How to bring millennials back to the pews
A few months after becoming pastor of Parkway Baptist Church, a 21-year-old Armour D. Stephenson III, or “AD3” as he is affectionately known, sat down with his deacons — almost all men over 40 — and laid out plans for his own version of the great flood.
“The entire dynamic of our church was about to change,” AD3 recalls of the fateful 2006 meeting. His first decree: “Stop wearing suits on Sundays.”
No suits? In a black Baptist church? One deacon later compared it to an NBA coach telling his players they could no longer wear sneakers. AD3 was just getting started: Services would be shorter — and start later. Hymns would give way to contemporary gospel. And the choir would now be called “the worship team.”
The congregation’s response? An exodus. Membership dwindled from about 300 to a low of 85. “Any time you’re shifting culture, there’s going to be some casualties,” AD3 says.
But now? The church, rechristened City of Truth, has bounced back, and then some, with a congregation of more than 1,000 — so many that Sunday services were moved this year to the nearby Southeast High School auditorium. And, strikingly, in a time of millennial apathy and aversion to church, a vast majority of the worshippers are under the age of 35.
“The role of the church is to see a need, meet a need,” AD3 says, sitting next to his wife, Jessica, aka Lady J, in their Lee’s Summit home. “Those changes were about doing an introspection on what the need was and being willing to do everything it takes to meet that need. If that meant tearing down walls of tradition, so be it.”
In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
“I think millennials get freaked out by the rules and rituals of traditional religion,” says Jenna Felsen, a 20-year-old UMKC student who was part of a good crowd of young worshippers who didn’t bolt for their cars after the Sunday night service but, as is typical at The Cause, lingered in the welcoming lobby.
Despite their differences — City of Truth is a mostly black congregation while The Cause is mostly white — the two nondenominational churches share a similar, modernized approach to worship that has made them formidable anomalies.
“A lot of times tradition is employed by the church at the expense of turning people away, at the expense of unnecessarily offending people,” AD3 says. “At the expense of souls into the kingdom.”
By updating long-considered immovable church mores — dress codes and preaching styles, attitudes toward the secular, a willingness to discuss the taboo — and embracing modern music and technology (AD3 preaches not from a Bible but from his iPad), these churches brim with youthful vivacity.
“The best way to engage millennials is to be as unique as they are,” says Scott Chrostek, author of “The Kaleidoscope Effect: What Emerging Generations Seek in Leaders” and pastor of the Church of the Resurrection Downtown, itself a growing hotspot for 20-something worshippers. “When you talk about the ministry and trying to resonate with younger folks, you’ve got to meet them where they are.”
A fresh approach
Pastors Kyle Turner, 36, and wife Liz, 37, say they had “discerned a call” to build a church for younger people when they moved to Kansas City from Oklahoma in 2009.
But they knew only two other people in town.
“At first it felt like a fool’s errand,” Kyle says. They began small, with a four-member prayer group operating out of their midtown apartment. Friends began inviting friends, and within months the Turners were holding weekly mini-services out of a rented room in a nearby church.
Not long after, with help from a national organization that specializes in church start-ups, The Cause began its first services for more than 300 at the Cinemark Palace movie theater on the Country Club Plaza.
Today, The Cause has its own digs, a space at 4646 Belleview Ave. that feels more like a tech start-up than a place of worship. To the right of the entrance is a small work space and complimentary coffee bar. To the left, “Jesus Over Everything” beams in an aqua neon light. In one corner is “The Welcome Spot,” a teal room where prospective members can learn more about the church. Across from there is the sanctuary, with rows of chairs facing a stage festooned with a neon-beamed backdrop.
Each Sunday, around 1,400 millennials — UMKC students and Cerner workers, midtown hipsters and sleekly dressed kids from Johnson County and downtown — pile into The Cause for church, coffee and community during any of the five one-hour services. The most popular is the 6:30 p.m. service (dubbed simply “The SixThirty”), which usually attracts about 300 worshippers.
The session, part church, part pep rally, begins with the overhead lights low and the neon high as the worship team — electronic keyboard, bassist, guitarist, drummer and a couple of vocalists — begins strumming the chords to “This Is Living” by Hillsong Young & Free, the popular Christian music group that got its start at Hillsong Church in Australia. (Hillsong now has churches worldwide, including a New York branch famously attended by Justin Bieber. The Cause is an affiliate.)
The song sends the packed sanctuary into a frenzy, the crowd jumping along and clapping in unison, a clear explanation of why the “The SixThirty” is known as “the rock star service.”
Like City of Truth, The Cause strives to free younger people from the rigid rituals and judgment of more traditional churches.
“So often people approach topics putting the focus on sin,” Kyle says. “For people to change their life, they need to see that God is good, not that God is a tyrant. We have to authentically care about people. I’m not worried about your sexuality right now. I’m not worried about what you did Saturday night. I’m worried about what do you know about Jesus and how can I tell you more about him. Not let me tell you why God is upset at you.”
Says AD3: “A lot of people in the church believe if you adjust your approach, you’re forsaking the gospel or dishonoring God by undoing traditions. But that’s not true.”
“We’re going to meet you where you’re at,” Kyle says.
And where they’re at early on a Sunday morning is probably in bed asleep. So both churches offer later start times.
“You can’t tell me you’re serious about reaching millennials and your service starts at 8:30 on Sunday,” AD3 says. Both have a “come as you are” dress code. One November Sunday, AD3 preached in khakis, a denim shirt and a pair of retro Air Jordans, while Pastor Kyle wore a black shirt, jeans and a pair of Vans.
Worshippers say the unassuming dress code eradicates the worry over being judged not for who you are but what you wear:
“I felt like with other churches I was just a member,” says Taquila Cooper, 35, at City of Truth. “But here I feel more comfortable, more relaxed. It’s not about what you have on, it’s about what’s in your heart and how can I get you to glorify God.”
Both churches are clearly dedicated to new media, dynamic design and technology. City of Truth replaced the droning “church announcement” period with “Rock the City TV,” a crisply produced, highly entertaining, affable shoptalk video broadcast at the beginning of each service. It lasts about 5 minutes but takes up to 20 hours each week for a staff videographer to script, edit and produce.
“Your budget will tell you what you believe in,” AD3 says. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to reach millennials when the largest portion of your budget is going toward the senior chess club.”
Millennials are less likely to have cash on hand, so both churches incorporated text-to-give tithing and online debit and credit card options.
Technology can’t be escaped, so instead it’s embraced: Worshippers are encouraged to follow sermons via Bible apps on their phones or tablets.
Attention spans are shorter than ever, so both pastors operate with a keen respect to brevity. The Cause services wrap up typically in just over an hour, City of Truth in just over an hour and a half — a speed session compared to many traditional black churches.
“You can’t do church the same way, otherwise you’ll get the same results,” says Kenny Hendrington, a 29-year-old from Fresno, Calif., who’s been attending the The Cause for the last two years.
The amenities might be a draw, but what brings the millennials back again and again are the genuine connections, the pastors say.
“Those things are just the medium. It’s what you use to connect to the people,” Kyle says. “Free coffee isn’t the answer to people’s problems, but it does invite community. It’s about the message more than the make-up.”
The trouble with tradition
For years, tradition was the guiding principle of Parkway Baptist.
But in 1995, when AD3’s father, Armour Stephenson Jr., became pastor of the church on Swope Parkway, he set about tweaking that tradition. For the first time, women could hold church positions. The choir could sing without the ceremonial robes from time to time.
But still, men were expected to wear a suit and tie, the same way women were expected to come in a modest, respectable dress. High-ranking church officials sat in chairs on the stage, flanking the minister, and deacons and other exalted officials filled the front pews.
January 2005 brought a sudden, tragic catalyst as Stephenson Jr. and his wife, Shirley, were killed in a small-plane crash in Johnson County. The accident devastated Parkway and thrust a young AD3, who had practically no pastoral experience, and his wife of just six weeks into a daunting leadership role:
“I’m 21. My wife is 19,” AD3 recalls. “We had to begin thinking how we could attract people our age into the church. I wasn’t trying to force anyone in the church to become younger. I just wanted those we were trying to reach to feel welcomed.”
So he nixed the choir robes completely and told the new worship team they would lean toward a more contemporary gospel sound (think less Mahalia Jackson, more Kirk Franklin).
The physical church changed, too. The pews were stripped away and replaced with more informal chairs. Service time was pushed back to 11 a.m. (practically twilight to a traditional black Baptist church). He would drop the “over-spiritualized” language and instead preach in terms that could be universally understood.
The chairs on the pulpit stage would go: “We were no longer going to be a museum for people to come and gawk and admire these great, holy people,” AD3 says.
“The same spirit that was in the father, was in the son,” says Deacon Earl Bradshaw, 53, a 20-year member of the church. Though the initial tension was understandable, he says, AD3’s actions were necessary:
“You can’t speak in caveman terms and expect to get new people.”
Still, the church strives to make older members like Bradshaw feel appreciated and welcome.
Veteran members train or run a number of church programs, including the deacons, ushers and outreach team. Each month the church holds “Connect 40,” a meet-up that allows AD3 and Lady J to share meals and fellowship with members 40 years and older.
“There is strength and value in every generation,” AD3 says. “But even with that in mind, we all should be more focused on who we’re trying to reach instead of who we’re trying to retain.”
Ask AD3 and Lady J when City of Truth really began to take off and they’ll respond quickly:
“When we started teaching on love, sex and relationships and did a sermon series where we spoke on those topics candidly,” Lady J recalls. “That is when we really started blowing up.”
During one particularly memorable sermon, AD3 placed a trashcan on one side of the stage and on the other erected a makeshift restaurant, or as he called it, “the Sextaurant.”
“Are you going to do it God’s way and, yeah, you’ll have to wait a little bit on your food, but you know it’ll come out perfect and just how it was intended for you and you’ll be fulfilled.”
Then he traipsed over to the trashcan, sticking his hand into a muck of crushed Doritos and applesauce and shoveling it into his mouth. “Or,” he said, are you going to “be impatient and settle for a meal unworthy of the temple God created?”
“Clearly enough people are having it, including those in the church” Lady J says, laughing. “Why avoid the issue? Millennials want to address these issues; they’re seeking answers to the tough questions and wanting to have the tough conversations. They are inquisitive and want to know answers to certain questions.”
They discovered the best way to address sex, orientation and other controversial topics is head-on, “respectfully and graciously,” Lady J says.
“We have gay and lesbian couples who aren’t always on the same page as us. And they tell us that,” Lady J says. “They’ll tell us, ‘We don’t all the way agree, but I can tell you’re coming from a place of love, and we love that.’”
Traditional churches alienated younger worshippers, says Kyle at The Cause, because they were “talking about stuff that wasn’t relevant to people’s problems.
“We have to authentically care for people and have conversations that actually matter to them. How do they deal with their self-image when everything is so plastered in this Instagram society we live in? How do they find worth?”
And how do they find God?
“For those of you wondering if I’m the youth pastor,” AD3 says, walking across the Southeast stage one Sunday morning, “no.” He pauses as muffled laughter from about 800 congregants dies down. “No, I am not.”
He’s in the middle of the “Trust Issues” sermon series, aimed at helping the hesitant fully place their faith in God.
In church circles, you hear of two types of ministers: preachers and teachers. Preachers are prone to engaging histrionics — call-and-responses, hoots and hollers and dramatic gestures — to enthrall their congregations. Teachers are more conversational, communicating even the most complex biblical topics in an easily digestible, often revelatory way. AD3 is both. His orations feel like spiritual TED Talks. At one moment he’s a motivator or coach, the next a comedian or cheerleader. “Paul says be all things to all men so that we might reach some,” you’ll often hear him say.
During one particular sermon for example — as shouts of “That’s good!” “Teach us!” and “Come on, Pastor!” vault from the congregation — AD3 will quote lyrics from Lil Wayne, call an unenthusiastic applause “super lame,” comically imitate his wife and never once fall into buffoonery or eye-rolling gimmickry. After all, for every laugh, there is a lesson.
“A lot of us want what only faith can produce,” he says in the middle of the Trust Issues sermon, “because we believe getting it will promote the faith we need.” The line resonates well enough to catapult nearly a dozen worshippers to their feet in jubilation.
“This is what works for us,” Da’Juan Beard, a 29-year-old City of Truth member, says later. “People come to the City, they get to see us. The real us.”
AD3 finishes the sermon with an ironic pivot.
As he prepares the benediction, AD3 looks out to the congregation and says, “I don’t know if y’all know this one or not, but it’s on my spirit.” And then he begins singing:
“Pass me not, O gentle savior, hear my humble cry.”
Many in the congregation, it seems, recognize the lyrics and join along:
“Pass me not O gentle savior, hear my humble cry.”
Then, upon AD3’s beckoning, the City of Truth congregation — a few baby boomers, Gen Xers and a mass of millennials — in all their modern splendor — feverishly sing the lyrics to, of all things, a hymnal, penned in the 19th century, but still relevant as ever:
“While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.”