By Benjie Shaw
Campus Minister, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis
While many still associate Millennials with college campuses and young adult idealism, the reality is that the vast majority of Millennials has moved on from college and is firmly entrenched in an all too familiar narrative of idealism confronting reality.
In 2014 the Pew Research Forum identified Millennials as the portion of the population between the ages of 18-33 (Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.” Released March 7, 2014). It’s now 2016, so add two years to those ranges and you realize that only about 10 percent of the Millennial population in America is college-aged. Millennials have mostly moved on from academic settings and are now infiltrating the “real world.”
Unfortunately, this movement from campus to office doesn’t make the church any more effective in reaching young adults. According to the 2012 Annual Church Profile, 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches baptized either 0 or 1 person between the ages of 18-29.
In many cases, this movement from campus to office makes reaching young adults even more difficult. Even if detached from church during their college years, most campuses have a multiplicity of campus-based ministries with which a student may have some form of contact. Upon graduation, unchurched young adults generally lose even the potential of a ministry touch and further insulate themselves from the possibility. Interestingly, research indicates that this isn’t done out of an attitude of opposition, but one of apathy. Spirituality of any sort, particularly one viewed as “institutionalized,” is considered important, just not important enough to actively pursue.
So what can churches do to engage the increasing population of post-college Millennials?
(1) Re-think ministry focus. Churches typically focus on families. Families are stable and dependable. Millennials present a challenge for this focus because they are, on average, delaying marriage into their late 20s or early 30s. Churches that emphasize family ministry will typically find it difficult to involve Millennials, even those who consider themselves Christians, because of the implied message that those who are married with children are further along the path of discipleship and more worthy of the church’s energy. Churches that are successful in involving single young adults are typically those that encourage and partner with families without the implied message that to be single is to be less worthwhile.
(2) Provide service opportunities. Singles groups in churches, while a noble effort to engage the single population, were almost universally loathed by the 15 or so single friends I spoke with in preparation for writing this article. Two complaints were common: they were either Christian hook-up groups where the church seemed to be trying to get you married, or they were an awkward mix of 20-something never marrieds and 50-something single agains. The solution? Those who were active in a church found places to serve which provided them a relational connection to others in the church.
(3) Mid-week is better. Church attendance patterns have shifted. Forty years ago an active church member was physically present at the church three times a week. Now, young adults who consider themselves active church members are present one-two times a month. The pattern of life has changed. Young adults have more geographic mobility and fewer tethers to the city in which they live. They love to travel and accumulate experiences, especially when it involves reconnecting with college friends who have probably taken a job in a different city. That said, if your church’s activities are strictly weekend-based, you will struggle to see young adults become active.
(4) Start a college ministry. This seems counter-intuitive given that the article opened by saying that Millennials are mostly out of college. However, my unscientific survey of single friends revealed that many who remained active in a church as single adults were generally active in that same church as college students. In spite of Millennials’ geographic mobility, relationships remain important. If a college student becomes involved in a church to the point of building significant relationships, it is entirely possible that he/she will choose to remain in the area where relational connections have already been made.
(5) Encourage mentoring. I don’t just mean in a church setting as a discipleship process. Yes, that is helpful, but it won’t help your church reach unchurched Millennials. Encourage professionals in your church to be on the look out for fresh college graduates and late 20s to early 30s co-workers and take an interest in them. Many Millennials long for an established person in their chosen field to take an interest in them in order to learn about the job and about life from them. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to missionally pursue individuals for whom spirituality may not even be on their radar and who are otherwise difficult for the church to connect with.