One Thing the Church Needs to Know about Millennials (and Every Other Generation)
My inbox is cluttered with newsletters from church growth gurus and other religious websites attempting to inform me on millennials. Numbers seem to be the main concern of these articles: “7 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Do,” “10 Ways Your Church Can Reach Millennials,” “5 Reasons Millennials Hate Your Church,” etc. and so on. These articles are chock full of ground-shaking insights such as, “Millennials prefer honesty to slick marketing, and you should not lie to them.” Now I have to ask, which generation prefers slick marketing? Was this ever a thing? And why would I lie to a millennial or anyone else? There are debatable issues in Scripture, but lying is universally a no-no.
These articles remind me of similar studies 30 years ago to reach my generation. I wonder why we don’t continue to see articles stressing the urgency to reach baby busters or Generation X? Could it be that these attempts failed or were flawed in some way? Could it be that generational stereotyping is a never-ending hamster wheel of chasing after the next influencers of culture? (By the way, I also discovered in my research that some are suggesting that it is pointless to reach millennials at this point and to focus on Generation Z. When does it stop?)
Since I am an old Generation X-er who never wanted a mentor, I resisted the urge to shrug and say “whatever,” and investigate this matter. I dug out my Nirvana T-shirt, fired up my generation's pessimism, and decided to talk to the millennials I knew about their generation. (That’s a subtle reference to The Who for the handful of baby boomers who know how to log on to the internet).
The results of my non-scientific, highly anecdotal survey yielded the following conclusions:
Millennials I spoke with don’t identify as “millennials.” They don’t even seem to be proud of the label and freely admit that it is often a negative stereotype. About all they will agree to is that they were born after 1980.
Millennials I spoke with are disappointed in the church for the same reasons every other generation gets disappointed. They named the basics: hypocrisy, mean people, lack of spirit. They more or less named the same items Jesus named when he expressed woe on the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23).
Millennials I spoke with want people in the church to treat them seriously and genuinely. They did not ask to be special or unique; they just want to have genuine relationships with others people of all ages.
Studies on millennials and other generations are surely engaged with good intentions. They are informative and interesting. If you’ve been helped by such research and successfully implemented changes in your congregation that resulted in growth, I am sure we would all love to hear about it. I know that I would. Yet, I do have a concern that there is an itch among us to find the magic formula to grow our churches or to make us incredibly popular or successful among the most recent generation of adults. Perhaps we are warding off an unspoken fear that our traditions and cultures in the church might be outmoded, passé, and irrelevant. We don’t want to find out that we have aged and become neglected bitter old codgers. Maybe we just want to pass the torch but fear no one will be there to pick it up.
I am also concerned that the church tolerates stereotypes about generations that we would never tolerate with race or gender. Perhaps stereotyping about generations seems less hateful, especially when it is praiseworthy or wrapped in statistics. Stereotypes are not funny because they are true; rather they are dangerous because they reduce people to one story. This is the thesis of a 2009 TEDGlobal talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her focus is on geographical stereotyping that often reduces the diversity of Africa to a single story, yet I believe her observations might also apply to generations. I will paraphrase the closing thought of her talk: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any [generation], we regain a kind of paradise.”
There’s one thing that the church needs to know about millennials: they are human. And so is every other generation before and after.