On August 1, 1981, the landscape of television and music forever changed: MTV launched and debuted with Video Killed The Radio Star. After that, everything changed. The music industry that had been dominated by recording studios and producers now was controlled by the artists and the fans. It led to the innovation of things like Napster (don't lie, you downloaded songs on your 56K modem!), the iPod, and streaming music. Around that same time, a whole new generation emerged: the Millennials. In time they would become more numerous than Baby Boomers (depending on the source the number is as high as 80 million), have unprecedented access to information, travel, and awareness (we were the generation that watched the OJ chase, 9/11, and who use Google as a verb), and perhaps most telling, this was the first generation to be raised in a largely post-Christian worldview.
No generation like them had ever been seen before, which led to David Kinnaman describing this generation as "discontinuously different" than its predecessors. As the oldest Millennials settle into adulthood and responsibility (I was born in 1982, typically Millennials start in 1978-1984), there is an incredibly huge number of them in college or young adulthood. I'm incredibly thankful for my friend Mark Whitt who serves as LifeWay's lead collegiate strategist, and he's on the front lines of who Millennials are and how we in the church can engage them. He shared some major research from LifeWay that showed 4 markers of Millennials are saying:
1. "Get to know me"
2. "Challenge me"
3. "Serve with me"
4. "Do life with me"
If we want to engage the largest, least-churched, highest-potential, and most exciting generation we've seen, I really believe we need to do 7 things.
1. We need to be intentional about relationships and authenticity. Millennials crave relationships and connectivity. That's why they're involved in social media, they're trying to find the relationships they were built for, but struggle to find it online. Also, they can spot a fake a mile away. And that's why many are disconnected from a local church. They're tired of the "fine" Christianity that puts a veneer over the reality and difficulty of life. They've seen too many leaders in the church on Friday and Saturday night that they don't want anything to do with them on Sunday. If we want to engage Millennials, we need to make sure we're building real relationships with them, getting to know them on their level in their world, and we need to make sure we're authentic in how we live.
2. We need to get over our fear of questions. Millennials are going to ask hard questions about how the Bible connects to science, history, and current events. Dismissing those questions, proof-texting, or shrugging them off isn't going to work. Remember, they carry more power on their mobile phone than NASA had at the moon landing. If you aren't willing to work to answer them, someone else will.
3. We need to embrace their diversity. Millennials look very different than previous generations. They are multi-racial, they are influenced by a number of trends, and they aren't driven by the same conventions of dress--think of how few professionals you see in line at Starbucks with a formal suit & tie. Millennials are going to come into our churches with tattoos, listening to different music, and the church of the future will not be a white middle-class church. The great news is, we need their diversity. We need people not like us who are part of our church. This wonderfully reflects 1 Corinthians 12 with the Church as Body.
4. We need to build around a cause worth dying for. One thing we see about Millennials is they want a cause bigger than themselves to live for. Millennials are the most selfish, most entitled, and wealthiest generation, but in a strange paradox they're the ones most willing and eager to serve a cause. If we want to keep our churches focused on ourselves and our preferences, we stand to lose an entire generation. But if we can rally around a cause, the mission of God to seek and save sinners from all nations, tribes, and tongues, we can unleash on the world the greatest missionary force imaginable.
5. We need to surround them with mentors. This is one of the coolest things about Millennials, and what I did the bulk of my doctoral work on, how important mentors are to Millennials. There is value in learning from those who've gone before, who have not only the knowledge but also the wisdom and experience. When we surround Millennials with a peer culture, we do them a disservice. If you're a student or college minister reading this, I want to encourage you to get people your parents' age in your ministries to serve as volunteers and mentors. Connect younger people with someone in their future work field. Engaged and young married couples need an older couple to shepherd them and love them to show what a lifetime of Gospel faithfulness looks like.
6. We need to avoid avoiding tough issues. The Gospel speaks to marriage, sexuality, divorce, genocide, racism, poverty, abortion, social issues, and the evening news. When we sanitize our faith so much that these things are never talked about from a biblical worldview, we open up the opportunity for the world and the culture to speak into those issues. Perhaps the best way to talk about these things is how one of my seminary professors, Dr. Moore, advises: with convictional kindness. When we talk about tough issues, we do so with conviction on the Bible's unending authority. But we also do so with the kindness, civility, and grace to walk slowly through these issues. Remember, this is the first post-Christian generation in America--they have been raised in a culture that has largely abandoned traditional Christian morality, so we can't be surprised when even church kids struggle with what the Bible says about some issues. The answer isn't to avoid them, it's to lovingly deal with them in a way that reflects the winsomeness of the Gospel.
7. We need to stop pretending it will be the same as before. They won't. And that's ok. We don't need to reclaim a 1950's Pleasantville if we want to see the world changed by the Gospel. The dominant role of the Church in civic affairs and everyday life is likely to be diminished. Millennials recognize that the impact of the Gospel is affected by the church being missional, living every aspect of believer's lives as an opportunity to share and shine Christ before the lost world. So we need to ask ourselves this question, and it has stuck with me since I heard Kinnaman share it years ago: Do we love our traditions more than our children? Things won't be like they were before, and we need to embrace that and recognize that Jesus has already overcome (John 16:33).
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.