Millennials are leaving the church in record numbers. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey, only 28% of Millennials attend church weekly, compared to 34% of Gen-Xers and 38% of Boomers. With Millennials surpassing Boomers as our country’s largest living generation, these patterns will have a major impact on the spiritual life of the United States.
What makes Millennials so different? One misconception is that because they’ve grown up with the internet and social media, they don’t like to dig deep into subjects. Nothing can be further from the truth. Millennials like deep conversations and connections; they just tend to communicate better with smaller amounts of text and with visual images.
Millennials also love to hear personal stories, especially ones in which the storyteller talks about his or her failures and doubts. But how can failure be inspiring? Think of it this way: Millennials have been impacted by the Great Recession. They’ve found themselves saddled with school debt and in many cases have had to modify their dreams. The last thing they want is a glowing story of personal success. Instead, they are inspired by learning how another person has dealt with challenges and failures.
And, because Millennials are natural information gatherers (having used Google their whole lives), they don’t need pastors or teachers to provide “the facts.” But they love to be mentored and coached, to have older people help them learn practical life skills. Like any other generation, Millennials are open to change and want to live their best lives.
As a preacher, what can you do to make your sermons impact Millennials, to motivate them to make real, lasting changes in their lives?
1. Use SMALL STEPS
Big changes aren’t made with big solutions. They’re made with a sequence of SMALL STEPS, usually made over a series of weeks, months, and years.
The best way to help Millennials undertake a big change is to narrow the focus of what you cover, ideally giving them 3-5 concrete steps to follow.
And never assume the steps are obvious. Craft the steps so all ambiguity is eliminated. If there is any uncertainty, they will fall back to the way that is familiar and comfortable.
Example: During his team’s practices, John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA, ran a series of short 5- to 15-minute drills where he would explain in clear detail what to do, demonstrate it, and then have the players repeatedly do it until they got it right. His philosophy was to break the game of basketball into small chunks and teach one chunk at a time. One of his sayings was “Don’t look for the big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”
2. Provide MENTAL IMAGES
Using SMALL STEPS removes uncertainty, but it usually isn’t enough to motivate Millennials to begin to change. To do that, you need to appeal to their hearts, not just their minds.
The best way to make an emotional connection is to tell stories that provide MENTAL IMAGES of a better future. These stories should lead them to think things like, “If that person can do it, so can I” and “I want to be like that.”
Make sure that the stories you tell are true and positive. But, as mentioned earlier, also make sure you include everything that is relevant to the outcome, especially the negative parts. Stories that paint only a rosy picture don’t ring true and won’t be effective with Millennials.
Example: Robyn Waters was hired by Target in the early 1990’s to make its clothing merchandise more fashionable. To get the buyers excited about buying more colorful, trend-setting clothing, Waters began to bring bags of bright-colored M&M’s to meetings and encouraged people to imagine the possibilities of color. Then she created samples of clothing in bright colors so the buyers could visualize for themselves the possibilities. Soon after that, the buyers started buying more colorful clothing and clothing sales skyrocketed.
3. Give COACHING SUPPORT
MENTAL IMAGES supply motivation, but they won’t help Millennials overcome the obstacles they’ll face in the outside world (peer pressure, distractions from social media, demands on time, etc.) and try to do the steps that you’ve taught. To combat these obstacles, it is helpful to give COACHING SUPPORT during the sermon.
One way to give COACHING SUPPORT is to lead the audience through the set of steps you’ve laid out. By working through the steps as a group, they’ll feel that they have a “head start.” This helps them overcome the feeling that the change is too much to do.
Another way to provide COACHING SUPPORT is to help them set an “action trigger,” a pre-made decision to go home and do something at a certain time. This makes it easier to deal with the obstacles they face out in the world.
Remember that most Millennials need to be gently pushed to do what it takes to grow spiritually. This requires a coach, not just a teacher.
Example: A group of students was offered extra credit for writing a paper over vacation—the instruction given was to turn the paper in on or before Dec. 26. Only 33% of the students who accepted the challenge submitted the paper on time. A second group received an additional instruction—to declare up-front when and where they were going to write the paper (this was setting an “action trigger”). Of the students in this group, 75% submitted the paper on time.
When you combine SMALL STEPS, MENTAL IMAGES, and COACHING SUPPORT, your Millennial brothers and sisters will begin to act on what they hear you say. They’ll be clear about what you want them to do, they’ll be energized and motivated to do it, and they’ll be equipped to overcome the obstacles they’ll face when the sermon is over.
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