Jun 30, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Ben Windle on Leading Millennials


To kick off ChurchPulse Weekly’s next generation focus for the month of July, Barna president David Kinnaman sits down with Ben Windle—author, speaker and pastor—to discuss what Millennials are looking for in the Church, how to be a relational leader for younger generations and a new approach to engaging volunteers. 

On Building Deeper Community
Windle shares his belief that a flashier, better marketed church will not solve the high numbers of young Christians walking away from the Church at large. He says, “There is a fatigue in these new generations around the [Church’s] attempt to just be cooler. It’s a misread […] They’re not walking away from God; they’re walking away from a church culture.”

Instead, what Windle believes this generation is looking for in a church is a space where they can safely challenge and grapple with difficult topics. “In a superficial culture, depth is attractive. You have new generations who have seen all the hype,” Windle reflects. “There is a hunger for substance, authenticity, realness.”

Recent Barna Cities data offers practical insights for leaders as they seek to engage with younger generations through their teachings. Given a variety of choices on what they would want to hear preached from pastors and teachers, U.S. Millennials’ top three responses include morality and values (29%), how to read / interpret / study the Bible (23%) and relationships (23%). By emphasizing the complex tensions around these types of themes, leaders invite a real and deeper dialogue to take place within the church context.

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On Volunteers in a Hybrid World
As leaders prepare to return to new formats of gathering while pandemic restrictions continue to lift, one of the biggest lingering questions for leaders is whether younger generations will gravitate more towards digital, in-person or hybrid models of church.

U.S. Millennials recently shared with Barna what kind of church service gathering would best fit their expectations. In May 2021, Barna research found that two in five Millennials (36%) prefer physical gatherings, while an additional 36 percent are interested in both physical and digital services. Additionally, Millennials are more likely than older generations to report that their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic made them more open to the idea of digital church in the future (66% of Millennials vs. 57% Gen X, 42% Boomers). 

During this shift to return to in-person or hybrid setups, many churches have found that their volunteer teams are much smaller than normal, particularly among people under 40 years old. Instead of being discouraged by this, Windle sees it as a powerful opportunity for churches to revisit the motivations behind why people choose to volunteer in the first place. 

He’s found that people aren’t showing up to these tasks because they love the service itself (making coffee, directing cars or shaking hands). Instead, many of them serve as a way to find purpose and friendship. In coaching his volunteer team leaders, Windle notes, “Don’t talk about the task, the role, or just the practical things. Talk about the “why” behind the what.”

On New Forms of Leadership
In the current climate, previous generations’ leadership models must be adapted to meet the unique values and concerns of younger generations. Windle shares just one example of this essential shift, discussing the necessity for Millennials to distinguish the possession of biblical authority in a position from being an authoritarian leader. 

Since Millennials are a generation desiring a relational culture, Windle finds that an authoritarian style of church leadership often pushes this generation further away. For leaders hoping to pursue a more relational tone in their leadership practices, Windle encourages them to ask: “If I were not the leader over this person or team, how would I relate to [this person]?”

For Windle, this often looks like finding ways to meet Millennials on their level, sharing, “I’m a facilitator to unlock the very best that God has for you, so how can I help you, serve you and push you forward?”

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About the Research
The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.

Featured image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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