Churches have traditionally catered to its more seasoned members in the past, with younger churchgoers waiting in the wings to be seen and heard. Millennials are waiting no longer, forcing churches to either step up to include them or risk losing their presence and membership.
There are 79 million millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — and evidence is aplenty that they are leaving the church in alarming numbers.
One study shows 59 percent of millennials raised in the church have already left. Many others have been turning away from regimented ritual religiosity that they associate with traditional denominations.
Luckily for Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, its senior pastor just happens to be a millennial himself. Pastor J. Lawrence Turner, 38, has managed to take a large congregation steeped in tradition and create a place within the church where young people feel a sense of belonging.
“Our millennials have literally taken over outreach,” said Turner. “Programs we are facilitating as we address the needs of our community are being led and driven by young, energetic, fired up millennials.
“We incorporate our young adults into the service so that a small church of millennials is not formed over here,” he said, waving a hand to the side. “They are given things to do within our worship service. There is a place for each and every one of them, and we encourage them as valuable contributors to the church.”
A survey taken by Christian researchers at LifeWay showed millennials are looking primarily for three things: music rich in biblical truths and theological content; authenticity in a worship service; and quality, life-changing services.
According to survey findings, the size of the church was not important. Millennials are neither looking for tradition or contemporary churches. They are looking for connection, a place where they feel included in the integral worship experience — a place where they belong.
Pursuit of God Ministries
Other pastors have also devised worship models that appeal to millennials.
“Young people are looking for something real,” said Pastor Rickey Floyd, with Pursuit of God Ministries in the Frayser community. “In our praise and worship, you see 15- and 16-year-olds with their hands raised and eyes closed, tears rolling down. College students who are fully committed Christians are choosing abstinence over sex before marriage.”
Floyd’s monthly PULSE service is a “youth takeover.” They do everything, from scripture-reading to preaching, and everything in between. Christian rappers are brought in to get the service crunk.
“Young people want balance in their worship,” said minister of music Shadonna Becton. “We bring in Christian rappers, gospel hip-hop artists, but it has to be what God is saying. We want the music to minister to our young people more than anything.”
After preaching for a year and a half at PULSE services, youth pastor Brennan Hill said he has learned what attracts millennials.
“We set the tone with high energy, and we give young people responsibilities in the service,” said Hill, who is also Floyd’s son. “They are up and coming. They are the church now. Making them a part of worship lets them know they belong, and they are vital to the worship experience.”
Pastor Marron Thomas of Innovation Church in Frayser celebrates the social media age and millennials’ access to theology and reading about God for themselves.
“Young people have so much access to the internet,” he said. “They are not buying in to what Grandma said. Worship for them must be real, relevant and relational.”
Thomas preaches about current events — the death of Trayvon Martin and others at the hands of the police — because social issues are important to millennials.
“We make the Christian experience relevant for them by taking worship outside of the church walls. We have community walks, pass out flyers downtown and use a number of avenues to share our faith. There are non-traditional ministries at our church — dance ministry, mimes, videos, drama and a whole media team.
“Five hundred people in their 20s and 30s on fire for God. There is an Empowerment Center where we are training leadership and grooming entrepreneurs.”
The Church at the Well
Pastor Kia Moore, founder of The Church at the Well, is, herself, a millennial who not only pastors millennials, but maintains a multi-generational village of spiritual support for younger members.
The church meets on Sunday at White Station High School at noon. Her experience has revealed that millennials are looking for a real connection with God.
“I have found that people regardless of age are looking for authentic worship experiences where concern for their spiritual growth, dedication to consistent community engagement, and pastoral access are prioritized. All people, based on the data that I have pooled by consulting and working for churches, want these things.
“Millennials, however, are just very vocal about it. To that end, millennials want churches where their input matters and where their ideas have impact. Millennials want the freedom to explore, ask questions, test approaches and to grow. Millennials want tools and not cheap talk,” Moore said.
“For this reason, our church offers free headshots and marketing classes to our members because many own businesses and need help expanding their vision. On Sundays we preach a gospel that encourages them to get well, live well and make others well, and during the week we have small groups where we can share our weaknesses and we offer tools where we can walk in our purpose. This approach works for us.”
As with other ministries that resonate with millennials, the music component is a vital tool in genuinely meaningful worship.
“I think millennials want worship music that is vertical and pointing towards heaven. Authentic worship for millennials is worship that is centered on Christ, the character of Christ and becoming more like Christ. They want to sing songs and hear sermons about Jesus and not just about struggles. I call it “struggle gospel” when every Sunday we are rehearsing getting out of something, getting over something or getting through something.
“We can’t always be coming up the rough side of the mountain. Can we have some good days? How do we teach people to live well — when living well does not mean being rich? Millennials don’t want to sing about haters. We don’t want sermons about haters. We don’t even like a bunch of songs about what we can get from God,” Moore said.
“Millennials don’t want a transactional relationship with Jesus. We want a transformational one. We want to learn to live out our purpose. We want to know why we are here. We don’t want to breathe to death — we want to live authentically. We want to learn to practically apply scripture to our everyday lives. And, we want to take what we learned and change our communities.
“That’s what happened at the well in John 4, and that is why our church is named The Church At The Well. For us, if Sunday isn’t giving us tools to live better and to help others become better, we are wasting our time. If church is transactional and not transformational, it is pointless. So, many millennials opt to stay home.”