Church capital campaigns follow a pattern: private phase, public phase, advance-commitment night, commitment Sunday, etc. While this traditional pattern has been tested over decades, it's important to remember it was not designed by Millennials (people born roughly between 1980 and 2000). In fact, many campaigns essentially write off Millennials and assume the heavy giving will be done by Builders or Baby Boomers.
But our church did not have that luxury: 80 percent of our adults are under age 40. Either Millennials got behind this campaign or we didn't have one.
So we assertively modified the traditional campaign. This led to animated conversations with our capital-campaign consultant. But that give-and-take made the campaign right for our Millennials. It made us appreciate our consultant all the more (because she was willing to adjust traditional approaches but wisely kept us from jettisoning too much). And it led to a campaign that exceeded our expectations. Here's what we learned.
1. Provide real help for people in real need.
Millennials' gift to the church, in my opinion, is their outward focus; they define greatness as serving others. Our campaign's tagline was "For the Lord, the Lost, and the Least," and Millennials were the most likely to ask about that final word.
We also used the campaign to increase our giving to people in need. We said publicly: "We are not going to build this sanctuary on the backs of the poor and the trafficked. We are not going to ask our missionaries to live on less for the next two years. Instead, at the very time when we need every dollar for this building, we are going to boost our outward giving by 26 percent."
Millennials will dig deep as they see your church trying to "live simply so that others may simply live."
2. Dial down the hype.
Run each statement, fact, goal, or idea you plan to communicate through a brutal-honesty filter, because the Millennial generation is conditioned to distrust the institution and to question the inauthentic.
For example, on our main campaign video, I didn't say, "In our rented facilities now, children's ministry is practically impossible." Instead, I said, "While not impossible to do now, it's kind of hard."
This feels counterintuitive, and you may feel you're lowering urgency, excitement, and the call to action. But authenticity is non-negotiable.
And because Millennials tend to be skeptical, it's impossible to communicate too clearly or too exactly where all the money is going.
3. Find ways for everyone to make the team.
Most capital campaigns, to increase giving, create a culture of exclusivity. The private phase focuses on elite gatherings of major donors. That motivated Boomers—"I got on the elite team." It bothers Millennials. In our campaign, a few Millennials asked, "Are there secret meetings?"
So in our private phase, we insisted that gatherings include not just major givers but also major servers, people who give generously of their time.
We grew the private-phase invitation list to about a third of our entire congregation. And on advance-commitment night, we didn't restrict the event to our big givers. Instead, we invited anyone who was ready to make his or her commitment early.
Probably the simplest and best way to ensure that Millennials won't feel left out is to recruit some Millennials for your campaign leadership team.
4. Talk honestly about debt.
Debt is a fact of American life: for households with credit-card debt, the average is $15,799. But Millennials feel the vise grip of debt more painfully than most.
Average debt for graduating college seniors is more than $23,000, and recent graduates stumble in paying this back, when the only jobs they're finding are part-time, lower-paying, service-sector. Add in a car loan, and an occasional bad spending decision, and you understand why the most-common question I got during the campaign was, "I want to give, but I have a lot of debt to pay off. What should I do?"
So it's not enough to talk in glowing terms about faith and generosity and "not equal gifts but equal sacrifice." We have to talk about the realpolitik of debt.
My response to the reality of Millennials' debt and their calling to give was posted on our church blog. Basically the issue is this:
Both paying off your debts and giving generously are important. Paying off your debts must be a high priority for your financial life. Having said that, I do not advise waiting until your debts are fully paid off before giving to God. You need to give for your spiritual health, for your connection to the church, and for your own dignity. So I encouraged them to give something now. And over time, as they pay down debts, they will gain the freedom to give more.
5. Keep tech relational.
Many people assume the best way to motivate giving from Millennials is through technology. But in our experience, though tech is helpful, it will not replace relationship; you still need to schedule as many face-to-face meetings as time will allow. And as you do communicate via tech (we used our church website, blog, Facebook account, and Twitter, plus we built a campaign microsite and added online giving, which we didn't have before), don't think "impressive." Think "relationship building," which for Millennials means "authentic," "fun," "simple," and "sharing of stories."
In all our tech, we invited people to tell their stories of generosity and transformation. Some people wrote brief stories; others created YouTube videos.
Our church must be one of the few left in America that does not show videos in worship services, but we got huge wins with a 14-minute video that we showed after services one Sunday. On it Jeff and Kimberly, a Millennial couple, talked honestly about their marital separation and loss of a child, and how the church had walked with them through those crises.
6. Set the threshold low and the participation high.
We had a financial goal, but what we emphasized more was a participation goal: "We want 100 percent of our members and regular attenders to give." To increase participation, we did two things.
First, we ran a "one-fund campaign" (as our consultant astutely advised), in which the general fund and building fund and mission fund are combined. That way, every dollar someone has been giving, or starts to give, contributes to the whole ministry. It sets the threshold low so that everyone can participate.
Second, we took the traditional gifts chart—we need so many gifts of this amount, and so many of this amount, etc.—and shifted it downward: fewer of the really big gifts, and lots more of the really small gifts. Many Millennials think, I don't have much to give. We said, "If every college student here gives $10 a week, that would yield over $150,000."
How did we do on participation? We hit 81 percent, a little lower than we'd hoped, but we were delighted that 72 commitments came from people who had never given to our church before.
7. Wrestle your demons to the mat (Millennials can tell if you haven't).
Millennials can read you as a leader. They may not do so perfectly, but in general, their radar picks up whether you are giving sacrificially, whether you are anxious and therefore pressuring people, and whether this campaign is primarily about you.
Though they tend to distrust institutions, they will trust a leader who is honest and unafraid to be in personal contact and who will let them ask hard questions. This is impossible to do, though, if you're still anxious about whether your church is going to reach its financial goal.
It took me time to break through to the freedom of giving sacrificially. I knew the campaign was coming, months beforehand, when the Lord spoke to me about giving a number that was, for me and my wife, radical. Money is inherently self-deceptive, though, so it took fasting and prayer and conversation before we finally could give that number with unity and joy.
But once I was free from anxiety and free to obey, what a freedom I felt to pastor! With the weak I could be tender and genuinely release them from any pressure to give; with the strong, I could challenge them boldly. And when I saw the results from Commitment Sunday, I rejoiced. It's not true that Millennials do not want to commit. It may be that we seldom ask them in ways that release their passion: to belong to an authentic community that is making the world a better place and glorifying the one who is eternal.
—Kevin A. Miller is associate rector of Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois; adapted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 2013 by Christianity Today. For more articles like this, visit www.LeadershipJournal.net.
share this page
Also of Interest
Develop and implement a vision for change.
When the Budget Is Tight
Take control of your church's finances so they don't take control of you.
What's Your Encouragement Style? (free sample)
8 ways to affirm others.
Are you a Good Steward of Your Time?
How discovering your spiritual gifts benefit your time management.
Join the BuildingChurchLeaders.com Facebook groupFollow us on TwitterSubscribe to the Building Church Leaders RSS feed
Meet Our Editorial Advisors
More from Christianity Today