Millennials—the demographic cohort born from the 1980s through the early 2000s—have a reputation for being self-absorbed, liberal political leanings, an obsession with social media, rejecting traditional morality and a lackadaisical work ethic. Most of all—if you believe the various surveys that claim to measure such things—Millennials are known for rejecting the Christian faith of their parents.
A recent Pew Research study seems to bear this out:
While the overall decline in the country’s religiosity is driven partly by modest declines among Baby Boomers and those who are part of the Silent and Greatest generations, generational replacement appears to be an even larger factor. In other words, Millennials, who make up a growing share of the population as they reach adulthood and older Americans die off, are far less religiously observant than the older cohorts.
The many churches, conferences, and programs designed to reach Millennials appear to confirm the research, with every denomination and ministry obsessed with what’s variously labeled a problem, crisis or catastrophe—take your pick. Lifeway (the publishing arm of my own Southern Baptist Convention) sells more Bible studies, books and other guides devoted to the topic than I can count, from “Loving Millennials into Community” to “Ten Ways Millennials are Shaping Women’s Ministry” to “5 LQ Episode: Millennials in the Workplace” ( I have no idea what this means but it’s a dandy title).
It’s always dangerous to swim against the current of statistics, but my personal experience with Millennials has been otherwise. I’ve found them to be among the most gifted, hard-working and, yes, religious of all the age-groups I work with as a local church pastor. In fact, I’ve discovered that Millennials are not only embracing biblical faith in large numbers but also that their leadership holds great promise in moving the American church in a new and more promising direction.
My conviction was confirmed last weekend when I had the chance to observe three separate churches successfully reaching Millennials–despite the demographers’ naysaying.
First, on Saturday night, I attended a revival in a small country town near where I live. I arrived an hour before the service began to find the place already filling up. But instead of the people standing around talking with one another, like you normally find, they were packed in front of the church praying for the service to come. By the time the service actually began, it was standing room only throughout the room.
The service itself was all I could have expected. The music was full and engaging. The people sang with passion. And the leader directed all of us to that place of worship that so many churches talk about but so few reach.
I guess you would call it a Pentecostal church—although that’s a name the congregation doesn’t claim. They describe their church instead as simply a place where broken people find hope. I would add that it’s also such a contagious place that people from all over the country are relocating in order to be near it—over a hundred have done just that in the last year alone. When I found out that the revival there has been going on for almost two years, I wasn’t surprised. Something that gripping has staying power.
But of all the unique features of the church, the one I found most noticeable was that almost everyone there was a Millennial. They recognized the real thing when they found it.
The next morning my wife and I got up early and drove to North Carolina, to attend a second church where my son and his wife were celebrating the baptism of their young daughter. I took Sunday morning off in order to attend. OK, so I’m a Baptist preacher and infant baptism isn’t supposed to be on my theological radar. But I respect my son and his wife and was there to support them. I’m especially happy that they faithfully attend a church that preaches the gospel and is faithful to the Bible.
Their church is small, with maybe one hundred people in attendance. And it’s Anglican, a group unfamiliar to many but essentially consisting of refugees from the moral and spiritual collapse of the Episcopal Church. Anglicans are orthodox, biblical and Spirit-filled people who maintain their liturgical and historical connection to the Church of England. That means that their worship follows a set liturgy, including Bible readings, corporate prayers and the historic Christian creeds.
The church has a wide diversity of ages, but right in the thick of congregational life there’s a group of committed Millennials, including my son and his wife. They love the place for a number of reasons—the authentic relationships they’ve built there, the historical foundation of the church’s worship, the pastor’s expository preaching. But they also love it because it’s such a clear alternative to what they would describe as the shallow, market-driven hype of contemporary mega-churches. They’re not only ones who feel that way, and I believe that there’s a shift going on in church attendance patterns for many Millennials moving in the same direction.
The third church experience I had last weekend was when I returned Sunday night to my own congregation for our annual church picnic and outdoor baptism. After the Pentecostal revival followed by the Anglican liturgy, I felt like I had spiritual whiplash and was ready to return to my own heart language. Nothing says Baptist like an outdoor baptism.
We had a large pool set up at a park and our people gathered around it to watch the twenty or so people get baptized. I stood in the middle of the pool, assisted by two deacons as one at a time, the candidates stepped into the pool to affirm their trust in Jesus as Savior by publically being immersed in the water.
As always, it was a glorious experience. The congregation whooped and hollered as they should have. It wasn’t the place for calm restraint but for the uproarious enthusiasm of Baptists at their best. There was such a great spirit of worship and excitement that when I extended a spontaneous invitation at the end for anyone in the audience who wanted also to be baptized, three additional people came forward. The congregation went wild at that point.
The thing I noticed most in the service, though, was how almost everyone who was baptized was a Millennial, including three young couples. They choose to commit their lives to Jesus, I think, because of the simple, direct explanation of the gospel within a congregation that honors the gospel above all else.
Three different churches. Three different worship styles. Three different theologies—although none so different as to wander from the biblical standard. But all three reaching Millennials in ways that belie the demographic pronouncements of impending doom. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t trump statistical evidence—I get that. Still, not just in my experience but also in the experience of many other pastors I know, the news on Millennials and their religious convictions is much more positive than many people think.
I believe that Millennials are in fact coming to faith in Jesus in larger numbers than we realize, growing in their spiritual maturity and taking their place in church leadership. I believe their passion for God, their hunger for his Word and their commitment to authentic faith will make them the next great generation for the American church.