Over the past few years, you've probably heard rumblings about millennials—Americans between the ages of 18 and 33 who are giving churches a myriad of puzzling behaviors to understand and minister to. Church leaders are scratching their heads and trying to determine how to bring back the 43 percent of once-active church attenders who have stopped attending church altogether. That's eight million twenty- and thirty-somethings who have stopped attending church.
For a group that's naturally distrusting of anything institutionalized and who rarely sets down roots (according to PewSocialTrends.org, only 26 percent of this demographic is married—that's down 22 percent from their Baby Boomer parents) creating a church that makes them comfortable and motivated enough to stay is an ongoing challenge. But recent research from the Barna Group demonstrates one fact that might help churches reach this group in a new way—when 78 percent of millennial Christians described their vision for the ideal church, they chose the word "community."
It makes sense. Millennials love to be connected—while their well-documented smart-phone reliance might make them seem more distant to the world around them, to millennials, it's a way of constantly connecting and sharing their experiences with their friends. Every day, new apps are created with the specific purpose of giving young adults new ways to connect with one another in fun and creative ways. They live and breathe constant connection, and because many millennials are waiting to start families (partly because many emerged from college right in the heart of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, putting them significantly behind financially) they have to create this connection and community themselves. They crave it.
How can churches become a place for millennials to feel like they're part of a community? A thriving small-group ministry is a great place to start.
It seems easy—start more small groups, draw more millennials. But millennials can smell disingenuousness from a mile away, and if they feel out of place or awkward in a small group, they won't engage. If they feel like your church is "using" small groups to sell your churches' brand or mission, they'll run for the hills. And if your church is using study material that barely even glazes over Scripture, chances are good that you'll see your millennial attenders drop out quickly.
Here are the top four things small-group pastors need to do to successfully minister to millennials:
1. Study the Bible In-Depth.
For the proud and the few young adults who grew up and then remained in the church, there is no higher authority than the Word of God—and no more important spiritual discipline than Bible study. Remember, this is a group of young adults who were raised in the boom of Christian commercialism, who were handed CCM CDs, magazines, and cartoons with Bible-based moral messages wrapped in cool packaging. They attended big, hyped-up youth conferences and felt the excitement acutely—and then they went home and felt, just as acutely, the confusion that arrived when that excitement stopped a week after the conference. They've read about famous Christian pop stars checking into rehab, and they've seen famous pastors fall. This group knows things are more complicated than they seem.
For those who've survived this crash course on discerning what makes real faith, reliance on the Bible for truth is the only thing they're really interested in. Millennials are looking for an in-depth study on the life of Jesus, not a study on how to become a better person. Create or use content that goes deep into God's word and avoids "the moral of the story" layouts.