Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power.
Church and the Millennial Challenge
Church growth and retention is a desire of every pastor and church leader. The church’s purpose is to make disciples and to pass on the Christian faith to each generation. A growing concern among many church leaders is the active engagement of millennials. In the book Millennials in Ministry, author Jolene Erlatcher states: “The loss of millennials in church and ministry leadership is arguably the most pressing issue facing the church in America at this moment. There has been a decline and absence of the millennial generation from the faith community, and faith altogether” (Erlacher 2014). These trends are ones I noticed in my own ministry context. Grief over this change in our young adult engagement led me to research the “absence of millennials” that not only I noticed at my local church, but what many other ministries were experiencing as well.
I am an associate minister at an African American Baptist church located in a residential community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We have been in existence for 121 years with a legacy of steady growth, active involvement, and dedicated participation in ministries. Historically, the church has always been the bedrock for the black community. In his book, “New Wine New Wineskins,” F. Douglas Powe Jr. expresses these same thoughts: Until recently most African American congregations have been immune to ongoing cultural shifts, because black church has historically been the epicenter of the African American community. (Powe Jr. 2012). I remember growing up with the traditions, values, and teachings of my parents which were rooted in our religious faith. Faith was passed down from one generation to the next. We looked to the church for spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical support. The trends of millennial absence noted by Jolene Erlatcher and many other researchers ignited my quest to investigate reasons and explore solutions, My quest for answers from scholarly and qualitative research resulted in me learning that it wasn’t that millennials were not interested in spirituality or their faith, but rather the church’s lack of effectiveness in meeting their needs.
In the book, Eight Innovations to Leading Millennials, author Benjamin Windle states: Generational literacy and intelligence are fundamental to communicating with each generation to understand its needs, especially those of the millennials. As it relates to my project focus, generational literacy means becoming knowledgeable of the culture, experiences, and trends that affect how millennials think, feel, and engage with life. It is mastering the “differences” in the generations and applying that wisdom in planning for ministry effectiveness. While the gospel message has not changed, times and people do. In order for churches to effectively reach millennials, we must understand them. At any given time, there are five generations co-existing together. A generation is composed of those individuals who share a common historical experience (Balswick 1977). Another way to define the term is a group of people who are connected by their place in time with common boundaries and a common character (McIntosh 2002). Each particular generation has basic commonalities, shaped by the era in which they grew up, making them distinct and quite different from one another. Generational theorists and analysts have named the last 5 generations as follows:
|GENERATION||YEARS OF BIRTH||AGES (Based on 2021 Calculation)|
|The Silent Generation (Traditionalist)||1925-1945||(Ages 76-96)|
|The Baby Boomer||1946-1964||(Ages 57-75)|
|Generation X||1965-1979||(Ages 42-56)|
|Generation Y (Millennials)||1980-1995||(Ages 26-41),|
|Generation Z||Born after 1995||Ages 25 and below|
Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. New York: Vintage Books.
Millennials have surpassed boomers as the largest living generation in the United States (Bock and Del Rosario 2017). Since millennials are the largest living generation, their loss of presence in the church represents a great impact. Among other things, that impact would be felt in decreased membership sizes, decreased financial resources, and a decreased pool of potential leaders to take the ministry into the next generation.
My interest in millennial engagement, and in particular Black millennials is born out of my scriptural interpretation and inward conviction that faith should be passed on from one generation to the next. Both the Old and New Testament are replete with scriptures indicating that God expects us to transfer our faith from one generation to another. However, what the bible doesn’t implicitly teach is that generations are different and how to effectively reach them. We need to make sure that millennials are engaged in spiritual formation so that, first, they can become mature Christians, and second, so that they can be equipped to serve.
A great deal has been written regarding millennial (dis)engagement; however, far less has been written on the absence of Black millennials from the church. While there are commonalities among millennials in general, there are unique considerations for engaging black millennials. Rooted deeply in the tradition of the black church, my project focus of interest is: How do we re-engage black millennials in the church for spiritual formation and active leadership?
Project and Research Process
As cultural trends in church participation were identified, there were a plethora of articles, books, and journals written about millennials abandoning the church. The first goal of my project was to research scholarly references on millennial participation. The second goal was to use a combination of surveys, interviews, and a focus group to excavate the thoughts, ideas, and concerns of millennials. My hypothesis was that it wasn’t so much that millennials were abandoning their faith, but rather were reacting to deficiencies in the church’s ability to meet their individual needs. Survey questionnaires were completed by millennials, one-on-one interviews were conducted with Pastors, and follow-up feedback was gathered through a millennial focus group. The surveys contained a variety of questions from things that engage, things that dis-engage, and much more. The pastoral interviews were obtained for two purposes: 1) To glean wisdom from pastors who had a high level of millennial participation, and 2) To compare & contrast how millennials responded to their survey questions and how pastors responded on the same questions. The third goal was to use a focus group to engage further dialogue of the surveys completed. The survey responses of the millennials helped inform me of practices that would engage them in spiritual formation as well as how we could help them becomes leaders in the church. Participants were excited and eager to complete the surveys and expressed hope in seeing their suggestions implemented. There were common themes as I began to analyze the data and look for patterns.
Findings and Future Implications
My research was both informative and confirming. My surveys, interviews, and scholarly research provided valuable insight that Black millennials desire and want to be actively engaged in a church to meet their spiritual needs. Based on my findings, there are seven recommendations I would make to church leaders.
1. Reverse Mentoring – Learning from Millennials
In the book, You Lost Me, David Kinnamon states: “I believe that, within the stories of young people wrestling with faith, the church as a whole can find fresh and revitalizing answers. Let’s call it ‘reverse mentoring,’ because we, the established Christians’ generation have a lot to learn from the emerging generation” (Kinnaman 2012, 12). What this means is that if you want to learn about a generation, it would involve being intentional about listening to their needs, creating opportunities for dialogue, and allowing them to be actively involved with giving input in ministry activities. Rev. Reginald Sharpe, Senior Pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, pastors a 3000 member church in Chicago. He has been successful in millennial engagement and retention. In my pastoral interview with him, he heavily emphasized the importance of listening. He stated that often times we are slow in responding to what millennials are communicating which ends up resulting in them leaving because their needs are not being met. Snippets of his interview are in the video below.
Interviewee: Sharpe, Pastor Reginald; Interview: Conducted by Cynthia Dixon, 12 January 2021.
2. Embracing Technology
Millennials are the most technologically savvy generation. They are genuine digital natives, immersed in a world of wearable devices, streaming music and videos, online communities, and social media. Technology in ministry provides ease of access. In a generation that is accustomed to having access at the fingertip, millennials would embrace ministries that provide technological resources. Mitchell in his book Black Millennials and the Church stated that he was playing round with Periscope and it ended up being a huge success. “I found myself logging on the next morning and many mornings after that, and more and more people kept tuning in. God has grown that platform to over 20,000 followers. The Morning Hype now averages anywhere from 450 to 1000 followers (Mitchell 2018, 42). Providing opportunities for Zoom Bible studies, prayer sessions, Sunday School classes, and New Member/New Convert classes would be a more appropriate way to reach a fluid generation that wants to have flexible opportunities for spiritual formation. Interaction and community are extremely important for millennials and can be effectively achieved through technology.
Interviewee: Brown, Pastor Olu; Interview: Conducted by Cynthia Dixon, February 2021
3. Mentorship and/or Authentic Relationships
Millennials are looking for authentic, meaningful relationships with mature believers who love them well as they navigate the tensions of life and seek to grow in their faith. Rather than being most concerned about a pastor’s Sunday sermon, many young people are desperate for discipleship. Mentorship facilitates a relational culture, one in which power is shared through people’s participation both in the formation and in the ongoing functioning of their society’s political, economic, and religious (values-sustaining) systems (Linthicum 2003, 28).
I have several mentees that I am currently working with and have seen spiritual formation develop from these close- knit relationships. Millennials believe in learning, not simply by lecture, but by guided experience. It is probable that we are being called the prodigal child when we may have actually been exiled through neglect and misunderstanding, becoming the marginalized in ministry. (Parker 2018, 25).
Leaders play a crucial role in the retention and success of young adults in ministry. Millennials desire and expect relational leadership from their senior pastors and other leaders. It is important to understand what this looks like in practice. When leaders view ministry as a business, they often see their role as that of a boss. Many young adults desire the church to function more like a family. (Erlacher 2014). In my millennial surveys and focus group responses, the importance of meaning relationships were reiterated over and over. The video clip below captured a portion of this importance .
Interviewee: Morris, Aeisha ; Interview: Conducted by Cynthia Dixon, January 2021
Another common thread of what engages millennials was the importance of relevance. Pastor Sharpe, whose video snippet is above also commented on the importance of relevance. He stated in our interview: “Millennials look at ministry from the standpoint ‘Is this purposeful?’ If they perceive activities as a waste of time and not practical for everyday life, then it will not be engaging.” According to my millennial surveys, practices that millennials found engaging included ministry and teaching directly in line with their struggles and culture. One respondent to the survey stated: “What I find engaging is having a church that provides relatable examples. Millennials like to know how they can apply the scriptures to their life. Within my church they simplify the scriptures into everyday tasks, so I understand what the Bible is saying more clearly and how to use it.” Not only did the surveys of millennials inform me of this important component of ministry, but pastors echoed the same sentiment. Pastor Olu Brown of Impact Church in Atlanta, GA is one of my interviewees. He pastors a 5,000 member church with a high percentage of active millennials. A snippet of his interview is in the video below.
Interviewee: Brown, Pastor Olu; Interview: Conducted by Cynthia Dixon, February 2021
5. Safe and Unjudgmental Environments
Another consistent thread that was communicated in my surveys was this high need for being in a “safe environment or safe space”. One of the interview questions was: “What are some things that deter millennials from engaging in church?”. One hundred percent of them mentioned that a judgmental environment was a huge turn-off. Expressions of being in a safe space and safe environment was reiterated over and over. Creating a safe space is really an act of hospitality. Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s action bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis. (L. Russell 2009, 19). It is important to show hospitality to every group within a ministry. Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are specially gifted for it. It is instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith (Kim 2018). Another snippet of my interview with Pastor Sharpe is in the video below.
6. Opportunities for Serving and Volunteering
Real spiritual formation happens when people are able to exercise their faith and engage their core body of beliefs. We all need meaningful life experiences with other believers as part of our formation. In the surveys completed for this project, millennials expressed the desire to give back and serve. In the article, “Ministering to Millennials,” the following statement was made: “Since many millennials tend to perceive the church as too internally focused, pastors may need to elevate the visibility of existing ministries to the marginalized. Some churches may need to consider beginning such an outreach or partnering with a local organization already making an impact in the community. Regardless, inviting younger people to participate in compassion ministries that care for the poor in tangible ways can help challenge a false dichotomy between teaching truth from the pulpit and loving our neighbors well (Bock and Del Rosario 2017)” As it relates to serving, many millennials expressed a desire to volunteer their time in one capacity or another. The four top deterrents to serving per the millennial surveys are as follows: 1) The older generation not allowing the younger to serve, 2) A lack of training, 3) A lack of knowledge in the areas in which they wanted to serve, and 4) Not seeing other young adults serving.
7. Evangelism Efforts Targeting Unchurched Millennials.
Deficiencies in membership retention of millennials should concern all churches who are affected. In Matthew 18:12, Jesus states: “If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? I liken this project to these words, seeking them which has gone astray. Evangelism is at the core of the church’s mission. Matthew 28:19-20 says: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” If a church loses it’s ability to make disciples then its whole purpose for existence has become void of results.
One of my favorite books is the Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren. He states that “Nothing precedes purpose. The starting point for every church should be the question. ‘Why do we exist?’ Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation, and no direction for ministry.” (Warren 1995, 81) Therefore, churches should find creative ways to reach unchurched millennials.
For starters, I would encourage a program of personal invitations. In the book. You Found Me, author Rick Richardson states in his survey of two thousand unchurched individuals that half of them said that they would respond positively to an invitation to attend church if the invitation came from a friend. He further sates that 55 percent of those surveyed said they would respond positively if the invitation came from a family member (Richardson 2019). According to the “unchurched report” by Richardson, only 25 percent of the unchurched had never been churched (Richardson 2019).
CONCLUSION – “The Sling-Shot Generation”
As I conclude this narrative, I invite you to reflect on two biblical men that demonstrate a difference in generations in how they approached their battle: King Saul, and David, who would eventually become king. These two represented two different generations. I Samuel 17:38–39 reads: Then Saul gave David his own armor—a bronze helmet and a coat of mail. David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before. “I can hardly move!” he exclaimed, and took them off again (Living Translation).
The biblical story of David and Goliath is well known. Goliath, a giant and the champion of the Philistines, challenged the Israelites to send out their champion and decide the outcome of their ongoing war in man-to-man combat. None of the Israelites dared to face Goliath, except David. David expressed his willingness to take on the giant: “Then David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine” (I Samuel 17:32). Saul did not fully see or discern David’s capabilities. “And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (v. 33). David was skilled enough to help even though Saul thought he was too young and inexperienced. David, confident of his abilities, persisted, and Saul agreed. Upon agreement, Saul armed him with his amour—helmet, brass, and coat. David’s response was: “I cannot go with these.” What worked for Saul was not going to work for David. David was basically communicating: we want to engage in the army of the living God, but your armor (way of doing things), is not working for me: “give me a sling-shot.” He took a sling-shot, which represents innovation, and killed Goliath. He represented a different generation, that engaged in a different way.
Millennials are like the Sling-Shot generation and their forefathers are like the armor-bearing generation. Whereas many assumed that millennials were not engaged in church because they had abandoned their faith, in fact they were saying ‘the way you are doing things is not working for me.’ My research has led me to change the armor and invite millennials to tell us how they want to engage in church. Millennials want the opportunity to be innovative and collaborate together. The local church is one mechanism that can be instrumental in bringing us closer to Him and helping us to be more like Him. As we develop generational literacy, are innovative in our methodologies, and are intentional about keeping up with cultural changes, we will be more able to fulfill our Christian mandate and stay relevant in our present-day world.
|Black Millennials & The Church by Joshua Mitchell||New Wine New Wineskins by E. Douglas Powe, Jr.||What Google Can’t Give by Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker|
|Is Christianity The White Man’s Religion by Antipas Harris||Eight Innovations to Leading Millennials by Benjamin Windle||Millennials in Ministry by Jolene Elracher|
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