, increasingly turned off by loud music and dark rooms, are seeking more “traditional” church services to attend, or again, abandoning the local church completely. Worse, some churches actively and intentionally alienate older generations by patronizingly explaining why their music is so loud, ignoring the actual physical discomfort of people who are likely to have been members of that church (and the most likely to tithe regularly) the longest. This approach communicates loud and clear that “you’re no longer our ‘target audience,’ so we don’t care about you.”

And as a result, churches are dying.

But there is hope, and there is a silver bullet to increase church attendance across all age groups. Churches are dying, but there is a silver bullet to increase church attendance across all age groups. Click To Tweet

Michael J. Svigel, a theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, recently tweeted:

Theology 101: When the church of Laodicea turned lukewarm, Christ didn’t tell them to attract young families. He told them to repent. (@Svigel)

What does repentance look like in our current church environment? The Bible offers at least three ideas for changes we can make in our churches to better facilitate the fulfillment of the Great Commission, the preaching of the Gospel, and the disciple-making of every generational cohort:

  1. Don’t play favorites

James, the brother of Jesus, challenged the fledgling church to be open to everyone and not just the “attractive” people in the neighborhood. He talked about treating the rich and the poor equally in their gatherings, and that principle applies today. Treat the baby boomers and the young parents as equals in your gatherings—one is not more important among you than another. In fact, every group of people in the local church brings something of value to the table. No one should feel that they are being made to sit on the floor instead.

  1. Become all things to all people

When Paul was traveling around to different churches in different countries, this was his approach. In the midst of Jewish congregations, he played up his Judaism. In Athens, he pulled out his philosopher’s hat. In Rome among the Gentiles, he wore his Roman citizenship on his sleeve. Wherever he went, he served the people right in front of him in the way that he knew would be most effective for their spiritual growth. In our churches today, this may mean mixing it up a bit—singing contemporary worship songs (at a reasonable volume) alongside ancient hymns, or inserting meaningful, liturgical elements into our services. And in every context, a return to Bible-based sermons that go beyond mere inspiration to genuine life change would be a welcome change.

  1. Love the flock you’ve been given

Before churches start adding new programs, new small group experiences, and new lighting to attract millennials and young families, they would do well to evaluate how well they are leading and loving the people already in the pews. People who are loved well and who are valued by their pastors are more likely to love and value others. This isn’t about becoming a “friendly” church. This is about becoming a church that is loved and that loves well. The love of Christ lived out genuinely among his people is the greatest way to attract a world that needs to hear the Gospel and to those who need to know they are a valued part of the body—regardless of when they were born.

Christ died for all people. God loves the whole world. The Gospel is for everyone in every generation. If the American church is going to survive and thrive, we need to reflect the welcoming, this-is-for-everyoneness of Christ and the Kingdom of God. This is how we fulfill the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to all people, making disciples of all nations and generations—millennial or not.