Millennials are looking for smaller worship spaces. What does that mean?
by Ruth Moon
My perfect church was nothing special.
It had no flashy church trappings: fewer than 100 congregants on a Sunday, a church planting pastor from California, a home-grown worship team composed of a Ph.D. student, a guitar shop owner, and a local bluegrass guitarist, and “special ministries” I could count twice on one hand.
The small community inside the sanctuary, though, kept me going through two years of graduate school, and friends from that church still support me through ups and downs.
In my half-dozen moves before and since, I’ve discovered the “perfect church” is a holy grail. I have searched high and low for a church with no patriotic politics in preaching, an in-tune worship team, and a commitment to biblical truth, and often come up short.
And I’ve learned that when a church that checks those boxes is nowhere to be found, a good community can fine-tune my ears to the worship, give me a compassionate lens to interpret theology, and feed my soul.
It turns out I am not alone: researchers agree that my generation—the millennials—overwhelmingly values relationships and authenticity in church. And those two things often come in small spaces.
“Millennials are looking more for relationships than for a program,” says Karl Vaters (NewSmallChurch.com), who wrote The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us.
“Our grandparents’ generation built the megachurches,” he says. “They took relationships for granted but needed to build structures. The millennial generation takes these structures for granted and needs to build relationships.”
Who are we, anyway?
So, who are millennials? According to the U.S. census, this generation (born between 1980-2000) makes up the largest share of the U.S. population, at 28.7 percent (Baby Boomers, the next largest generation, comprise 23.7 percent of the population).
Millennials are slightly more racially diverse than the overall U.S. population, with a 56 percent white population compared to the 62 percent white majority of the overall population.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, they are more likely to be nonreligious than any other age group. And, according to Lifeway Research, more than two-thirds who attend a Protestant church in high school will quit attending for a year or more as 18- to 22-year-olds.
The perfect church
There’s no one description of a millennial’s perfect church. A Lifeway Research study found that the younger unchurched prefer cathedral-like spaces to more modern warehouse-like buildings. Gary Clemmer, executive administrative pastor at Ecclesia Hollywood in Los Angeles, found that his parishioners, including many millennials, felt more comfortable at a repurposed theater than a more traditional church building.
But millennials tend to like small, and researchers, pastors, and architects are taking notice. Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway, predicted a move to smaller worship gatherings as one of 15 trends to watch in 2015.
“Millennials gravitate toward intimacy and smallness,” said Rainer. “Small communities deliver friendships, accountability relationships, environments for spiritual growth, and maximum participation.”
While young adults like small venues, they aren’t necessarily looking for churches with small congregations, says Sam Rainer, president of Rainer Research, and, at age 35, a millennial himself. They are often drawn to the program offerings at a larger church, but might look for congregations that meet at multiple sites or are smaller than megachurches.
Relationships over brick and mortar
Thom Rainer predicts megachurches will continue to grow, but will shift from large facilities to small buildings and multiple venues. Smaller groups or communities within the large church could be key for reaching millennials.
They will also look for a unique flavor. “There’s a move toward more variety in our society, from chewing gum to churches. We’re becoming a multi-society,” Sam Rainer says. “With millennials, it’s all about being yourself and being unique.”
Whatever millennials want, churches are taking notice. Church architect Derek DeGroot points out that the church building’s story is as important as its size, and that building materials and décor can serve as signposts as much as a sermon or music style.
“The building is a piece of storytelling. It allows someone to ask, ‘Do I fit here or not?’” he says. “It’s important to millennials to say, ‘We know this is a church when we walk in the building.’”
As important as the building, though, are the people in it — a lesson I learned through my church searches and a point that researchers emphasize. Pastors looking to build connections with millennials should start by building relationships and looking for leaders among that age group, say Sam Rainer and Adam Greenway, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Greenway’s suggestion would be to prioritize small groups and get to know the young adults at your church.
“Millennials have a strong desire for community. We see that in the social media revolution,” he says. “One thing that will attract them to smaller worship venues is the desire to not merely be a dot in a crowd but to find connectedness.”
RUTH MOON (@RMoon) is a freelance reporter and a contributing editor for Christianity Today magazine. She is a graduate student in international communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is also a millennial.