Five Reasons Why Millennials Do Not Want to Be Pastors or Staff in Established Churches

Not all Millennials are averse to serving in leadership roles in established churches. But many of them are. And our churches are approaching a tipping point where many are unable to attract Millennial members or leaders. It will likely soon be a crisis.

What is it about established churches that push away Millennials? Let’s examine that question first, and then let’s look at some possible solutions.

  1. Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions. Millennials have values that focus on community, cooperation, and service to others. They see established churches as barriers to those values, institutions that are more concerned about maintaining the status quo rather than making a missional difference.
  2. They perceive that much time in established churches is wasted catering to members’ personal preferences. For a number of Millennials, the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization. Budgets, ministries, and activities seem to be focused on preferences of members rather than reaching out to others.
  3. Many established churches are denominationally loyal; but many Millennials see denominations as antiquated organizations. If a church is affiliated with a denomination, this younger generation views both the church and the denomination as anachronisms. They don’t see either as effective or relevant.
  4. Millennials don’t see established churches as community-centric. The men and women of this generation typically have a heart for their community. Many have become key to the revitalization of urban communities and other locales. But they see most established churches with a minimal focus at best on the community in which they are located
  5. Millennials see church planting as a far superior alternative. To use a well-worn phrase, they would rather have babies than raise the dead. They see futility in wasting precious resources of people, time, and money on churches that will not likely budge or change.

As a reminder, the Millennials are almost 80 million in number. While Christians comprise only about 15 percent of this generation, they still are an influential force in our churches. And, to this generation’s credit and defense, many of their concerns are valid.

But here is a dose of reality. There are about 350,000 established churches in America alone. They represent untold resources of people and time, not to mention billions of dollars in property. It would be a shame to abandon those churches at such a pivotal time in our world.

My plea to Millennials is not to abandon established churches. Not all of them are as bad as many think. Consider yourself to be a part of the solution.

Above all, look at these churches as mission fields just as you would a ministry in a distant continent. We need Millennials in established churches. Your present and future leadership is vital. Granted, church revitalization is messy and not easy. It is often slow, methodical, and frustrating.

But God loves the members of established churches just as He loves the members of new works. Prayerfully consider, my Millennial friends, if God might be calling you to this ministry. It might just become the mission field where you can make a huge difference.

Let me hear from you.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Posted on November 15, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • As someone who’s on the millennial bubble I have both planted a church and pastored an established church. You can guess which one has been more difficult. I’ve been at my current church for 4 years and all I’ve encountered is apathy or antipathy to being on mission at the established church. I think there is a lot of validity to this list. Why invest years of the prime of your life and family for diminishing returns? I can think of nothing smaller to do with your life than maintaining the expectations of church members.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are definitely not alone in your sentiments, Matt.

    • Daughter of the King says on

      Then don’t spend another minute maintaining the expectations of church members. Matt, that is not your job. You have been called by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit to lead these people in a life lived for Christ. All people, including pastors amd their families, should have healthy boundaries. Small example…a woman in my church seems intent on criticizing parents for their children’s behavior, even when the children’s behavior is normal. This woman barely got started on mine and others when I just gave her the mommy eye. She shuffled and smiled and said, “Their good children.” I replied, “Yes, they are.” End of conversation 😉 Healthy boundaties are imperative! And my children maintain their self-worth because I stood up for them by affirming them. You are not called to be a doormat, perfect person, estatically happy all the time, or any other incredibly ridiculous thing. Healthy boundaries does not mean being rude either. Authenticity is required. But you must not sit on the fence when it comes to the things of God and the mission of Christ. You have to choose a side…that’s an easy one isn’t it? Being authentic frees you to press on in the work you have been given. Trust God. Be strong and courageous.

  • There are four of us “young ones” born in 1980 (borderline Gex X/Millenials) on our established church staff that includes men & women from ages 34-73. We work well together because our lead pastor gives us space to minister in unique ways and styles to fit the sub-groups we are reaching. I think a lead pastor can make or break the experience for his staff. I’m thankful for mine, who allows his Gex X/Millenial staffers flexible work hours, for example, so that we can best reach, disciple, and come alongside in community the teens, college students, & young adults who have unique schedules. If our lead pastor kept us to rigid 8-5 office hours, we’d feel “stuck” and ineffective in ministering to our people. He “gets” it and trusts us, and the “results” speak for themselves. The thing about the 4 of us? We work really hard and really long workweeks (definitely over 40 hours!), but it doesn’t look the same as some of our co-workers’ schedules or work. Reaching this group includes a lot of late nights, weekends, etc. I’m thankful for our solid, firmly established, church, the financial benefit of being in a denomination, the support of the congregation, and our incredible lead pastor.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Love your attitude, LB. You are blessed and you are a blessing. And you’re right. The lead pastor is key. I have seen the “other side.”

  • I appreciate the article, but it’s something I’m a bit torn on, but maybe that’s because I don’ necessarily fit the categories (shunning labels, guess I am a good Millennial….)

    On the one hand, I do see many established churches as being non-Missional, entrenched in personal preferences, lacking in community, and I certainly see church planting as a healthy and viable way to spread mission, but I suppose it is these things that draws me to traditional churches. I want to help create a space for traditional churches to find new ways to be missional, experience greater levels of community, and find a way out of themselves.

    I remember sitting at a conference last year and just being struck that everything there was geared for a young church planting crowd. I’m not a church planter, and really have no desire to be one, I love to see established churches find new life and vision, and I’m involved in pastoring to help these people and churches find new life.

    I also speak and think highly of our denomination. Do they have some catching up to do and changes that need to be made? Sure, but if we want to talk about the importance of community, I see this as another place to foster that. We are better together than we are apart, and I’m shocked that my generation which trumpets community often fails to see this.

    I appreciate the article Dr. Ranier and love getting to see not only the general trends, but the uniqueness that God has gifted each one of us with for the advancement of his Kingdom.

  • H.B. Sunny Mooney, III says on

    Millennials –

    Please, do not give up on the established church. I am a Boomer (1959) who has similar distastes for the ‘church as usual’ attitude found in some or too many congregations. It takes your biblical vision and long-suffering servant leadership to change their worldview. My almost 65 year old congregation is now transforming into a missional and community minded body of believers who overall strive to honor the Bridegroom rather than satisfy the Bride’s wants. You have to mentor and teach them so they’ll look like Jesus!

  • Bob Wiegel says on

    It seems when millennials do mention their faults, they only see faults that are actually positives. They speak of being “too flexible” to work with established churches, or “too independent” to be part of a denomination. It sounds more like they are too cool for school, that they have arrived, and are just a latte away from saving Christianity. Have all the rest of the curmudgeons failed to learn what they have gained in two years of adulthood? Some millennials presume a stereotype of established churches and a huge assumption that most established churches are out of touch. Here come the millennials with all the answers? I don’t think so. I tire of their self-absorption and inability to see an immaturity in their own perceptions. Established churches aren’t out of touch – they are simply the churches of Christ with, yes, warts and all. To only pursue a lily-white ministry of equally good-looking, like-minded and skinny-jeaned others is a bow to culture, not Christ. I applaud the very few millennials who come to established churches with empty hands instead of armloads of re-think books. To abandon and start a brand-new, you-get-to-make-it-what-you-want church is not so much admirable as a fail. I am a big supporter of planting churches in areas not yet reached, but not for planting across the street and luring transfer growth. If the millennials have an answer from God, apply it in established churches with established pastors who long for those who will struggle for change alongside them, for years, not just the first six months out of seminary.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      May the Millennials in established churches increase.

    • I agree that Millennial church planters are, for the most part, the cool, artsy, self-important coffee drinkers of the Christian community. However it’s not just Millennials that feel these frustrations. As a GenX-er, I can relate to every point based on experience, not perception. The fact is, many older people in the church are just plain selfish and they refuse to acknowledge the fact that their church is dead or dying. I am currently pastoring such a church that has no desire to grow or reach the lost. We had a church wide meeting about our decline a while back and the first thing I asked was for the church to admit that what we were doing was not working. For the most part they refused to do this. The mission of the church is to make disciples. If an established church refuses to engage in this mission then it has ceased to be a functioning church and the community may very well need a new church plant.

    • I understand the sentiment behind wanting Millenials to put their hand to the plow and wait their turn. It’s not going to happen. And I don’t think it should.
      40 yrs ago when boomers began influencing churches, they changed worship by introducing choruses and added instruments like drums and guitars. They moved away from Sunday school to small groups and other innovations. Now that the shoes on the other foot, the response is too often defensiveness.
      Us GenXers have been waiting for our turn which is just not coming.
      I understand a frustration with Millenials who seem to know it all. I say with grace: perhaps it takes one to know one.
      I’m glad they’re not waiting.
      God doesn’t put new wine in old wine skins, and we need new wine.

    • church member says on

      I am conflicted with this post. My family & I left an established church last year after several years of new young millennial leadership that had no use or respect for any “traditions.” The attitude was that all church programming is bad, too internally focused, etc… so this new leadership pretty much did away with any church activities unless they were “missional” or outreach oriented, did away with all hymns even though the worship service up until then had been a mix of hymns and praise choruses, etc. As a result, there was little to no effort at “in-reach” or building up the fellowship of the church, those of us who grew up in traditional churches felt disenfranchised and unengaged. I completely agree that churches need to be outreach oriented, and I was raised that way. But isn’t one purpose of coming together in corporate worship/churches for the building up of Christians? (See Hebrews chapter 12). I think some church fellowship and discipleship is needed; outreach will follow when church members are being loved by each other, are growing in their spiritual walk, etc…which can happen with church “programs.” Church programs can also be outreach oriented – they don’t have to be the “country club” type of meetings. All generations need to work together to meet multiple needs for internal growth as well as outreach.

      • church member says on

        Oops – meant Hebrews 10.

      • church member,
        As a younger pastor of an established church for 7 years (I’m 33 years old) I agree with your post. I think there is always a danger in overcompensating for the weaknesses of the previous story. If we don’t focus on building up the fellowship as a family then we have nothing to invite the searching, struggling, and lost into. We need to have a healthy family life so that orphans can find a place to belong that is a blessing and not a curse. Good thoughts!

    • I think Bob’s comment proves the point of why millennials would rather plant churches. He just stereotyped millennials in much the same way he says millennials stereotype the church. Let’s be real: neither generation has all of the answers. However, let’s also be real and call a spade a spade: the church in America is do weak (both doctrinaly and missionally) and it doesn’t take much effort to prove it. And, for the most part, the majority of those weak churches are not led and have never been led by millennials.

      The other thing I would say is that there are approximately 3 billion people in the world that are still considered unreached and the majority of the churches in America don’t seem to care and actually hold to a very unbiblical missiology. With our resources as a nation and as the church in America, what is our excuse? It’s inexcusable. And to be honest, what zeal for real missions I do see is coming from few boomers, more gen xers, and lots of millennials. So, no, millennials aren’t perfect and are often immature, but there is often white hot passion for God and for people among them that is mostly absent from the establishment.

      Finally, let me say that I’ve worked in revitalization church ministry and several church plants. Again, both models have their weaknesses, but fir the most part I see real effort in church plants to be appropriately innov

      • Sorry..hit reply too soon:

        To be appropriately innovative and relevant. I’ll leave it there but I think this attitude of “those young whipper snappers need to wait their turn” is both unhelpful and unbiblical. Much of what we’re doing as the church in America isn’t working. Tim Keller says we should plant new churches as a means, in part, to revitalize old churches. I agree with him and I think it’s time the established church embrace this no matter what generation leads the charge.

      • To trivialize the wisdom and experience of the older members is also unhelpful and unbiblical, not to mention immature.

    • I have had the same perspective you have in some respects. I know from experience though that changing an existing church is very, very hard, but not impossible. It does take a long time and sometimes certain people have to pass on to be with the Lord before the church is allowed to move on. Much of the problem is the leadership in the church are more interested in what the people desire than following the command and commission of Christ. This is sad but true in many churches, especially small churches. Millienials many times don’t want to spend half of their time in ministry to effect the change needed in the established typical small church because they want to to be effective much sooner in ministry in disciple making rather than trying to raise the dead. Babies are easier to make rather than raising up a dead church. I hope that Millienials do join existing churches, they need them, but I wouldn’t critize Millienals for wanting to start new churches because they are following the call God gave them. In my personal experience with them not one of them is seeking transfer grow. They have a deep passion for Christ and His mission, they truly want to bring the lost to Christ.

  • A lot of the trouble is caused by perception. Some churches are welcoming of the younger, both as members and as clergy. Others are not and would rather close up than pass the reins. As the appearance of impropriety is often as bad as the actual impropriety, the peception that churches don’t want the young in an capacity needs to be reversed.

    Let’s look at Japan. Most of the positions in government are held by old men who get appointed for having decades of service and serve for a short time because they can’t affect change in a hurry. For reasons including a perception of immaturity and inexperience, the young of both genders don’t get brought in to contribute new ideas or just because they are brilliant and have potential. Thus Japan is going on its second lost decade.

  • Bingo! Right on the money, both in the reality and the recruitment parts of this blog. I am in the middle of a church revitalization and it is an awesome challenge with dynamic implications for the Kingdom. I have planted two churches that are both doing fine and this is my first full blown revitalization. Both strategies have their challenges and neither is easy. Reminder . . . 80% of church plants fail in the first three years.

    I am confident that God’s first work in the last days is in His church (1 Peter 4:17). So if you really want to be where the action is come dive in and speak into the existing church (Revelation 2 & 3).

    I am journaling my experiences as I sit on the pastor’s side of the process. I am normally the consultant and can reveal areas of concern (usually utilizing TCAT) and will recommend impactful responses, but the implementation of change in an established church is a whole nuther story. It requires vision, compassion, courage, patience and focus. It is hard work, but no harder than planting a new work that succeeds.

    Thank you for your relevant and challenging blogs.

  • I’m a millennial serving in a 70-year-old church as the associate pastor. The church has experienced 2 splits in the last 20 years and attendance has gone from ~1200 to 150 since the first split.

    I was told when I was hired that I would be “groomed” to be the pastor. Although that felt a little condescending (I’m 30.), I swallowed my pride, reminded myself of my calling to church revitalization, and moved my family to the church. I was also told that the church had a deep desire to reach a new generation (median age in the church in over 65).

    This week the church decided to hire a new pastor after two years of searching. He’s 65 and he’s never been a pastor before and he doesn’t plan on moving to the neighborhood (we’re a neighborhood church).

    I’m not going anywhere. God clearly called me to this church and hasn’t given me any hint of a different direction. But I can understand the list above completely.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, John. I just prayed for you and your church.

    • Michael Hart says on

      Yes, write that book now!!

    • janis rough says on

      swallowing your pride was an awesome thing to do. you can learn how to be a pastor only by experience. in reality it is really about what god wants to do through the people and you can learn how to pastor those people, it is not about you. of course many things will try to stop you from your call. yes it seems this older pastor may be all they can find being the church has been wiped out almost. still what god is doing in you is a good thing. i’m sure you will be ready for a promotion soon.

  • I was born in 1980 and I’m pastoring a church that was established in 1947 and I can agree whole-heartedly with this post. I do speak highly of my denomination, but everything else I would say a resounding yes to. I don’t disagree with your assessment of millenials and denominations, that’s just the way I feel. I followed a pastor of 20 years and it’s difficult to get any ministry done at all. The idea of reaching out to our town is foreign and new people are very uncomfortable because of all the stares they receive. One day I’ll be able to write a book…

  • Good article. As a Boomer pastor, I think the Millennials are reading the issue correctly. All your points are accurate and hit the mark.



  • You nailed it, Dr. Rainer, both in the millennials’ perceptions of the established church and in your challenge to not give up on those churches. As a millennial who has been pastoring the same EC for over 6 years, viewing this as a unique Abrahamic (and sanctifying!) call has been helpful in sustaining me. Slowly, in God’s way and power, this church is growing in grace. God raises the dead. Thankful for this post and others like it. Hope you all are doing well.

  • I am a millennial serving an established church! I agree they aren’t all bad!

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