Picture this: You walk in the front doors of a church you’ve never been to and look around at all the people heading in different directions, each one seeming to know exactly what to do and where to go. Trying to pretend like you know what you’re doing too, you avoid eye contact so people can’t discover the truth. Until you can get your bearings in this place, you’re okay doing it on your own. Then you’ll make friends. Suddenly you’re stopped by a hand on your shoulder. You turn around to the friendly face of a 20-something year-old guy. “Hi! My name’s Nick, what’s your name?”
The scene I just described is one that happens every weekend at 12Stone Church near Atlanta, GA. At 12Stone, there is a team whose mission every Sunday is to connect with guests at the church and make them feel welcomed. In an interview for my book #20sChurch, Jason Berry, Associate Executive Pastor at 12Stone, told me that the “Concierge Team” strives to “find new people and serve them until they’re comfortable.” The Concierge Team has successfully helped give this large church a small church feel—a sense of true community.
And once they’ve gotten a little taste of that community, what do you think they do? They join a small group and dive in even deeper with these people who have so lovingly reached out to them.
As humans, we feel valued when we have a community that surrounds us and loves us and does life with us. But as millennials, that feeling is more like a necessity for anything we do. Our desire to be connected and have a place to call our own far outweighs any desire we may have for pastors in skinny ties and skinnier jeans. We were created for relationships and, as such, desire connection with those around us. According to a Barna Group study done in 2013, “59% of [millennials] who stayed [in the Church] report such… friendship[s] versus 31% among those who are no longer active.”
I could give you any number of things you can do to get millennials to stick around in your groups. Be authentic and relatable, develop trust, instill value, be open to questions and doubt, etc., etc., etc. But before they can experience any of that, they have to feel welcomed, wanted, and cared for. If you want to create a small group that millennials feel safe in, you have to be willing to do the hard work beforehand and pour into those relationships. If there’s no effort to make a connection, more than likely those 20-somethings aren’t going to stick around for long… if they even walk in the door the first time.
Take me, for example. I’m a 23 year old who has been in the church my whole life. My dad was a pastor for my first 20 years, and a year after he left, I married a guy who works on the creative team at my new church. I live and breathe church life. I’m the one they call when they can’t find a volunteer and they know I’ll be there anyway, so why not? I’m the perfect candidate for a small group. Yet, I have gone months, even years at a time without being in a small group simply because, as much as I want to be in one, I haven’t made a connection with any of the leaders or people in those groups.
If you’re a small group leader or pastor looking for ways to reach this mystery generation, that’s your key. You probably won’t have much success standing on stage and announcing a new group for 20-somethings, or even posting about it on Twitter or Instagram. It will take you going out into the lobby and making the face-time connection with someone. If they know you and feel like you care about them, they’re that much more likely to give up an hour of their week every week to get to know you better and dive into the Scriptures with you.
Heather Snodgrass is the marketing communications associate for the Smallgroup.com team at LifeWay Groups Ministry. After traveling the country for 10 weeks in 2014 to discover how churches were reaching millennials, she co-wrote the book, #20sChurch: Open Your Ministry to the Power of a Generation. Hailing from small town Granger, IN, she currently lives in Nashville with her new husband of 6 months.