Is the Future of the Church Doomed Without Millennials?

The faithful greet Pope Francis as he arrives to the Campus Misericordiae during World Youth Day in Brzegi near Krakow, Poland on July 31, 2016.
The faithful greet Pope Francis as he arrives to the Campus Misericordiae during World Youth Day in Brzegi near Krakow, Poland on July 31, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Can a church survive without young people?

On the face of it the answer seems to be "no," according to the Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit ministry headquartered in Dallas, Texas, that says engaging millennials is the most important decision a church can make regarding its future.

Millennials make up 20 percent of the entire U.S. population with 83 million people — even more than Baby Boomers — and by 2020 will make up 30 percent.

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This group is a progressive bunch who are the most racially diverse generation with 60 percent anglo and 15 percent immigrants; the most educated with more college degrees than any generation in history, and the most single.

The following are Leadership Network's Eric Swanson's Six Discoveries to help churches reach, retain and grow millennials.

1. Only 4 percent of millennials have a relationship with Christ

Of 1,300 people interviewed in 2000, Thom Rainer, then a dean of the Billy Graham School of Ministries, Evangelism and Church Growth at Kentucky's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (now president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention), noted an alarmingly low percentage of people who considered themselves to be Christians based on having accepted Christ. He categorized these people into four groups:

Builders (born before 1946), Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Busters (born from 1965 to 1976) and Bridgers, or millennials, (1977-1994).

Sixty-five percent of Builders were Christian, 35 percent of Boomers were Christian, 15 percent of Busters were Christian and 4 percent of Bridgers were Christian, demonstrating a significant drop in the percentage of people who are Christian, from one generation to the next.

Rainer said, "Of these people, 75 percent of them became Christians before the age of 14. ... If we really look at the data and are objective, we will look at our preschoolers and children and become intentionally evangelistic. If you don't have a plan to reach these children, you've blown it," he concluded.

2. Millennials don't want to work for you, they want to work with you

Linda Hill, a Harvard professor and co-author of the book Collective Genius, said in a recent TED Talk, "Talented people don't want to follow me anywhere. They want to co-create, with me, the future."

Leadership Network's Eric Swanson said millennials don't want a "guided discussion" where the conclusions are already predetermined, and since they don't subscribe to the concept of lifetime employment with a company they want to be able to contribute from day one, which is a very positive thing when developing a leadership pipeline, he explained.

3. Millennials are different than portrayed

Swanson said millennials are often mischaracterized as entitled and self-centered, and are often said to represent what's wrong with America.

"Considering the fact that they graduated in which some say was the worst economy since the Great Depression," and have more college degrees than any generation in history, Swanson said they are a resilient bunch.

Here are a few stats about millennials that dispel some negative stereotypes:

  • 63 percent donate to charity
  • 43 percent actively volunteer
  • 70 percent of millennials said their career is central to their identity
  • 54 percent want to start their own business or already have done so
  • Millennials comprise one-third of all entrepreneurs in the U.S.
  • 64 percent said they would rather make $40K a year at a job they love than $100K
    a year at a job they think is boring.
  • 50 percent would rather have no job than one that they hate

4. Based on Discovery No. 3, millennials will actually cause churches and pastors to be more authentic, participatory, externally focused, inclusive and more diverse

Swanson asserted that the church has more to learn about authenticity, inclusion, entrepreneurship, diversity,
and living on purpose than it has to teach. He added that the Church should not presume that as millennials age they will simply assume the roles of the Boomer and Gen X worlds.

5. Nearly 25 million millennials said, "Church is very important in their lives"

Instead of worrying about the 29 percent of millennials who have lost any interest in church, Swanson asked, "What if the key to reaching these 'Nones' was their relationship with the millennials who are connected to God?

6. Millennials Have 3 Top Priorities

According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, Millennials have 3 top priorities:

  • Being a good parent — 52 perceint
  • Having a successful marriage — 30 percent
  • Helping others in need — 21 percent

A 2015 survey by Principle Financial Group found that Millennials' top three of four passions are:

  • Raising a family — 79 percent
  • Starting a family — 62 percent
  • Being spiritual — 60 percent

Based on his research and the findings of other scholars and theologians, Swanson concluded that "a church without millennials is a church without a future."

Follow me on Twitter: @kevindonporter

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