Millennials & Mega-Churches

The Leadership Network and Hartford Seminary posted a fantastic research summary about the trend of Millennials attending Mega-churches.  For the past decade, a myth has circulated around church culture that mega-churches are on the decline and that millennials do not want to attend mega-churches.  Well, that myth has been disproven definitively with this latest research. Here is my perspective as an under 45 pastor making some church growth headway – although I clearly don’t speak for all under 45 pastors – as to why so many millennials attend mega-churches: 1) Mega-Churches Have Large Marketing and Outreach Budgets – don’t ever discount this fact. Advertising works! 2) The vast majority of millennials want to go to a place clearly vetted by other millennials. Part of it is community, part of it is peer influence, and part of it is a trust and safety factor. 3) Mega-Churches have high quality programs just for millennials. We live in a market-segmented culture. We are use to having products made just for us. Mega-churches are able to do this whereas small churches usually lack the budgets and attendance justification to designate significant resources to millennials. 4) Immersive Experiences – there is a reason why Starbucks and Apple are pervasive. They are immersive experiences. Mega-churches create immersive worship, immersive community, and immersive service projects. Smaller churches usually lack the budget, talent, and time to create such immersive experiences. 5) Process, Structure, and Being Put Together – mega-churches often have clear processes and structure. They usually communicate clearly, have good signage, great web presence, good publications and materials, good coffee and other drinks. We like good experiences with clear processes and plans. Mega-churches often provide these in clear, concise ways.


Millennials and the Churches They Attend

75% of Millennials affiliate with a particular faith tradition.  Depending on the study, Millennials regularly attend church (meaning several times per month) at a 25%-35% rate.  

Last week, I wrote a post called “Will Millennials Come to MY Church?”  The quick answer is: Today – Probably not.  In the future – Maybe.  If today your congregation does not currently have a critical mass of 20-somethings attending, then you will have a difficult time attracting 20-somethings.  You will have to expend a lot of resources: finances, volunteers, staff, energy, and change inertia in your congregation to attract and keep these 20-something Millennials.  In the future, as the Millennials turn 30 and have children, you MIGHT begin attracting them as they will be looking for programs for their children.  

So what churches do today’s 20-something Millennials attend?  They attend congregations that are congruent with their style and culture.  Here are three local-to-me (around Denver, CO) examples:

1) Flat-Irons Church – This is a mega-church and now multi-site church, and one of the fastest growing in the nation.  Worship style looks like a rock-concert.  The pastor usually wears a t-shirt while preaching.  Flat-Irons is the epitome of “cool” and lots of Millennials attend, participate, and love it.  Many believe it is a church experience tailored to their likes, needs, and wants and that it also inspires them to change their lives and the world.  As far as theology and social values, Flat-Irons represents a right-of-center system of beliefs and values.  Considering so much of the recent press, these beliefs and values seem out-of-sync with what is being reported about the Millennials.  One must recognize that 1) a large minority of Millennials do hold to such right-of-center beliefs and values and 2) some Millennials will participate in the experience, style, and energy even if some of the beliefs and values are out-of-sync with them.  

2) Bloom Church – this house-church networks with weekly emergent-like gatherings was started by Gungor and is now led by Lead Pastor Andrew Arndt.  Emergent-like is my own label for them – not sure how they would categorize themselves.  The vast majority of Bloom’s participants are Millennials and Gen-Xers.  The style is urban yet intimate.  Theology and social values are in the middle and moderate.  Where Flat-Irons is trying to deliver a product of cool and relevant that attracts Millennials and Xers, Bloom just is.  Bloom provides an experience that reflects the personality and style of those who participate – mostly Millennials and Xers.  

3) House For All Sinners and Saints – emergent, alternative, liturgical (but not necessarily your grandmother’s prim-and-proper liturgy), and progressive/liberal in values and theology – these are words I would use to describe this church community.  The vast majority of participants at House for All Sinners and Saints are 22-42 and single.  

All three of these communities have a few things in common:

1) Experience.  Each one offers a different experience but each experience is congruent with a large segment of Millennial culture.  None of the three are their “parents” church and certainly not their “grandparents” church.  Yet all three are finding ways to repackage and reimagine their “parents” theology and values – Flat Irons with their conservative theology, Bloom with their focus on small community through house churches, and House for All Sinners and Saints with their focus on liturgy.  

2) Community of Peers.  Each one not only has a critical mass of Millennials and Xers but the majority of the congregation is composed of Millennials and Xers.  

3) They are New.  None of these places existed 30 years ago.  Each understand they are a church for today rather than yesterday.  They adapt and change quickly.  Even Flat-Irons with 13,000 in attendance each week has shown the ability to turn on a dime when needed.  And Bloom and Church for All Sinners and Saints can adapt overnight.  They all can make decisions quickly without a lot of authority structures getting in their way.  

4) They are Lean.  Each of these congregations operate on lean budgets, especially House For All and Bloom.  Even Flat-Irons operates very lean for their size.  In this way, they embody the entrepreneurial reality of cutting edge creative-tech culture and organizations.  

Will Millennials Come To My Church?

Rachel Held Evans’s CNN article “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” received a lot of press and follow-up across the blog and media worlds.  I shared it on Facebook along with several of the follow-ups from various sources.  Sixteen years ago, I remember reading very similar headlines about Gen-X.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, similar headlines were being written due to the Woodstock-Hippie types.  I think Evan’s made some really good points in her article.  She rightly questions church leaders assuming that a hip worship leader will get Millennials to show up in their church next Sunday.  She rightly notes that some “young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.”  Very true – even though this has been true for many decades.  It was true for me sixteen years ago growing up in a Fundamentalist congregation!

However, I also disagree with the assumed idea that Millennials are leaving the Church.  In her follow-up blog post “More On Millennials and The Future of Christianity,” she states:

“…fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). “

Let’s restate the data here from a positive view:

  • Fully 3 in 4 members of the Millennials generation are Affiliated with a particular faith!
  • Millennials are slightly less affiliated than members of Gen X at a comparable point in their life cycle.  Generation X had a 80% Affiliation rate vs Millennials at a 75% Affiliation rate.

When the data is restated, my opinion on the whole idea changes A LOT!  In fact, its really hard to believe.  You are telling me that 75% of Millennials actually affiliate with a particular faith.  My internal assumption is that this would be 25% affiliate rather than 75%.  This is REALLY GREAT NEWS!  The vast majority of Millennials affiliate with a particular faith.  Rather than leaving the faith, most millennials are staying with a faith!!!!

So much has been written over the past few years regarding the Unaffiliated, the Nones, and the Spiritual-But-Religious.  These groups are slightly larger than in years past.  Do we need to understand why this small trend is taking place?  Yes!  Absolutely!  But is it a crisis that is leading to the end of our faith?  Absolutely not!

unChristian, deChurched, and Spiritual-But-Not-Religious

A few years ago, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman wrote a book called unChristian.  It describes and analyzes a Barna Group study on those who consider by the study to be non-Christian.  This past year, they followed up with a book called You Lost Me that explores why Millennials (who were 18-29 years old at the time) are leaving the church.  Here is the question I want to ask, “Are we losing the Millennials?”  From the stats above, I would seem to think the answer is No!  Like generations that have come before them who are in their 20s, they are idealists and find some real problems in our faith communities.  They are going through their own identity journeys – questioning, doubting, and very skeptical of the institutions that have provided (more like “forced” in their minds) meaning, definitions, boxes, lines and identity upon them.  The real problems that both the non-Christians and the Millennials are finding with the Church need to be given real attention.  Their issues are real and important for the future of our faith communities.  Many of their issues are the same issues I take with American Christianity.

Data & Statistics

As I’ve noted, data and statistics are easy to manipulate.  Terms are easy to interchange when they are very different.  For example, religious Affiliation is different than church attendance.  Church attendance is around the 20% rate for regular weekly attendance according to some studies and as high as 40% in other studies.  Most surveys do not consider church participants who attend just 3x per month to be regular.  However, most participants who attend even once every four weeks consider themselves to be regular attenders.  Even C & E participants (attending Christmas and Easter only) will claim a particular congregation as  their home church.  This concept alone accounts for so much of the broken statistics being reported in the media.  A closer look at all of the data shows that most Americans are very spiritual, and many are even religious – as in institutional religion such as affiliation with a particular church, synagogue or mosque.

Also, when you read the summaries of these various studies, and especially those using the studies to drive a certain idea such as “American Christianity will be extinct in 10 years” sort of headlines, what you will find is that article or book will:

  • Mix data from a wide variety of studies
  • It will shift back and forth from Percentages to Actual Numbers
  • It will focus in on the most dramatic numbers
  • It rarely takes into account population increases for various demographics

Here is a great example:  “Today’s 30-somethings attend church at 25% of the rate of Boomers.”  As I often do, I examine footnotes and links for statistical information.  Here is what I discovered:

  • It should read 25% less.  Why is this significant?  25% means that if 100 Boomers attended church, then only 25 thirty-somethings attend.  Whereas, 25% less means 75 thirty-somethings attend compared to 100 Boomers.
  • Are we comparing today’s 30-somethings to yesterday’s Boomer 30-somethings from 10-20 years ago?  Or, are we comparing today’s 30-somethings to today’s Boomers who are anywhere between the ages of 49-67 today?  Those are very different stats to compare!  If it’s the first, it might be significant.  If it’s the second, then nothing has really changed over the past 60 years!
  • Are we really comparing a 10 year age range (30 somethings) to an entire Generational demographic (Boomers make up an 18 year span!)?
  • This example reveals the tilted perspective of the writer. A writer using such a so-called “statistic” has a very clear agenda.  Rather than accuracy, such a writer is attempting to manipulate data to make a case.  I think the Barna Group does this often in their books and articles.  Unfortunately, this affected Rachel Held Evan’s article and even my own perspective the day I read her article.

Soul Searching & Souls In Transition

If you want to read someone who takes the study, data, and statistics very seriously, then read Dr. Christian Smith’s books.  He is professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.  Two of his books that have been significant for the study of the religious affiliation and habits of teenagers and 20-somethings are Soul Searching and Souls In Transition.  In the first, he studied teenagers.  Then he took the same group as they went into college and were graduating to figure out if anything had changed.  If you want to read a quick summary of his findings, check out this quick summary.  Essentially, he states that children have the same basic shape to their faith as their parents.  Most people in this country believe in what he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the belief that we should be good, feel good, and turn to God in emergencies.”  Parents and faith communities teach this idea to our children and teenagers – often not realizing we are doing that.  As college students and 20-somethings, Millennials push these ideas a little farther but not much.  Here is what Smith finds:

  • Emerging adults are significantly less religious than adults older than 30 and this has remained basically unchanged for the last 50 years.  Here are my thoughts about this: Remember that significantly less religious in statistics is not that significant to most of us – remember the stats in my first paragraph.  GenX affiliating at 80% vs Millennials affiliating at 75% was significant.  Okay, sure.  That 5% is a huge number of the population.  But, in the end, 3 out of 4 Millenials are still religiously affiliated.
  • The religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not accidental; rather, they flow out of the formative religious experiences of childhood and adolescence.  Here are my thoughts about this: Of course!  Does it really suprise us that our formation as children and teeangers has a huge influence on us as adults?

Millennials Are Mostly 20-somethings

The oldest Millennials are just turning 30 – 31 years-old.   Most are in their 20s.  20-somethings are generally idealistic and congregations are not idealistic spaces for the most part.  Churches are filled with people attempting to survive life; whereas many 20-somethings are complaining about the complacency and apathy of adults throughout our culture.  Today’s millennials are very similar to two groups:

  1. 20-somethings from the past several decades – they complain a lot.  They want to make their own way and ideas, even if those ways and ideas really are similar to the rest of culture.  They have to think they are doing it their way.
  2. The rest of culture – some studies suggest that today’s millennials might be more narcissitic than adults 30+.  Yes, but those same studies show that each demographic group is slightly more narcissistic than the same groups 20 years ago.  Our whole culture seems more narcissistic.  Yet, even these kinds of statements might not be true.  How is narcissism being defined by these studies?  Also, most studies show that our culture is both more self-centered and more volunteer-minded than the same groups 20 years ago.  Interesting!

Substance & Style

Substance matters!  Of course, it does.  Style alone will only mesmerize us for a short period before we realize it’s empty.  Today’s millennials, and really the full range of today’s culture, is concerned about some of the close-minded, anti-scientific, and hate-filled discriminatory language and attitudes of a large portion of today’s conservative church traditions.  Millennials are the most likely group to decide to leave a church over such attitudes and actions, but only by a difference of 5-10%.  As I have made clear throughout my post, I don’t find 5-10% to be that significant.

However, style matters as well.  Substance ultimately trumps style but that does not mean style is not a factor.  People of all demographic groups church shop around substance and style.  They look for a church community with similar beliefs, attitudes, and actions similar to their own while also usually landing in a church community with a style similar to their previous community.  Why in the world would we think that style does not matter?  Do we shop based on substance alone?  No!  Style is also important for the vast majority of us.

High Church, Low Church, Blended Church &  The Mash-up Church

Often this substance vs style conversation is really just a smoke screen for a high liturgy vs free liturgy discussion and which is considered to be better and more relevant to today’s culture.  Both high-liturgy and free or low liturgy congregations have participants.  Churches that attempt to blend the liturgical styles tend to not be good at one or the other and thus suffer from a poor product.  These congregations either decide to stop doing blended style worship and go back to their high or low style, or they die!  However, over the past 10 years the emergent movement came on scene.  Emergent was characterized by using high liturgical actions in very low-church and free ways.  Essentially, the Emergent Church found a way to mash-up or blend these traditions in a way that some Gen-X and Millennials (and even some Boomers) liked.  However, the Emergent movement lost most of its sizzle as a wide variety of congregations figured out how to incorporate pieces of the Emergent movement into their non-emergent congregation’s life.  Thus, Emergent lost its mojo while having a huge and continuing influence on the church at large.

Personality, Heritage, Peer Group, and Stages of Faith

Whether a person or even a Millennial is attracted to a High, Low, Blended, or Mashup Church is due to upbringing, personality factors, peer group, and an individual’s stage of faith.  Most millennials attend church either 1) with their parents or 2) with other millennials.  Some will choose something different.  When they do, they choose a congregation that is different than their parents or peer group because they are looking for something different (not surprising!).  When they do, they usually are going through a faith stage crisis.  This will involve substance and/or style.  Sometimes both.  Sometimes just substance.  Sometimes just style.  Mainline congregations will often pick up some younger participants who were former evangelicals looking for a more robust liturgy, tradition, etc.  However, free-churches are very likely to pick up former Mainliners looking for energy, liveliness, and technologically driven worship.

Reaching Our Culture

If we went to Russia as missionaries, we would attempt to create a church that is congruent with Russian culture.  Would we challenge pieces of that same Russian culture.  Absolutely!  Churches attempt to do the same thing here in our American culture.  Do we sometime not challenge enough?  Yes!  Do we fail at making congruent enough?  Yes!  It’s a difficult thing to do.  Evangelicals tend to believe they need to challenge our culture in its Beliefs.  Mainline congregations tend to believe they need to challenge our culture in its liturgy.  The result is our culture generally has to choose beliefs or worship actions.  This is really unfortunate.  As a progressive, Mainline pastor, I would hope that we are creating congregations that are able to be congruent and challenging in both ways.  The mega-church worship style works for a large group of Americans.  Usually this mega-church worship falls into two categories: 1) Theatre styled concert or 2) Rock concert styled concert.  These are the types of music Americans tend to enjoy in everyday life, so it should surprise us that churches become mega when they are able to reproduce such styles.  It also shouldn’t surprise us that the small, intimate venue works really well too.  For as many chain restaurants that are out there, many Americans prefer the intimate, local restaurant.   It’s really difficult to quantify what works best.  What we do know is that the mid-sized local-chain restaurant that’s been around for 10+ years is dying.  This is true for churches as well. Mid-sized means not-intimate and lacks good customer service and good quality most of the time.  They are not good enough to go BIG and they are not small enough to offer a unique experience.  Thus, most mid-sized congregations need to choose.  Will be go smaller or will we go bigger?

Will Millennials Come To My Church?

Maybe!  If your church doesn’t have 20-somethings then you will have to expend a great deal of resources – time, energy, talent, and money – to get them to your church. It will involve substance and style.  Overall, congregations that don’t have 20-somethings make a better investment going after 30- & 40- somethings.  They are looking for places that are good for their whole family – adults and children and are more likely to stay rather than the constantly changing 20 somethings.  Remember, just like past generations, 20-somethings begin returning to the institutions they were raised on when they begin having children themselves.  When they do return, they will be looking for something meaningful and congruent with who they are.  And churches need to be willing to shift, change, and adapt as they do.  If we don’t, they will find a congregation that does.  If we don’t, then your church will quickly become a congregation mostly composed of people 65+.

Magic, Marketing, and Jesus

The Decisive Ball - Magic 8 For Organizations

The Decisive Ball – Magic 8 For Organizations

Impressed!  Which is a rare feeling for me.  I walked into my office this morning and discovered two very cool pieces of marketing on my desk.  The first was this sort of Magic 8 Ball for Businesses and Organizations.  Decisive is a new book by Chip and Dan Heath who also wrote Made to Stick and  Switch – two incredible books that every leader needs to read.  

Decisive is exactly what the title says… it helps people figure out who to make decisions effectively.  In outlines wonderful tools that any group or organization can use.  The Decisive Magic 8 Ball provides a wide variety of these principles and tools to help make decisions.  Truly, from a marketing standpoint, this ball is MAGIC!  What a cool toy and I got it for free!

Fantastic book marketing

Fantastic book marketing

The second piece of marketing that impressed me this morning was David Kinnaman’s new book You Lost Me.    Packaging was tremendous.  It included an invitation to a live signing event.  I can sign up for the event via EventBrite.  

This too was MAGIC!  I disagree with Kinnaman on a lot of things – but his organization gets marketing.  They do it really well.  

Most churches, on the other hand, do NOT do marketing all that well.  Obviously, there are some that do, but most do not.  I think the reason is this – most churches forget that people need MAGIC.  In a world full of advertising and messages, people want to enter into an experience that lifts them out of their lives, provides a message relevant to everyday life, and that provides them power and inspiration to go back to their lives with something they did not have before.  In other words – M A G I C !  

I had about 10 different tasks to do as soon as I arrived in the office – I put them all on hold to open these packages.  What MAGIC will we allow people to experience so that they will put their lives on hold to hear about a life and world transforming message?

Is Your Church Boring? Church, Kids, and Bloom’s Taxonomy

A More Creative Bloom

Why do so many kids find church boring, uninspiring, and irrelevant to their lives?  This is a questions that I have spent countless hours pondering since I was a teenager.

I have always been an odd duck – I’ve been into faith, spirituality, and theology since I was 8 years old!  So whatever makes me glued into faith is not the normal experience for most 8 year old kids.

Recently, I came across a great article on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s Taxonomy has become a basic building block of educational theory.  Our educational system here in the USA is built around it.  Knowledge or remembering is the first component and forms the basis of the pyramid of learning.  Only the best students ever reach the pinnacle of evaluation and creation.

The article, written by Shelley Wright, questions whether Bloom’s taxonomy needs to be turned upside down.  Perhaps the problem in education and learning is that we assume creativity can only happen for the elite.  Perhaps, creativity is where all of us need to begin.

This got me thinking about learning, which got me thinking about Children’s Ministry and Churches.  I would probably not advocate for turning Bloom on it’s nose, but I would advocate for something like the circular process model found in the picture here.

Kids are bored and find our religion out of sync and and out of touch because they are rarely asked to create, to invent, to produce, or to imagine.  Usually, in church, we ask them to remember.  Often churches forbid their pupils from understanding.  Churches often ask kids (and adults!) to make shallow applications.  Little analysis or evaluation is allowed to happen, and when it does, it often leads to people leaving the Church.  And creativity…. that pushes many congregations way too far.

Yet, creativity, understanding, analysis, and evaluation are all needed.  There is no true knowledge unless all of these steps are engaged.  If we want our kids (and adults!) to connect, experience, and be inspired, then we must start with creativity.  Improvisation and innovation are necessary for free individuals to experience grace and hope and love.

The questions is, “How can we create a space and place that allows and encourages creativity for our kids?”

Athens & God

It’s almost 6am in Athens. I can hear the humm of cars outside as morning approaches. Really that humm has been there all night never really letting up. Athens has been going all night as cars drive a key circle in the road way system here. Reading the news for the past many weeks and months, I wondered what I should expect when arriving here. Reading Luke’s account of Paul’s visit to Athens from nearly 2,000 years ago(Acts 17:27ff), I also wondered what I should expect. Paul’s first observance was feeling disturbed by the number of idols he saw throughout the city as the people attempted to make the presence of the gods real to everyday life.

Rather than worried that they didn’t believe in the ONE, true God, Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers was centered around the fact he worried that they didn’t know that God was truly present all of the time, everywhere and that they didn’t need to make carved images to feel and see the presence of God in their lives. Paul stated to them at the Areopagus on Mars Hill, “God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live and move and exist. As some of your poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold… image made by human skill or thought” (Acts 17:27-30).

Paul wanted the people of Athens to know that God was present all of the time in all places in EVERYONE. God is present because we are all God’s offspring. WE are the presence of God. We are God’s reps here on Earth. No need for carved images to have God show up, instead, we are to be the presence of God by how we live our lives.

As I consider the beginning of my journey here in Athens, I wonder how a message of hope like Paul’s can come into our day when Athens seems to have very little hope– at least as observed on my screens over the past many months. Do the people feel far away from the presence of God? Do the people feel far away from one another? Can they see themselves as the offspring of God that can accomplish creating a new day, a new future, and a new world for themselves?

A New Kind of Pastor

Since I was a kid, I have spent hours upon hours imagining new ways of being church together.  The problem that church leaders run into is that the ideas we think are amazing, our congregational members do not like.  That should really not be surprising.  People who come to a worship service each Sunday like the experience and venue — usually many rows of people sitting looking at the back of another person’s head while we watch other heads on a stage who talk and sing to the people sitting in the rows.  That’s why these “regular church attenders” come to worship each week.  They like the experience!  The problem is the vast majority of people who do not like such an experience, who do not come to worship or participate in a faith community on a regular basis.  One of the chief complaints by these other groups is that they don’t like the format, it’s not interactive enough, they don’t want to be entertained or talked at or watch something for an hour.

My Senior Pastor, Steve Poos-Benson, is currently on Sabbatical studying the virtual church.  He just posted some thoughts about SimChurch here.  His thoughts about the virtual church have intersected with my own interest in online learning.  Places such as Khan Academy are revolutionizing the ways that schools and teachers function.  It’s places like Khan that get me thinking about the church and how we as congregations can function in new ways.  What if the Church could be revolutionized by this movement.  There are amazing preachers all over the world.  What if we could get them all on the same site together (think TED talks for the church – or actually, think of literally streaming a TED talk in a worship service – now that would be awesome).  Then, the pastors at various congregations could begin functioning in a different way.  Rather than having to spend 10-15 hours per week (some spend more than this) on a sermon and trying to be an amazing public speaker, the new kind of pastor could unpack these “master sermons from master preachers” for their local context.  Worship could then center on other worshipful acts such as singing, prayer, meditation, communion, celebration, and other liturgical acts while also allowing a pastor and the congregation to benefit from these master preachers.

In classrooms all around the US and the world, teachers are moving from lectures in the class and homework at home to a new structure where you watch master lectures on your screen at home and the teacher helps you apply the concepts with “classwork” rather than homework in the classroom.  What if our congregations picked up on this notion as well?  What if we began to have new kinds of pastors?