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The millennial way

For those in their 20s and 30s, culture beats programmes every time, writes Simon Barrington. Here’s what churches need to know, and how they can respond 

The millennial way

What used to work in your church for reaching young adults, but isn’t working now? 
We wanted to find out and so we interviewed nearly 500 Christian millennial leaders (born between 1984 and 2000) over the course of a year to find out their views on their leadership development, Church, faith and the challenges and opportunities they saw in their leadership.
The results were fascinating.
Firstly, they told us that it’s not so much what churches are doing, and the programmes that they are putting on that are problematic, but the way in which older leaders and members of congregations are behaving. This is deeply challenging, as it points to mindset and attitude change rather than re-arranging the chairs and the activities.
They told us that if we want to work effectively with young adults, then it is the culture of our churches that needs to change. 
So what culture changes are they looking for?

  1. Cultures with high levels of integrity
    They are looking for cultures with high levels of integrity and authenticity. Millennials can spot a lack of authenticity from a million miles away. When asked what they admired in older leaders that they would follow, integrity was number one on the list. They want our words to match our actions, and they want to see us up close and personal. The implications of this for our churches and leaders are huge. We need to understand that trust is earned through consistency and empathy, not through position or competency, and that millennials want to come close and see things in the raw.
  2. Cultures where they can fail and learn
    Millennials have a high “need for approval” and a high “fear of failure”. Therefore, they value cultures in which people can try, innovate, fail safely and learn. In these environments, creativity, experimentation and innovation can flourish. They recognise that no-one really knows how to reach their generation effectively and therefore they need churches to be willing to take risks and to be prepared to try and fail. In contrast, blame cultures are walked away from very quickly. 
  3. Cultures where relationships mean everything
    In our research 94 per cent of millennials said that the quality of their relationships was important or extremely important. Leadership is seen as a team game and millennials are attracted to churches with team ministries. Looking through a relational lens, for millennials the emphasis on any initiative or activity needs to be on the relational journey and the people LESS than on the activities and outcomes. This is also why collaboration and unity are vital aspects of a churches culture that young adults look for.
  4. Cultures with a strong sense of purpose
    Millennials have grown up having their own “personal brand” on Instagram and social media. They have a clear sense of purpose and are able to articulate that well. They are passionate about aligning with organisations that are clear about their purpose, bold in pursuing it and that have a purpose which aligns with their own sense of purpose. They also want to be involved in shaping the sense of purpose of the organisation. Therefore your “Why?” as a church matters. Why do you exist? How are you articulating that and how does it align with the sense of justice and fairness that are the hallmark of this generation?
  5. Cultures that are focussed on developing others
    Millennials told us that they love nothing better as leaders than developing others. They are a discipling generation. They want to be in close relationships where they are learning and teaching, where they are able to bring on the next generation. And they want your focussed attention and time to develop them in intentional discipling relationships.
  6. Cultures that wrestle with the difficult issues
    Only 48 per cent of the Christian millennial leaders we interviewed said that the Bible was the main authority in the whole of their lives. They are wrestling with how to apply Scripture in their relationships and circumstances. However, they want to wrestle with these issues and desire more than anything the openness to examine Scripture and talk and debate difficult issues.
  7. Cultures that value the whole of life
    Millennials want to make the whole of their life work – body, soul, mind and spirit. They want an excellent balance between being fit mentally, physically and spiritually. They don’t want to become burnt out on work or activity and value having a rhythm to their lives that works for them. Therefore, they value cultures in churches that combine social, spiritual, physical and mental activities and that are tuned to the wellbeing of individuals and groups and provide safe and supportive places for this.

So, what should churches, and church leaders prioritise in changing their cultures to work more effectively with millennials, and to reach more millennials with the Good News of Jesus?

  1. Celebrate the ways in which millennials are seeking to live the Jesus way
    There is so much to celebrate in millennial culture. We need to dispel some of the myths around entitlement, laziness, narcissism and disloyal and recognise the values of integrity, relationship, discipling, wholeness and purpose that can transform a Churches culture for the better, regardless of age.
  2. Create high challenge – high support environments
    Invite millennials into close relationship in environments that encourage risk taking and trying and failing at the same time as providing high levels of support and relationship.
  3. Focus on relationships
    Don’t advertise programmes, but rather focus on co-creating spaces in which relationships can flourish and be authentic and open. Focus on the journey as much or more than the outcomes.
  4. Focus on identity and purpose
    Teaching on identity is vital for this generation. There is a lot of insecurity and questioning about who we really are as individuals and together. Ask the Why? questions and be prepared to wrestle with them.
  5. Focus on discipleship
    Create environments in which millennials are discipled and are free and encouraged to disciple others – whether older or younger than themselves. 

Above all be more focused on long term cultural change and behaviours than on snazzy programmes.

Simon BarringtonSimon Barrington is the Founder and Director of Forge Leadership Consultancy. In 2018 Forge Leadership published their research into Millennials in Leadership 
In 2019, SPCK published the book Leading the Millennial Way, written by Simon and Rachel Luetchford. www.forge-leadership.com
Simon is a member of Burlington Baptist Church, Ipswich

This article appears in the Summer 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine


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Baptist Times, 27/05/2020
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