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Millennials: The “Keystone Species” to Your Church’s Future

By August 24, 2017 No Comments


Here’s how Wikipedia defines a “keystone species”:

“A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Such species play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community affecting many other organisms in an ecosystem and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community. The role that a keystone species plays in its ecosystem is analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it.”

National Geographic identifies several keystone species—beavers, prairie dogs, elephants, sea otters, hummingbirds, mountain lions, sea stars, etc. Each of these species is critical to the future of their environment. Is there a keystone species in the church?

Millennials (in this blog, the generation born between 1980 and 2000) may very well be the keystone species of the church—of your church. Their presence or absence will inordinately affect your future. After surveying over 32,000 people in 4,436 different congregations the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released their Engaging Young Adults report and discovered that:

1. Millennials comprise 23% of the U.S. population but…
— Only 10% of congregations have this percentage reflected in their congregations
— 18% have NO Millennials attending their church

2. Fifteen percent of Millennials attending is considered a “critical mass” of Millennials (1/3 of churches surveyed had this critical mass of 15%).

3. Thriving Millennial ministries mean thriving congregations

4. Critical mass of Millennials mean almost twice the likelihood of having a ethnically diverse church

5. Critical mass of Millennials is linked to high Internet and social media presence

6. Critical mass of Millennials enhance a congregation’s community engagement as well as prayer and Bible engagement

7. Critical mass of Millennials is connected to a thriving children and youth ministry

8. Churches with a critical mass of Millennials increase attendance (36.1%), and maintain attendance (49.6%) over time

9. Churches with a critical mass of Millennials are
— More spiritually vital and alive
— More caring and supportive of members
— More willing to meet new challenges
— More social justice oriented
— More intentional about maximizing the number and variety of small groups the congregation has to offer

So what do churches that understand Millennials as a keystone species do that we could also do? Here is what our friends at Hartford Institute discovered. Churches with thriving Millennial ministries:

  • Made reaching, retaining and growing Millennials a top priority (those churches who prioritize engagement with Millennials are twice as likely to have a critical mass of Millennials compared to those who do not)
  • Had a strategy for reaching, retaining and growing Millennials
  • Have (paid or unpaid) staff leading the initiative to engage Millennials. Simply put: “No leader—no engagement with Millennials”


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Eric Swanson

Author Eric Swanson

Eric has a passion for engaging churches worldwide in the needs and dreams of their communities toward the end of spiritual and societal transformation. He served with Campus Crusade for Christ for twenty-five years before joining the staff of Leadership Network where he currently works with scores of missional churches around North America. He is an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary and is co-author of The Externally Focused Church (Group, 2004), The Externally Focused Life (Group, 2009), The Externally Focused Quest (Jossey-Bass, 2010) , and To Transform a City (Zondervan, 2010), and numerous articles on churches that are transforming their communities. Eric has been married to Liz for over 35 years, has three married children, six grandchildren and resides outside of Boulder Colorado. www.ericjswanson.com

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