Reprinted from the March 2015 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine, this article is part of a special series about the Millennial generation and its impact on the church.
Using generational markers is nothing new. One of the key refrains throughout the book of Genesis is “these are the records of the generation of … .” Generational timekeeping is as old as time itself. As long as there have been different generations, there have most certainly been generational tensions. The tension that exists today between Millennials and the older generations is nothing new. We become so used to this generational tension that it is very easy to just ignore it.
Although generational tension is nothing new, the substance of the tension is often unique within the generations. It would be wise for the church to try to understand the substance of this tension today so it can best plot a course for the future.
Who Are the Millennials?
It is not fair to say that all generations are alike in every way. If that were the case, marketers wouldn’t spend billions of dollars every year just to better understand the specific characteristics of a given generation. If all generations were exactly the same, this would be a waste of time and money.
The truth is that certain generations acquire general characteristics that make up who they are as a whole. Understanding these characteristics is vital to any group or organization that is serious about making an impact within that generation.
Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are those individuals born from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. They follow Generation X (those born from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s) who follow the Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964).
If the church is serious about reaching souls, the church has to be serious about understanding Millennials. Just writing them off will not do.
Millennials are the largest generational chunk of the population in the United States today coming in at 80 million strong, and I am one of them. Sadly, in many places, it seems as though many have already written us off. Take a stroll through many articles, blog posts, bulletin articles and social media, and you will quickly discover many have made up their minds about who Millennials are. They are Narcissists, the “me generation” (completely selfish) and disrespectful. They don’t listen so they can’t be taught. In other words, Millennials are a hopeless cause. In many ways we are a generation despised.
Can we as the church today honestly say we care about souls if we write-off the 80 million Millennial souls? Although many prophets today are foretelling the fall of the church with regard to Millennials, I believe the potential for an older generation and a younger generation working together to accomplish huge things for the Lord has probably not been this good in a very long time. Now is a time when old men can dream dreams alongside young men. In order for this to happen, Millennials must not be despised or looked down on but instead must be understood and listened to.
As a Millennial on the older end of the scale, I am convinced that Millennials have not been given a fair hearing. In fact, I’m convinced Millennials have the tools and capabilities to make a huge impact for Christ. As a Millennial, I’m asking one thing of you, don’t write us off just yet. Here are several reasons why.
Make an Impact
First of all, Millennials should not be despised and written off because we want to make an impact. Millennials are a generation that cares and is frustrated. At a time when many preachers often vocalize their frustration that “people just don’t care,” we should be a breath of fresh air. In all the talk about Millennials being the “me generation,” what is so often missed is that those “mes” want to make an impact. What is often mistaken as selfishness is actually self-reflection. They want to live a life of purpose that makes a substantive mark on this life.
It seems as if many generations gone before gave up on this life. Everything was always focused on the life to come (heaven) while this life on earth was nothing but gloom and doom. Many Millennials, however, believe that Jesus said He came to bring life and to bring it abundantly (John 10:10). Eternal life starts here and now when we rise to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 NKJV). God wants to use us, the individual, as His tools of righteousness to make a huge impact on the here and now (cf. v. 13).
Millennials are a generation motivated “to do” which lines up perfectly with what New Testament Christianity is all about. Christianity is not about sitting around and talking about the good old days while waiting for our entrance into heaven; it’s about doing Christianity right here, right now, in the world today (cf. James 1:25). With a huge generation bent on making an impact, Millennials should not be despised but should inspire hope.
Second, Millennials should not be despised and written off because we see the failures of reactive thinking and we don’t want to make the same mistake. Unfortunately the saying “like father like son” comes true. Israel in 1 Kings 14:22 failed to learn from the prior generation’s mistakes but amplified them to their own destruction.
Millennials look at the world and see a lot of empty promises. We look back and see the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other between the generations before us. One generation told us that creating laws where God did not create them was the answer. When that did not work, the generation after decided that ignoring law in general was the answer (including God’s laws). Being very pragmatic, many Millennials are not buying either because we see the results of both, and neither of them is any good.
Having this outlook creates the prime environment for a generation ready to toss out all of the man-made ideas and go back to the source. The reason restoration of New Testament Christianity is so difficult is because most generations bring along their baggage. When you have an entire generation with an outlook of wanting to toss any and all baggage, you have a generation with the potential to lead a great restoration. This ought to inspire great hope for the church.
Desire to Be Taught
Third, Millennials should not be despised and written off because we want to be mentored. So many think that Millennials don’t want to listen when nothing could be further from the truth. It is not so much that Millennials don’t want to listen as it is that others don’t want to speak down to them; instead they just want to speak with them.
Most Millennials have very searching minds. They want to investigate and find answers like the attitude of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. The difference is that instead of pulling out and unrolling scrolls they are jumping on their smartphones to find answers.
Information has never been so readily available as it has been for the first generation born with a keyboard and the Internet always at their disposal. The implication of this is that we are not easily duped and we take some convincing. If you come across as condescending and lecturing with no substantive facts to back up your claims, we are most likely not going to take you very seriously. This is not because we don’t listen; it’s because we don’t listen to angry, arrogant ranting that is devoid of substance and verification. Proverbs 15:1-2 could never be more applicable than on the situation today – “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
It is also the case that many Millennials have looked at the results of prior generations and are legitimately questioning whether those generations are the wisest. It is true that great wisdom can come from mistakes and that the generations before us are replete with them, but just making mistakes does not make one wise. Only evaluated mistakes lead to wisdom. If you want to impart wisdom and make an impact with Millennials, you are going to have to do more than bark at them like a drill sergeant. You are going to have to take the time to invest in their lives and mentor them. The beautiful thing is that most Millennials want to be mentored. They want to be spoken with and valued, not merely spoken to. This should inspire great hope in the church.
Now is not the time for the Lord’s church to despise and write-off the largest generation in the United States. Now is the time for the older generations to unite with Millennials to make a big impact for Christ in this world. Before any generation points a finger at a younger generation, it’s only fair that they take a good long look in the mirror at the ones that created them. With that type of genuine introspective thinking, truly loving your neighbor as yourself (that includes Millennials), and a true desire to really understand them before you’ve judged them (they are Narcissists because they post pictures of themselves on social media), it is possible to turn things around.
Not only is it possible to turn things around but it is also possible that the conditions are ripe for one of the greatest restorations of New Testament Christianity since its founding. The conditions are also ripe with the potential for the biggest evangelistic outreach into all the world the church has ever seen. All of this can happen if Millennials are not despised but listened to and understood. If the generations will work together, great things are ahead and the sky is the limit. If we will all put our trust in Jesus and allow Him to work through us, there is no telling how much good can be done for the Lord and His Kingdom. ❏
Caleb O’Hara preaches for the congregation in Ripon, Calif. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.