Millennials and the Church
Conversations about reaching and engaging millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) tend to slip into quests for universal preferences and traits. The trouble is, on any measure of preference the median American Millennial is only one of 70+ million individuals. The human experience is too dynamic and varied to expect much uniformity among a group that large. The same is true for Generation X, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation—and it will be for all future generations.
To compound the issue, many trendy generational perceptions are derived from a mostly white, middle-class view of the American experience, which is both wrong and statistically self-defeating. Other stereotyped traits are simply new verses in our national pastime of blaming the young for being youthful — ignoring that the youngest millennials are nearing their mid-20s, and the elders of the cohort (like me) see 40 on the horizon.
Skip the stereotypes
Don’t get me wrong — I believe major shifts in American society, culture and technology can leave loose imprints on an emerging generation as they form their worldview. However, none of that can replace the arduous task of contextualizing big changes for our own situations, communities and neighborhoods. Using the same messages, content or programming across the entire spectrum might not work house-to-house or across town, let alone several states away.
Some of the major shifts that serve as vital data points of context for millennials include: the birth of the Internet and the subsequent upheaval across industries and sectors; the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror; the rise of relentless, invasive advertising; urbanization and globalization; and a series of global economic scares, including the Great Recession.
These are just a few of the defining moments of the broad millennial experience, but any one of these events and shifts likely impacted specific communities and individuals differently. This is why it is imperative to (mostly) ignore pop-cultural caricatures of millennials, and instead try to contextualize the broad impacts and implications these shifts continue to have in our own community.
Begin with research
Research can help build a foundation of knowledge to start from. Fortunately, this research often provides insights into entire communities, not just millennials.
Spend some time with the Pew Research Center and their wealth of data on how different generations move through time. The methodology is trustworthy, and they have comparative studies that show how millennials compare to other generations at the same age. These snapshots of all generations in the same life-stage debunk many myths about millennials being anomalies in lifestyle decisions — delaying marriage and children, for instance. Most data show that they are directly in step with well-established trend lines of societal changes. You might particularly enjoy exploring their Religious Landscape Study.
Check out Google Trends. It analyzes search terms real-time or over a particular time period and gives you the ability to compare different search terms to see what people in your city, state or nation are “Googling” on their devices. Try this experiment as a first step: Go to Google Trends and type “Church near me” in the Enter a search term or a topic field and narrow the search to your city or state. When the results come up, adjust the timeline from 12 months to 30 Days. You can see the surge of searches on Sunday mornings, but what about other times of the week? Maybe those are good times to share information on social media.
Make a habit of regularly exploring your social media analytics and insights. You don’t need a fancy system to do it, since most platforms will give you varying levels of filters to analyze the audience that already follows your account. Once you get familiar with the process, you can start to notice trends and takeaways as you experiment with message content, timing and frequency.
Finally, use the most universal and simple method of research possible: Just ask! Millennials might surprise you with how open they are to answer your questions. Use common sense and courtesy when picking your moment (READ: don’t overwhelm the first 20-something you see), but if your intentions are honest and your approach is friendly, many millennials would love to help you better understand their peers. Online surveys can work, but nothing replaces the vulnerability and depth you’ll get through a face-to-face conversation. Asking a small group of millennials — if possible — is ideal to ensure a broad perspective.
Be present, build trust
These tools and tactics are helpful in laying a foundation of knowledge, but breaking through and making an impact takes time and a consistent effort to build trust.
With mistrust running high, and digital connectivity to facilitate it, millennials have developed a strong instinct to vet institutional value chains through online research and peer-to-peer networking. Members of all generations do this, but millennials have internalized the practice from youth and have the technology to facilitate it at their fingertips. This means your church or organization needs a robust online presence that reinforces who you are in real life. A mobile friendly website, popular social media channels (only the ones you can maintain), and email communications are the basic framework to consider and refine.
Once present, it’s crucial to provide access to the previously inconsequential aspects of who you are. The old adage “no one wants to see the sausage being made,” doesn’t apply to younger generations as much. The online ecosystem of 2019 values honesty, consistency and vulnerability — so pull back the curtain. The more open and honest you are — cultivating a natural tone and style that doesn’t feel forced — the more trust you will build among everyone who places a high value on authenticity, including millennials.
Your goal should not be to invade and disrupt, but to become part of their daily online experiences with engaging content that reinforces who you are in real life — pictures, small stories, videos, etc. These small touch points are crucial to developing trust over time, and for millennials, at a distance.
It’s impossible to say what the “typical millennial” will prefer, since there isn’t a standard-issue millennial. We are not a monolith. It’s also impossible to precisely say what will trigger your local millennials to explore your church, choose to join your community event over another or commit to a life following Jesus. However, it’s possible to position yourself to listen and learn by being an engaging member of the online ecosystem that millennials (mostly) inhabit. Being present is a prerequisite to trust and consideration for all. It is also how we welcome the stranger, no matter what the young whippersnappers may look or sound like.
Jason Merritt is an old millennial. He currently serves as Deputy Director and Marketing Director at Forward Movement, based in Cincinnati, OH. He previously served as Director of Marketing and Communications for Kanuga Conference and Retreat Center in Hendersonville, NC, as well as working in grassroots advocacy and communications with AARP Florida. Jason lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Kristen, and their two dogs, Riley and Whiskey. He is an avid fly fisherman, soccer fan and enjoys being outside more than inside.
- Social Media Campaigns by Charis Bhagianathan, Vestry Papers, November 2016
- Make Time for Marketing by Tom Ehrich, ECF Vital Practices blog, August 27 ,2015
- The Future of Community by Alan Bentrup, ECF Vital Practices blog, July 25, 2017
- Your Church Needs a Welcome Video, by Christian Anderson and Trevor Black, Vestry Papers, November 2016