3 Not So Secret Ingredients To Reaching Millennials

When I first heard our local community colleges had over 60,000 registered students and no active Christian clubs on campus, I thought our innovative, new young adult ministry was going to be the easiest outreach we had ever done.   Silly me.

Surely we would at least pick up Christians who were without a church home- Wrong.

We would even bring the Starbucks, pizza, live music and Bible study to them on campus, and that would do the trick – Wrong, again.

 At some point, I was going to be forced to write a book on” The Most Epic Fails in Ministry.”

 We thought we had all the right ingredients to make this work:

Cool, attractive, non-churchy leaders? Check.  A great, secular name for our group? Check.  A team ready to love on students and speak into their lives? Check.

The result?  Thousands of decisions to follow Christ!!!

No, not really…..  More like thousands of decisions to avoid our coffee table on campus and not make eye contact with us.

Good thing we did not give up, though. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog, while my own kids are screaming at each other in the background.) Because – believe it or not, even with all the unexpected hurdles, we have actually experienced success!

So – sit back and let me share some hard earned wisdom with you. Ok, here it goes….I am going to tell you the secret ingredients to our success in reaching Millennials.  You’ve probably heard these a thousand times, in one form or another - but I’m going to be real with you. 

As a ministry leader, you believe that you have developed a program which successfully incorporates 3 key ingredients discussed below; from a Millennial’s perspective, however, your efforts are far from successful.

Ingredient #1 – Authenticity

When Christians try to create an outreach that is authentic, we normally begin by openly sharing our struggles in life and telling others how Jesus made it all better. Our goal is to show the world that we are just like them.  We figure if people can relate to us, they will want to hang out with us.  Only problem is - the world isn’t stupid.  People can smell ”Evangelism” from 100 miles away, and they know that, at the end the day, we are ”working them”, because we have an agenda.

A Millennial envisions ‘Authenticity’, being lived out very differently than those in our generation.  Being authentic means being unfiltered.  It means you think and say exactly what you mean -  you could care less about social norms-  you are slightly offensive- and you are committed to being yourself, no matter what anybody else says.

For most Christians, this definition of Authenticity is radical.   How can we behave as good Christians and still relate to others who live so differently? We would have to compromise all Jesus told us to be to create that kind of environment, right? 

Nope. We just need to cut the “Nice Guy“ routine and get right to the point. Our opening line should sound something like this:

Hey, I’m Joe.  Can I ask you a serious question?  If you had unlimited time, money and resources, what would you do to make the world a better place?”

A question like this immediately gives insight into the passions, worldview, and even life experiences of those we are trying to reach. We need to affirm, listen and ask more questions- then respond with the same type of filtered, non-PC thoughts and encouragement modeled by Millennials.  BAM! Authentic experience achieved. 

But, tread carefully! An immediate invite to a Bible study or churchy event sucks the authenticity right out of the room, because now they know what we are really after. If we try to be “cool Christians”, in order to create authenticity as nothing more than a means for evangelism, we will fail miserably; Millennials are not fooled by insincerity.

Ingredient # 2 - Community

Well, if I can’t invite them to church, what am I supposed to do? Why even make the effort?

That’s exactly how we felt at first … Until we noticed these folks stopping at our table for coffee the very next week. And guess what?  Most of them wanted to pick up the conversation right were we left off!  It was like we didn’t miss a beat with them. 

But, we also knew that if we played the church or Jesus card too soon, we might not even get to make eye contact with them the following week.  So, we created a weekly event -outside of church- and invited them to hang out with us.  The conversation went like this:

“So what are you doing on Thursday nights?  There is a bunch of us that hang out at _______ and have coffee, get real and grab dinner after.  Want to come? I’ll shoot you a friend request and give you the info. “

Before long, we found ourselves building a community that was connecting on the campus, at dinner and through social media- giving us 3 or more different connection points throughout the week.

For years, we thought that community could only exist tied to a spiritual event.  When we adopted the millennial way of thinking about community, we realized that we just needed to create environments that allowed them to opt in, or opt out, whenever they wanted- with no expectation of membership or commitment.  Community would be free flowing - and it was exactly what they were hoping to find.

Ingredient # 3 - Acceptance

I know what you are thinking - because we had the same thought: This stuff is all fine and good, but when are we going to tell them about Jesus?

 And there lies the problem.

 No, Jesus is not the problem, nor is our desire to tell them about Jesus.

 The problem is our impatience.

It’s a good thing not many of us farm today, because I would imagine we would starve to death. Impatient farmers are not very successful. Like farming, the most difficult part of evangelism is the waiting.  It’s also the reason many of us only like to do evangelism when it’s part of a quick event ...  we quickly share Jesus, and if someone accepts Him as Savior ,  we instantly celebrate and pat ourselves on the back. And – even if our evangelistic effort doesn’t lead to a profession of Faith, we can still go to bed feeling good, assuring ourselves that we did our part and the rest is now up to God. This method keeps Evangelism in a neat little box ….

Here is the thing about acceptance: It’s messier than a toddler slinging around his poopy diaper like a lasso at a wedding.  (I’ll let you wonder whether that story is true.) Acceptance for a Millennial means not actively trying to change who they are in any way.  It does not mean that you accept them the way they are today indefinitely, but that you are willing to invest time in them where they are now, before focusing on the need for a spiritual makeover.

So where does that leave the Christian who is in this only to see someone accept Jesus?

Exactly where Jesus wants you to be - In the perfect position to be a consistent influence in their life, as the way you lead your own life and care for them becomes the catalyst that carries them to Jesus. In our own ministry, we have seen this happen in a matter of months- in a matter of years- and for many, we are still waiting. 

We have come to realize that acceptance really means that we must accept where someone is on their journey and be willing to patiently ride along with them, no matter what.

Quick Summary

Reading this blog, you may get the impression we never share or talk about Jesus at all. Nothing is further from the truth.   We actually talk about Jesus a lot…. we just do it when we are invited to do so -and when we have built up enough relational equity with someone that we know the conversation will not come across as “we must convert you, or hand you over to your heathen ways.”  This means that in some cases, we get to bring Jesus up in the first encounter with someone, and in other cases, not until the tenth encounter.  There is no formula to this thing; if there were, I’m sure the Apostle Paul would have laid it out for us. 

If you’re striving to successfully connect with the next generation, I would highly encourage you to examine these 3 ingredients through the lens of a Millennial, as you evaluate your ministry approach.  If you are unsure how they might view your strategies, just ask them.  Trust me- they will tell you exactly what they are thinking.