Millennials. Is there a word that strikes more confusion or fear into the church? We're being told they're flaky, leaving en masse in a modern day exodus of sorts, and that organized religion can no longer reach them.
On the contrary, it's not that a living God can't relate to a younger, more skeptical generation, it's that we have yet to fully embrace the ways to reach them. Small groups—Christians engaged in genuine community—are the answer to keeping the church relevant to a generation seeking something more from the faith they inherited from their parents.
After studying millennials for years, I have found that this generation is craving four core things: authenticity, being known, truth, and purpose. Small groups are the tool in the modern-day church that can move Christianity from a casual Sunday morning experience to a real, vibrant relationship with God—and they're especially relevant for millennials.
Let's dig a little into the four values of millennials: authenticity, being known, truth, and purpose. The root of all four is significance. Past generations have used the lens of importance and urgency to determine the things they'll participate in, but the millennial generation puts much more weight into significance. With the proliferation of accessible information from the Internet boom, millennials realize, more than any previous generation, that the time they have here on Earth is limited.
That knowledge makes millennials excited and anxious to start making an impact with the gifts God has given them. They have no use for what they interpret as pointless gatherings, rituals void of meaning, or continuing on a paved path simply because others have traveled it before. To them, it's ultimately a waste of time on their path to significance. Our job as the church is to meet millennials where they are, create useful spaces for them to personalize the gospel for themselves, and encourage atmospheres where it's okay to bring up the big, serious questions that usually alienate a generation searching for personal truth. And small groups are the perfect place to do this. Let's look at the four key values of millennials and how small groups are perfectly suited to meet these needs:
Millennials Crave Authenticity
While previous generations were content with rituals, millennials now crave a church experience with authenticity. They have no interest in participating in anything that has an air of pretense. When they're deciding how to spend their time, they make sure it isn't spent on having to fake their own perfection or on shallow relationships where they can't be themselves—they get enough of that on social media.
Small groups should be the safest place for millennials to be their true selves and encounter others who are living a life of grace and acceptance as well. If they can't experience an atmosphere within the Christian church that encourages them to be honest about their struggles and trials, this generation will find it elsewhere. They want to know that other Christians have troubles, questions, and failures similar to their own, and that they aren't going to have to hide it in the name of acceptance. There's no place that is inherently more suited for authenticity than a small group atmosphere of confession, growth, and encountering Jesus. When millennials see others being vulnerable and real, digging deeper than the niceties required of a fleeting Sunday morning encounter, they'll be drawn to our message of acceptance and grace.
Millennials Crave Being Known
While previous generations sought out respect and formality in their church experiences, millennials crave a church experience where they can "know and be known." When the church experience stops at Sunday morning, millennials can often get lost in the crowd and feel unimportant. In an age full of carefully curated lives of filtered photos on social media, millennials have a deep-seated need for an inner circle that will know the real version of themselves—not just the public persona they've created. Steven Furtick once said that we struggle with insecurity because "we are comparing our behind the scenes with everyone else's highlight reel."
As Christians, we're called to a deeper level of community and openness than the rest of the world. We're called to know each other behind the scenes. In small groups, we get the opportunity to accept one another no matter where we are on our walk with Christ—or how messy our lives are without all of the filters. That's the kind of intimacy that millennials are drawn to. Small groups are the perfect avenue to foster that sense of community and true friendship that allows them to say "hi" to someone on Sunday with the confidence that they're accepted for who they are, flaws and all. These deep relationships are what cause them to stay rooted in one place and not "church shop."
Millennials Crave Truth
While previous generations generally believed what their parents told them about God, millennials want to thoroughly question their faith and come to conclusions of truth on their own. They want to know what they believe, why they believe it, and how it's lived out practically.
We are trained to believe that a solid gospel message from the stage on Sunday is enough. We assume that if it's said by a respected leader that people will accept it as truth. But millennials can easily get on their phones during that same service and find someone else peddling the complete opposite of the gospel as truth. Millennials need a safe place to express their doubts and questions, knowing they won't be judged or condemned for wrestling with their faith. More than more information—which they can find on the Internet—they want to see a group of people who are on their own journeys of faith, people who are sure of what they believe, but also don't pretend to have all of the answers. Small groups are a safe place for them to ask hard questions and to have honest and truthful discussions with other believers.
Millennials Crave Purpose
While previous generations were content to attend Sunday service and get motivation for their week, millennials want to take the message and apply it to their individual purpose. They are anxious to put their beliefs to use and make their mark on the world. When they hear a moving message on Sunday morning, they want to process it and apply it to their lives. When they're able to talk through the practical aspects of the message with other believers, it helps them take steps toward their purpose. These discussions solidify the relationships that keep them plugged into the church.
In addition to processing the weekend message, small groups are perfectly suited to connect millennials with potential mentors who can help them find purpose in life. Mentors—formal or informal—can provide help with applying God's Word to their work, friendships, and family life. Small groups are a great place for millennials to put feet to their faith, brainstorm ideas for impacting the world, and get the support they need to see their goals through to completion.
Small groups are not an outdated or irrelevant function of the church—especially not for millennials. If our groups are safe places for people to question and grow, places where genuine interactions take place and friendships are allowed to grow, they are perfectly poised to minister to millennials.
—Amber Day is the City Groups Director at City Church in Tulsa.