Millennials and Marriage

Part of the growing conversation in so many churches concerns the rising generation of Millennials and how to effectively minister to them. As both a Millennial and a member of several staffs of established churches, there are some unique challenges in this conversation. Perhaps the most pressing is the change of perspective that has occurred between ministry models in just two generations. This change in perspective has been pushed by the changing demographics of the Millennial generation around marriage and having children.

One of the leading questions that I often begin with in these conversations is simple: What is, in a quick guess, the average ages for first time marriage among Millennial men and women?

By surveying answers we often quickly get a snapshot of how close we are attached to the reality of social change that is going on in our society. Because things have changed, things have massively changed.

The average first time marriage for Millennials is, as of the 2010 Census, 28.1 for men and 25.9 for women. At this point, in early 2014, I would project that it is 29 for men and 26 for women (often depending on two factors: education and location of urban/suburban/rural.) See this chart:

First Time Marriage

For Millennials there are a host of reasons that marriage is increasingly delayed, not the least of which is growing acceptance of cohabitation, but also continuing education, less access to jobs, increased debt burdens, among other factors. The more educated a Millennial is, the longer they, generally, put off marriage.

Of course, the skyrocketing rate of cohabitation also plays into this trend. In my experience among higher educated, suburban Millennials about 66%, or 2/3rds of these Millennials, are going to cohabitate before marriage. This trend is being reflected in the number of couples cohabitating before marriage. Even though I think this number is soft (I think it is much higher) we see that as of 2012, there are 8.5 million couples cohabitating prior to marriage. This delays marriage by at least 18 to 24 months, and, even in secular eyes is a growing reason couples simply never get married:


Alongside this trend of increasingly delayed marriage is the trend of delaying first time child-births in women. Earlier today I read a terrific post by Ashley McGuire at the Family Studies Blog that discussed issues around child-births and women between 20 and 40. One of the graphics that was supplied in the post showed trends of age and education for first time child-births:

average first birth

Another reality behind these numbers concerns how 55% of child-births to mothers between the ages of 20-29 are to single moms. So, we can see that many Millennial families, even in their first time marriage, begin with a blended family situation of one or more children, likely, from another relationship.

So, in seeing this trend of increasingly delayed marriage among Millennials coupled with delayed child-bearing means that most Millennials are not settling into their “family life” (or a “nested life stage”) until their mid-30s. Whereas, 25 years ago, you could plan and program for a young adult ministry that reached married couples with children in their mid-20s, this is simply no longer the case. With the effects of delayed marriage and child-births impacting Millennials, we are seeing couples in their early 40s with children heading to kindergarten.

If your current ministry uses a life stage segmented approach to ministry, these statistics and realities should begin shaping how you approach breaking out those issues. Another challenge in multi-generational churches is that, in light of these realities, older generations will not have the same life experiences so many of the younger generations sitting next them are having.

All of this breaks to beginning a different conversation about how we, as churches, are going to approach ministry and marriage related issues with Millennials. For churches with older leadership teams, those above 55, the distance sociologically and culturally from the 20somethings in our pews and chairs is increasing. As a result we need to spend focused, strategic moments planning how to reach and minister rather different life stage segments.

Millennials are approaching life differently. How we begin with grace and extend mercy has as much an impact as the truthfulness of the Gospel we proclaim. 


Church and “Big” Data

If you were to pick up a popular business magazine or click through a business blog, at some point you would probably run across some article about “big data” and its implications for some facet of business strategy or performance.

Big Data is our friend...even when it wants to play a game.

Big Data is our friend, even when it wants to play a game of tic-tac-toe.

Big data is a pretty significant movement in business strategy and goals today. Simply defined, big data is gigantic amounts of data that is handled and processed to glean insights for multiple applications in business, government, scientific, and military sectors. The amount of data that is handle is so voluminous that it requires off-site data centers to handle the workload.

Properly harnessing the insights of big data has become a fundamental “best-practice” for leading edge businesses and agencies that help them better understand their key constituents, buying behaviors, market conditions, and an assortment of other important information. These aren’t gigabytes or even terabytes of data, but petabytes and exabytes.

In the millions and billions of figures of any given data set, experts look closely to see if they can gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and better position their business, or client, for success.

Not too many churches talk about big data…but we should.

Granted, the amount of data that properly comprises a legitimate “big data” set is far beyond what most churches and ministries could ever need to use. What is important here is the the principles at play. For too many churches and ministries there is a lack of coherent strategy and sustainable vision because most plans in these categories are made on false assumptions. We believe we know who our primary constituent (from guest to member) group is, and we are able to assume how they want to be involved. This kind of reflection, unfortunately, too often begins in the mirror and stays in that reflection.

One of the primary tools that any church can learn to utilize is a properly maintained and properly updated membership database that tracks participation and involvement of our guests, attenders, and members. Having a good database is one of the first tools that needs to be established in a church and that is consistently updated by staff and lay people.

When you have a database that is able to regularly accept the inputs from the whole host of activities any given church provides throughout the year, the leadership of the church can begin leaning on that data set to learn about trends and participation. Some databases also enable a church to see different levels of potential relationships between members.

As a result, data can help understand how people are involving themselves but it can also provide key relational connections for ministry.

In some churches that can leverage the analytical insights from data sets in the community and partner them up with ongoing trends in their congregation, the larger data set can aid in crafting new ministries and developing a strategic vision. Later this week, we’ll talk about some specific practices and examples.

However, for our first purpose here we hopefully are making the case that even in a local church properly taken data can be an aid to ministry. One of the first steps for any church or ministry is to engage with a suitable database system that allows them to collect data from a number of reliable sources, perform specific searches of that data, and let the numbers help identify trends and movement.

It should certainly be said before wrapping up that this kind of data is helpful to a point, but it will never eclipse the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and inspiring vision for ministries of a church. Data sets are a tool for helping leaders understand what is going on and how they can best adjust their ministries. But data only provides an isolated view. Christian ministry is, at its core, a person-to-person practice that requires relational proximity and personal authenticity. Data provides a picture but never equals the physical practice of ministry among God’s people.


Ready for Growth

As I was reading through my latest issue of Stratgy + Business, which is a great magazine, I came across an insightful article about what it takes for organizations (specifically in the authors’ view, corporations) to be best positioned for growth. Often many organizations fail to achieve their goals and suffer long term consequences because they cannot adjust their organization to meet the demand for their product or services for any number of organizational issues.

This occurs in churches as well.

One of the challenges for many start up ministries or comeback churches is a combination of lack of strategic awareness (notice, this isn’t a lack of strategic planning) as well as significant resource limitations. To make the jump from running out of a small space to attracting crowds of people takes both factors working together, along with several other key ingredients (the blessing of the Holy Spirit being principal of all.)

In this fine article by Ashok Divakaran and Vinay Couto, they noted three primary categories for evaluating if an organization was, as they put it, “fit for growth.” These are:

  • Stategic clarity and coherence
  • Resource alignment
  • Supportive organization


In each category several key factors were part of understanding how this particular measurement works itself out. In strategic clarity and coherence, for instance, this includes having a coherent strategy, strong capabilities, a strong/coherent product portfolio, and presence in the critical markets. This is MBA talk for specific aspects of organizational planning and, as I mentioned above, strategic awareness. For a church and ministry factors that might influence this first category would be similar to a business, though expressed differently. They include: an articulated coherent strategy, strong leadership pipeline, a strong ministry program plan, and a visible or tangible presence in their immediate community. All these put together round out the measures of the first category.

For the second category a ministry focused set of evaluative tools would include: budgetary alignment with strategy, the ability of facilities to grow with increased capacity, anticipatory talent (lay and staff level) acquisition, and ministry program expansion aligned with strategic growth. In the second category this is how we will see expansion happen and accommodate our resources and facilities for that growth. Often some ministries and churches have an opportunity to expand and see growth but fail to catch the wave of growth by aligning their resources appropriately.

Finally, a supportive organization for a church and ministry includes factors of: quick and nimble organizational decision making, strong spiritual leadership, and a supportive culture on both the staff and lay people.

As churches and ministries position themselves to grow necessitates that they are equipped and positioned to grow. Though the well intentioned ministers and lay people can talk about maintaining the status quo and certainly quality ministries are able to do this and be fruitful in the eyes of God, for many churches the desire to grow and opportunities to do come along and as good stewards we must recognize the tools given to us to position ourselves for that growth. In the article we’ve been working through here they take these measures and apply various metrics to evaluate whether an organization is truly “fit for growth.” These kinds of tests are helpful to anticipate seeing how we can develop ministries that are able to scale up to meet the needs of growth as God pours out his blessing in churches.

So what measures are you seeing as being worthwhile for growth? What is out there that will help grow your organization and align your ministry strategically and functionally?

Sep 2013



Building a Young Church: Part One Honest Analysis

Young adults are one of the most attractive demographics for many church and ministry leaders for growth and involvement.

There are lots of reasons for this, but perhaps most significant is that a young church feels like a vibrant church.

As a minister who has, and is, working with young adult ministry, it might be good to have a several part exploration of what it means to build and sustain this idea of a young church. Since my time in seminary I’ve had many conversations with ministry leaders who tell me, “We want to have a church full of young people.” By this they usually mean young adults, ages 20-35. They often mean post-college singles (though a vibrant college ministry is important) to married adults with young children.

Particularly in my home denomination, its almost bragging rights for a pastor who is over 50 years old to say, at your annual convention, or Catalyst Conference, “We’ve reached 1,000 young adults” this year.

While attracting and keeping young adults is a ministry target, what does it take to do this?

To begin this conversation, it is necessary to talk about confronting the brutal facts.

By this I mean, asking several key questions to help determine your perspective. These questions include:

  • What is the average age of our adult (18+) regular attender (2+ times a month)?
  • What is the average age of our senior leadership?
  • What is the average age of our primary platform and public faces?
  • How are we communicating to young adults?
  • What is the age demographic in our immediate zip codes?


When a church or ministry leadership team can sit down and provide honest answers to these questions the goal is to allow for a clear picture of reality and to be able to evaluate the actual possibility of reaching young adults.

If the average age of your connected adult (18+) population is above 45 years old, you’re already two life stages away from relationally connecting with young adults. This isn’t an obstacle that isn’t overcome, but it should help create realistic expectations of what reaching young adults looks like. Older churches, generationally, can reach young adults but they must do so with validated experiences that are outside the primary gathering times and which have higher concentrations of young adults per capita. In other words, you have to be willing to pay the price and move outside of Sunday morning to reach young adults if you’re an older church.

PrintThe second question is even more important than the first. The truth is young church staffs are vital in reaching young adults. This doesn’t inherently mean the senior leader must be below 50, but it does mean that as a ministry your only as young as your core leadership core. If that team (which doesn’t have to be only staff people, it can include lay people) have more people over 45 than under 35 you’re not a young staff. A whole host of other challenges come with this, not only the means of communicating inter-generationally. It also means that the leadership can misunderstand (or just simply not understand) the unique challenges and opportunities that young adults in the 21st century face.

Our second question then immediately bleeds over into our third. You can have an older church leadership team and still reach young adults. However, if the primary platform time is occupied by people over 40 years old you won’t effectively connect with 20somethings. This also goes for publications and public events. One way some churches with established leadership teams have made the move to reach young adults is by validating the primary service, or ministry avenue, where they attend and (outside the primary communicator for the ministry) only allowing worship team leaders under 40 on the platform. Young adults aren’t fooled by a faux move towards reaching them by putting one or two young people on stage with everyone else over a certain age. Churches that want to connect with young adults are willing to pay the price and make strategic moves about who and what they validate from a public and platform level.

In asking the fourth question, we are moving more to a sensitive issue (as if the others weren’t.) This is asking if your sermons, publicity, and teaching keep the young adult perspective in frame. Honestly, too many established churches and pastors are convinced that they can communicate the exact same sermon to senior adults as to twenty-somethings. One of the challenges too many of us seminary trained pastors have is that our model for preaching utilizes a deductive approach. However, young adults are used to inductive communication (and possibly even abductive…and no I don’t mean kidnapping them during the sermon.) One time I remember talking to a pastor of a significant church who believed all he needed to do to preach to twentysomethings was take off his suit coat and tie and untuck his shirt while still delivering the exact same content that the previous services had heard. Then he got discouraged when young adults weren’t staying even though they had a great worship environment. How we communicate to young adults is just as important as who have up on the platform.

The final question is one that will need to be looked at more exhaustively, but before we do that here’s a concise point. If you look in your

This is for our next door zip code, notice how the young adult number is significantly lower.

This is for our next door zip code, notice how the young adult number is significantly lower.

surrounding community (doing a demographic study) what is the age distribution look like and where are the concentrations. (You can do this for free through the Census or reports. More detailed analysis might require higher level experts, but it is often worth it.) I’ve provided an age distribution chart for the immediate three zip codes around Sugar Creek Baptist Church, where I serve. If you’re seeing a higher distribution of adults 45 and above then you’re not in a young community. If there are a lot of young adults below 25 you’re probably near a college. You’re goal here is to understand who is around your church (usually within 15 minutes driving time…note this isn’t miles.)

These kinds of questions begin confronting the brutal facts of who a church is and how they are, or aren’t reaching, young adults. Young adults reach young adults. Now if you only have a small number that doesn’t mean you’re never going to reach more. It also doesn’t mean that going out and hiring a young adult pastor is going to be the best step for you. Tying up $85,000 in a salary and benefits package isn’t always the best stewardship if adjustments to your overall strategy might just need adjusting.

Young adults are kind of the holy grail for a lot of churches. Since the 1980s they have been and many churches today are wondering how they can best reach them. There are plenty of good reasons to reach young adults and keep connected in our churches. I believe that most churches asking these questions deeply desire to reach young adults for the good reasons and not for hubris.

In our next post on this topic, we’ll look at several key factors in building a young church from the internal ministry side.


Are All Weeks Equal?

Well, it’s summer and if you live in almost any community around the United States, you’ll have noticed that folks have a tendency to do crazy things like take vacations, or long weekends, or be out of town, and other such activities that decrease their regular, or or less, attendance at our churches.

This isn’t a growing phenomenon by any means.

There is still a school of thought in many churches that we need to count all weeks equally in order to get a picture of how we are doing. Yet when we come into the summer months, and even over certain holidays, we see dramatic downward spirals in attendance as people do, you know, life. Some churches have gotten so frustrated, or maybe just decided not to fight the shift, that they cancel services on any Sunday between Christmas and New Years.

So, when we sit down to evaluate our attendance year, should we count all weeks equally?

Now, I believe counting is important but still believe proper counting is even more important. Granted, while I was in college and then seminary, nobody ever sat us down and talked about “proper counting” or even counting. Not until I was in my first post-seminary church experience did anyone talk with me, and a couple of other guys, about this counting thing. So as a result counting is just out there as this metric that determines a lot but is understood little.

As we lay out my yearly calendars one first step is overlay the local school districts’ calendars to get a picture of when we can anticipate major breaks. Also, we add in holiday weekends (which are usually part of a school’s calendar) and try to get a picture of what our year is going to look like. If we number my weeks, 1 through 52, and compare them to previous years’ weeks to get a picture of what our attendance track might be for the same week of any year. 

There are, out of the 52 weeks of the year, about 30 weeks that are able to show the core metric of our attendance patterns and who is, or is not, connected with our ministry. Depending on our locations (suburban, metro, urban, rural, etc) this might look different, but it seems to me that the primary driver for so much of our church attendance is the local school system’s calendar. So why not harness this to test our movement?

We are left with the primary tracking weeks of:

  • From school year beginning (mid/late August) until Thanksgiving with Labor Day being skipped. (usually 12 weeks)
  • From the Sunday after the first full week of January to Spring Break (mid-March.) (7-9 weeks)
  • Then from the first Sunday after the week following Spring Break until school let’s out for summer break. (about 10 weeks)

This will show how the eb and flow of church attendance measures up to corresponding weeks in the previous years. Is there growth in your primary venues and connection points during this time? Are we seeing guests coming at higher rates as the same time last year? How is children’s and student’s check in looking as compared to corresponding years?

While we shouldn’t buy into the myth of infinite, exponential growth every year (sooner or later life cycle metrics will come into play) we can consider what our in and out looks like.

The goal is to create a tracking model that recognizes that not all weeks are created equal in your calendar year. Some are more important for seeing how things are going than others. Also, some weeks will disproportionately skew the averages if you’re just looking at baseline data with no filter (i.e Christmas and Easter but also mid-July.)

So, how are you tracking your attendance patterns? What weeks work for your setting? Does the school calendar truly have this much influence on what is going on?


Staying the Course

One of the most dangerous moments for some church staffs is that moment when the senior pastor, or senior leaders, arrive back from a ministry conference discussing a new model or after they’ve read the latest influential book by “Insert Mega-Pastor Name” and decide that shifting (yet again usually) to this new strategic model will bring together the necessary parts for the church, or ministry, to reach a new level of success. Having sat in a tenuous conference room of nervous staff members while the senior pastor held up a book and proclaimed it was the new ministry map…after having heard the same speech only 16 months prior…it is a difficult time for any ministry.

In the revised introduction to his updated text Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter writes this: 

Finally, in recent years there have been some who argue that firms should not choose competitive positions at all but concentrate on, variously, staying flexible, incorporating new ideas, or building up critical resources or core competencies that are portrayed as independent of competitive position. I respectfully disagree. Staying flexible in strategic terms renders competitive advantage almost unobtainable. Jumping from strategy to strategy makes it impossible to be good at implementing any of them. Continuous incorporation of new ideas is important to maintaining operational effectiveness. (xv-xvi)

Having a strategic vision allows organizations to accomplish goals and expand their effectiveness. For those of us in church and ministry environments, we are reminded of Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” However, Ephesians 4:14 also seems apropos here.

One of the overwhelmingly keys to success in any organization, religious or secular, is a clearly articulated, clearly defined, and clearly navigated strategic vision. Strategic vision should be like the  pin in a map at the end of a route, marking the accomplishment of a task or journey. If we take this idea of our organizations being on a journey to that successfulness, then we also realize it is deeply hurtful to the organization if the captain keeps changing course when the wind blows or decides to dry dock at every port to install a fancy new keel. It won’t work.

A well articulated and coherent strategy for an organization needs time to work and time to be worked. Like we’ve mentioned before on this blog, when organizations fail to accomplish their goals it is often (at a ratio of 85%) a failure in keeping with a strategy and not a failure of the strategy.

Leaders in secular, as well as religious, organizations have a difficult task ahead of them. As leaders we must carefully develop and arrive at a plan for the journey of our organization. Then we must relentlessly stick to that plan (providing for some minor tweeks to the internal processes) and see it through to accomplish our vision.

Staying the course in allowing vision to happen is a key part of seeing our success journey find the pin at the end of the map. So stick to it! Stay the course!

Jul 2013