Editor’s note: You can listen to Benjie Shaw discuss ministry to millennials during Episode 6 of Radio B&R, the official news podcast of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
By Benjie Shaw,
BCM Director, University Of Tennessee Health Science Center
I couldn’t help but fake a smile and cringe. After spending two Wednesday nights sharing about millennials with a local church, a lay leader approached me with a great idea for reaching out to millennials in the church’s neighborhood. Somehow, after listening to me share that millennials were disinterested in “churchy” things, that they probably won’t walk in to a church sponsored event, especially one located in a church, and that relationships with them generally must begin on their turf, his great idea was to show a Christian movie in the church’s coffee shop and put up invitation flyers in the neighborhood to attract young adults.
Maybe I should have told him all the problems with his idea, but I couldn’t find it in myself to do it that night. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the pattern repeat many times across lots of churches in several states. No matter how much I caution well-intentioned folks that the “come-and-see” model of evangelism and the attractional nature of most church programming is rapidly losing its remaining effectiveness with lost young people, the next “great idea” with which I am presented falls back into those paradigms.
- The church only wants something from me. In this case, it is their time. Other, more cynical young adults will interpret this as a way to get them in to ask them for money, whether you actually will or not.
- The church is only focused on itself. One of the chief complaints of millennials in regards to churches is that churches only care about their stuff instead of caring about their communities. When the focus of an invitation is “Come to our [insert activity here],” this critique is reinforced.
- The church is irrelevant to real life. Christians, regardless of age, have a difficult time understanding this critique. For many of us, the church’s activities are a large part of our life and are central to it. For non-Christians, particularly young adults who have either walked away from or never had experience with the church, the things we see as central to everyday life are spurious, nonessential, and irrelevant. The solution is not to put a new twist on something we’ve done before or try to sneak spiritual content into an otherwise neutral activity.
Instead of having an event or trying to start a group of some type, the best way to begin to engage non-Christian millennials is to serve alongside them, a reality I stumbled across by accident last year. So you know, I primarily serve students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. I don’t have typical undergrads. My students are in medical, dental, physical therapy, pharmacy, and occupational therapy programs at the level that, when they graduate, they will be those things.
Last year I did all the things many campus ministers do to engage lost students on campus: I performed surveys, I tried to start evangelistic small groups, we hosted social events at our building, and attempted outings at neutral locations. None of these activities were effective in the least.
We partnered with a local non-profit in the spring to perform a dental clinic for refugee families in our community. A group of 20 students volunteered to help, a large crowd for my campus! Of those 20, 14 of those students had had absolutely no contact with our ministry to that point in the year. Last summer we took a group of 19 students to Ecuador to conduct dental clinics with local churches. Of those 19, 16 had little to no contact with our ministry previously.
I learned through the course of preparing for the trip that most of those 16 didn’t even consider themselves Christians. I explained to them that we were a Christian ministry that was going to work with Christian churches to have a chance to tell people about Jesus and offered them a chance to back out if that made them uncomfortable. None of them did. During our time in Ecuador, we not only showed the love of Christ to those we serve, but we were able to have significant gospel conversations with these students throughout the week and into this school year. So far none of them have become Christians, but three are asking serious questions and are being engaged by our ministry regularly and that is three more reached than by anything else we tried last year.
How can you do something similar in your church? Identify a pressing need in your community and mobilize the community to help with it. Is there a park in the area that needs a lot of attention? Does your community have a relatively large percentage of crisis pregnancies? How are the reading scores at your neighborhood elementary school? Identify something your church can help with then make your church an advocate for that one cause. Create service opportunities and enlist community members to help while asking nothing from them but their time in the cause. Once you are working with them, you will have an opportunity to show and share Christ. Partner with existing organizations. Get to know the staff and the volunteers. Show them by your actions that there is a church that cares about their cause just like they do. Along the way, talk about Jesus. Ask probing questions. Listen.
The fruit is slower in coming. But microwaved fruit always tastes soggy anyway.