Fishers of … Millennials? A Cleveland Pastor Casts a New Net
Story by Tim Allston
According to “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century,” a Duke University 2006-2007 National Congregations Study, the percent of regular adult participants younger than age 35 in the average congregation dropped from 25 to to 20 percent.
In his July 2008 Ministry magazine article, “Reaching Out: Making a Difference With Young Adults," A. Allan Martin, the teaching pastor of a young adult ministry at the Arlington church in Texas, cites Paul Richardson of the Center for Creative Ministry, with headquarters in College Place, Wash. Richardson reported that the median age for the Seventh-day Adventist community in North America, "including the un-baptized children in church families, is 58 … Among native-born white and black members, the median age is even higher."
The frightening implications of this figure are seen when that median age, 58, is compared to the median ages of the United States and Canada, respectively, which are 36 and 37!
So how do we catch and retain un-churched Millennials? MyRon Edmonds, pastor of Allegheny West Conference’s Glenville congregation in Cleveland, steps outside the boat and casts a net on the other side. Watch the interview or read the interview with the article author below:
Tim Allston: Pastor Edmonds, one of the major challenges facing our church is the retention of Millennials. In your congregation and in your work, have you been successful at it and, if so, why?
MyRon Edmonds: We’ve been improving, as this is definitely not a molehill but a mountain of an issue to solve. A lot of people just assumed that we’ve lost Millennials, (but) we’ve lost at least three generations of Adventists. And, so we’re trying to rebuild that.
Part of this is that you have to rebuild—and I’m going to use modern terminology—we’re going to have to “re-brand” the culture of your church, as one of a grace orientation. A lot of the folks that left, and I hear the stories all the time, simply because they weren’t loved, or they got pregnant, or they made a mistake and were disciplined by the church … for whatever reason, they just didn’t feel like the church was a place of acceptance and love.
It is critical that we start making our churches to resemble the character of Jesus Christ.
TA: How does our Christ differ from what we say we’re modeling?
ME: Interestingly, Christ was always getting into confrontation with the church in antiquity. We’re kinda seeing the same thing now, from the standpoint of what a church values. For the most part, many churches value history, they value tradition and they don’t really value people, and it’s just hard to hide that. People will know, especially folks who are not a part of “church culture,” they can get a general sense if this is a place of a loving environment—where they really value people more than they value their policies. And that’s a haaaaaard sell to a church that has history like mine.
But over time, through preaching and teaching, as well as through evangelism, you begin to see that break down.
TA: A few years ago, you developed a bit of mild controversy with your application of Noah’s Ark. Tell us a little bit of what you did in Cleveland, and what was the after-effect with that movie?
ME (grinning broadly): Yeah, so, there’s this thing we have a passion about in Cleveland that we have with our young adults. … One of the things that we’re seeing is that the agnostic and the atheist population has increased significantly over the past few years, so we’re not dealing with a Christian or a theocentric mindset.
For the most part, the mindset that a lot of our young adults and Millennials are dealing with is a very indifferent mindset toward God—some are even angry at God. So, your evangelism approach has got to change a little bit. [For example], a Revelation seminar is not going to really appeal to them because they don’t believe in the Bible. So you really have to consider: how do I get people to be interested in the Bible who really have no reference for Scripture?
So the big thing now is, people love film. So, when the Noah’s Ark movie came out, we kinda told our congregation from the beginning that “we don’t believe that any movie can tell the story of the Bible; that’s just not what movies do. Movies are for entertainment. But, we do think that we can use this movie as a talking point—even with the error—to invite friends and families and co-workers from our areas of influence to come out.”
And that night, we had about 350 people [attend], two-thirds of which are “un-churched.” After the movie was over, we had a conversation about what the Bible actually says about Noah. As you know, the movie was a gross misrepresentation of what the Scripture says.
But, even in that negative, we were able to make a positive by then exposing them to what the Bible says. And, it was a great success.
TA: How do you measure that success?
ME: [It] is not based on the number of people that came but based upon the number of relationships that were fostered and maintained from there. [For example], we saw about five people [get] baptized as a result of that, and we saw a continuation of residual relationships, where we have had other events where these people, who don’t normally come to church, are actually starting to get comfortable hanging out at Glenville. That’s a win.
TA: So, it’s about relationships over memberships?
ME: All day, you said it! It’s relationships all day. That’s the lesson we need to learn from Christ.
TA: So, what now can we expect from Glenville under your leadership, in terms of reaching that Millennial audience?
ME: So, the biggest thing right now that we’re starting to realize is that [in] modern tradition[al] church, especially in the black church, there’s way too much emphasis on the pastor. [Therefore], what we’re starting to do now is to train lay pastors in our congregation to start house churches. We feel like house churches [are] … the best way to reach the Millenniala, [those who have] a lot of misgivings about going into an institutional church.
So, we kinda feel like a young adult who’s a lay pastor (who has been trained), has a home (and), on a Tuesday night or a Sunday night or a Friday night, has a meal and a religious or a spiritual discussion about the Bible, [one] about God [that is] open, non-judgmental … then that’s an entry point to invite them to before you invite them to church.
As a matter of fact, we made a rule: don’t invite anybody to church before you invite them to your home. And, we feel like, if they grow comfortable with our members in their homes and in informal environments, and can see them living out the gospel, [then] it’ll be nothing to see them in church on Sabbath, and then ultimately making a decision [for Christ].
TA: Then let me ask an old-fashioned question, Dr. Edmonds: is there scriptural validation for this approach that you’re using?
ME: Oh yes, m’brotha. As a matter of fact, this is primitive godliness! The Book of Acts sets the model for us on small groups. Ellen White has a lot to say about small groups being a method, not only to maintain members, but also to reach those who don’t know the gospel.
It’s relational ministry. This is the ministry of Christ, and it was the ministry of the apostles. It was under this ministry that the church grew most exponentially.
—Full-time freelance writer and consultant Tim Allston is a co-founder of the Alabama Christian Chamber of Commerce and author of the upcoming book, 7 Steps to Manage Ego Problems: the How-to Guide for 'Somebody Else’