What Community Organizations Could Learn from Hillsong

The emotional touchpoint Millennials share.

September 10’s New York Times profile of Hillsong Church chronicled the massive popularity of this international megachurch. One takeaway from the article, whether the journalist is correct or not, was this:

Many of the worshipers say they are drawn by the music but have stayed because of the opportunity to be with other young Christians, and because they believe that the churches can help transform cities, both through prayer and through direct social services. “I want to be part of something bigger than myself,” said Tricia Hidalgo, 29. “We’re going to love the city, love the people, and, to me, I feel like love can break any walls,” she said.

Hillsong is connecting the big picture of its faith with its tangible implications, and that’s firing up its members.

It’s working because this connection is an emotional touchpoint for Millennials in any community-building context. Two examples:

In churches, the notion of Christianity existing as something that can have significance in the here and now—not just as a solution to personal problems—is tremendously powerful. There’s a risk, of course, in making (say) social justice or beautiful art the purpose of a religion that’s really about, you know, God. But I’ve worked as a consultant with churches that are baffled by their inability to get young people to commit to small groups that exist mainly as group therapy or Bible discussion (which to Millennials feel sort of like deciding to go to college…forever).

In nonprofits, Millennials need the right balance between ambitious objectives and comprehensible (if not necessarily measurable) results. I’m currently working with a human services client to develop a fundraising campaign for helping struggling people in their city. Historically, the organization has been able to get its current donor base (which is well past the retirement age) to give simply by asking for money. But the organization has recognized that to appeal to young people, the new campaign has to have a goal bigger than the organization (e.g. creating a city where struggles don’t mean homelessless), and yet smaller than saving the world (we have X number of people in this situation—let’s take that number down to zero in your neighborhood!). Here’s the goal, here’s what it means for you.

These are two iterations of the same core situation: people don’t bond, or otherwise connect within a community, because you tell them to. They certainly don’t bond when they’re individuals consuming (or funding) a product as individuals. They bond over shared goals, projects, points of enthusiasm—not vague or overly large ones, but ones that work on a human scale.

One of my small church clients started getting creative young people involved by the dozens when it allowed them to take ownership of a program focused on the Christian imagination (rather than continuing to beg them to show up for small groups). Friendships are forming, battles are being won together—people are bonding. And the church is growing. The ambitious goals are there, but so is the tangible evidence of progress toward them.

Likewise, I’ve seen nonprofits build stunningly powerful communities around their mission when Millennials could buy into it—both socially and financially.

Millennials tend to recognize sooner or later that their own problems are a black hole—they never go away, or cease taking up time and energy. (So church that exists to solve them feels hypocritical, sooner or later.) They feel the same way about the difference they can make with their limited finances when it comes to charitable goals. (What difference can my $20 make, really? An organization’s budget, in such a context, is also a black hole.)

Hillsong (aside from its music, which is a separate topic!) resonates because it offers a holistic Christianity that clicks. The big picture and its tangible implications; the goal and what we do about it now. Other religious movements have tried this in the past, they’ve also met with initial success, and they’ve eventually died away as they overemphasized one or the other. Strong communities and successful organizations can keep both in balance.

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