One of the topics during an in-service meeting at the pregnancy resource center where my wife and I volunteer was the Millennial generation and how to minster to them. These so-called Millennials are the current and upcoming generation of young adults, the people that are, like every new young generation of adults, seemingly impossible to understand. There are few things that people of older generations find praiseworthy about this generation and lots of stuff we don’t like. As we talked about them I started thinking, trying to move beyond the stereotypes and two things came to mind. One, these are people that we are called to take the Gospel to and as they come to Christ we are called to lead by example and mentor them. Two, I am not sure we can pin all of the blame on this group and perhaps they are right more often than we give them credit for.
One of the biggest gripes about this group, besides their sense of entitlement, is that they reject many of the social traditions of our culture. This is seen as a major failing but can you blame them? One after another the institutions that we relied upon when I was younger have collapsed or been exposed as deeply flawed. I believe this exposure is responsible for much of the general malaise that infects America. There is little we feel like we can rely on anymore. So sure Millennials reject the institutions and traditions that older Americans grew up with. Why wouldn’t they?
The American story has always relied on a carefully crafted worldview and crucial to that worldview are certain institutions and structures that people were taught to rely upon and trust. We trust the law, the schools, the government, the church. We hold certain people up as heroic figures: Presidents, business leaders, teachers, police officers, soldiers, athletes. During the last twenty years trust in those institutions has been collapsing.
Our schools are a mess. Many students enter the building after passing through a metal detector thanks to multiple mass shootings. Seemingly a week doesn’t go by without a new story of a teacher using his or her position of trust as a means to seduce students. The public school system has degenerated into a combo of taxpayer funded daycare and prophylactic dispensary
Businesses are exporting jobs left and right in response to wildly inflated wages and the insatiable American demand for cheap products. This generation has grown up watching companies lay people off, export jobs and generally end the old order of employment where people stayed at the same job for decades. My employer is not loyal to me and I am not loyal to my employer.
Sports figures were heroes when I was growing up, guys like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan (before we knew what a total jerk Jordan was). The early days of ESPN meant we saw more scores but little else, certainly not the barrage we get today. With our contemporary 24 hour news cycles that includes the sports world, that view has changed. Today you only need to look at two major sports stars to see why athletes have become more of dark, anti-heroes in our society: Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. Both were men that we at the top of their sport and the sports world. Both were the face of their sport and without them both sports are in trouble. Viewership plummeted for golf without Tiger and who is going to watch the Tour de France now other than hardcore cyclists? Both men cheated, one on his spouse with any willing woman that walked by and the other via performance enhancing drugs. Athletics now are a morass of immoral behavior, performance enhancing drugs and mercenary behavior.
The family has always been an almost mythical institution in America. Mom and dad and apple pie. After decades of the devastation of divorce more and more people are eschewing marriage entirely. Generations of Americans, especially minorities but increasingly among Caucasians, have grown up in single parent homes, typically the mother. Some of the statistics are deeply disturbing and don’t bode well for a cohesive society in the future. Guess what? The need to reach these people is greater than ever before.
The popular culture view of family has changed more radically than virtually any other institution. Gone are the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, gone are even more contemporary (at least for me growing up!) imagery like Happy Days and the Cosby Show. The media image of family today is that family is completely optional and often counterproductive to being happy. Starting with shows like the Simpsons and Married With Children, the view of the family that Millennials have been bombarded with has been overwhelmingly negative. How many contemporary media images portray the traditional family in a positive light? Little wonder family is more of a mythical construct than an ideal to be achieved for this generation.
Even “the church”, loosely defined as the religious institutions of our culture, has fallen on hard times and again you can’t fault Millennials for rejecting the religious institutions of our culture. They have grown up with continual stories of sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church and the Ted Haggard type scandals among evangelicals. More and more organized religion is viewed as a negative force in our culture, a hypocritical and judgmental force that seems obsessed with controlling people’s behavior and collecting money. I can’t say that this perception is incorrect. Many of the young people I talk to in sessions at the pregnancy resource center are very clearly open to and curious about God but have very little interest in traditional religious expressions.
So how do you blame the Millennials for their attitudes? For Pete’s sake even the Boy Scouts were hiding and covering for pedophiles in their midst for decades.
What does this mean to the church? Well it is certainly not something I present for us to shake our heads over and wag our fingers at in disapproval. It is what it is. What it really means for the church is that we need to reexamine our assumptions and our approach to reaching this generation for Christ. Our mission is not to whip these young punks into shape and get them to toe the American cultural line, it is to reach them with the lifesaving Gospel of Jesus Christ.
First and foremost, we cannot continue to be evangelists for church. By that I mean the presumptive method of “evangelism”, i.e. inviting people to church where they will presumably hear the Gospel during a sermon or perhaps during Sunday school. Church evangelism is convenient and easy but it says to the lost that in order to follow Christ they need to conform to the cultural institution of “church”. That may vary from place to place but the bottom line is that the specter of organized religion and all of the baggage that comes with it (most deservedly) make church evangelism untenable. Fewer and fewer people are interested in "church" and they are mostly right in rejecting it.
Second, we need to divorce (pun intended) our message from the religious culture we grew up in. In other words the message needs to be Jesus, not the American "Christian" culture. Too many of the people we need to reach associate Christianity with a particular subset of the American culture, a culture that is alien to them and often white, middle-class, politically conservative. There is nothing wrong with being a white, middle-class, politically conservative person. After all I am about the whitest person I know and far more conservative than most! It just isn’t part of the Gospel and like it or not when people who are not Christians think of Christianity the picture they get is offensive, not offensive because of the offense of the cross but offensive because, well because we have been pretty annoying a lot of the time. The church has raised up political idols that even when the position is right serve to cause a stumbling block. Just as Paul rejected getting paid for evangelizing because it was a stumbling block and a barrier to the Gospel, we need to tone down our political activism on both sides of the spectrum so that people don’t see an elephant or a donkey when they talk to us, they see Jesus.
Finally we need to learn to talk to them. Not talk at them or talk about them, we have that figured out. I mean talk to them. This is a generation that grew up and lives in a world of multiple screens. Multitasking is the norm. They are unlikely to be impressed by a 45 minute sermon where some guy drones on and on about a passage of Scripture that he spent a week dissecting. It is easy to hide behind the sermon but at some point maybe, just maybe, it is more important to reach the lost where they are than it is to prop up a cherished tradition. The church is still using an 18th century method to reach a 21st century audience with a 1st century message. Derp? For a people that love to talk about how much we love the Bible we seem to be quite content to do things our own way and woe to the rebel that suggests we do things differently.
Reaching this next generation of Millennials is not going to be easy and is going to require that we change our methods while not changing our message. Some may see that as some sort of unfaithful compromise but nothing could be further from the truth. Those who cling to the relatively modern traditions that we hold so dear at the expense of the mission of the church that was instituted nearly 2000 years ago are not stalwarts standing against the tide, they are just modern Pharisees impeding the Gospel. Those of us living in America have our mission field before us and I don’t recall that we get a vote in who Jesus is sending us to. Winning elections or filling pews while losing a generation because they won’t get in line is not a victory any of us should seek.