Millennial Temptation: Churches must change to stay relevant with younger members

Millennial Temptation: Churches must change to stay relevant with younger members

February 4th, 2017 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Everything from the music to the message needs to update if churches want to attract millennial members, some of whom are turned off by religious scandals and plastic performances.

Photo by Travis Long

At 38 years old, Chris Bowen has witnessed the changing — and sometimes disappointing — landscape of religion in the U.S.

Assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church on McCallie Avenue and a member of Generation X, those generally born between the early '60s and 1980, Bowen has noticed younger millennials sharing in that frustration, too.

"This generation and my generation have grown up watching religious scandal after scandal and the polished religious performances," he says.

They've seen the sexual scandals and downfall of televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker in the late 1980s; they've watched the rise of controversial ideas such as "prosperity gospel" and heard some religious leaders offer trite soundbites rather than thoughts with true spiritual depth.

In the face of all that, many millennials are left with an unsettled feeling in their stomachs, even those who still have deep-seated faith and want a place to express it.

"For the millennials, their desire is for authenticity and their desire is for vulnerability," Bowen says. "And when they go to churches and they don't see those things, even on the micro level, and it doesn't feel right and it doesn't pass the smell test, they frankly don't stick around."

As churches watch members of their congregations growing older, there's a growing need to attract younger congregants. But it's not as easy as it used to be when a mother and father would take their kids to church every Sunday and, when the kids grew up, they'd do the same with their children.

The number of people who identify as Christian in the United States is declining, especially among young adults, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2014, 56 percent of people ages 18 to 24 identified as Christian, while 36 percent were not affiliated with an organized religion. Among those from 25 to 33 years of age, 57 percent identified as Christian and 34 percent identified as not affiliated.

In contrast, 85 percent of people born between 1928 and 1945 identified as Christian, and 11 percent were not affiliated with a religion; 78 percent of baby boomers identified as Christian, and 17 percent were not affiliated.

Dennis Culbreth, director of missions for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, a network of 107 Baptist churches of all sizes in the Chattanooga area, says millennials are seeking a true connection with God, not something that's held up to the light when the cameras are on, then immediately dropped when they're off.

"They want church to be authentic," he says.

Nor do they see church as some sort of social networking opportunity, he adds, because he's encountered some church members who are more interested in climbing a social ladder than Jacob's Ladder.

"I've pastored before and I've seen that," he says.

With millennials, though, "I don't think many of them are going to church because it helps them with work. They are not there networking," Culbreth says.

He also has noticed that, while millennials prefer their church music to sound more contemporary, the lyrics and message are more "Scripture-based and serious."

Contemporary Christian artist TobyMac, who's bringing his "Deep Hits" tour to McKenzie Arena on March 2, says he has noticed the same thing with fans and fellow artists as well.

"I think it's why faith music is so alive," he says. "It is modern with modern sounds, modern guitars and instruments, but with the lyrics, there is no mistaking what it's about. There is no mistaking that it's about God. That's resonating with millennials for sure. Without a doubt."

At New Covenant Church Fellowship on Moore Road, Pastor Bernie Miller says the congregation hired a marketing firm to do research regarding what younger members might want.

"We use a lot of media in our church within our worship service," he says. "The days of talking heads is over.

"We also use small groups during services because people learn and interact differently. Some people need to see it, some to hear it, some to touch it. If it's just me talking on Sunday morning, that's a monologue. We want a dialogue. It adds more cohesiveness where people share at their own level."

Culbreth says larger churches have an advantage in some ways when it comes to offering different services that are tailored to different demographics.

For example, he says, Brainerd Baptist Church, which has about 3,000 members, holds traditional services in the main church while services geared toward younger people are in the BX, a multi-purpose facility across the street from its Belvoir Estates campus; the BX includes meeting spaces, full kitchen, a small cafe, a gym and a weight room and workout area.

But not every church has that option, he acknowledges.

"It doesn't make sense for smaller ones to have two worship services," he says.

But a couple of smaller churches in the area, such as Sojourn Community Church on North Market Street in North Chattanooga, were started by young pastors who do a good job of reaching millennials. Members meet in an old warehouse and the church is growing fast, starting with a couple of families and now numbering about 100, Culbreth says.

Bowen's First Presbyterian is an older church, established in 1840, and finds itself searching for the balance between keeping what longtime members want while appealing to younger ones.

"Among the issues for First Presbyterian is that we are an established congregation and I think sometimes older or more established churches can be more hesitant or resistant to change," he says. "Sometimes we hold too closely to doing things because that's the way we always have done them."

One of the ways First Presbyterian is "finding our way" is through a strong mentor program that matches older church members with younger members, especially those that have moved here and don't have family here, he says. The church also makes sure its nursery and events for children are safe and up to date.

"If their children are taken care of, they will come back," he says.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.