Two Marks for Reaching and Keeping Millennials

by Alvin Reid

the metastory of the bible, Alvin Reid, evangelism, gospel witnessThe statistics state clearly what we wish was not true: the Church currently struggles to reach the Millennial generation. Books like You Lost Me from David Kinnaman track this reality, while Barna and others show how we not only don’t reach Millennials, we also don’t keep them. Barna found 59% of Millennials left church within a decade of leaving home. In my own tradition, the Southern Baptist Convention, 80% of our churches reach less than two people aged 18-29 in a year. How can we reach and keep Millennials?

Here are a couple of marks based primarily on research, on my own interaction with next generation leaders, and my role as a pastor to young professionals in my local church.

First, share an unchanging gospel with this generation, but share it differently. In Acts 2, Peter stood to proclaim Christ. He quoted the Old Testament and preached Jesus as the Messiah. Why? He spoke to a crowd of devout Jews. Move to Acts 17 with Paul at Mars Hill. Speaking to Gentile philosophers, Paul did not mention either the Hebrew scriptures or the Messianic hope. He did talk about creation and the sinfulness of humanity, ultimately pointing his listeners to Jesus and the Resurrection.

I grew up in an American-like Jerusalem. We now live in Athens. It’s not surprising that theologians like Christopher Wright, Michael Goheen, Craig Bartholomew, and my colleague Bruce Ashford write about the gospel from the grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Rescue (or Redemption), and Restoration (or Consummation).

Millennials have lost the metanarrative, and most don’t have a clue what the gospel actually is. I like to use movies and story plotlines to show Millennials this. Just the other day I was on a university campus explaining the gospel as story, comparing the key plotlines of action adventure movies and romantic comedies to the gospel story. Several collegians trusted Christ that night, while many others commented later that it helped them to see what the gospel was beyond just the afterlife or their church lives.

Tools like The Story help in showing this to a younger generation.

Here’s a second point: focus on the wonder of God more than behavior modification. No doubt about it: when we meet Jesus, it changes our behavior. But the Bible is not mainly about morality, it’s about reality—the story of the great redemptive plan of God. Read the Book of Acts to see how many times words like “awe,” “wonder,” “amazed,” “astonished,” “marveled,” and “wonder” are use.

Where do young adults see these today? Primarily in movie theaters, where the goal is to captivate our imaginations, inspire, and fill us—if only for a little while—with wonder. There’s a reason superhero stories are called Marvel comics, after all.

We can’t manufacture awe with a smoke machine and subwoofers. This requires a hunger for God and much time in prayer. In the past two weeks I spoke on three campuses: the University of Tennessee, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida. At all three, I found wonderful students and enjoyed great services. But it was the third one, at USF, where I saw an unusual hunger in students gathering to pray before the service. It was that night when we saw lives changed, and there was a definite sense of awe in the place.

In the great awakenings, which were youth movements as much as anything, the gospel was recovered in power, and a sense of awe was experienced regularly. This generation needs the same.

Alvin-ReidAlvin L. Reid (@alvinreid) is professor of evangelism and student ministry and Bailey Smith chair of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. He loves encouraging the younger generation to live for Jesus. Learn more: