I don’t know about you, but I view the daily headlines with a sort of fascinated dread. I can’t bear to watch and I can’t turn away. Every day, there’s more bad news for public education, undocumented immigrants and the environment. Politicians seem less concerned than ever with constituent
Millennial ministry. My Facebook newsfeed is full of articles that have something to say about ministry to or with young adults (often referred to formally as Millennials). And if you read BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post or other current e-zines, you might infer that today’s youth are a new species of humanity and that to minister to or with them, you need specialized training.
Not true. It’s really not that hard. Look. I’ll show you.
First thing, and this is primary: stop trying to attract young people. That’s right. Attracting a certain demographic should never be a primary objective for your church. Really, young people are individuals just like all other humans and they have different preferences. Some like an early worship service, some prefer the later one. Some like worship in a traditional setting, others like a more contemporary atmosphere. You cannot be all these things to today’s college students because you’ll get frustrated and overwhelmed and you won’t look a thing like Jesus. Stop trying to find the latest gimmick to draw young folks to your doors. Instead, try being church to all people, regardless of their ages.
Now, what you do need to do is create an environment in your church that welcomes college students. Start by letting them know you exist. Go to campus events. Eat lunch in the cafeteria. Even have a Bible study there on the campus. Spread the word about times for worship and Sunday morning Bible study. You should do that but not to build up your church’s collegiate ministry. Do it because college students — just like everyone else — need godly community.
Oh, and if you are going to invite them, be sure to prepare for them. Have engaging Bible study and small groups. Consider making these groups inter-generational. Recently a college student told me that at the church she attends, she has made a really close friend who she hangs out with frequently. They laugh together, eat together and have fun together. The friend? She’s well past 80 years old! Offer students quality Bible study and authentic connection, and age won’t be nearly as important as you might think.
Okay, so you are (1) ministering to college students and young adults not to increase your weekly attendance but because we are called to share the love of Jesus. And (2) you are offering classes that are both substantive in content and intentional in relationship building. Now, what else can you do? Here are a few ideas.
1. Get on social media. Facebook appeals to an older crowd these days, but I find most students do have an account. They check it, but not necessarily daily. I interact more with students via Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Snapchat is especially easy and — for me — fun to use. Most college students use some type of social media. If you want to connect with them, you should, too.
2. Get their phone numbers and use them. Wait! Don’t actually call them! (That’s so last century). Send a text. Now it depends on your relationship with the student as to what you say. If I am not really close to a student, I might text a quick, “Hope classes are going well,” or “Thinking about you during exams.” For those kids I know really well, I text them things like, “I miss hearing your goofy jokes,” or “It’s the weekend! Make wise choices,” or “You’ll be at church in the morning, right?” Don’t know how to text? Ask a college student (or, hey, a middle schooler) to teach you.
3. Learn their names and remember them. Each young adult who visits your congregation is an individual. You are probably not bombarded with so many college students that you can’t remember all those names. (If you are, then get down on your knees and thank the good Lord for your problem. We should all be so burdened.) So remember each person’s name. I know a student who went (alone) every Sunday she was in town to a very small church near her college. After two years, she quit going. You know why? Because no one in the congregation of less than 75 people knew her name. There’s absolutely no excuse for this. None. It doesn’t matter how old you are, no one wants to be invisible. Remember students’ names. Write them down if necessary. Have them tattooed on your bicep. But remember their names. (Actually don’t do that tattoo thing. That’s kind of creepy.)
4. Talk to them. Many older adults I know feel like they don’t know what to say to people under the age of 40. Here’s what you say to a college student: “Hi. Glad you came today.” Ask them the same questions you’d ask anyone you had just met. Things like, “You from around here?” or “How about this weather?” And if you really want to connect you can say this: “Would you like to join us for lunch today?” But let’s be honest, that’s not only true of people born since 1990. Even Baby Boomers appreciate being included.
5. Minister with them, not just to them. Invite them to sing in your choir, work with your children or help with your landscaping. Include them in local mission projects. Ask them to lead in worship through reading scripture, saying prayers or ushering. Think about it. No one — college-aged or otherwise — wants to be somebody else’s project.
6. Feed them. Take them out to eat or invite them to your home. College students are generally on a tight budget and are weary of cafeteria food. It is the rare college kid who will turn down a good free meal. Unless of course, they suspect a bait and switch scheme. That is, don’t offer food as a sort of bribe or as an exchange for their participation. No. Feed them because, for one thing, you will be meeting a need or at least a real desire; and for another thing, eating together is a great way to build relationships. That’s exactly how Jesus got to know Zacchaeus, and a whole lot of other folks.
7. For students who are away at college, you should definitely connect with them digitally, but also send them real mail. You can mail the church bulletin, a clipping from the local paper about Friday’s football game or just a handwritten note. I’m continually amazed at how much college students appreciate real, paper-in-an-envelope, postmarked correspondence. They love it. Now if you want to, add little gifts from time to time. I buy Starbucks cards — only $5 or so each — and enclose them with a note that says, “Have a cup of coffee on me!” I’ve sent lots of chocolate bars, chewing gum and even silly little toys. One college student I know is still raving about the toy rubber band launcher I sent him. (Don’t know how much his roommates liked it, though.) Of course homemade goodies are always a welcome treat, and if that’s your thing, go for it! But really, you can just send a note. They’ll love it.
Easy, right? It all comes down to three things:
1. Focus on building the Kingdom, not your membership list.
2. Be prepared for people of all ages by offering quality Bible study.
3. Share God’s love intentionally through authentic relationships formed over time.
Plus the food thing. Do that too.
*This piece was first published on August 24, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
“Well,” the teen said after thinking only for a moment, “I’d like to talk about evangelism.”
I was with a group of young people—ages 19-35—and I had asked what issues of faith they’d like to discuss.
“Yes,” someone else said, “Like how do we balance evangelism with respect for other faiths?”
“Exactly. Who am I to tell someone what to believe?”
“And how do we know we are right?”
Lesson learned (again): Don’t ask millennials what they want to discuss unless you are ready to field their questions. The good news is you don’t have to have all the answers; otherwise I would have been utterly stymied that evening. Luckily, post-modern young adults are looking less for absolutes than for engagement.
I shy away from making statements like, “Back in my day . . . .” But seriously, back in my day, I didn’t know many people who didn’t believe pretty much exactly like I did. There were a few—a Jewish girl at school, my catholic uncle—but overall, the people in my life were Protestants, the majority Southern Baptists. I didn’t have much outside resistance to my faith in Jesus Christ and what little I did have was actually somewhat welcome to a Southern Baptist girl with a call to proselytize. Seriously, at the height of my adolescence, I could walk you down the Roman Road, lead you down the aisle during the first stanza of Just As I Am, have you repeat the sinner’s prayer after me, and cry tears of joyful relief when I proclaimed you saved from the fires of eternal damnation.
Things are a little different in 2015 than they were in 1975. The world is much smaller and ideas that were foreign then are now fodder for coffee shop chats. In the multicultural and pluralistic 21st Century, many Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the great commission Jesus gives in Matthew 28:18-20.
Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But I do think there is a place for evangelism today. First of all, we should be able to share the joys of following Christ without being disrespectful to people of other faiths.
Think about it. We share other joys without being offensive. For example, do you hesitate to tell someone about a movie you saw and liked? Imagine if we Christians guarded movie suggestions like we do our faith stories. Let’s say you saw the movie Inside Out (which you totally should because it is awesome). After seeing it, you run into some friends and you start to suggest the movie, but you stop yourself. Maybe they don’t care for movies; maybe they prefer live theater. Do they like animation or could they be opposed to such frivolities? Has someone already recommended Inside Out to them and how was that recommendation received?
Additionally, we don’t haul those same friends back to the theater, force them to pay the ticket price, and make sure they go see the film. We just say something like, “For me, the experience was a good one. Maybe it would be for you as well.” And we go on our merry way. Later, we could say, “So, did you go see the movie?” and then a dialogue might begin that could lead to relationship.
So don’t be afraid to tell people that following Christ brings you joy if the opportunity arises. That isn’t being disrespectful; it’s being conversational.
The risk, of course, is that when you are discussing things about which you feel passionate, it is easy to become dogmatic. Given the right circumstances, most of us can get a little bossy. We all have our issues. Yours might be the risks of artificial sweeteners or the benefits of organic produce. It might be the plight of the small business or the need for affordable health care. Me, I can become downright inflexible when it comes to the importance of supporting public educators. On subjects such as these, we are generally quite happy to tell people what we think they should believe and for that matter, how they should act.
But you know (and I do too), that regardless of the strength of our convictions or the volume of our voices, folks don’t want to be told what to do. Rarely does anyone change behavior or thought process because of someone else’s insistence. No, change usually happens slowly (sometimes almost imperceptibly) over time, and within relationship. So, we can just stop telling people what to believe—whether about standardized testing or about Jesus Christ; it doesn’t work anyway.
This mindset also helps with the issue of who is right and who is wrong. If we could embrace the idea of sharing our stories without the compulsion to be right all the time, I think we might see real relationships forming across what would have been intractable barriers. Instead of entering into debates, we could enter conversations. If winning were no longer an objective, we could allow ourselves a little vulnerability. How freeing would that be? We could say things like, “Sometimes I doubt,” and “Maybe I’m wrong,” or “I’m not sure.” Friends, hear the good news: God will still be God even if we utter those words. God can survive our questions; God’s been doing that for millennia. Frankly, I thank God prefers we be a little less sure of ourselves. It makes us lean not unto our own understanding.
That’s a little of what I think about evangelism today. What about you? How would you have responded to these questions?
*This piece was first published on July 26, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
I have a lot of millennials in my life: my own children and their friends, nieces and nephews, youth from churches where I’ve served, plus college students I’ve met through ministry. I Snapchat™ and text, Facebook™ and Instagram™. I also visit students on their campuses and I meet them for coffee, lunch, or walks in the park. I’ve had lots of conversations with these folks over the years and since I’m in the business, we talk a lot about church. Despite all the time I’ve spent with them though, there are a number of things I’ve never heard millennials say about church. Here are a few of them.
Nope, I’ve never heard any of those things. But, what I have heard makes me believe that in many ways, millennials are not that different from Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, or even first century believers. They want to break bread with us (particularly if it’s good bread and includes an entrée along with it). They want to follow Jesus and they want to know how to do that. They want to be a part of Kingdom work—not just for the sake of the hereafter but on earth, today--just as it is in heaven.
Oh, and they’d prefer we lose the label. They’d rather us just call them by name.
*This piece was first published on April 6, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.