Drawing on research conducted by the Barna Group, Jeremy Steele outlines some of the turnoffs for millennials when they visit new churches. An outdated digital presence and a lack of diversity top the list.
To celebrate the Lewis Center’s anniversary, we are highlighting Leading Articles — some of our most popular posts of the past 20 years. We are pleased to share again this article by Jeremy Steele, originally published on July 10, 2019.
Even though there are a growing number of “nones” (individuals who claim no religious affiliation) among the millennials, Barna reveals this does not indicate disinterest in faith. According to the research, 66 percent of those who are not going to church still say they are spiritual. Nearly half say they are actively seeking something better spiritually than they have experienced in the past.
Millennials are looking for faith communities. Far too often when they walk into our places of worship, they experience a church that is making simple yet impactful mistakes that cause them to walk back out the door, never to return. Many of these mistakes flow from a lack of understanding of the millennial generation and how they process the church experience. Here are some of the things millennials say turn them off when they visit new churches.
1. Out-of-date or nonexistent digital presence
When people are considering being part of your congregation, the first place they will look is at your website and/or social media presence. The practice is even more customary with this digitally native generation.
When millennials log onto your website (or more likely your Facebook page), they look first for the times of your services, what programs are offered (young adult ministry, etc.) and the church’s location. But even when that data is present and accurate, the way it’s presented communicates as much about your church as the information itself. When the presentation is dated and/or unattractive on mobile devices like tablets and cell phones, millennials will steer clear, assuming the church does not keep up with the times.
2. Lack of diversity on the platform
Millennials have grown up as part of the most diverse American generation in history and are the second full generation to spend their entire educational lives in the post-segregation world. Those factors mean that their friend groups are often as diverse as their generation. They have grown up in classes and at slumber parties with friends of all cultures and colors. They have gone to college and been employed in settings that have paid increasingly careful attention to assuring there is diversity at all levels of leadership.
When they walk into many churches, they experience a completely different paradigm than they are used to in their everyday life. Rather than seeing a congregation and leadership with as broad a racial makeup as their generation, they often see far less diversity. On the whole, U.S. Christian denominations are rarely as diverse as this generation. In fact, two of the largest denominations are two of the least diverse — with Southern Baptists reporting as 85 percent white and United Methodists as 94 percent white.
With a limited member mix in the congregation, churches have to be careful in the selection of who is on the platform and who are listed as leaders on their webpages. It is vitally important to ask questions like “What level of racial diversity do we exhibit on a Sunday morning? What about gender diversity? Age?” It is essential for millennials to see a church that echoes the diversity of their generation in its leadership and worship.
3. Political pastors
When Barna asked people to offer what they felt were the greatest failures/negative contributions of the Christian population to America, being too political was the second on the list just behind people committing acts of violence in the name of Christ. That is troubling data because Pew reveals that the U.S. political parties are becoming more ideologically divided. Also, the parties increasingly view the other negatively. Whereas in 1994 only 16 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans viewed the opposing party unfavorably, these negative perceptions have more than doubled (38% and 43%, respectively) today.
When you place the politically independent millennials into that culture, you get a population that is deeply troubled when a church or pastor seems to take a strong political stance. When they walk into a sanctuary and find leaders endorsing political parties or speaking in political terms about current events, they are ready to leave. Millennials see the domain of the church as purely intended to offer an environment for worship and spiritual insight and development. They do not feel that it is a place for political advocacy. This doesn’t mean that the church has to ignore world events, but comments need to keep far away from endorsing policies or parties, focusing instead on helping people process the spiritual side of the political reality.
4. Pessimistic sermons
Millennials believe the world can be changed for the better by human action, so pessimistic sermons about the current state of the world go against their optimism. Instead of harping on what is wrong with the world and illustrating the rampant spread of sin, it is important that preachers project hope and cast the current state of affairs with a hint of optimism. Even when preaching a sermon that feels necessarily negative, there is always the hope of the new Jerusalem in Revelation to lift even the darkest of sermons. Finding statistics that illustrate positive culture and historical trends can help preachers connect more deeply with this generation.
5. Disparaging comments about millennials
To some, millennials have become a punch line associated with a stereotype of a spoiled, entitled generation that does not want to work for a living. It is hardly surprising that 66 percent of millennials do not like being identified with the term. It’s hardly unique to them, but they are weary of people demeaning their generation. Although using “entitled millennials” in a sermon may win points with older generations, the words may prompt members of this generation to look for another place to worship.
With sensitivity to millennial turnoffs, churches can make huge strides in eliminating small elements that may make their church less engaging to this generation of adults.
This material is excerpted from Reaching and Communicating with Millennials a free ebook available through United Methodist Communications. Used by permission.
- 5 Reasons Millennials are Drawn to Mainline Churches by Andrew Ponder Williams
- 5 Strategies for Engaging Millennials by Joshua L. Mitchell
- What Kind of Church Will Millennials Lead? by David McAllister-Wilson