While a popular speaker, professional lighting, and a well-polished band playing the latest Christian hits was the winning formula in the past, these qualities are more likely to keep millennials away than draw them in these days.
“Been there done that” is the feeling. Nobodies wowed by professionalism or technology anymore. In fact, millennials don’t even want to be wowed. What Christians in their 20s and 30s want is something more authentic, something we can’t find in the world: Christ-centered preaching, a thriving Christian community, and a place that we can use our gifts to serve the world around us.
Ironically I found this type of church in the last place I would expect. Grace Church of Middleburg Heights is one of the largest churches in Northeast Ohio with an average weekly attendance of around 4,000.
I honestly started going there because I wanted to disappear into the masses. I had been the associate pastor at a new thriving church nearby. Sadly the whole thing imploded just as fast as it was growing. In most ways I landed on my feet alright after leaving the pastorate. I got a job at a well-established Christian non-profit in the area, but I wasn’t ready to jump back into a church after the messiness of what we just went through. My wife and I, however, were feeling the pressure of finding a church for our two young kids, and the last thing I wanted to do was drag them through another messy experience.
While a mega church didn’t sit well with my millennial mentality of emphasizing community and authenticity, I knew this church was safe. It is attached to a well-run denomination, they are very transparent with their finances, and their teaching is sound – all boring qualities I suddenly admired after feeling burned by the church. Since it was an established mega church of middle aged and older people, I figured I would have to sacrifice vitality, community, and a sense of belonging for stability and the freedom to disappear into the sea of faces.
I was wrong. Looking back I can see how I judged this church for its size and age. I had drunk the Kool-Aid of all the “cool” Christians that I had been serving with over the years, “Mega churches are sellouts. Mega churches just care about attendance and tithe dollars. It’s impossible to be a part of an authentic community in a massive church.”
While a church of thousands certainly has unique challenges in building relationships with individuals, I’ve learned it’s not impossible to feel at home in a mega church. There’s a lot of great ways Grace Church has ministered to my family and me thus far, but here are my top three ways this church has made us feel welcomed.
1. People remembered my name.
It was kind of weird at first. People I would talk to for just a few minutes would remember me the next week and actually use my name, especially the staff members that I met. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if they gave me the standard nameless church greeting of “Hey chief” or the slightly more Christian “Hey brother.” This simple courtesy really made an impact on me.
As I continued to attend the church, I figured out why so many people remembered my name. The head pastor made it a point of emphasis to help those of us who were regular attenders to specifically remember newer people’s names. I thought it was kind of corny when I read all the tricks the head pastor was sharing in the bulletin on how he remembers people’s names better. The more I thought about the impact this had on me, however, I realized how brilliant this is.
How can you build a relationship with someone when you have to A) pretend like you know there name because they already told it to you once or B) ask what their name is again and again, exposing how little you’ve thought of them since last time you talked to one another?
It sounds trivial, but if you want to make people feel welcomed, you will need to remember their name.
2. People listened to my story.
As the months went on, I decided I needed to experience more of this church than just the standard Sunday morning visit. I decided to give the Wednesday morning men’s Bible study a try. As I navigated my way through their giant building resembling a mall more than the small churches I was used to, I finally found the right room. To my surprise there was close to 100 guys there. My heart sank a bit as I realized the chances of building real relationships in such a crowded setting was unlikely.
Again, I was wrong. We broke up into smaller tables and started studying the word together. My table was all men between 40 and 80-years-old, so I just assumed I would be pushed to the side. These guys had obviously been sitting at this table for years together, but they welcomed me in without a second thought.
For the next few weeks, different guys allowed me to share parts of my story with them. I didn’t share all the gory details of why I left my old church, but I was vulnerable enough to let them know it was painful for me and my family. No one said anything to me that was life changing. They just listened and empathized with me. Eventually I went out to coffee with the men’s pastor. He spent the whole time asking me good questions that helped me share my story with him without me feeling like I was hijacking the meeting.
Looking back, I can see it made me feel at home when people from that church took time to learn about me rather than download all kinds of information to me about their church. I think churches have a tendency to pump us with information, invite us to their membership classes, or to just point us to the church website if we have questions. But if you want to make people feel welcomed, it starts with listening to their story.
3. People invited me to use my gifts.
Another selfish reason I was drawn to such a big church was because I assumed they wouldn’t need my help as much as a small church. I can feel the tension in the air when I walk into a church that is short on volunteers. I just knew that if we settled down at a small church, I would be asked to usher, help in the kid’s ministry, or man one of the information stations. I was simply too burned out to serve in a “just fill the gap” type of volunteer spot.
My hunch was right. This big church didn’t really seem to need me. There were not announcements every week pressuring people to hold crying babies in the nursery. There was no panicky volunteer coordinator on the hunt for warm bodies to fill all the needs she had. What surprised me was that people took the time to learn what my gifts are. They didn’t just plug me in where there was a need. When I told them my gift is teaching, I just assumed that I was too new for them to trust me to use this gift.
Wrong again.As the men’s pastor got to know me more and more, he learned about my gift and how I had been a pastor myself. I can tell he went out of his way to ask me to fill-in for him when he couldn’t be there. They have a huge staff so I know he wasn’t asking this because he needed me. Anyone else could have done it. But he wanted me to use my gift.
I’m not saying you have to let everyone teach a class or preach a message to make them feel welcomed. My point is that to make someone feel at home, you have to let them shine for Christ in the ways that God has specifically equipped them.
A mega church has a lot of strikes against it, especially in the minds of millennials. But by going out of your way to make people feel welcomed, minds can always be changed. Mine was.