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

November 15, 2014
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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

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150 Comments

  • As a Millenial, I have had these perceptions. On a good day, I don’t. But there are days I wonder if I would do better outside of the church rather than in it as a leader. However, this year I stepped out and became the pastor of an established church in a denomination I have never been a part of (the United Methodist Church), after nine years of being a pastor of a church we essentially started from scratch.

    My hope is to take the outward focus that made our previous congregation vital (though it was small) and bring it to this new-to-me setting. I hope we can move toward an attitude of not just ministering to our community and neighbors, but actually spending time with and enjoying our neighbors. I think we can do it! But I am almost the youngest adult here, and some of these perceptions do creep in!

  • Hi Thom! Great article. I am a 32-year-old youth and worship minister serving in a 200+ year-old church in Kentucky, where I’ve been for 9 years (although at the end of this year we are transitioning to a new ministry and church). I am and always have been the youngest person on staff, by at least a couple decades. I really resonate with this article, as I’ve felt all of the reasons on your list, and could add a few more (especially about feeling left out of the leadership and decision-making culture of established churches)! But my favorite part of this is when you say that we (millennials) should “look at these churches as mission fields just as you would a ministry in a distant continent.” I wholeheartedly agree!

    I’ve had friends ask me over the years why I choose to serve in a “blended” church (that really skews more traditional). My go-to answer has been, “Some missionaries are called to China, some to Africa, and some to traditional Baptist churches!” I really believe that mindset has helped me work and stay in this setting, and you’re right, there are too many churches with too many resources and too much potential to let them slip away.

    There’s definitely a tension in all of this, but I love the discussion, thanks for writing and posting such though-provoking and encouraging content!

  • I always wonder why the bigger churches plant new ones, or multi site , when there are churches, even of the same denomination, within a few blocks. Why not take 50 people and a paid staff and invest them in an existent community that is struggling. Sometimes those smaller churches are struggling because of the larger church and it’s draw to the younger generations.
    Don’t we have enough churches, shouldn’t we fill them all (well, the theologically sound ones) before we build more?

  • As a pastor of an established church I have to admit I agree with most of the critiques. I often find myself wondering if the revitalization process in a established process is really worth it when church planting seems so much more efficient. Does it really make sense to spend 7 years convincing a church to become missional when you could plant one that has this mindset from the beginning? I’m not sure.

  • I just turned 31 and am ordained in a mainline denomination. 3 years ago, I was sent to to plant a church. To be honest, each of your five reasons does resonate with me. Frequently over the last three years, I’ve been approached about taking positions at established churches. But for the reasons listed, and perhaps a few others, I prayerfully declined. Though planting is incredibly difficult and has unique challenges, the results are more fruitful (or at least more noticeable) more quickly. Established churches require a DNA change that may or may not be possible due to either the natural resistance to deep change or a dismissal of a young leader’s ideas as “youthful” or “naive of the real world.” For me, I wanted to be able to dream without the hindrances often (but not always) associated with traditions or bureacracy. I didn’t want to become passionless, as I’ve seen many become. And I didn’t want ministry to feel like a chore.

    Before I started planting my current church, I was on staff at a large church. It was a great teaching experience for me, and showed me what healthy churches could look like. But if the church had been unhealthy, it would have taken significant events to change its course. Changing the DNA of an established church is like trying to change the direction of a cruise ship. With paddles.

    In that respect, church planting is easier (perhaps the only way planting is easier). Not only are you starting out in a preferred direction (hopefully), but DNA change is similar to maneuvering a speed boat. Very nimble.

    Oddly enough, my denomination, the United Methodists, was started by a guy whose pioneering spirit caused him to break with the established church in lieu of the conviction that the world was his parish. As a result, he preached in fields in addition to his pulpit. Initially, he wanted to reform his church. Ultimately, he left it, sorrowfully.

    I told a friend of mine recently that this is the only time in my life to have a youthfully ignorant pioneering spirit, to chart new paths, to go off rails, to experiment, fail, and try again. And, it’s the only time in my life I’ll be at an age where I can reach young people who are also peers.

    I have nothing but love for established churches. I’m the product of one. But in my experience, many don’t want a pioneering spirit. And by the time I would be able to lead them into that desire, I fear I will have aged out of that demographic.

    Sorry for the disconnected thoughts. It’s hard to put all my thoughts on this into one, concise response. I appreciate your post. Thanks for your time.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great thoughts, Wade. Not disconnected at all.

    • This response to the original post is everything. I feel this response as if it was my own and it’s been 4 years! If by any coincidence Wade reads this response, I hope you’ve been able to see great fruit in your ministry.

  • I am on part time staff at an established church. For these reasons stated I do not desire to pursue a full time position even it were available. When is it time to say enough energy and time has been spent trying to raise the dead?

    After reading the phrase established churches are not that bad my first reaction was that means they are still bad. With further consideration I listed all of the ministries and what they do in my church. I found that most everyone had some focus on service or mission giving. Although evangelism is not strong in the church there is clear evidence that their is a pulse among the people that cares for people outside of the fellowship. In other words it is not as bad I thought.

    Someone told me the thing that most bothers you about your church is usually a call to sow into that area. I think I have a little more clarity, thank you.

  • Joe Pastor says on

    I am a 54 year old pastor who has been in fulltime ministry almost 30 years. I am in an established “somewhat traditional” SBC church. Over the last 5 years in particular, God has done a work in my heart. I am no longer able to stomach “status quo” or tradition for the sake of tradition. In many ways, I now fit more of a millennial mindset (missional focus, disciple-making focus, “if it’s not working, chunk it” mindset). Our church has made some changes in recent years toward this end. However, it is difficult, discouraging work. For at least a half decade, I’ve seen a lot of “deer in the headlights” responses to what I’m trying to lead us to be/do. People rarely argue with me (what I’m challenging us to be/do is Biblical), but in the final analysis, most people nod their heads yes, then do nothing different than they’ve done in the past. “Comfortable” defines us well. If I had another place to go, I might go there. But the challenge is this: Theologically, I’m very “Southern Baptist” but methodologically, I am not traditional Southern Baptist. In many ways, I feel like a man without a home. Thoughts/Suggestions?

    • As a younger pastor, I submit this with great respect and humility towards one with much more experience than I. You need to determine the place of God’s choosing for your life and stick with it. Feelings come and go. Feelings can be influenced by many things. But, God’s Truth will never change. Enter into such intimate fellowship with God that you would have no doubt what the mind of God desires for you. And regardless of anything, just follow Him. Don’t get discouraged brother! Remember, it’s not our job to produce fruit, only to be faithful to what He has called us to. God produces the fruit. Praying for you!

  • Just a question. Where was this research taken from? Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Two sources. First, 1000 interviews with Millennials born between 1980 and 199. The study was the topic of my book with Jess Rainer, The Millennials. Second, anecdotal feedback for the past three years on my blog.

  • I am a Millennial who became a Christian when I was 16 years old. I grew up in Hawaii and adopted my parent’s Buddhism faith. It was my church that reached out to me as a youth. They immediately understood that I didn’t have a Junior-sized Holy Spirit in me. They helped me to grow, but also entrusted service positions to me. I became an usher and greeter, then joined the worship team, and began leading worship in my church at the age of 20. This church has taken a “Risk” on me. I say risk, because you never know the potential of someone. I wasn’t the first person you would choose to become a leader, however the leadership at my church gave me a chance. I am currently serving on staff at my church and am in the process of finishing my MDiv. Many churches are having difficulties passing on the baton of leadership to the next generation. This is a prevalent issue in Hawaii, and I’m sure all of America. I would encourage churches not only look for future leaders, but also present leaders as well. I am thankful to be a part of my established church. It is now my job–even as a young staff member to entrust leadership roles to young people as the leaders of my church once did for me.

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