7 Lessons Learned from a Church of Millennials

Chris —  July 30, 2013 — 11 Comments

Rachel Held Evans recently pointed out on CNN that Millenials are leaving the church like crazy.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

It doesn’t have to be this way! How do I know? For the past four years, I’ve been involved in a mostly-millennial church. While we have our share of short comings, I’ve learned at least seven lessons about how to be the church in the millennial generation.

1. Look (and sound) like your city

When people ask me what kind of church we are, I say that it is “an Austin kind of church.” Austin is known for being the live music capital of the world, a start-up hot bed, the state capital, a world-class university system, a renown restaurant scene with more craft beer than you can drink.

So, when we try to live the church together in Austin, we do Austin things. We go on bike rides and participate in local festivals. We share space with neighborhood non-profits. On Sundays, you’ll hear references to the Longhorns, clips from This American Life, and Sufjan Stevens songs.

When a millennial joins a back yard party or Sunday liturgy they see people and hear sounds that are familiar. They need to know that they can come and learn about Jesus and still be themselves.


2. Be a safe place to come back to Church

When a Jewish friend started giving me a hard time about Michael W. Smith, I learned something about America: in many places, we aren’t un-churched yet, we’re more de-churched. Welcoming Millenials means being a safe place to come back to church. You need an environment that harkens back to good memories.

We have a Sunday morning gathering, practice weekly communion and sing a lot of old hymns. Doing something “outside the box”, like being a house church or meeting in a bar could be seen a stretch. Our gathering isn’t meant to be “attractional,” just familiar enough to be safe.

3. Wear your brokenness

The emotional highpoint of our liturgy is our practice of Prayers of the People. For a few minutes, the mics are open for people to share praises or petitions. The congregation responds with “Thanks be to God!” and “Lord, have mercy.” During these times, people have admitted huge sins, cried for hurting friends and shared a good laugh.

Millenials are thirsty to see authenticity in others. They have experienced judgmental religiosity and want nothing to do with it. When we lead with our own brokenness, others know they know they can be themselves.


4. Structure is your friend

One new visitor described our Sunday Liturgy’s as being “so structured that creative things happen.” We do the same things in the same order every week. This includes prayers of confession, call and response and the Eucharist. This gives us the opportunity to be both sacramental and creative.

5. Everyone has a role

Every Sunday, we begin by explaining that the word Liturgy means “work of the people,” and that means “it is everyone’s job to be a good host.” This is reinforced by constantly shifting who is up front. Different people read prayers or serve the Eucharist. The staff only preaches about 60% of the time. (They even let me speak on occasion!) Small groups are very small, and everyone has the opportunity to speak. If Millenials want entertainment, they have better options than your church. So give them a role.

6. Ask lots of questions

Since the word of God is alive and active, we don’t need to tell people what to do or think. Unpack scripture, and then ask the question: what would it look like for us to live this in our neighborhood? Millenials don’t need to be told what to think. Make space for the word to do its job.


7. Live in proximity

Millenials are thirsty for community. Community requires seeing people throughout the week. That doesn’t happen naturally in our culture. Our church began when 15 families moved together to a neighborhood. We ride our bikes to eachother’s houses. We grab dinner at neighborhood restaurants. We swim in the neighborhood pool. People are welcome no matter where they live. (We have a few who even drive in from Houston!) Reality is that it is easier to be in each other’s lives when you see each other every day.

We don’t have to worry about the “Millenial Exodus” because God has promised that the Gates of Hades will not overcome his church. We just have to decide if we are willing to get on board and be the church for the next generation.

How have you seen churches engage Millenials?

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#6 is so important. I think a lot of people assume that young people are becoming disillusioned because the church won't just change to meet their style. At least in my experience, that's largely not the case. I have questions ... lots of questions - and not only am I not finding the answers, I'm not finding the ability to even ask those questions in the church.


"If Millennials want entertainment, they have better options than your church."

Yes! Outstanding! I think, a lot of times, the very things that churches do to attract Millennials actually drive them away.


really good stuff chris. my sense is that rachel's post overstated things in the direction of mainline church/liturgy, though there is much that is right about her argument. what would you say to the pushback that vox veniae is just another example of "cool" church?

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Chris, love the post. I'm in agreement with @zachhoag about RHE's post, though she said some good things. I want to hear your response to Zach's pushback though too. I love what Vox is doing, and we are incorporating and beginning to incorporate similar things, but how is it not an example of a "cool" church. I'm curious how you don't think Vox is stretching things a bit - in terms of the contextual setting of Austin that you know better than me of course - by meeting in their public space (former after-hours club, Space 12) versus being in a bar or house church?

ChrisMorton82 moderator

@worthwheeler @zachhoag As I said to Zach, we may be doing "cool" stuff, but I would argue that it has more to do with our neighborhood. (See the Forbes article above). I mean, on many a Sunday night, I've biked to a nearby restaurant that serves Foi Gras corn dogs. 

As far as how we meet on Sundays, you have to remember that Austin is still "Texas", and many of the reidents have a bible belt background. My opinion is that the examples I gave above would sound to many locals like something in between "trying too hard" and "cultish". That would, of course, be different in different cities. Make sense?


@ChrisMorton82 @worthwheeler @zachhoag I think we are experiencing the same thing with regard to people feeling shy to come to MCs (house-church) gatherings. And I think you're on track that most people don't recognize the format, and close proximity (more intimate space relationally) would benefit from a lighter proxemic level of friendship and interaction in a different type of space. I believe Boise is mostly de-churched as well.

We're in agreement on structure. When I've looked Vox's website I see a lot of things in place structurally for the public gatherings at Space 12. This I like. I think maybe we 3 would benefit from a short Google Hangout sometime next week to discuss structure, since both Zach and I are looking for resources such as Vox's liturgy. 

Learning with each other and from each other is the best.

Cheers mates!

ChrisMorton82 moderator

@worthwheeler @ChrisMorton82 @zachhoag Thanks! You guys make me feel better about my coolness :)

As far as what to do in Boise, I'm not sure what to reccommend. I'm transitioning to help with Austin Mustard Seed. After 4 years of meeting in homes AMS decided to launch a public gathering inspired by Vox's Liturgy. The reason was that while many friends were excited to come help with service projects (in a public space) they were shy to come to house-church gatherings. 

Our hypothesis is that Texas is mostly de-churched, and that people need something that they recognize...sort of. I don't really mean pews, just something more public thana living room.

As far as finding a space? I'd say that structure is just as, if not more important than space (see #4). Knowing that each week, they can count on things like accessible music, thoughtful prayers, eucharist, etc., is a part of that familiarity. 

We are trying to figure this out as well, and are anxious to learn from you!


@ChrisMorton82 @worthwheeler @zachhoag first, let me reiterate Zach's sentiment. You are cool! :) Second, only reason I brought up the question is because I wanted your take on context. Boise is not Austin, so I wanted to see it through your eyes. Short of owning your our space, we have to rent or borrow. We are thinking of renting pub/coffee shop space. I had a hard time seeing how people might think doing something like that would be "trying to hard" or "cultish". If we don't have funding to create something of our own space, what are the other options? Your post made me wonder if I knew my context well enough and if I should look around a little more (we've been part of the community for 2.5 years, and we've looked a lot) for something "that's just familiar enough to be safe."