Engaging Millennials to Reach Their Generation
Encouraging research about the state of millennials and Bible engagement
Engaging millennials has been a growing concern for church leaders in the past several years, especially since in recent decades millennials are reported to be the fastest growing group of “nones”—the religiously unaffiliated. But while some millennials may be leaving the church, recent research by Billy Graham Center executive director Ed Stetzer reveals that among devout Christians, the number of church-affiliated has remained steady since 1972.
American Bible Society’s 2018 State of the Bible report conducted with Barna Research found that while nearly half of all millennials in America (47%) are not engaged with the Bible, they are still curious about who Jesus Christ is and what the Bible says. And 43.5 million millennials (58%) wish they used the Bible more. The majority of “Bible-centered”1 and “Bible-engaged”2 millennials agree strongly that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life.
These findings show a great opportunity for churches to engage the millions of millennials who are affiliated with the church. Is there some secret to engaging them? According to Casper ter Kuile, Harvard Divinity School researcher and executive director at On Being’s Impact Lab, we can find clues by looking at organizations like CrossFit and Soul Cycle. They “offer their students more than just a chance to lose weight or tone up. They function like religions. People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community. It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back.”3 Ter Kuile believes that organizations “that can offer meaningful experiences of belonging and becoming are going to keep growing.”
Incorporating Meaning, Belonging, and Becoming into Ministry
I witnessed firsthand the power and transformation that these three elements can bring to peoples’ lives as I led a discipleship group of young women.
After completing a six-week book study at church, I invited the six young women in my group to study the book of John together through the summer. Each week we read a chapter aloud, reflected in our journals about what we read using four simple questions 4, discussed what we learned from the Scriptures, and prayed together. Within a month, the group had grown to 18 women because the original six were so excited about what they were experiencing that they kept inviting friends. And what began as a summer study continued consistently for three years.
After meeting for a few months, I mistakenly eased up on Bible study and let the women just have fun and get to know each other better. But I soon discovered that without the focus on Scripture, their commitment began to wane. Though I feared they would think I was too strict, I told them I felt we were off track and needed to get serious and keep Bible study as our priority. Everyone was relieved and said that without God’s Word at the center, our time felt empty. They were looking for meaning, not just fun or community.
The Need for Belonging
Early on, some of the women complained that they didn’t feel as if they belonged in the group and they wanted to quit. Their main reason for joining was to get connected and find good friends. I encouraged them to hang in and be patient. They all stayed, and we all grew in our relationships. Three years later at our final gathering—a weekend retreat—we spent an evening reading aloud the tributes we had written to each other. The love and sense of belonging that had grown over the years was remarkable. Each woman felt known and loved.
Becoming Disciples Who Disciple
After several months of leading the group, I sensed it was time to develop the women’s leadership skills. They had watched me lead for months and now it was time for them to grow. Each week I gave a different person the opportunity to study ahead, share the context of the chapter we were studying, facilitate the discussion, and lead prayer. I was there to guide and coach them if needed. All of them stepped up to the challenge and became confident in studying and facilitating. Soon, four of the women teamed up with mentors and started their own groups because they wanted other young women to experience the same growth and community they had.
Let’s step up and take the lead in providing the content, wisdom, and community that help people belong and become. We can engage the millennials in our churches who are curious about Jesus and the Bible by inviting them into meaningful discipleship and mentoring experiences where they will connect with God through the Scriptures, build strong relationships, and grow in biblical leadership. These transformed lives can be the catalyst that draws people to Christ.
 Bible Centered indicates interacting with the Bible frequently. The Bible is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices; 8 percent of Millennials are considered Bible Centered.
 Bible Engaged indicates interacting with the Bible frequently. The Bible is transforming their relationship with God and others; 15 percent of Millennials are considered Bible Engaged.
 Burton, Tara Isabella. "CrossFit Is My Church". Vox.com. September 10, 2018. Accessed January 5, 2019. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/10/17801164/crossfit-soulcycle-religion-church-millennials-casper-ter-kuile.
 Four questions by author, Debbi Bryson: What did I learn about God in my reading? What did I learn about myself? What lesson can I apply? What can I pray back to God for understanding, instruction, or help?
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