This post was originally posted last year on The Gospel Coalition for my friend Trevin Wax. It serves as a good follow up to the post from last week, Why Young People Are Leaving the Church in Droves, so I wanted to repost it here.
I serve as a pastor at an 8 year-old church plant in downtown Columbia, where we have a different kind of Millennial problem – we have too many of them. We are a church that averages 900 on Sundays with over 1000 people plugged into LifeGroups.
But the most shocking part? 90% of our church is under 30 years old. We have the exact opposite problem of most churches. When someone who looks older walks through our door, we pray they are solid and that they’ll stick around to pour into the mass of youth we have.
Because we have such a different perspective on the Millennial problem in Christianity, I thought it would be helpful to comment on some of the reasons I believe Millennials have been drawn to our church.
This is not a “We are awesome and other churches can’t get off the struggle bus” post. We have our weaknesses just like any other church, and any of our pastors will tell you that we are stumbling forward by nothing but the bountiful grace of God.
But in light of that, here are a few things God has shaped our church into that I believe have been instrumental in so many young people finding a home in our church:
1. We strive to always focus on the gospel.
Many people in the South grew up around or at least familiar with Christianity, but it is shocking how many times we have someone say they grew up in church but never heard the gospel. Moralism comes from behind pulpits across our nation in both direct and veiled forms. The gospel of grace stands in stark contrast.
The truth that forgiveness is possible is mind-blowing the first time you hear it. In our teaching, we try to motivate everything by the grace shown to us in Christ and not guilt, duty, or obligation. To hear the gospel applied to the everyday struggles and emotions we all feel is the best kind of light shone into the worst kind of darkness.
2. We are committed to being a family.
As you can see from our LifeGroup participation numbers, we value biblical community highly. We repeatedly make it clear from stage that community is the only context through which a New Testament faith can be lived out. If you are not doing life with other believers – and we mean life, not occasionally being in a room together – then how will you practice the “one anothers,” grow in your faith, and live out the gospel to those around you?
Our desire is that not just our LifeGroups but also our gatherings (services) would communicate this reality. We want people to leave gatherings feeling like they’ve been at a family reunion, so we keep them simple, authentic, relational, and low-production. We sing, pray, teach the Bible, celebrate what Jesus has done, and share stories of where God is at work in our city.
Before we take communion, we frequently instruct our people to first go and resolve any unconfessed sin, bitterness, or relational weirdness they have against one another - no matter who is at fault. If need be, they can grab someone and have a conversation, make a phone call, or whatever is needed. The shocking thing is – at least it shocked us the first time we tried it – they actually do it.
3. We keep an outward focus.
Serving others around us has been in our DNA since day one. From serving the homeless in our city to enlisting your LifeGroup to help you build a relationship with a non-believing co-worker, our goal is always to make disciples and help anyone around us take the next steps towards Jesus.
We’ve baptized hundreds of Millennials, and a large percentage of them met Jesus through hanging out with a LifeGroup that was living on mission together. They saw the gospel there in the flesh.
4. We have a culture of transparency.
By the grace of God, the gospel has shaped our culture to the point that people feel comfortable being honest about where they really are and what they’re really struggling with. Most people quickly realize that they won’t be harshly judged or shunned for taking off their masks, because others have already taken off theirs, giving them the gift of going second.
Transparency is huge in reaching Millennials, a generation that tends to be cynical and can see right past well-painted facades. Speaking as a Millennial myself, if you act like absolutely everything in your life is hunky-dory, I will not trust you with a dime.
In addition, we are upfront about our weaknesses and tell people in our membership class that they better expect to be sinned against and disappointed as a part of our church.
5. We live and work where Millennials live and work.
The median age of a Columbia resident is 28. We are not in a suburb, but are actually in the downtown area of our city, where millennials live. Our networks of relationships are naturally the people we are trying to reach. We are friends with people in our city because we work and live in our city.
This is important because – like any other people group – if no one in church knows any Millennials then there will never be any Millennials in that church. This is true no matter what other changes are made.
6. We take church membership and church discipline seriously.
Far from being a useless piece of paper with names on it, we believe membership should be active and meaningful. Our membership covenant includes doctrinal unity on close-handed issues, being actively involved in Christian community, serving, and tithing (among other things).
We do a yearly member check-up to gauge the health of all of our members and renew their membership, and when necessary we take appropriate steps in the church discipline process laid out in Matthew 18. These have been some of the most difficult instances in our church by far, but also the most refining.
7. We have a biblical and effective model of church leadership.
Many in the South equate church leadership with politics and inefficiency. We believe having an elder-led church with trustworthy and proven, approachable but decisive leaders is more faithful to the Scriptures and more effective than creating a new committee to discuss whether or not to buy a new copier. Our leadership strives to set a culture where drama and pointless politics are quickly engaged with the gospel and squashed.
8. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Our leadership has created a culture of humor and lightheartedness. We have fun and goof off. For a shining example of this, see this ridiculous video we made to help our volunteers laugh at an appreciation dinner.
Sometimes we can be a little too ridiculous, but we believe that if Christ is alive that should make us joyful and playful people – the kind of people that non-religious folk wouldn’t mind hanging around.
Our pastors are all normal, sinful people living in community like any other Christian in our church. We frequently hear people say, “I didn’t realize how normal pastors could be.” We take that as a compliment.
9. We do not draw a hard line in the sand unless the Bible does.
We do not wish to be more conservative, or more liberal, than the Bible. If God had wanted to add things to the Bible or take away hard truths, He would have done so. We have exactly what we have for the most perfect of reasons: the loving providence of God. Neither pharisaical additions nor me-centered subtractions are faithful or helpful. We happily let the Bible be our authority, knowing the only options are that it is authoritative over us, or we are over it.
Those nine characteristics are just a few reasons I believe people under 30 are uncommonly attracted to our very imperfect church. I pray that at least some of these nine may be encouraging or helpful to your church as you strive to reach what has been called “the lost generation.”