What's Tony Thinking

Turns Out Millennials Want Church to be Church


The United Methodists recently hired the Barna Group to find out what millennials look for in a church. 

One might wonder if you really can generalize about an entire generation of people, but leaving that aside for the moment . . .

Turns out (at least as I read this article on the study’s findings) that millennials want the church to be, well, church.

Number one, they want to experience God’s presence.

“More than anything else, millennials are coming to church to encounter the divine. Though the church’s authority may be minimized in other areas of culture, it is still given primacy in spirituality. When millennials show up, they want to engage in the serious matters of the soul. Attempts by previous generations to make spaces feel less holy and more corporate have less attraction to this generation.”

“Serious matters of the soul,” Wow! Who knew?

But isn’t that what all churches do, you may be saying to yourself.

No, actually not. The focus may be on our wonderful members, our history, or our progressive political views, but a living and active God? Not so much.

So if your church is offering mainly a social group/club, or a political action group, or an historic civic presence, or an echo chamber for the like-minded on culture wars battles, the likelihood that you are growing and welcoming younger people is pretty low.

Channeling my inner James Carville, “It’s about God, stupid!” And not just discussions about God, but testimonies to and of God’s love, power and capacity to change lives.

For too long mainline churches made the mistake that thinking the way to be accessible and interesting to younger people is to jettison faith and the church’s core convictions, what were once termed “saving truths.” But that’s a little like a restaurant deciding that food isn’t that important or that it’s been over-emphasized.

This is not, however, to say that millennials only want what might be called the “vertical (God-ward) dimension.” They also, according to Barna, want the horizontal, the experience of real community.

“The United Methodist Communication/Barna survey reveals a desire for community is equally important to millennials. It found that 38% of respondents said they look for a church where all are welcome and where they can make new friends and nurture friendships.

Again, many churches would probably respond by saying, “We got that, we are a caring community.” And maybe they are.

Or maybe they are that for those who have been there for a long time, but less so for those who have not. In other words, are you a club or a community? A club tends to have hard, if not always clearly stated, boundaries that define who’s in and who’s out. A community has a strong center but open boundaries.

The wrap-up nails it —

“In summary, millennials want to worship in a holy sanctuary space with people who welcome them and are willing to help them encounter a real God in a way that helps them live out faith in the modern world. Do that, and the millennials are likely to come back next week.”

Like I said, people want the church to be the church.


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