Reflections on reaching Millennials and Gen Z.

October 8, 2021

by Rev. Jonathan Gaylord, Pastor of Yadkinville UMC in Yadkinville

In conversations with parishioners, clergy, and conference leaders I often hear some variation on the theme "We just need some younger people” as an answer to the woes of declining membership. Whenever the Pew Foundation or Barna come out with a new survey with dire warnings about the growing number of religious “nones” (those who don’t identify with any religious tradition or belief) the refrain becomes "Young folks just don't care about church anymore” said with tones of resignation and finality. 

 While it's true that Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z are all attending to and relating to organized religion in different ways than their grandparents' generations, I don’t think that it's the insurmountable obstacle we often make it out to be. This edition of the eLead includes resources to help your Church connect to younger generations. 

There are no magic wands we can wave; no single program we can enact that will bring younger people into our worship services. For this work to be effective we must reflect deeply on the culture of our congregations, asking “Why do we want to help young people discover and love our church?” If the answer is to pay the bills, keep programs going, or fill our committees, this work isn’t for you right now. If in conversations with your congregation you find the answer trends close to forming authentic relationships with Jesus and each other and serving our neighbor, then you may be ready to begin this work. 

The most comprehensive resource I have found for churches to begin connecting with younger generations is Growing Young by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. Published in 2016, Growing Young undertook a three-stage research process looking at Churches that were effectively connecting with 15-29-year-olds. They worked with churches of all different sizes and denominations (including Centenary UMC in Winston-Salem) to figure out the things that these 41 congregations were doing to help them “grow young.” They then assembled a list of 6 commitments that each congregation held in common that were helping them grow young.

  1. Unlock keychain leadership: Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
  2. Empathize with today’s young people: Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously: Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
  4. Fuel a warm community: Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere: Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
  6. Be the best neighbors: Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.

Before you think we don’t have the resources needed to grow young, the authors have a list of things churches DO NOT need in order to grow young, among them were some greatest hits of things churches think will help them grow young. Most churches will be happy to note that this list includes: a popular denomination… or lack of a denomination, a “contemporary worship service,” an off-the-charts cool quotient,  a hyper-entertaining ministry program, and a large budget. Sorry Guitars of Flowing Life Church A United Methodist Community and Hymnals & Handbells United Methodist Church, turns out it's not about name or style… It's the substance that makes a real impact in disciple-making. The good news is that your church already has what it needs to grow young!

The authors of Growing Young include helpful reflections throughout each chapter, and the final chapter serves as a guide for your leadership team to develop a plan to help intentionally implement those 6 key commitments in your context. Reading this book and incorporating its suggestions would pair nicely with Kay Kotan’s book Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World and the Game Changers Initiative and/or the Both/and Cohorts being offered through the conference. Now is the perfect time for our congregations to take a good look at their mission and focus in order to prepare for the next stage of ministry post-pandemic. 

Leadership Development