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How the Church Can Lead Millennials Effectively

May 17 2019

Andy Hopper, Team Leader for the Hillsong Leadership Network recently chatted with Benjamin Windle on the subject of millennials, and specifically how we as church leaders engage with them. Benjamin is the pastor of Lifeplace Church in Brisbane, Australia – a thriving multi-campus church and a part of the Hillsong Leadership Network. His extensive study and insights on Millennials’ faith comes from his desire to help church create generationally intelligent communities and are the subject of a new White Paper 8 Innovations to Leading Millennials.’


[ANDY] What generations do we currently see displayed in society, and how do you define a millennial?

[BEN] I was born in 1982, so I pretty much sit on the border of Millennials and Gen X. Not only am I a Millennial, but I am also a pastor, so I have taken a particular interest in this generation. By 2030, Millennials will represent 75% of the global workforce. It’s made me ask the question – will they represent 75% of the church?

Millennials are born from 1980 – 2001, and Gen Z 2001 onwards. This is not the nextgeneration. They are here, right now.

Increased life expectancy has led to 5 generations living simultaneously. Each of these generations was raised in vastly different worlds. No wonder businesses, community groups, charities, and even families are needing greater generational IQ to relate to such a diverse range of cultures.

[ANDY] You describe Millennials as “digital natives” as opposed to previous generations that are “digital immigrants”– what does it mean to be a “digital native” and how does that change the way they interact with the world?

[BEN] The best way for me to answer this is through an interesting development in professional basketball. I’m a fan of the NBA, but what they did recently was a crystallisation of the penetration of technology into every area of life.

In 2018, the NBA, known for global basketball superstars Lebron James and Stephen Curry, started their fourth professional league. These basketball games aren’t played on the hardwood of a basketball court—but rather on PlayStation. Players are drafted and signed to real teams that compete virtually.

So now you can be a professional basketball player in the NBA2K video game league—and never have to physically run up and down a court!

So often churches lament and resist changes in technology. But other organisations are innovating and creating new opportunities. It made me think, are sporting organisations more propheticand optimistic than Christian leaders and churches?

I am an early settler of the digital era. I’m not a true native, but I was young enough when the digital revolution hit to catch the first wave and adopt technology early.

The sound of dial-up Internet is still familiar to me. I can remember searching for the VHS tape behind the cover in Blockbuster video stores, and I even carried a Walkman on the way to school to play cassette tapes. I grew up in an analog environment, but during my teenage years, I also experienced the genesis of the digital age.

But there is a generation that has only ever known social media, Uber, cellular devices, wearable technology, and the like.

They are genuine Digital Natives, immersed in a world of wearable devices, streaming music and videos, online communities, and social media. They have created much of the tech world. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we relate, connect, congregate, and that will have enormous ramifications for people communities like churches.

[ANDY] You say that the Church has a remarkable ability to insulate against mega-changes in society and maintain our status quo – to what degree do you think the prevailing model of church will be disrupted in the next 10-20 years?

[BEN] I think the prevailing model of church will need to evolve if we are to turn around the trend of Millennials leaving the church and abandoning their faith. How can every other industry, every other area of society, culture, and communication go through transformational change – and the church remain the same?

And there are no easy answers – I get it, I’m a pastor. Change is not easy because every generation has different tastes, styles, and needs. I think this is where we need to be careful about this idea about being a ‘multi-generational’ church. I would contend that being ‘multi-generational’ can also lead to cultural inertia – a safe, ‘please everyone’ approach that slows our ability to innovate. Healthy churches should reach all generations, but culturally reaching each new emerging generation needs to be a priority.

This is not some distant trend. Social researches, journalists, and church leaders are using words like epidemic to describe the trend of millennials walking away from the church. Of course, there are many churches (such as Hillsong) that are showing us millennials can be reached, and are hungry for God. But, the overall context is still relevant to understand the broader cultural issue. Here are just a few numbers:

The number of Americans ages 18-29 who have no religious affiliation has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years.”

According to Barna Group, 6 in 10 millennials who grew up in church have dropped out at some point.”

“35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.”

This protectionist approach, often-wrapped in theological dogmas and cliché statements like “Truth never changes,” means we stay… the… same, and the world changes. Let me say emphatically, I am an orthodox, Bible-believing follower of Jesus. All the core tenants of theology that conservative Christians have believed for many generations—yep, I believe them.

With that out of the way, I can push my point that maintaining a timeless biblical theology does not absolve us of the necessity of reinventing our methodologies to cater to a new world. In fact, a good doctrinal conversation could be had around God as a creator, innovator, and surpriser—often doing things in new and unexpected ways!

A protectionist mindset will neither delay nor prevent the loss of Millennials from the church. It is time to unleash a new wave of innovation, progress, and dare I say, experimentation with our ministry models. We have to try new things.

[ANDY] In your White Paper, you’ve listed eight innovations to leading millennials – is there one that you think that churches are most likely to struggle with?

[BEN] Here is the diagram of the 8 innovations to leading millennials you mentioned.

I think the easy assumption to make is that technology will be the biggest struggle. But I would like to propose there is something much more significant for us to look at – leadership style.

I’m a pastor’s kid. I’ve been around church my whole life. So I understand teaching on spiritual authority. But one of the big ideas I address in my millennials book is that a theology of spiritual authority should not become an authoritarian leadership style.

I would flag leadership style – our approach to people, culture, coaching, and team building – as something that needs to be intentionally engineered to not only reach millennials, but involve them.

Millennials follow relationship not authority. I think the trickle-down effect of that on the entire culture of a church is massive. We need to engage our most talented, innovative, creative millennials, and in order to do that, we have to create an environment they want to plant themselves in.

Millennials resist most traditional structures because they were raised in a learning environment that embraced collaboration. Reaching millennials must go deeper than surface level. Go deep by creating a structure that respects diverse opinions, rewards collaboration, and encourages fluid work processes. Millennials can grow your church if you’ll listen to their ideas.

Developing a leadership culture that is based around relationship, contribution, mission, and collaboration will help us harness the very best and brightest of this generation.

[ANDY] It’s often thought that in order to reach millennials you just need to make church “cooler” or more trendy – is this really what they want?

[BEN] There is a tendency to think that if we just modernise the style of our Sunday services or facilities, that we will become more effective at reaching millennials. In order for that to be a true assumption, we would need data saying the biggest thing millennials want is better lighting, clearer sound, or more sophisticated branding. And I think it is here that our assumptions fall apart. It is actually an assumption that millennials are shallow, image-driven, and don’t care about substance. I totally disagree.

I’ve personally never spoken to a millennial that has left the church that has said – if church was more trendy I would return. They talk about church culture, theology, social issues, their experiences with leadership. The modern elements help, but they are not the core of the issue.

‘Cool church’ is a trap. It is no different than a local coffee shop that sells bad coffee, rebranding, putting in cool new décor, coming up with a trendy new name, and still selling terrible coffee! We have to go deeper in our introspection, to make more meaningful changes to our culture.

Before we try to DO new things, we have to BE something new. New programs, new events, new marketing—millennials have seen it all, and they can spot it a mile away. We need something deeper, something that dwells less in programs and more in philosophy.

Surface level changes that don’t dive deep into whywe do what we do, and that don’t address the core generational issues, will only band-aid the issue. We can’t just change a few stylistic elements while keeping the same underlying model of how we think as leaders and churches.

It is Blockbuster in the early 2000s, making a half-hearted attempt at hedging off Netflix by offering downloadable movies, but still pushing those customers to their physical stores. Why? Their executives believed in the allure of popcorn and confectionary. So, yes, they changed and added an online option. But it was a thinly veiled attempt to appear to be relevant to a changing world, without changing their core structure and model. The executives did not change their mindset until it was too late. They couldn’t compete against companies like Netflix, who not only offered more intuitive online options, but philosophically speaking were, culturally, a different species of organization altogether.

What you use for attraction, you must continue with for retention. If you use gimmicks, fads, or hype—you better keep that up every week. If you build the story of your church on being the itchurch, the cool church, or the image church, be warned that you can’t be those things forever. Fads fade away, and trends evolve. In a superficial culture, depth is attractive.

Millennials don’t want a ‘cool church’ where modern production is a thin veneer plastered over an old boomer culture. They want something they can relate to. That’s why I have looked at 8 different areas of church life, and presented 8 major solutions to reaching millennials.

[ANDY] Should we be expecting millennials to attend church in physical locations or just be content that they are at least engaging with the content online?

[BEN] I’m a millennial, and I’ve never seen online church as a substitute for physically attending church. Sure, there are situations where people cannot attend a physical location for health reasons. There are people in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and remote regions where online church options are the best solution. So, to bracket the scope of this answer, I am not talking about those people – I am talking about regular millennials.

It is possible, and likely, that online church will become a rising trend. However, we need to figure out how to still have the basic elements of a New Testament church. We will have to wrestle with how we do person-to-person discipleship, communion, corporate prayer, pastoral care. If we just put up a live stream, but don’t think through all the other essential elements of what a church is, we may get views, but are we building disciples?

I may be an outlier on my views on this, but I believe physical locations will become more important, not less important. Millennials are so saturated with online-everything, a local church actually has a very unique value proposition – real community, real people, real gatherings. That is a great need in our culture! But it has to be done in a new way.

Online content and physical locations will start to merge together. I went to a gym recently and they had technology that took a scan of my body and a virtual trainer led me in a custom workout. Amazing technology – but it only enhances, not substituted, my physical visit to the gym.

[ANDY] Your sixth innovation speaks to the facilities we use to host our church gatherings – how do you see our physical buildings helping to facilitate community?

[BEN] Millennials read the language of physical space as a communication of culture. Therefore, church facilities cannot be simply functional—they must be culturally experiential.

Here are some suggestions on how our the physical buildings can actively facilitate community:

1. Provide what technology cannot

Millennials can get the best preaching and worship from around the world on their phone. How can you compete with technology like that? By providing people with things that technology cannot offer. Make a list of all the things you can provide in a physical experience and major on them.

2. Create a physical experience that facilitates community

A great case study is the dramatic, strategic change in shopping malls. In the malls of ten years ago, food courts were places of cheap, take-away food. Today’s shopping centres have recognised the need to offer something unique.

My local mall just spent $400m in upgrading their facilities. Shopping design involves large gathering areas, sitting areas, restaurants, high-end gourmet food eateries, deli/market style grocery stores, entertainment, and live music. To attract consumers back to a physical space, they have created an experience that cannot be replicated online.

3. Think foyers not just auditoriums

Think about facility areas such as foyers, café spaces, and gathering points that can help foster connection and community. See these areas as equally important as the main worship auditorium.

4. Invest in coffee

A coffee represents much more than a beverage. The kind of beans, brand of machine, cups, and physical café-style spaces communicate a message of culture.

[ANDY] What do you see on the horizon for leaders and churches that can effectively engage Millennials?

[BEN] Don’t buy into the negativity against millennials; they are remarkable. They are world-changers and they are searching for a mission to give their lives to.

Millennials are optimists, talented, creative, and collaborators. They are also driven by a thirst for significance. They are relational, and have an inbuilt desire for authenticity. They will serve when challenged, and have ideas that are already revolutionising the world.

In other words, this is a generation to love and be inspired by. It is a generation that clearly carries the fingerprint of God.

By effectively reaching and leading millennials, you have the power to grow your church for future generations, if you can harness their thirst for knowledge and the belief that they can do something significant.

Ben’s full White Paper is available to download for free here.