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.
2. Go Beyond Singles Groups.
It's important for millennials to feel like they have a place, and that place might not be where you'd expect. Plenty of twenty-somethings are looking for communities that allow them to glean wisdom from older church members. Singles often like to be in the same group as marrieds because it allows them to connect on other levels and support one another in unique ways. Small groups don't need to always be homogenous. Instead, create groups for young marrieds, young singles, mixed ages, and mixed marital statuses.
It may be more comfortable for some, however, to find groups of people with whom they share a life stage—this is why it's important to have several groups to choose from. If your church only offers "young marrieds" and "young singles" small groups, you're going to lose out on ministry opportunities. It's likely that many millennials who might have attended if there had been more options won't attend. For instance, if your singles small group is comprised of 23-year-olds, a 30-year-old single woman might not see it as a place to find people with whom she can relate. Millennials are marrying later, which means churches need to adapt their small-group structures. It's about giving each of your church attendees a place to feel at home.
3. Talk About the Connection Between Work and Faith.
Thanks to an economy that's struggled over the past decade, millennials haven't had the easiest time finding stable, fulfilling work. Add to this the fact that they also have greater student loan debt than any other generation, and the result is a group of young men and women who feel behind in life, financially stressed, and frustrated in the workplace.
Incorporating conversations about work and calling into small groups is an important way to minister to millennials. According to Barna research, millennials are three times more likely to see their professional gifts as part of "God's calling" on their lives, but because this group is also dealing with higher levels of poverty and unemployment, there's a great deal of confusion and stress surrounding the issue. This is an area where millennials are seeking guidance, and small groups have a unique opportunity to walk alongside them.
4. Create Outside Opportunities for Authentic Friendships to Bloom.
Millennials prefer to get to know people by being part of something with them, so create small-groups that are missionally-minded—and then advertise that fact. If your small groups spend one Saturday of the month serving at a local food bank, for instance, make that clear at the small-groups sign-up table. Missional activity is important to the millennial demographic, and participating in this kind of service is, believe it or not, a far more comfortable way for millennials to get to know their fellow small-group members.
Beyond incorporating missional opportunities, consider mixing up your small-group meetings. Incorporate more unstructured time like potlucks and community dinners, and spend time together exploring creative spaces and connecting in casual atmospheres like coffee shops. Hosting a variety of activities will allow millennials to grow more relaxed and develop friendships in a natural way—this, in turn, will give them the confidence and trust they need to share their struggles and be open and honest in group.
The more your small groups grow their vision of becoming authentic, Jesus-loving people who are looking to share life together, the more excited your twenty-somethings will be to take part in these communities. Millennials have the potential to bless and be blessed by the church in great ways, and by building relationships through small groups that go deep into the Word and aren't afraid to invest time in others, churches have the potential to draw this group back in and create the future leaders of our churches and ministries.