Conference focuses on reaching millennials

APPLETON — Four young adults leading the Millennial Church Conference April 30 at St. Bernard Church warned that they had no “silver bullet” that would immediately bring millennials back to church.

Instead, they offered the 100 people attending the day-long session specific tips on what to do and what not to do when attempting to appeal to people in their 20s and early 30s.

Pete Burds, director of Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, sings while praying a hymn at the start of the Millennial Church Conference at St. Bernard Church in Appleton April 30. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The conference was sponsored by the Diocese of Green Bay and led by a team of two men and two women, all who work in Catholic ministry. They saw a need to help churches around the country reach out to a generation they described as hungry for meaningful relationships.

Pete Burak, 30, of Ann Arbor, Mich., acknowledged that most of the people in the audience were already working for local Catholic parishes or the diocese. “I know I’m talking to the choir, but sometimes it’s people in the choir who most need to hear this.”

Burak, who started the Millennial Church Conference just a year ago, spoke with passion as he revealed that his uncle died that morning of cancer, a disease that also took the lives of his father and his father-in-law in recent years. His sense of urgency was conveyed in his first piece of advice: Be able to explain what Jesus means to you in your life. “We don’t give a compelling ‘why.’ The message is not being proclaimed. The ‘why’ is this — eternal life,” he said.

He offered a number of strategies to reach a generation that is often maligned as self-absorbed but who he said is “deeply wounded.” Begin by making a list of young adults who “already like you” since that’s your circle of influence. Organize service projects because helping others resonates with those who attend church and those who don’t.

If you can’t speak in person, send text messages; emails are often ignored. Have a clear vision of what a disciple is — including prayer, being with those who energize you, and going out into the world, he said.

Do a budget audit that identifies your organization’s priorities. “None of us do this for the money, but you can’t do it without the money,” Burak said. Invite young adults to join the parish. “Many don’t know they’re even supposed to,” he said. Make it easy by setting up computers in the back of church.

Create extended families that focus on service together.

“The nuclear family has failed,” he said. It’s important to have an understanding of the culture of millennials. For example, avoid events on Saturday mornings because young adults often have late Friday nights.

Finally, Burak urged his audience to “lean in” and touch those who are hurting. “The salvation of this generation is a noble cause,” he said.

While Burak suggested actions to take when trying to engage young adults, presenter Emily Burds, 29, associate director of marriage and family life for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, offered a list of what not to do. Her steps ranged from the simple (don’t offer soda or bad beer to health-conscious adults) to the more complicated (don’t let millennials stay on their cell phones — many live alone and need warm, human, transparent interactions).

Because millennials are often visual and sensitive to images, Burds was adamant about replacing clipart with quality graphics in church materials. Most importantly, “Don’t be mean,” she said, and don’t treat young adults as if they were teenagers adding, “This is not Youth Group 2.0.”

Her husband, Pete Burds, 32, is also part of the conference team and is director of young adult ministry for the Milwaukee Archdiocese. His ministry includes the popular Brew City Catholic, which, as the name implies, meets in Milwaukee bars. “Today is a day of hope,” he said. “Whatever you do, lead with belonging.”

He also stressed the importance of giving young adults leadership positions in a parish.

The fourth member of the team, Sarah Kaczmarek, 34, of Detroit, is the national director of Alpha Youth-Catholic. She urged her listeners to listen to millennials and to get out of their own comfort zones.

“We’re no longer living in a Christian culture (in the United States). This is missionary territory,” she said. “This isn’t about me. I know Jesus. It’s about those who don’t.”

For those in the audience who are not millennials, Kaczmarek urged them to become “spiritual mothers and fathers.” She then revealed why she joined the Millennial Church Conference team. “The reason I’m here is that I’m desperate to have my baby sister come back to the church,” she said. “I need you to help me reach my baby sister.”

For more information, visit the Millennial Church Conference website.