It happened again recently someone asked “How can we get millennials to join our church (or organisation, business or NGO) if they are like this and we are like this”. Sometimes I think we are stuck in a boomerang loop Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Gen Z, we seem to be stuck explaining the same ground over and over without any progress being made.
Questions like this seem to express a willingness to engage that is not accompanied by an openness to change, that leaves us stagnant and hand-wringing about the ‘younger generation problem’.
To make progress in our church's' engagement with younger generations we need to change the way we talk about them. There is certainly a lot of theorising and generalising about the characteristics and issues of younger people. I am not totally convinced that all these things that are written about really exist as generational differences. Indeed the science is inconclusive about whether these generational difference hold up to statistical scrutiny. Some of what we observe could be age differences (so characteristics of everyone at that age) not generational differences.
We carry on talking about the difference though. I think this is because there are elements of our experience that seem to be reflected and confirmed in some of these discussions. I have definitely observed quite a substantial difference in being and understanding between those who grew up immersed in modernity and those who have come of age since the rise of the postmodern worldview. Part of the tension that we experience in our church and workplaces are around attitudes to change. Younger generations have lived with fast-paced change throughout their life, they are comfortable with the need to keep up, to improve, and see change as continuous growth. Older generations often see change as a one-off event and can be resistant to change. This is often expressed in the way that they frame the discussion around millennials. Questions such as how can we attract millennials to our church when they are like this and we are like this, are grounded in the idea that we are right and don’t need to change, but we need to change millennials so they can be a part of what we are doing. It is time that we took a more open stance and began with the question "How is it that millennials and their ways of being in the world can teach and inform us to grow and change?" As we continue to ask that question to those around us here are 6 things to stop saying about millennials and six questions we can ask instead.
Don’t talk about ‘millenials’ - Say instead - the young people that belong to my church.
I have already ignored the first suggestion - sorry. I very rarely, see younger people sharing articles about ‘millenials’. On the whole, it is not even millennials that are writing about being millennials. I have observed two exceptions to this rule, one is the articles that challenge the identification with millennials (expressing I am a millennial but this doesn’t describe me), and the other is articles that are trying to gain favour and support of those in power. There is always a danger in making generalisations about groups, that these will lead to stereotyping. We then fail to see and engage with the specific individuals that we are hoping to connect with. Identifying groups created ingroups and outgroups and reinforces the boundaries and differences between each group. This creates more barriers and communication difficulties across the generations. Instead of using generalisations like 'millennials' say exactly what you mean in ways that are specific and that enhance belonging. For example, say the 18-25-year-olds in my church.
Don’t say millennials aren’t committed. Ask instead - how are millennials re-shaping what work looks like?
There seems to be a perception that younger people aren’t committed. This is usually accompanied by some quite unrealistic expectations of what commitment looks like, that are not so relevant to today's situations. Most of us realise that the days of being committed to one employer for most of your life (like my father was) are well over. But also the days of being committed to one employer for 50-60 hours a week are being challenged as well. More and more people are crafting what are called 'slashie' careers. Sometimes out of necessity because work is hard to come by, sometimes out of a desire to be involved in different things or to balance voluntary or not-for-profit work with more lucrative options. Slashie careers are those made up of different components, for example, someone might be a podcaster/author/pr executive. Organisations and churches, therefore, need to understand the fluidity of this type of work, and their expectations need to change accordingly. For example, expecting people to change their hours or be available on non-scheduled work days for extra meetings/training or phone calls is unrealistic as they have their other commitments to attend to at that time. This is particularly relevant for non-ordained church workers. I have noticed that more and more of these roles are part-time but the expectations are often for the same number and quality of programs that the church may have had when they employed someone full-time. It is also not unusual for these types of jobs to also include includes some sort of expectation of voluntary commitment above and beyond the paid hours- which can be a struggle for workers who are balancing a bi-vocational portfolio.
Don’t say millennials aren’t loyal - Ask instead - how are millennials teaching us what belonging looks like?
There is a perception that younger generations lack loyalty. I think this stems from a misperception of what loyalty is. Loyalty is no longer expressed in a lifetime commitment to a job, company or church. There is an awareness of the fluidity of workplaces and an acceptance of change that means loyalty is no longer expressed simply through the length of service. Another misunderstanding I have seen is that older people have assumed that loyalty means not criticising what an organisation, church or company is doing or saying. However for younger generations the more they are invested in an organisation the more they want it to live up to its potential and the more likely they are to offer critique of its methods and ideas. Expressing a desire to work towards improvement and change is an expression of loyalty for younger people. If we want younger generations to be a part of what we are doing finding ways to help them belong through relational connection is key. They want to be part of something that allows them to express their values and where they feel a valued part of the organisation (church or company). Part of that is listening to their ideas of how things can improve, change or grow.
Don’t say millennials don’t like to do evangelism - Ask instead how are millennials challenging our expression and understanding of the gospel?
There is a perception that younger generations are not as interested in church planting and/or evangelism as previous generations, that they just want to be working in social justice related areas. I have written previously about our need to change how we understand and express the core message of our faith. Younger generations are offering a challenge to those of previous generations. A challenge that includes a shame centred gospel, that includes expecting the church to step up and address the social justice issues that it holds within its own walls. They are also more concerned with ensuring that any evangelistic endeavours are empowering and honouring to the people on the receiving end of these attempts. Younger generations hold and express a more holistic vision of what faith and kingdom living look like. They are keen to live this out in a way that impacts their daily life.
Instead of saying millennials won’t come to events. Ask instead - what sort of events make younger generations feel a valued part of what we are doing?
This is one I hear a lot, that younger generations don’t come to events anymore. In my experience of church-related and missions events, younger people have certainly consistently been few in number. Younger generations often don’t want to come to events that involve being talked at, they want to come to events that make them feel valued, like their opinions and ideas matter. They want events that help them feel connected to each other and give them opportunities to carry on the connections later. This may include the use of good technology to enhance and continue conversations that begin prior to an event and continue after an event.
Instead of saying millennials are snowflakes that need hand holding. Ask instead - how can we learn to mentor and disciple better?
Younger generations are very good at expressing their feelings and their mental health struggles and expecting help and feedback on their work. This can lead to the perception by older generations that they are ‘snowflakes’. But surely these are good things, they are not unrealistic expectations, they expect change and realise that they need to be constantly growing and improving to move with those changes. Unfortunately, among most older Christians they tend to think of discipleship as ‘telling young people what they should think and believe’. This is not the sort of discipleship that younger generations are searching for. They want guides that can walk alongside them and listen to their real struggles, concerns and give them tools and support for working things out for themselves. They want relevant just-in-time training and they want help to grow in character and identify their values. They have all the information they need (and more) rather they want people who can facilitate them through a growth process, and help them learn discernment to deal with their wealth of information.
I love smashed avocado and I am passionate about engaging younger generations well in the church. But I am not a millennial! So I am sure there may be some things I have got wrong.
If you were born after 1980 I would love to hear your thoughts - what is it that you wish people like me and older would ask…