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Has this pastor 'discovered the secret' to reaching millennials?

Posted September 25

Some churches in the District of Columbia have uncovered the "secret" to reaching millennials — or so proclaims the headline of a recent Washington Post story.

The District Church, a house of worship in Washington led by 36-year-old pastor Aaron Graham, is the primary church mentioned in the piece, as Graham is among the faith leaders who have successfully courted young adults living in the capital.

In fact, the church, which sees around 600 parishioners attend on Sundays, is primarily composed of millennials — individuals between the ages of 18 and 33.

For anyone paying attention, this is a notable feat, considering that much has been said about the tendency of America's young adults to be less religiously affiliated than their predecessors.

Graham's apparent success comes as many churches cope with the task of courting a millennial generation that seems less and less engaged.

Just two years ago, the Pew Research Center found that the proportion of Americans who called themselves "nones" — those who are either atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a faith — increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent between 2007 and 2014.

Among millennials who were born between 1981 and 1996, though, this proportion was even higher at 35 percent. To put that into perspective, more millennials reject a religious label than identify as evangelicals (21 percent), Catholics (16 percent) or mainline Protestants (11 percent), according to Pew.

It's not only about labels, though, as perceptions and practices also paint a picture in which millennials are less devout than earlier generations. Only 41 percent say religion is very important to them, just 27 percent attend church weekly, and only 52 percent are absolutely certain that God exists.

The key question, of course, is, "Why?"

Some might point to an increasingly secular culture, though New York University sociology professor Michael Hout has speculated that millennials were raised by baby boomers who emphasized the importance of critical thinking, leading to a "do-it-yourself" mentality on faith.

It's important to note that there are also indications that millennials are even less religious at this point in their lives than were members of earlier generations, and that matters — at least when it comes to overarching demographics.

Dr. Jessica Martinez, a research associate at Pew, told TheBlaze it seems something called "generational replacement" is at play.

“This generation is much more religiously unaffiliated than older generations,” she said. “As the younger are replacing older, it’s shifting the landscape in this way.”

So, getting back to the District Church, let's briefly explore how Graham appears to be courting millennials.

As a nondenominational Christian house of worship, District Church is “intentionally multicultural” and emphasizes doing good works in the community, while also embracing what the Post called “unfiltered evangelism.”

Graham said he believes many young people are engaged with their faith but the church experience must feel authentic and truly reach them at their core.

"My dream is that when young people think about changing the world, they’ll think about doing it with a local church," he told the Post. "They’ll have a theology about how to treat people, about where it all fits."

District Church is like other houses of worship in Washington, such as Grace Capital City, Triumph Church and The Table in that the experience at each is participatory in nature, bringing members into the worship process.

Small groups — tiny gatherings of like-minded believers where people discuss scripture and life — are also used.

Since Pew's millennial results were made public, many have issued tips for churches looking to attract millennials. Interestingly, some of these tips square nicely with what Graham, among others, are doing at their churches.

Some recommendations include allowing for leadership roles for young people, being authentic and employing small groups.

Experts like Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, have also dived deep into tactics about how to reach — and retain — millennials.

"The first clear pattern among churches that are reaching young adults is that they tend to be more contemporary," he wrote in a 2014 blog post. "They are engaged with culture and are aware of societal trends, helping young adults think through their context with discerning, biblical eyes."

Like others, Stetzer emphasized being authentic and caring for the downtrodden and outcasts.

"One of the best ways to find out how to reach millennials is to get to know them," he wrote. "Talk with those in their 20s and early 30s. Discover their likes and dislikes. Ask for their input. Actually befriend them."

Read more about Graham and his church here.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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