4 Shifts the Church Needs to Engage Millennials

We’re talking about engaging millennials this month. (If you missed the first article in the series, go here.)


As we unpack the factors that are involved in this unique phenomenon of millennial flight from the church, some leaders (often parents of millennials themselves) are filled with self-blame, regret and guilt. After all, Baby Boomers started the rebellion that led to the coining of the phrase “generation gap.” And as is true with all regress, given an inch, most people will take at least a mile. Millennials may have blown that truism out of the water!

What’s interesting and important to know about these two generation gaps (from Silent Generation to Baby Boomers, and then from Baby Boomers to Gen X and Y) is that in both cases, we are not witnessing the normal amount of change between generations. There has never been a cultural evolution so “profound and lightning fast” (1) as what has taken place in the last 100 years, which doesn’t even hold a candle to what has changed in the last 30 years. Without a 20/20 hindsight perpective, most people didn’t know to reform their parenting to accommodate this present reality until the tide was too swift to hold back.

4 Steps to Prepare for a Shift

Ultimately, the only useful role of regret for parents and church leaders is as a catalyst to reevaluate how to move forward to reconnection.

1. Familiarize yourself with the solid research of Barna Group on this topic.

Read unChurched, NextChurch, Churchless and You Lost Me to get an eye-opening view of not only what is happening from a true data perspective, but also to discover hope and start recalibrating your perspective of the next generation’s church. Our world is changing, and we need to be like the tribe of Isacchar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, who “understood the times.” We need to shift our frustration to love and acceptance.

2. Remember that “disciples cannot be ‘mass-produced’.”

David Kinnaman reminds us that “disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time.” Don’t try to win back “the millennials.” Start developing relationships with young people you know. Prepare to minister to the new normal — singles postponing the traditional steps of adulthood (particularly marriage and children), and not just structuring the church to what Kinnaman calls “the traditional marriage-and-career-stabilized young adult.” If they’re finding something valuable, they’ll tell their friends.

3. Recognize where institutions fit in millennials’ value system.

It’s not just the church. Millennials are skeptical and cynical about most established organizations and, as a group, believe that they will reinvent the future, not fall in line with their forebears once they get over this  crazy phase. The challenge for churches will be to straddle the gap between the needs of older generations while reinventing themselves to minister to the younger. This is not a new challenge, but it is more imperative than ever before, due to the vast differences in the generations and the size and particular mindset of Gen Y. Millennials are looking for grassroots, for not just words but action.

4. Appoint young leaders.

Young people have always preferred and related to people their own age and admired those who were slightly older. Because millennials are more likely to ask their friends for advice than any adult, including their parents, and because they speak an entirely different language, age matters. Millennials will ultimately be the ones to lead their generation to Christ.

You Lost Me

Barna Group’s book You Lost Me was named after a common saying of millennials. It seems like a good reminder to end with. When conversing with others, the reply “you lost me” doesn’t mean someone wasn’t listening or didn’t care. It means that something got lost in translation, that they can’t make sense of what we’re saying.

The burden of engagement is on the church. It won’t be an easy task, but, as Kinnaman writes, “The transmission of faith from one generation to the next relies on the messy and sometimes flawed process of young people finding meaning for themselves in the traditions of their parents.”

It’s time to “love, accept and partner with this generation.”

(1) This post was inspired by David Kinnaman’s book: You Lost Me. Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. All quotes are from Kinnaman.