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.
March 31, 2009
Today I led the call to worship for our chapel service at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. As I prayed this week about what I would say, I kept coming back to the wonder that Almighty God calls out to me. In response, I am to come out of myself, away from my busyness, and into God's rest. I'm ashamed I don't always answer that call. Yet amazingly, God still calls.
A Call to Worship
Now is the time.
Answer the call to worship.
You who are broken, burdened, bereaved.
Come out of frenzied chaos and
Into sacred peace.
Come out of the mundane and
Into the magnificent.
Come out of the pressure of the daily and
Into the presence of the divine.
Come because you are called.
Called to worship.
Only one child got it right.
Oh, all the children knew their parts; the creation play in this morning’s worship service was lovely. The flowers, colorful and bright, stood tall, blooming and blushing. The birds flapped otheir wings. The fish swooshed, the mice crawled, the frogs hopped. The apple tree, its branches menacing, taunted. The young man who played Adam delivered his lines masterfully, having us laughing at all the right times. Eve entered the garden, singing with a voice that sounded as if it had indeed been created by God for this moment in time.
But only one child—only one—captured the wonder.
Our church has been celebrating creation for the last few weeks—art, the written word, music, drama. During this time, sermons, anthems, and special events have focused on the beauty of creation, more specifically on the wonder of the Creator. The point, it seems, has been to bring our minds, our hearts, to a state of amazement. We’ve had the work of a local artist hanging in our atrium: wall sized paintings depicting the explosive dynamics of creation. We’ve had dancers—yes dancers in our Baptist sanctuary—offering their gifts in worship. We even had kites one Sunday (they called them liturgical kites to make them sound more churchy but they were kites all the same). Our orchestras played, our handbells rang, our authors read from their books. It’s been a time to delight. It’s been a time of awe.
And this morning, Cameron Brown, full of wonder, delighted in the awe of it all.
Of course, Cameron is exceptional, gifted really and it is not fair to compare others to him. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that usually happens: he’s often compared to others in a most unfair way. (Some people are such slow learners.)
When Cameron came down the aisle this morning wearing a bright red shirt, carrying a gigantic rose-red flower, his eyes sparkled. When his little brother came down, dressed like a mouse, Cameron giggled a little, watching his favorite person mount the stairs then crouch like a critter. He looked around at all his friends standing there with him, his smile growing, his eyes dancing. When the audience laughed, Cameron laughed too. When Eve sang, Cameron watched her every move. And when it was over, all too soon, Cameron stayed in place. He looked around that great big sanctuary, appearing every bit the picture of pure, innocent wonder. The director came to him, he took her hand, and flashed her his full-face grin. And as they slowly made their way back down the aisle, Cameron continued looking over his shoulder. It was as if he didn’t want it to be over, not yet. It was too wonderful, too delightful.
Anyone could tell by the look on his face: Cameron got it. And once again I thought, I want to be more like Cameron. I want to see the world like he does. I want to see God like he does.