By Jeff Brumley
When the blog site MillennialEvangelical published “5 Reasons Why There Are No Millennials in Your Church,” Bob Ballance couldn’t resist sharing it with his friends on Facebook.
Not because there are no Millennials in the American Baptist Churches-USA congregation of which he’s pastor in Boulder, Colo., but because there are — and a whole bunch, at that.
“These Millennials,” Ballance said in his Facebook comment last week, “are S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G us to new places of understanding, hope, and vision.”
The blog he re-posted said a lack of young people in leadership, outdated music, boring Sunday schools, politicized pulpits and a poor social media presence keep young adults out of many churches.
It’s an issue that gets Ballance fired up because it wasn’t all that long ago — about two years — that Pine Street Church was on the verge of extinction. Its staff and congregation were aging and attendance was declining.
“This was a constant chant from me, that we needed to be looking down the road — not just next week, but the next generation,” Ballance told Baptist News Global. “Five years ago we realized we will soon be out of business.”
‘It’s all so contextual’
That’s a position churches are increasingly finding themselves in, said congregational consultant and coach George Bullard. He added that the MillennialEvangelical blog makes some pretty good points about why that is the case for some houses of worship.
“The most legitimate one is about social media presence,” said Bullard, president of the Columbia Partnership. A lot of churches are struggling with social media and technology across the board, he added.
“It’s like some just threw away their 8-Track last week.”
The blog was just as caustic, saying a symptom is that “your idea of ‘social media presence’ is finally getting that MySpace page finished.”
Church size and budget are no excuses for not being present across the range of social media options, it said. It added that a social media director also is a necessity.
“Whether you’re a church of 50 or a church of 50,000, you must be on Twitter, Facebook, and definitely Instagram,” it said.
Bullard said it’s also essential that church websites be designed primarily with mobile devices in mind. Give secondary consideration to how it looks on a computer.
He also agreed with the blog that politics must be kept to a minimum, whether from the right or left.
Relevant worship is also key, Bullard said.
“I hear about an amazing number of churches who are going away from multiple worship services and creating a single, truly convergent style,” he said. “That’s with various styles in the same service.”
But struggling churches must do a lot more than read blogs or polls to address these or other issues that ail them, Bullard said, because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
“It’s all so contextual,” he said.
Even Millennials cannot be assumed to be uniform in their worship preferences.
“Different parts of a state, a city or a region will have Millennials with different mindsets,” Bullard said. “You need someone who helps you figure out your specific market.”
‘It was very intense’
And that’s exactly what they got at Pine Street Church, Ballance said.
The church hired a marketing firm to evaluate how it appeared to non-members across a wide range of measurements, including social media and website. Both were lacking, with the church homepage rated as especially uninviting to young adults.
Worship and just everything else was also examined and picked apart during the yearlong process.
“It was very intense and very intentional and it was met with both embrace and resistance,” Ballance said.
But the outcome was reflected in the MillennialEvangelical blog, he added.
The website was redesigned and a blended worship service was launched — sometimes featuring pop music or with traditional hymns rewritten with contemporary language.
Another key move was to hire Millennials as staff members, ranging from music and children’s education directors to the church administrator.
“Five years ago the staff was 50 or older and the leaders were 60, or even 70 and older,” Ballance said.
“To get younger adults, we put younger adults on the staff,” he added. “Then some younger adults started to attend.”
Today, about 20 percent of Pine Street’s 270 members are Millennials who attend church regularly.
The church has also seen a jump in young families with children, Ballance said.
“We now have 35 children on the rolls. Before, it was two to three.”
Ballance added that while dramatic-sounding, the changes occurred with some difficulty over time.
“It was not immediate,” he said. “It took two to three years for that to take traction.”
‘It comes down to authenticity’
One Millennial told BNG that while the blog makes good points, it’s a mistake to assume the generation walks in lock-step when it comes to church.
“For me, it comes down to authenticity” in a church that’s relevant “to a real person living and engaged in a modern life,” said David L’Hommedieu, administrator and co-music director at Pine Street Church.
Engaging worship and a staff with younger members is important, he said. But the truly important thing is that young people are able to identify with clergy, staff and others at church.
“I want somebody who is in touch with all of that — but whether that is always someone my age isn’t the deciding factor,” L’Hommedieu said.
He said it does get old for some Millennials when they are treated like trophies by the congregations they visit or join.
“There is something to be said for going out and trying to appeal to the whole Millennial generation — but don’t do it with manipulation,” L’Hommedieu said.
Pine Street Church has managed to do that, he added, and with a pastor who is able to relate to Millennials and older generations in the congregation.
Ballance also said it’s about being authentic, not searching for a formula.
“By 2025, 70 percent of churches in America will close,” Ballance said.
“This church came so close to dying,” he added. “All of this opened the door to resurrection.”