By Aaron Earls
It’s fall in Tallahassee, Florida. The excitement is as high as the leftover summer temperatures when thousands of people—mostly college students—cram into a building to be part of something huge. But this isn’t a typical Saturday night college football game for the Florida State Seminoles. This is a Sunday morning worship gathering for City Church.
Located seven minutes from FSU’s football stadium, City Church has a congregation of more than 70 percent millennials (the generation born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s), says pastor Dean Inserra, a millennial himself. More specifically, a majority of the Sunday morning attendance is college students. How is City Church drawing these young adults? By being honest, says Inserra.
“Millennials are looking for honesty and humility from the pulpit,” he says. “Honesty about what the Bible actually says and honesty about the pastor not being an expert on living out the things he is preaching about, but a work in progress, by the grace of God, like everyone else.”
Planted in 2007 by Inserra in his parents’ house, City Church has grown from 24 people to 5,500 this past Easter. City Church hasn’t sought to entertain young adults with a spectacle. And it hasn’t abandoned historic Christian teachings to better fit with cultural norms. Instead, Inserra has focused on a relational, authentic ministry with strong biblical teaching, which led to City Church’s explosive growth.
The history of City Church points to a frequently hidden reality: Despite what many claim, millennials aren’t leaving evangelical churches in droves. Neither are they significantly more liberal in their theology than previous generations. This is not just anecdotal evidence—it’s the statistical truth. This is the real story on millennials and the church.
The truth about millennial evangelicals
When Pew Research released its most recent report on the religious landscape in America, much of the attention focused on Christianity’s drop of almost 8 percentage points in population share over the last seven years. Few paid attention to the relatively stable numbers of evangelicals, which declined less than 1 percentage point. Even fewer noticed the percentage of evangelicals who are millennials, which remained the same at 21 percent from 2007 to 2014.
According to the General Social Survey, more evangelical young adults are attending church than at any time in the last 40 years. Almost half of all evangelical young adults are at church every week.
This doesn’t surprise Trip Lee, a rap artist and church planter in the Atlanta area.
“I’ve traveled the country and the world doing music and teaching and meeting a lot of millennials,” he says. “I meet young people all the time who are hungry for the truth of God.”
If young adults want to be entertained, they’ll go to a concert, the millennial musician says. “But if what they want is actual truth from God, they want to go to churches like that,” he says.
Brad Jones, who works with Louie Giglio’s Passion Conferences, knows how hungry millennials can be to experience Jesus and gather with others to worship Him. The Passion Conferences regularly attract tens of thousands of college students.
Those gatherings serve as reminders both to the broader church and the students who attend that they are not alone in following Christ. “Our opportunity at Passion is to help students see that not everybody has given up on the faith and there is a generation rising up for the glory of God,” Jones says.
Some contend this generation is embracing a more liberal, less orthodox Christianity, with young adults calling themselves evangelical while in actuality they are more like mainline Protestants in their beliefs. Once again, the statistics say otherwise. Millennial evangelicals have more in common theologically with older evangelicals than they do with others their own age.
An expansive Lifeway Research project surveyed the theological beliefs of Americans with 44 questions. It asked about topics such as the Holy Spirit, Scripture, church attendance, the divinity of Jesus, sex outside marriage, and more. Out of all the topics, millennial and older evangelicals had statistically relevant differences on only four questions. And in some of those differences, millennials were more orthodox than their elders.
Barna Research found a similar trend in a survey about the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Around a third (35 percent) of practicing Christians under 40 favored the ruling, while support among all Americans in that age group was almost twice as high at 61 percent—a gap of 26 percentage points. By comparison, only nine points separated practicing Christians under 40 from Christians 40 and older (26 percent).
Evangelical churches aren’t the ones losing young adults. According to Pew, historically black Protestants and evangelical Protestants have the highest retention rate among Christian groups—70 percent and 65 percent respectively.
The Protestant group shedding the most members raised in the faith is mainline Protestants, which includes denominations that have embraced popular views on sexuality and morality. Only 45 percent of those raised mainline stay that way as adults. Almost one-fifth become evangelicals, and close to one-third leave the Christian faith altogether.
This doesn’t mean evangelicals aren’t facing challenges with millennials. While most millennial evangelicals are not leaving the church, some are. And unchurched millennials (about one-third) are growing increasingly secular.
The way forward
No matter how encouraging or discouraging the trends may be, Jones says the church must stay motivated for the mission.
“We never want to lose sight of the fact that no matter how big our church grows, there are tens of thousands of students on college campuses in our city who don’t know Jesus,” he says.
So for churches that want to reach millennials, Lee says leaders must first decide what exactly they want to do and be as a church.
“If our only goal is to get people in the door, we can throw the Bible out altogether,” says Lee. “But if the goal of the church is to make disciples of Jesus, we can’t change God’s Word. If we want to draw young people, we should draw them to the truth in Scripture.”
Churches shouldn’t shift away from biblical truth, he maintains. Instead, says Lee, “We should think about shifting in some of the ways we connect with young adults.”
Jones, who also serves as a student pastor at Passion City Church in Atlanta, says instead of coddling young adults and catering to them, churches should challenge them.
“Don’t count them out,” he says. “Instead, call them up.”
For Lee, churches often force millennials into “spiritual ghettos” like the college ministry or singles ministry instead of allowing them to integrate and serve with the body of Christ as a whole. He says many churches don’t treat millennials as mature believers.
He challenges church leaders to pour into young adults and disciple them like any other believer. “Don’t have low expectations of the young people in your church,” he says. “Treat them like actual believers, not junior-level believers. If they believe in Jesus, they’re believers.”
Churches aren’t going to reach or retain millennials through new programs or different songs, says Inserra.
“You have to focus on being relational. Millennials are only coming to church if someone they know and trust invites them,” he says. “I shake my head when a church thinks changing music style is the way to reach millennials. They are lost! Why would they care that you have guitars?”
Lee agrees with Inserra—it’s all about relationships. Having younger adults on staff and making different music choices can “create an environment where people feel welcome, but the more important thing is personal relationships.” Millennials aren’t going to come into a church because they walked by the front door and heard a song they like.
One surprising way churches can reach young adults is by involving older adults. Jones sees the impact of older volunteers at the Passion Conferences who are there simply to serve those who are younger.
“Millennials need to see people who still have their hope in God,” he says. “If they don’t observe people older than them who are still following Jesus with their lives, then what makes them want to do the same?”
Inserra says older Christians can model consistency for a generation that is “trying to move from one ‘experience’ to another. Being around faithful, consistent, content believers can do wonders for a generation constantly looking for their next Instagram picture.”
Recognizing this and the impact of mature men in his own life, Lee says he is praying for God to draw more than just young people to their church plant.
“We don’t want it to be a youth ministry,” he says. “We’re praying God would also send us older believers who can pour into those of us who are younger.” This mix of enthusiasm and experience is “necessary for the church to be as healthy as it can be,” says Lee.
“The most important thing is the members building their lives in such a way where they interact with people of all ages and different races, and as they build those relationships, they share the gospel with people and invite them into community,” Lee says. “That’s the main way to reach young people.”
The real story on millennials and the church is the same old story. To reach young adults, the church shouldn’t adjust biblical doctrines, but neither should it attempt to trot out expired programs. Instead, the church must love young adults as Jesus loves them, invest in their lives, and walk with them as they become mature disciples of Christ. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t garner a lot of attention. It’s just the truth.
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@Lifeway.com) is online editor of Facts & Trends.