Keeping millennials in the church

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What we can do to make church meaningful for young adults

by Ed Boschman

Barna Group’s 2011 research “You Lost Me” indicates that six of 10 church kids walk away from their faith and/or the institutional church in the first decade of their adult life. Those of us who have served in local churches may wonder whether this early adult hiatus from church has been normative for decades, but research indicates the trend is growing. In the same study, Millennials say that what helps their faith grow are things like prayer, family, friends, the Bible, having children and their relationship with Jesus. Church does not make it into the top 10 factors.

What can we do to make church meaningful, helpful, fulfilling and relevant for these young men and women? David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, suggests a handful of ways in which local churches can connect with and meaningfully serve Millennials. I’m highlighting four.

1. Ensure meaningful relationships. The study asserts, “The most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational…. Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of 10 never had a mentor at the church.” This is a clarion call to ensure that adults generally and youth pastors, leaders and sponsors specifically are befriending our emerging generation in meaningful relationships. This is not the same as driving kids around or planning an event for them.

2. Teach cultural discernment. The church can help Millennials engage their hearts and minds to understand cultural realities and to respond to them Christianly. The research indicates that “active Millennial Christians are more than twice as likely to say they ‘learned about how Christians can positively contribute to society’ compared to those who drop out (46 percent versus 20 percent).” Additionally, “Actives are also nearly four times more likely to say they ‘better understand my purpose in life through church’ (45 percent versus 12 percent).” This is great and encouraging news. We can make an impact when we teach and think together through contextual real life subjects.

3. Prioritize reverse mentoring. This new phrase describes a reality in which older, experienced leaders invite Millennials to share leadership in the present. Barna’s Kinnaman describes it like this: “One way to think about this generation is that they are exiles in something like a ‘digital Babylon’—an immersive, interactive, image-rich environment in which many older believers feel foreign and lost. The truth is, the church needs the next generation’s help to navigate these digital terrains.” When we welcome these gifted and passionate young believers to contribute their savvy in the current environment and to be on mission as part of today’s church by serving the needy in their own communities and going on short-term mission trips, they understand and value their partnership and are much more inclined to stay connected.

4. Facilitate a vital relationship with Jesus and the Bible. Kinnaman reports, “Millennials who remain active are more likely than those who dropped out to say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant (68 percent versus 25 percent). Additionally, actives are much more likely to believe the Bible contains wisdom for living a meaningful life (65 percent versus 17 percent).” The opportunity here is broad and inviting. It is the privilege of the church to connect the living Spirit of Jesus Christ and the living Word of God to every aspect of life. Relevance matters. Experiential relevance is powerful both in the moment and for a lifetime.

So when Jesus and the Word are directly connected to meaningful relationships, cultural discernment and partnership in mission, Millennials are much more likely to experience the church as relevant and helpful. On this matter we can do more than hope and pray. We can take action on the above. Perhaps then, the church will make that coveted top 10 list once again.

Ed Boschman is the USMB executive director.

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