The Unexpected Things Millennials Want in Church

A new study has a few surprises for those who think they've got Millennials and Church figured out.

“What Millennials want out of church” is a pretty difficult question to answer, but a synopsis might be summed up as “a church that’s like (streaming music service) Pandora, that could also act as a spiritual guide and confidant.”

A study just released by church stats experts The Barna Group found that millennials (defined here as those between the ages of 14 and 30) are nothing if not hard to nail down.

The Building Matters

For the current generation of young adults, getting into the parking lot doesn’t mean that actual church attendance will happen. “Visual clarity” is a very big deal to millennials, and the study found that when things got confusing, whether it was where to go to find the sanctuary, or how to take part in rituals in traditional services, visitors would simply leave rather than try to find the answer.

Fortunately, if a church can get millennials through the door, and to stay for the whole service, there’s no need to try to compete with U2’s most recent stadium tour. Young adults aren’t looking for an over-the-top entertainment experience, which, fortunately, should free up some churches from the pressure to create a sound and light experience on par with a Disney production. However, going too low tech is also a distraction, as casual and modern services trump their formal and traditional counterparts.

Being Able to Unplug from Social Media Matters

Oddly enough, head pastors shouldn’t worry about losing young congregants to the endless streams of information on Twitter and Instagram. The majority of young adults actually see church as a place refuge from a constantly-plugged-in existence.

The success of this “digital detox” is often dependent on what might be called the “natural feel” of the building. For the most part, the more natural elements a church an incorporate into the building, the happier young Christians are. Although most churches won’t be able to offer outside venues, like Orange County’s Saddleback Church (which has actually built video-fed, outdoor worship spaces, thanks to warm temperatures and low rainfall), just bringing in plants and natural light increases the happiness quota of millennial.

Having Older Fellow Congregants Matters

Young Christians will be the first ones to tell you that they’re looking for guides through adulthood. Attempts to be as hip and trendy as possible are often a turn off, as adults in the 18-30’s range are often drawn to church out of the desire to connect with those with more life wisdom.

For better or worse, millennial expect the kind of personalized service that Amazon and Pandora offer, with a menu of options catered to their specific needs and desires. Which means that churches are more likely to succeed in passing this wisdom on through volunteers, rather than church staff teaching large classes.

“Customer Service” Matters

What happens before the first visit is key millennial expect incredible customer service. Interaction models championed by Zappos and Amazon in the early aughts are now the way young adults expect their interactions with organizations to happen.

Which means that what happens on social media, and through digital interactions, is just as important as what happens in the actual service of a young adult’s first visit.

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Ed Bahler of the Aspen Group stresses the importance of social media savvy leadership, which must filter down in an increasingly large number of volunteers who are solely focused on social interaction, greeting, customer service and even life coaching for young adults testing the waters of church.

Stopping the Church Failure Trend

According to Bahler, this new information on the church habits of millenials offers a chance to help turn the tide of churches going out of business, and gives cue to what new church plants can do to reach their communities.

“We’re seeing churches fail at an unbelievable rate,” he says. “And we’re seeing churches planted at a rapid rate. It’s a transition from an outdated model to one that’s hopefully working better.”

Top Comments

Teresa Janelle


Teresa Janelle commented…

In case my experience (as a 23-year-old) helps anybody:
I began attending my current church, in a new city, 50% because of a word of mouth recommendation, and 50% because their website was clear and up to date and talked about the ministries they do and ways to be involved. (creation care, opportunities to get involved in the worship service).
But I STAYED because after the first service people introduced themselves to me, welcomed me, and then when I went back 2 weeks later, remembered my name. I stay not because of amazing music (although ours is decent), or flashy worship (we're Anglican and tradition), or a large youth ministry group (there's me and two others, which is up 50% from a few months ago), but because I am WELCOME. People have offered help, invited me to dinner, asked me to join committees and ministries, given me rides to church when I was without a car. I was seeking community and authenticity and I found it. I am not everybody, nor do I represent all Millennials by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe my experience is similar to many. We want a nonjudgemental community that welcomes us...just like any other churchgoer.

Trey Dunham


Trey Dunham commented…

Maybe churches are failing because they're trying to be businesses, rather than churches.


Jesse Oxford


Jesse Oxford commented…

There's a short film version of this same research! You can watch it here:

John Myer


John Myer commented…

As a pastor of a fairly young church, I've decided not to sweat the entertainment or relaxation factors. If folks want a coffee shop or a U2 concert, they know where to find those things.

From the sounds of it, the most attractive thing we could ever possibly do is to be what the Bible tells us to be. When people come to church they expect to find the church, where there is faith, reality, honesty, consistency, compassion, truth, and warmth. That's a pretty tall order. With whatever energy I have left over, I think about lights, coffee, and bulletins.

Stand Up for Truth


Stand Up for Truth commented…

What happens when Millennials "grow up" and become elders? They will be the same carnal Christians who focus on buildings, social media and customer service. Who cares what Mellennials or any other age group wants? Churches, let's focus not on what a people group demands, but on pleasing and glorifying our God most high. Let's focus on Christ, please.

Derek Roberts


Derek Roberts commented…

The act of contracting out a study to determine why church attendance is decreasing is a prime example of why church attendance is decreasing. Church today is impersonal and run like a business, concerned only with numbers and how to increase the bottom line.

Church attendance is not a requisite for faith in God or salvation. Churches may rest assured that even though their attendances are declining, many of us who do not attend regular services are still living out our faiths personally. We are not "backsliding", we are still held firmly in the hand of God, and who can snatch us from His hand? If churches were concerned about faith and not attendance, maybe more of us would still be attending.

Michael Malooly


Michael Malooly commented…

Christ said "and on this rock I will build my church" Note the "I". He did not say "you". He builds his church. As it notes in Acts several times "and God added to their number daily those who were being saved". God added - they didn't. Being bond-servants of Christ they followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and were obedient. They denied themselves, picked up their cross and followed Jesus. Look at Acts 2:42-47 and that will show a group of people being the church. In the Word, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, sharing the vision that Christ had for His church, helping those in need. Loving God and loving others.

I have three sons and their wives who are mellenials. This is what they want. They want truth taught from God's word, worship, prayer, helping those in need. They do not want shows or marketing campaigns. They want real and authentic people and want to learn and be mentored by their elders. Their grandpa is 89 years old and they cherish his stories and his life guidance. They desire a relationship with God and with other believers. They also want to be about the great commision. Not making believers but making disciples. And note: they can spot a fake a mile away.

Each church can look a bit different. There is not a cookie cutter approach. It is what the the Lord wants that group of believers to be about and who to reach. Be obedient to His leading.

Proverbs 3:5-8 (NLT)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Then you will have healing for your body and strength for your bones.

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