One GenXer on reaching Millennials, Part 2, guest post by David Gordon

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]art 2 of a three part series by guest writer David Gordon. Click for One GenXer on reaching Millennials, Part 1, by David Gordon.

For the church to effectively reach a nonbeliever we must determine what that person needs or wants, just as Paul did when he encountered the shrine at Mars Hill. Millennials, or at least the ones that I’ve observed, have very different driving forces than the generations before them. I’ve identified four of these in my interactions and experiences in college and high school classrooms.

Identity

I know I said four things, but I’m going to break my own rules from the outset and divide this topic into two different subsets: counterculturalism and individuality. Whereas conformity was a driving force among Boomers, Busters, and to a lesser extent Xers, most of the Millennials that I’ve encountered value being a part of the minority rather than the majority. They want to be involved in something fringe, subversive, daring. The “cool kid” at school is no longer the quarterback, it’s the lead singer. I think that this places the church in a perfect position to reach Millennials, given that cultural and familial Christianity are in decline. Rather than lamenting the demise of our “Christian nation” we can embrace this cultural change and highlight the fact that, by identifying with Christ, Millennials are joining up with something that goes against popular culture.

In the age of social media, developing a personal identity is as important to young people as developing a brand is to a company. In fact, these processes are virtually indistinguishable: Millennials create a “brand” for themselves by advertising (posting on social media), product names (Twitter and Instagram handles), and cross-promotion (retweets, likes, etc.) Individuality ties into both counterculturalism and the insignificance of information that I spoke on in the previous post. It seems that generations before defined themselves by a list of demographics: political party, socioeconomic class, religion/denomination, race/ethnicity, geographic location/origin. Young people don’t want to associate themselves with a group if that involves a set of opinions on a variety of topics that are only tangentially related to the core belief of that group. Millennials want to be able to define themselves rather than be defined by their associations. There are Christians with many differing beliefs regarding political and social issues; if your church makes political affiliation with a certain party or specific stances on social issues seem like prerequisites to Christianity, Millennials will leave.

Justice

Social justice is unequivocally the most important issue to Millennials. I have a friend who founded Lazarus Ministries, a non-profit organization to aid the homeless in Atlanta. At a conference for NPOs, she heard that it’s been estimated that over 90% of nonprofits founded since 2000 were started by people under 30. Allison once told me that “non-profits are the new band; every cool kid starts one.” Winston Churchill famously said (or more famously, probably didn’t say), “”If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” Young people are fiercely interested in helping others, and if your church provides opportunities for the community (believers and non-believers, members and non-members) to engage in acts of social justice then Millennials will come. Lazarus Ministries started out as the homeless ministry of our church, then branched off to become its own independent organization. They open up volunteer opportunities at their major events to the community at large, and our church has seen many conversions of people who came to those events as volunteers before they ever stepped in the door of our church. Apart from weekly service, Lazarus hosts a Homeless Health Day in the heart of Atlanta every September with a clothing bank, a meal, haircuts, and health-related services. They host a Christmas dinner every December in a parking lot with a home-cooked meal on a glass plate served to them at their seats by a volunteer. They have a Superbowl party every year with a chili cook-off in which volunteers compete and “guests” judge and a large screen for those without televisions to watch the game. At most Lazarus events there is no message or altar call, simply an extending of an outstretched hand. When non-believers see that we as Christians are willing to do service without a transaction (if you listen to the message, you can have a sandwich) it shows that we are interested in people, not just conversions.

David tells us over and over in the Psalms that God loves justice, is known for his acts of justice, decrees justice, brings justice. James directs us to care for widows and orphans. Very simply, if you or your church don’t/doesn’t believe in a doctrine of social justice and won’t spend your resources to assist the underserved in your community, you’ve got no chance reaching Millennials. Unfortunately, issues of social justice for Millennials often clash with issues of morality for older generations. If it’s not an issue that all Christians agree on, don’t make it a prerequisite for attending your church or becoming a believer. Preaching Christ crucified doesn’t require mentioning gay marriage every Sunday.

Meaning

In his book The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook examines the phenomenon of suicide and depression rates being at an all-time high while life, by every quantifiable measure, is better than in any generation before. Easterbrook attributes this to a shift in the driving force among generations: after growing up in the Depression, Boomers made it their life mission to provide their children with every need; those Busters, having had all of their needs growing up, sought to provide their children with all of their wants; Millennials, never being in need or want of anything material, now need something non-material to strive for. Easterbrook states that the primary driving force for this generation is the search for meaning. Young people want to know that their lives count for something, that they have made a difference, that they will be remembered. When I was in middle school I remember sitting behind a kid in Mrs. Lemoine’s English class who was wearing a No Fear! t-shirt that said “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Millennials have all of the “toys” they could ever want; they need something more.

Cal Newport writes an illuminating post on the Harvard Business Review’s website about the same phenomenon. He bases his research on data from Google’s NGram viewer, a tool that shows occurrences of words or phrases used in print. Newport demonstrates, using Google’s data, that the phrase “follow your passion” (virtually non-existent before 1990) skyrockets in popularity between 1996 and 2006. Tim Urban builds on Newport’s findings on his blog, Wait But Why, showing that the phrase “secure career” has essentially disappeared since 1990 and has been replaced with “fulfilling career.” Success and security is a given for Millennials, they need fulfillment, meaning, to make a difference. By focusing not only on the personal advantages of Christianity (individual hope and peace, “not going to hell”) but incorporating the corporate elements of Christianity (hope and peace for the world, “kingdom come”), the church is in a unique position to attract Millennials: we can offer them meaning.

Community

In my high school classroom I try to keep technology use to a minimum. Kids are familiar with technology and there’s nothing I can do with it that would impress them. Instead, we use a revolutionary new technique in my English class: we read things, then we talk about them. For the first couple of days it’s pulling teeth to get anyone to talk. It’s awkward. We spend a lot of time sitting in silence, as I refuse to fill it with me talking. Once the dam breaks, though, there’s no stopping the flood. By the end of the semester I’ve spent entire ninety-minute class periods in silence as students had (mostly) on-topic discussions about literature we’ve read. Lev Vygotsky referred to this means of knowledge acquisition as Constructivism, a method that focuses on learners forming (“constructing”) their own knowledge, with minor intervention from an instructor, and it inspired Seymour Papert’s Constructionist theory of pedagogy upon which most school instruction is based today. Rather than a top-down form of education, in which an expert stands in the front of the room and acts as a “dispenser of knowledge,” students are encouraged to explore the material and construct their own knowledge. While the “Sunday Sermon” will never go away, we must provide opportunities for believers and non-believers alike to explore the ideas in the Bible and to form their own opinions on the text.

Technology is also an impediment to community that’s left young people at a relational deficit. It’s a funny thing: while technology has connected us more than any other era, we spend less time around other people than ever. I’ve watched people sit in a social situation, not ten feet from one another, and communicate via text rather than open their mouths and speak to one another. We disconnect from the person across the table at dinner to check our social media accounts and see what everyone else is doing. Many Millennials have grown up in an era completely unlike any before it: social media has always existed; their parents have driven to work an hour away and shown up home from their commute just in time for bed; an age where real, face-to-face, human interaction is a rarity. The youth group at our church held a Halloween dance last year that was open to middle and high schoolers in the community. I DJed the event and played radio-scrubbed secular music. There was a costume contest. There was pizza. There was no message or altar call, just a fun event for students to attend. We had more teens at that event than any youth Bible study we’ve offered. If churches can offer social opportunities for young people to interact with other real, present human beings without any kind of overt or implied evangelistic intent then young people will flock to these events – maybe not the first one, as there’s some level of wariness regarding “church events,” but as the word spreads that your church has events that don’t involve sitting with heads bowed and eyes closed waiting for “one more hand” you’ll see an influx of kids who wouldn’t give church a chance. Give Millennials an opportunity to be a part of a community before they commit to conversion; it’ll pay off in the long run.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of the value differences between Millennials and previous generations. I do believe, however, that understanding and addressing these driving forces will help the church and believers to understand young people better and adapt our practices to attract them towards a belief in Christ.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Frank

    Many of the ideals described for Millenials look an awful lot like those some of us Boomers had when we were much younger. Some of those ideals may have faded, but they can be revived. We have much to learn from each other, given the opportunity. Thanks for sharing your observations. It would be great to hear some feedback from younger generations on this topic.