The millennial generation is conspicuously absent from churches across the United States.
Beyond concerns for sustained church health as millennials opt out, this generation's absence means they miss out on the transforming grace, peace and support the body of Christ offers.
While the church may be experiencing the aptly millennial-inspired FOMO (fear of missing out), there are simple steps churches can take to be more inviting to young- to early middle-aged adults. An ebook I wrote for The United Methodist Church addresses this topic in depth.
Begin by considering your worship service since it's often the first experience a visitor has with your church. Evaluate key elements of your worship to help you put your best foot forward as you welcome millennials. To follow are questions to help aid you in that process:
Q1: Who's on the platform?
Millennials want to see themselves represented. Are they routinely involved in the upfront leadership of your service? Their presence allows you to tap into diversity well beyond just that of age.
The millennial generation is the most racially diverse generation in American history with 43% identified as non-white. They appreciate multiculturalism. When millennials walk into a church and see a lack of diversity, it communicates that the congregation doesn't represent the world they comfortably inhabit.
Be intentional about including diversity in your selection of leaders during your services to help millennial visitors and members feel at home.
Q2: Will someone feel welcomed if casually dressed?
American culture is trending more to casual dress. From fine dining to the boardroom, many people are choosing tennis shoes and hoodies over suits and ties. For some churches, even business casual is considered too informal. When millennial visitors arrive at your church — whether in Tim Cook's untucked but collared shirt or Mark Zuckerberg's T-shirt and jeans — will they feel like they belong?
When the Barna Group research team asked millennials to describe their ideal church style, 67% chose casual. But some of your members prefer a more formal style. What do you do?
It's not necessary to mandate a dress code. Instead, exhibit an openness to all styles, especially among service-participating leaders. Consider expressing this openness in your welcome, i.e. "We are a church who welcomes everyone. Whether you are wearing tennis shoes or loafers or a T-shirt or a tie, you are welcome and we are glad you are here." These simple words may break the ice for those who may feel self-conscious about what they wore to church.
Q3: Are you personal without being creepy?
Millennials are looking for a place of real community.
To help guests feel welcome, churches sometimes turn to expressions that are deemed uncomfortable to this generation. Many of these displays happen as the service opens with the "passing of the peace." When the intentional community-building time of your service is 30 seconds of pew mates shaking hands or hugging, that comes across as inauthentic.
Next, from the unexpected files: The humble visitor card.
Millennials have grown up in a world where their name and email address grant access to nearly everything. Then, the visitor card at church asks for their mobile number, the names and ages of their children, their home address...it can feel like an invasion of privacy to these data-collection skeptics. Take a moment to consider only what's essential for your follow-up ministry strategy, and simplify your card.
The best way to get to know and relate with millennials is to find ways for personal interaction that feels comfortable and normal.
Some churches have found success by upgrading their coffee area. Bar-height tables and flavor syrups can draw people into natural postures for conversation. Station church experts (like greeters or ushers) in the area to welcome visitors. They can do so in a way that doesn't appear forced, inauthentic or creepy.
Q4: How kid-friendly are you?
Many are surprised to find out that more than 40% of millennials have children. How their kids are treated and included in worship will be deciding factors for this generation.
Begin by ensuring that your space for youth is clean, safe and free of broken toys and equipment. Then ask yourself:
How do your greeters address children? Are families handed a kid-friendly packet upon arrival? or are they left on a table for visitors to find? Is it clear where nursery and other child-faith experiences are? If not, is it immediately clear where guests should go to find that information? Allow for personal interaction whenever possible versus a serve-yourself mentality.
Consider the way your program ministers with children. Millennials want to see adults engaging and caring for their children. Your nursery offerings need to consist of more than a television and library of Veggie Tales. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than an hour of screen time for kids.) Establish age-appropriate, interactive and faith-building activities to keep millennial parents coming back to your church.
Take time to grade how your church is doing in addressing the needs presented in the four questions. Determine a goal you want to reach. Write down a strategy for millennial outreach to help you hit your goal. Be sure to assign action items to put your plan into action. Then schedule a regular check-in meeting to keep on track and stay strong. (This type of process is also important for all areas of your ministry.)
The millennials in your community need the church. By taking steps to address their needs, you can transform your house of worship to be a place that's relevant and responsive and allows them to feel at home.
If you're ready to take a look at your communication, invitation strategy and overall church programming in relation to millennials, make sure you listen to the MyCom: Reaching millennials podcast episode and download our free ebook Reaching and Communicating with Millennials.
Jeremy Steele is the teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, Alabama, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.