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Brand, ministry and the millennial Christian

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Equipping Christian Leaders Feature Article: Summer 2019


With millennials as the largest working demographic in the United States, it isn’t a surprise that marketing agencies spend much time and resources researching the behavior patterns they exhibit. As numerous as the peculiarities of these twenty- to thirty-somethings are, brand loyalty is a subject that is particularly difficult yet vitally important to understand. Brand loyalty determines whether one will remain dedicated to a certain brand, cause, or organization, or whether something better replaces it. In the field of ministry, understanding what it is that earns a millennial’s loyalty might currently be the most important task in terms of maintaining an audience. This article will explain why millennials are loyal to certain brands and not others, and how ministry leaders can utilize this knowledge in building a brand that can be trusted. The truth is, millennials are extremely loyal and yet extremely fickle. Let’s explore how this contradiction works.

What if we told you that millennials are both the most brand-loyal generation in American history and the least brand-loyal?[1] [2] Confusing, yes, but it’s what Google will tell you. Multiple research studies suggest that millennials are fiercely loyal to their brands but also just as cautious. When they like your brand, they really like it, but public opinion tools such as Yelp and Google are always a click away. If there are better options, millennials will jump ship. It’s an issue marketing experts have been trying to understand for the past decade. That’s because millennials, Americans born roughly between 1980 and 2000, are now the largest working demographic in the United States. This also means they’re the largest potential talent pool for ministries.

Christian ministry leaders do well to pay attention to brand loyalty, if they hope to keep millennials onboard for the long-term. Some churches are showing a drop in attendance. Mainline denominations are losing members at astonishing rates. Moreover, Christian outreach programs, domestic and international, have been accused of being too “short term.” The typical perception is that younger adults aren’t interested in long-term service. Yet, it’s long-term service, especially overseas, that develops mature, Christ-centered disciples.

What’s driving this contradiction? Let’s explore what we’re learning about millennials. Then, we will suggest three core traits we see millennials embracing.

The same contradictions in marketing — most and least brand-loyal — are also evident in American churches. For example, the 2010 Pew Charitable Trust report, “Religion Among the Millennials” says:

Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation — so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 — are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20 percent in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13 percent in the late 1970s).[3]

Yet research shows that “[millennials] may not see themselves as religious if that means affiliation with a particular tradition or attendance at a particular congregation. They do, however, believe in God or an afterlife. They believe in miracles. They pray regularly and have spiritual conversations at similar rates as other generations.”[4]

While this departure from tradition and denominationalism isn’t without serious problems for Christianity, it helps us reframe the issue. Your ministry probably draws its talent from seminaries and Bible schools. Bright, young Christian seminarians probably aren’t struggling with fluffy orthodoxy. Yet even strong Christian millennials hesitate to identify with a “name-brand” denomination, church or ministry. Therefore, rather than labeling millennials as selfish and self-absorbed (though some are), this issue of loyalty might stem from shifting cultural priorities. The question isn’t, “Are millennials loyal?” but rather, “What are millennials loyal to?”

With businesses, millennials no longer show loyalty to the logo but to the values behind it. In short, millennials want jobs with meaning, and they want the company they work for to reflect those values in the way it treats its workers, and in the product or service it provides. More broadly, brands, institutions or ministries can no longer rest on reputation. Millennials simply don’t give that kind of trust.

In his discussion on millennials and faith, David King says:

Millennials grew up in an age of uncertainty: 9/11, increased globalization, and downward economic mobility. They began finding their way into the job market during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Many returned from college to move back home to live with parents or couch surf with friends while relying on others’ financial help.[5]

Previously unshakable institutions have been shaken. Hence millennials have focused on the local. Local coffee shops, for example.

Millennials love coffee. It’s a statistical truth. Millennials make up 44% of all U.S. coffee drinkers and most of this comes in the form of local, specialty, in-shop drinks.[6]

One coffee shop owner says, “We’re seeing this generation loves the opportunity to control what they’re drinking, how much they’re spending and personalized experiences. Drinks on our menu that are popular include matcha lattes, pour-overs with a local coffee roaster, bulletproof coffee and nitro coffee.” Move over mass production. It’s time to make room for individual, personalized experiences.

And not only do millennials prefer high-quality, unique coffees, they also want to know about the product’s intangible, ethical qualities.

One California coffee shop owner describes the trend this way: ““At our stores, millennials are interested in the quality and origin of the coffee beans. They want to know if it is fair trade, organic, etc., as well as the method of brewing.”[7]

Here’s what we can take away from this trend: millennials have been raised in a world of options and often choose high-quality, personal experiences over a product’s reasonability or reputation. They’ll research the beliefs and history of an organization to see if it’s a good fit not only for their own tastes but also for the way they hope to impact the world.

An interesting byproduct of this distrust has been an increased independence and entrepreneurialism. Distrust coupled with increased technological power has led to an exploding “entrepreneurial class.” Millennials have been conditioned to carve their own paths and lead their own projects. We see that “although the gig economy spans all age groups, Millennials make up the largest portion.