Millennials are looking for authenticity. Unfortunately, a lot of churches today are striving to win over young adults by being relevant. Consider what Leadership Journal Managing Editor Drew Dyck identifies as the potential point of connection:
“Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well” (from the blog post “Millennials Don’t Need a Hipper Pastor, They Need a Bigger God”).
The church’s reason for being is the same as it was when Jesus gave us the Great Commission: Make disciples. And yet many of today’s leaders aren’t sure how to grab hold of this generation and help them catch a vision for following Jesus. They’re unsure how to convey authenticity. After all, what does it mean to “be real”?
Taylor Snodgrass of Church of the 20somethings offers some firsthand insights: “Our generation has been advertised at our whole life, and even now on social media,” he says. “Consequently, when a company isn’t being authentic with their story, we can easily see through this. If the church isn’t giving you the whole story, if it’s sugarcoated and they’re trying to put on an act on stage, people in their 20s will see through this. This causes us to leave. We’re good at seeing when people are lying to us.”
Brian Coffey, senior pastor at First Baptist Church West and East in Geneva, Ill., and himself the father of four Millennial sons, agrees, “Millennials don’t like to be programmed to. They can hear honesty. They have a radar for that.”
This fall, Coffey’s co-pastor, Jeff Frazier, launched a new worship experience service in the church’s newly renovated space. Called New Word and Table, the service will be simple, says Frazier. “We’ll meet twice a month, and it’ll have tables for people to share communion. It’ll feature one person on a piano or guitar. It won’t be driven by the pipe organ or by one worship leader or praise team, but by the content,” he says.
“The single voice is plaintive and honest,” Coffey adds. His hunch is that this new “ancient-modern” service will draw former Catholics, Millennials and people who want a more contemplative worship.
“The days of the light and fog machines and overly produced church services are a gone era,” says Tony Ranvestel, lead pastor at Clear River Church in Lafayette, Ind., located near Purdue University. “Young adults are used to Photoshop. They want reality TV. They want to see real people and what they go through. The building we’re in is an old auto body shop. It’s kind of ‘janky,’” he admits. “But it feels real. We try to do this with our teaching too, being authentic.”
With 80 percent of the church under 40 years old, Ranvestel and his co-pastor Zach Miller have a clear focus. “We don’t schedule lots of activity,” says Ranvestel. “ We call people to follow Jesus. If you follow Jesus, this leads to serving and justice. You should shovel a neighbor’s driveway, but it’s not a program. It’s disciples in relationship.” All who attend worship are encouraged to join a small group. That’s it.
Miller, a Millennial, says, “I appreciate the clear understanding of what is expected and what I can do. We’re not going to overwhelm you with choices. We think you should follow Jesus, and here’s one or two ways to learn to do that.”
Building relationships and learning about Jesus are two central reasons why Millennials stay connected to church. Barna’s research shows that young adults who remain involved in a local church beyond their teen years are twice as likely as those who don’t to have a close personal friendship with an older adult in their faith community (59 percent versus 31 percent).