Millennials and the Church
Millennial Giving: What Gives?
Who are the “millennials,” relative to fundraising in the church?
They are educated and have purchasing power, but debt is a big factor in financial decisions.
According to Pew Research’s study, “Millennial Life,” they are more educated than previous generations (39% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher). If they graduated college, they make a comparable income to young adults of prior generations (around $56,000 per year on average), but also have less accumulated wealth and more debt than prior generations, perhaps due to that education. If they did not attend college, the earnings gap is larger than in prior generations (around $36,000 per year on average as compared with around $39,000 for Boomers at the same age).
They are self-focused (and that isn’t necessarily bad).
According to The Millennial Impact Report, they care most about things that impact their daily lives. They are interested in causes and social issues that affect them personally. Millennials are also more driven to engage locally than nationally.
They are important to your church’s future.
Millennials are positioned to be the biggest generational group in America. Currently, only the Boomer generation has more people and in the immediate future, as their numbers decrease, millennials will surpass them in number.
The way millennials “do church” is unique
They are more likely NOT to do church. But is that the point?
We know many are not in church. We know. We hear it all the time (often accompanied by gnashing of teeth). I’m not here to focus on those millennials who are not at church. I’m here to focus on those who are at church.
Pew data from 2015 show that while the largest share of millennials (35%) is unaffiliated with a religion, there are still some who are religious and Christian – 11 percent of them are mainline protestants, which is where the Episcopal denomination would fall. Interestingly, most millennials raised without religion are unaffiliated as adults.
So, 11 percent of millennials are in our mainline Protestant churches, and many have no plans to leave. Are you so busy worrying about their peers who are not in church that you neglect those who are already there? I hope not.
They are more traditional than you might think… but don’t ever use that word.
In a 2014 study, Barna Group surveyed millennials about their preferences in worship spaces. They preferred those that were more “traditional” looking, with mid-sized capacity, classic stained-glass windows and a cross at the front of the worship space. When presented with a series of words to describe their “ideal” church, respondents chose community (78%), sanctuary (77%), classic (67%), quiet (65%), casual (64%), and modern (60%). As the authors so aptly sum it up: “And herein lies a cognitive dissonance common to the young adults interviewed in the survey. Many of them aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, but they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious.”
They want you to ask them what they want.
The best bet? Don’t assume you know what millennials want from your church – from the physical space; from the worship services; from opportunities to engage and form community; from the ways and amounts to give of their time, talent and treasure. Don’t just assume they want “hip” spaces and services and online giving. Use online tools like surveys and face-to-face conversations to ask them what they want. If you show them that you are in a two-way relationship now, it will pay dividends in their investment in your church in the future.
Millennial giving is distinctive
They are giving at strong rates…for young adults.
According to Blackbaud Institute’s “The Next Generation of American Giving,” around half of millennials make gifts to charities. This translates to just over 34 million people giving an average of $591 per year to around 3.5 charities, totaling $20 billion per year. However, compared to the other three older generations, millennials are your least significant pool of potential givers for now, giving only 14% of total dollars to charity in 2018.
Millennials have not yet reached that comfortable place of middle age, where according to the Blackbaud study, philanthropy often peaks: “Historically, most giving has come from people in middle age and older.… Millennials are not only at a life stage dominated by career and family priorities; they have inherited a world of economic uncertainty in which nothing can be taken for granted.”
The attention you give to them and to developing their giving habits now should be seen as an investment in the future.
They want to give your church their treasure.
As for which causes matter to millennials, worship is of the highest importance in charitable giving. This is not unlike almost all prior generations! Blackbaud observed: “For all but Gen X, places of worship receive the single largest allocation of giving dollars when asked to prioritize.”
Can you tie your church appeals to other causes that matter to this generation? When you ask millennials to pledge to your annual campaign, try emphasizing the ways in which your church helps and invests in children, animals and your local community.
They also want to give their time and talent.
Don’t forget to give them a job, according to an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability survey: “Nearly one in three looks for volunteer opportunities when considering a donation (29% vs. 20% of older givers).” If they have invested in your church with sweat-equity, they are more likely to invest financially.
Talk their talk
They want to see you online.
This generation has grown up with technology and expects you to use it to connect with them, both for sharing information and for making requests for gifts. According to Blackbaud, the most viewed online tools for this group are e-newsletters, blog posts and social media posts/videos. The most utilized social media platforms are Facebook and Instagram. That tends to hold true across generations, but the frequency on those platforms each month is higher for this generation.
The message: have a current presence on these social media platforms and produce content regularly (posts and stories) to stay in front of this group.
They want to see you everywhere!
Don’t completely abandon the old-fashioned methods, however. Blackbaud’s report suggests that “the younger you are, the more open you are to a wide range of solicitation channels.”
Universally, across generations, the most acceptable way to ask for a gift is through a friend or family member. Use all the tools you have to stay relevant to this generation and to get their attention in an oversaturated online world.
They also want you to talk their talk.
Be sure to use language that connects with them. Millennials will give a gift that is 20 percent higher if you use language about making a “meaningful” gift rather than a “generous” one. With older givers, the word “generous” is more effective.
The Millennial Impact Report suggests that to connect with millennials, you should use language that is positive, emotion-based and factual, and give them calls to action with the desired outcomes – both immediate, one-time actions and longer-term involvement. In other words, when communicating, give them concise snippets of information that are easy to connect with and inspire action.
And don’t use the word traditional.
TLDR* — As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes warns us, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Instead, learn about the millennials in your congregation by asking them what they want and need. Then connect with them in ways they say are meaningful to them and they will want to give. And remember, they are the future of the Church.
*Millennial speak for “Too Long, Didn’t Read,” just give me the Cliffs Notes.
Sarah Townsend Leach joined ECF after serving as Director of Advancement and Communications for the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, FL. Throughout her ten years in the nonprofit sector, she has helped create and share sustainable strategies for leadership development, fund development and communications with a wide variety of organizations throughout the Southeast and Midwest. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, and a life-long Episcopalian, Sarah holds a BA in English Literature from Rhodes College in Memphis and a Masters of Public Administration from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
- Barna, “Designing Worship Spaces with Millennials in Mind”
- Blackbaud, The Next Generation of American Giving
- Christianity Today, Figuring Out the Millennial Christian Giver
- Pew Research, “Millennials increasingly are driving the growth of ‘nones’”
- Pew Research, Millennial Life: How Young Adulthood Today Compares to Prior Generations
- The Millennial Impact Report 2017
- Stewardship in the New Millennium by Erin Weber-Johnson, ECF Vital Practices webinar, September 17, 2014
- Engaging Millennials by Jason Merritt, Vestry Papers, May 2019
- Intentional Stewardship by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices blog, March 26, 2019