grew up in the church. I grew up in a Christian, Pentecostal world. I value everything it taught me, and carry those lessons with me.
I am also a millennial. What does that mean, exactly? Technically, it means I was born between 1980 and 1999. Culturally, it means I grew up with Internet access and texting.
Depending on your assumptions, this can also mean I’m politically more liberal, socially conscious, and highly opinionated. I’ll let you be the judge. But this article isn’t about me. It’s about my friends, my classmates, and their friends─many who are far from God and have no interest in the church.
Regardless of what you think about us, I’m sure you’d agree this is a problem.
As a leader in the local church, I spend a lot of time considering what we could do better to reach my generation. I’ve narrowed it down to three big ideas. If you take some time to humbly and prayerfully consider these three changes, I know they will make a huge difference for you and your church.
1. Get outside of the Christian bubble.
Before we can expect to have a meaningful conversation about Jesus with anyone, we have to first understand the context in which he or she lives.
I know there is a temptation to separate ourselves from the secular world in the name of being holy. But we must seek both holiness and evangelistic effectiveness at the same time; they can’t be mutually exclusive, because the Bible commands us to do both.
You see, millennials live in an incredibly “secular” world. We are often skeptical of the church or any other institution that claims to have all the answers to hard questions. We look to stories told in movies and TV shows, and books by important people, to help us make sense of the tough issues we face in our lives. To understand a millennial is to be engaged in popular culture.
Watch new Netflix shows. Don’t only listen to the Christian radio station in your town. Pay attention to trending topics on Twitter. If you have a sense of what the world is talking about, you’ll create common ground that you can use to relate to us.
I am not saying you have to condone all the content in those TV shows or popular music. Millennials don’t want you pretending you believe something you do not. But you can’t even talk to us if you don’t know what we are talking about. Start by working to understand the world we live in.
2. Work hard to develop trust.
I once heard Rick Warren say, “Trust always precedes truth.”
We are often quick to spout what we think about a hot topic, yet we have neglected putting in the work to develop trust with a modern audience.
The reality is that millennials don’t trust the church.
They don’t trust us for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. Our hypocrisy has been exposed time and time again with sex and money scandals, and the tone of most media coverage makes us appear angry and intolerant. This is painful to me and to most other Christians, because we know the church as a place where we found hope and redemption. We want others to experience the same, but first they must be able to trust us.
So how do we build trust?
In your communication, address real-life issues. This goes back to big idea #1. If you’re not connected to the real world, you won’t be able to address issues young adults are facing. If all of your preaching and music centers on deep theological questions and issues only relevant within the church, you’ll quickly fail to engage an unchurched audience.
Speak to the new college graduate who is trying to find a good job and a meaningful life. Speak to the 25-year-old father who is intimidated by the weight of his new responsibility. Speak to the passionate young woman who cares deeply about the plight of the poor. And don’t forget to own your personal imperfections; we already know you’re not perfect.
Give permission to doubt. We’re comfortable with ambiguity. We hear opposing arguments. We don’t take for granted that what you say is true. If you do not give us permission to ask tough questions and have doubts, we will only see you as a salesman and not someone who truly wants to converse with us.
The most important thing I’ve told my own friends and family members who are millennials and face the church with doubt is that God is not intimidated by our questions. They need to know that they can bring their questions and their doubts to God and to the church and be embraced.
Show me you’re interested in what we have to say. Millennials care deeply about being heard. The age of social media has taught us we all have a platform and we should use it. Let’s save the argument of whether that’s good or bad for another day. Know you’ll quickly gain our trust if you demonstrate that you’re interested in what we think.
You can do this by giving legitimate responsibility and visibility to young leaders (this goes a very long way), and by asking us for feedback on issues we care deeply about. We want to know that you see us. When we see that you do, we’ll trust what you have to say and let you lead us.
Create space for relationships. We’re not impressed by a slick church service. Is it honorable to carry out your Sunday service with excellence? Absolutely. But remember, we were born and bred in a well-produced world. It’s not a novelty to us; it’s the baseline.
What connects us is authentic relationships. Don’t try to be cool and wear skinny jeans and long T-shirts if that’s not something you’d naturally do. We can spot fake from miles away.
Be yourself, and be kind. Create small groups that place a high value on authenticity and kindness. Develop a life-giving culture. When my millennial friends come to my church, the only thing they ever comment on is how people are so nice. They don’t comment on the sermon, the music, or the building.
They care about knowing if you’re kind and authentic. Jesus asks that of us anyway. So, be kind and authentic. We’ll trust you.
3. Preach the Gospel, not just current events.
Of course, our faith should inform how we view our world. It should inform what we value and how we vote, and give us compassion for those around us.
But we also have to understand the tense social, political, and cultural context of our time. When we speak publicly about a hot topic, we inevitably alienate a section of our audience.
So we must ask ourselves, Do we want to be known for the life-giving message of the Gospel, or for our political and cultural opinions?
Jesus challenged us to make disciples. We do so by sharing the message of redemption through Jesus with the whole world. I’m concerned that right now, this message is drowned out by the noise of cultural stances. We all feel compelled to put our stake in the ground on a side of every issue. The church is known for our various viewpoints on controversial issues more than for the message of hope found in Jesus.
Which do you think is most important to Jesus?
So when you’re writing your sermon, posting on social media, or even having a simple conversation, ask yourself, Is the Gospel front and center? Don’t get tossed around by the culture.
Champion the Gospel, because it is the message millennials need to hear. Jesus engaged with sinners at the risk of His reputation. He extended kindness and help to those the church viewed as unacceptable. He sacrificed His life so that we, undeserving as we are, could know God.
That is a radically inclusive message. It is the central message of the Christian faith. It is what we should be known for. If millennials get a taste of that message, you won’t be able to stop us from shouting it from the rooftops.
Morgan Tomberlin is communications director at Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia. She is also the founder of CommunicationsClub.org, a digital marketing agency that serves both churches and businesses.