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Ministry with Millennials: What’s Bad About Church
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By Allan Martin
 
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
–Benjamin Franklin
 
Being excluded, underestimated, stifled, and feeling as if the church is superficial and simplistic in what it has to offer can have a detrimental impact on one’s life. For any age group, including young adults, experiences in church and perceptions about the church can influence behavior. Young adults [those post high-school through pre-parenthood] have many attitudes, and when asked to characterize the Adventist church, there was no lack of responsiveness.  In a recent study of Adventist Millennials, we took a look at our young adults and compared them to over 27,000 of their peers as studied by the Barna Group1
 

Here’s what the research revealed, as summarized in Ministry Magazine2:
 
Based on their responses to various questions in the survey, respondents were categorized as either “engaged” or “disengaged” from their local congregations. Engaged respondents were those who attend services at least monthly and indicated that church is relevant for them. Disengaged did not meet one or both of those criteria. Then, key differences between these two groups were extracted from the data.
 
Compared to the engaged young adults within the Adventist Church . . . disengaged young adults have much stronger negative experiences with their childhood church. The largest differences were for the statements “leaders are repressive of ideas” and “the church is overprotec­tive of its young people.” Disengaged respondents were also much more likely to agree with the ideas that their child­hood church “seemed like an exclusive club” and “the teachings seem shallow.”
 
Both groups were later asked about similar experiences with their current church; if anything, the differences observed here became even more pro­nounced as they answered questions about their current church.
 
However, there were no significant differences between the behaviors of the engaged and disengaged young adults when they were children and teenagers. In other words, we cannot look at the level of activity among the children and teens and then predict which ones will disengage from the church as young adults. But nega­tive experiences with their childhood church (specifically with the leadership and adult members) are strong predic­tors of such disengagement. . .
 
Notably, local churches do not need to figure out how to make intergenerational relationships happen; they are already happen­ing. However, we should recognize the importance of noting that these intergenerational relationships can work both ways — both negatively and positively. The goal for local leadership can be to create a church culture that reinforces the positive interactions and reduces the negative interactions.
 
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Among the fascinating findings here is how many of both unengaged and engaged Adventist Millennials strongly agree with these negative experience descriptors of their childhood church.  For example not only do 68% of unengaged young adults strongly agree that “leaders are repressive of ideas,” additionally 45% of engaged young adults also strongly agree. 
 
Analysis of each of the negative descriptors, especially as further investigated in the qualitative data, depict the power of intergenerational relationships in the church setting. In my opinion, the data from this most recent research is merely an echo of a cultural church factor that has detrimentally impacted the Adventist church for generations3.
 
I imagine we all have stories of where childhood, teenage, and young adult experiences with the adult members of the church helped shape our personal view of the church as “good” or “bad” or otherwise.  I wonder, in the mix of the “good, bad, and otherwise,” what experiences have most saliently impacted your relationship with the church today?
 
As a church leader/pastor/member, what can you and your team do to build constructive relationships with next generations?  In light of these findings, and what the qualitative research bears out, let me offer a suggestion to start or sharpen your ministry to young adults: Form and Foster4.
 
Form:  It is in the contours of adult relationships with next generations that children, teenagers, and young adults develop their faith, their value, and their perspectives about church life.  I would encourage your leadership to be very intentional in developing ministry environments where adults can caringly, competently, and consistently disciple Millennials.  Discipleship done early, purposefully, and longitudinally will not only impact church retention, but also more importantly turn children/youth into spiritual champions and young adults into fully devoted followers of Christ Jesus.
 
Foster:  This generation more than previous ones, has shown a notable receptivity to intergenerational relationships, building bonds with adults that are authentic, long-lasting, and mutually beneficial.  Your leadership to encourage your church membership to mentor Millennials, will not only impact church ministry, but also bolster the vibrancy of all who decide to be intentionally involved.  Especially in the society we live in, developing mentoring relationships needs to be deliberate, well-structured, and responsibly monitored.  Although mentoring relationships can seem daunting, the dividends far outweigh the effort needed for implementation.
 
The church attrition losses are too great for us to continue with children and youth ministry practice as usual.  We can no longer operate on an assumption that childbearing will return young adults to church attendance.  It is no longer acceptable to simply finance the outsourcing of youth/young adult ministry to a scarce few youth pastors, chaplains, and Bible teachers, and hope for a notable turn in the departure of Millennials from church life.
 
If your leadership will adopt of culture of discipling and mentoring next generations, there is the potential of exponentially multiplying the positive impact of your ministry while equipping and empowering Millennials for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. 
 
In the next issue of Best Practices, we’ll give some attention to what the research reveals as Millennials give their recommendations for next steps to consider4.
 
A. Allan Martin, PhD is the teaching pastor of Younger Generation Church [www.YGchurch.com], the vibrant young adult ministry of the Arlington Seventh-day Adventist Church in Texas 
 
 
Notes
 
1Barna Group, a Christian research firm, is the world leader in understanding Christians, attitudes toward Christianity and Christian organizations, and spiritual perspectives in general. They surveyed Millennials who were (or had been) part of an Adventist congregation in order to understand their common experiences and attitudes. The survey was followed by multiple, moderated online discussions with Adventists and former Adventist young adults.
 
2 Jenkin, C., & Martin, A. A. (2014, May). Engaging Adventist Millennials: A church that embraces relationships. Ministry, 86(5), 6-9.
Online: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2014/05/engaging-adventist-millennials
 
3Provocative parallels can be found in the emphasis on intergenerational church relationships noted in the Adventist Millennial Research and the work of Dr. Roger Dudley, professor emeritus at Andrews University, whose study of youth and young adults spanned over four decades.  See https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2009/01/embracing-those-who-reject-religion
 
4Let me suggest a step-by-step matrix for developing your young adult ministry.  LOST2LIFE offers steps to follow in progression as you consider starting or sharpening your ministry to Millennials. Download free https://db.tt/MRg3qRs9