Check out this special episode of the This Week in Youth Ministry podcast! Terrace Crawford hosts a roundtable discussion with Mark DeVries, Scott Pontier, and Stephanie Caro on Reimagining Young Adult Ministry! How do we reach millennials? Should Youth Ministries operate differently than they (currently) do? PLUS+ we’ve got great resources to help you grow your ministry!
On March 1, 2018 Michael Dimock, President of the Pew Research Center, shared in an article called “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Post-millennials Begin” that the Pew Center would use the year 1996 as the last year of the Millennial Generation. And while there is some disagreement amongst experts in the fields of sociology, psychology, and demographic studies about the dating of this transition between generations, it is very clear that our culture has moved on generationally into a post-Millennial generation and maybe even a second.
Hindsight is 20/20
It is important to note that much generational knowledge is developed in hindsight. While pivotal moments in history (such as the Great Depression of the 1930s or such as the events of 9/11/2001), which help to mark the timing of generations, are generally apparent, the effects of these pivotal moments need to be observed over time in order to determine their impact. It is also important to understand that as we speak of generations we are speaking in terms of sweeping generalizations – more in terms of culture and eras and less in terms of our next door neighbors and days in the week.
Millennials – A Treasured Generation
Many of today’s youth ministry professionals are a part of the Millennial Generation (currently around 18-40 years old), perhaps the most treasured and protected generation of children ever born. According to authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069, the Millennials came of age and to the forefront in 1987 when little 18-month old Jessica McClure of Midland, Tx, was rescued from a backyard well where she had been trapped for nearly 60 hours. The event captured the nation for three days and nights and became expressive of how Millennial children would be treated. The parents of Millennials invented car seats to protect them and developed a whole new type of vehicle (the minivan) to safely ferry them to soccer practice and on vacation. Life revolved around the Millennial childhood, focused more on the childhood “trophy” goals of these treasured children than on the adulthood success and retirement goals of their parents.
But Millennials are also characterized as bright, service-minded, driven achievers. Who have taken the resources and opportunities of a modern, technological, internet age and applied them to the tasks at hand. They see a much larger world and view it as their own, travelling and exploring the globe as part of their educational cycles or “gap years” as they can manage them, and googling their way to places heretofore unknown.
While the Pew Center has drawn the line of Millenial conclusion at 1996, there is no clear consensus about that date. No wonder then that I would choose an alternate – the year 2000. Here are the reasons:
- Well, duh, it was the end of the millenium. Those of us who were around remember all the hoopla about how the world would fall apart. Y2K would cause the world’s computer systems to crash, and we would be left dangling on the end of a technological thread. Of course, it was not a technological apocalypse, but it was definitely the end of something – in my mind, the end of a generation.
- 9/11/2001 happened. And this tragic event changed how we looked at the world. Coming only two years following the school shooting at Columbine, CO, in April of 1999, 9/11 was as indelibly etched into the American mind as December 7, 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor). Sure, we had treasured and protected Millennials with car seats, but the 9/11 attacks graphically displayed a whole new threat for a whole new generation in a way that most in American society had never seen.
- 2001 was the year of the iPod, the first device in a whole new generation of technology. And while there was some resistance to being “named” using a term associated with a major corporate brand, the term “iGeneration” (a term first coined by social psychologist Jean Twenge) was one of the most popular names emerging from a New York Times poll of post-Millennials.
If this is the case, this year’s class of college freshmen, the Class of 2021, are the last of the Millennials that will enter college. Then in 2019, the iGeneration will begin to join their Millennial cousins on campus.
The iGeneration (or Generation Z)
While the earliest iGen children were 6 when the first smartphones came out in 2007, this generation has been characterized as being “always on” and constantly connected to their peers. One grandmother who responded to the Times’ poll even suggested calling this generation “The Thumbies,” based on the digits they use to communicate most often. We find iGens at restaurants enthralled by iPads and smartphones, replacing televisions as new mobile babysitters of the present age.
Like their predecessors, the iGeneration is highly protected, but the threats to their well-being are perceived to be even more severe, particularly in light of global turmoil, school shootings, internet predators, identity thieves, and the remnants of economic recession. While these things are of great concern to the parents of the iGeneration, they are things that iGens seem to accept as just “part of life.” And as they make their way into adulthood, these iGens will provide more technological expertise to assist their older Millennial cousins who were the early adopters of a rapidly exploding connective technology.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In the thinking of Strauss and Howe, Millennials, much like the G.I. Generation, will lead the world through a pending global crisis which is yet to be determined. This crisis could arise from global terrorism, from the remnants of the nuclear age, from early mismanagement of high technology, from worldwide economic depression, or any number of other global catastrophic events.
The birth years of the iGeneration are coming to a close, and iGens will begin moving into adulthood in 2019 and into a world of ever-increasing high tech gadgetry which few of them have been schooled to make, manage, or maintain.
While it is conjecture at this point, a whole new generational cycle and a new generation with a new vision, perhaps an A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) Generation, are just around the corner. (Will their birth year correspond to the first year that autonomous driving cars enter the retail market?) This generation will manage and supervise the evolution of the internet of things and a whole new age of high-tech interconnectivity.
That A.I. Generation could then be followed by a reactive “techno-minimalist” generation which objects to the excesses of reliance upon technology and seeks to find once again what it means to be fully human, seeking to reconnect with one another and with the natural environment around them.
What Difference Does It Make to Your Youth Ministry?
Questions that iGens are asking:
Who can keep me safe?
The March 22, 2018 USA Today newspaper section led with the following top headline: “Shootings a fear that defines a generation.” iGens are feeling more and more threatened in their school settings and, in light of the recent school shooting in Florida, are increasingly prone to take the issue of their safety into their own hands. Youth ministries must take the issue of providing a secure environment very seriously, reassuring iGens that caring adults will provide protection and that God cares for and loves them deeply.
Why can’t my church communicate in the modern ways that I communicate?
Every youth ministry needs a communication plan that lays out how it will communicate with its various constituencies – students, parents, leaders, church members, etc. Different generations communicate differently and only through careful attention will the right information get into the right hands.
When am I supposed to sleep?
Sleep professionals are seeing a growing number of teenagers who are sleep deprived, lured by being constantly in touch with friends at all hours or by binge watching of their favorite media. Ministry professionals will need to help this generation learn personal disciplines and boundaries.
Will there be a job for me?
Like their Millennial cousins, iGens are wondering how they will make a living, not so much because they saw the economy fall apart like the Millenials did, but because they are seeing the high rate of innovation at work, and they are wondering if they will be prepared to keep up with the pace.
I’m communicating all the time, but why don’t I have really close friends?
The iGeneration is becoming aware that there is more to relationships than dashing off a quick text or tweet. They are more engaging than their cocooning GenX parents and grandparents, but because they are so driven, they often don’t make the time to take their relationships to deeper levels.
This question for iGens will become more intense for the next generation as they face a whole new class of “individuals” with whom to interact, the physical expressions of artificial intelligence, giving rise to a whole new redefining of what it means to be in relationship.
Questions the A.I. Generation will be asking:
If my “assistant” can do so much of the work, why should I put forth any effort?
With all this technology to help me, do I really need friends?
Why do I have to GO to school or to an office? Couldn’t I just do school or work at home?
If my car can take the responsibility of transporting me home, why would it matter what I put into my body?
If we keep innovating, can we eventually work ourselves out of working?
When does virtual reality become reality?
Are there any limits to our technology?
It is indeed a brave new world into which iGen adults and their offspring A.I.s are moving, and they will be often caught up in a torrid pace of innovation. How will the church keep up? First, the Church will need to offer what it always has – the life-changing love and grace of God in very real and authentic ways. Second, it will need to innovate itself, offering its best in dynamic new ways to new generations that communicate differently and that struggle with new questions in a rapidly changing world.
It is just around the corner … time to get ready.
The Evanescent Generation
Any young adult living in the Millennial generation has experienced this situation in some form or another, imagine you’re part of it right now. It’s finally the weekend, and your friends are busy preparing an evening out. The five of you haven’t been together in, what feels like, months and you’re eager to connect. Though you’ve been planning this evening for weeks, you actually don’t have any actual plans yet, you’ve all just cleared the schedule for tonight. Now that it’s late afternoon, everyone is busy trying to make this plan happen over the world’s most exciting and efficient method of communication: group texting!
It’s like all your friends are together in the same room, having a very tedious and slow conversation. One friend suggests dinner and dancing, another suggests drinks downtown, another feels like staying in tonight so the rest of you are working hard to get them to change their mind.
But then, something happens. A neighbor stops by, knocks on the door and strikes up a conversation with you for a bit. Before you know it, you’ve lost fifteen minutes to the neighbor and back in the group text you’ve missed 42 sets of plans and 56 arguments. Before the night is over the plans will change 14 more times after you leave the house.
While some might call Millennials indecisive, fickle or even lazy in their commitment, the truth is that Millennials are increasingly mobile and transient, to the point where they are comfortable leaving the house without knowing the final destination, trusting that a destination will present itself when it needs too.
According to the US Bureau, 14.19% of Americans move every year, but a whopping 30% of 20-somethings will move this year. It’s challenging for churches trying to reach Millennials when one third of their audience will move away each year, bringing in a brand new third of unfamiliar faces. If you’re running a ministry targeting millennials, that means you will have a completely different group of people every three years.
Many have given up trying any kind of ministry in their church for young adults because they’ve been unable to keep them around long enough to build a fledgling ministry into something stable, long-lasting that produces fruit. I’ve seen many next generation ministries give up because the transient culture of young adults just won’t seem to respond to the program they are trying to build.
But maybe we don’t have to pack up the shop and call it a day. Maybe we have to understand and work with this transient culture instead of working against it. Churches can pay attention to life in the mobile culture and adjust to different concepts in their discipleship approaches. Here are some key concepts you can take into this kind of discipleship.
Recruit, Don’t Advertise
One method most churches rely on in growing their discipleship programs is to advertise regularly. Bulletin announcements, bulletin boards, video announcements are often designed to share the open invite to small groups, women’s ministries, men’s prayer breakfasts and other discipleship opportunities. The underlying assumption in this method is to assume that everyone is just looking around for something to engage their spirituality and all you have to do is tell them it’s there and they’ll show up.
Millennials won’t work that way. They’ve developed high levels of expertise in filtering out any and all advertisements in their life. After all, they can’t even open up a game on their smartphone without advertisements cluttering the visual landscape. The more effective approach is to recruit them into discipleship opportunities. Intentionally seek them out and draw them in, one by one. Certainly fishing with a pole is slower and results in fewer participants, but you will, ultimately be more successful if you don’t wait for them to come to you.
Small Cohorts, Not Large Experiences
Discipleship experiences do not have to be huge to be attractive to young adults. We’ve spent a lot of years training our youth ministries to think “bigger and better” in order to get teenagers walking in the door. Working with a transient culture means we probably will never have massive amounts of young adults in any one place at a single time. So shrink the scale and focus on taking a specific group of people through a shared experience, allowing them to experience peer-learning and experiences as they journey together.
Guide, Don’t Teach
Millennials thrive in self-directed learning environments. They have access to just about anything they could ever want to know, see, hear, or experience in their life. They are experienced at following up on their thoughts and learning new information on their terms.
Here’s a little experiment to try. Spend an evening with a group of Millennials and remove the smart phones, tablets, and laptops from the room. As the conversation rolls along through the night, ask the room to pay attention to how often they were tempted to look up a piece of information but couldn’t. Who was the actor in that movie we just mentioned? What was the score of that game last night? What really is the distance between the earth and the sun? Millennials can find all the information they could ever want, and often do so without thinking.
So rather than teach them more information, guide them in their desire to learn more about faith. Point them in the right direction, provide them with great resources, process the ways in which faith is becoming real in their life. Guides ask great questions and listen well and respond to where they are leading.
Short-term Experiences, Not Long-Term Commitments
No one likes contracts. Cellphone companies and marketers know their customers want flexibility and the freedom to make choices on their own terms.
When living out discipleship opportunities with such a transient culture, the shorter the commitment, the higher the commitment. Avoid 16-week discipleship classes and small groups that go on forever without end. Instead, think about one-off experiences and 4-week follow-up commitments. Perhaps a weekend of intense retreat will get you more impact than a year’s worth of weekly meetings. Millennial ministry opportunities are constantly launching.
Challenge, Not Just Depth
Millennials are actively seeking out truth, and they expect truth to be deep and impactful. If a millennial visits our church and observes us skating along the surface of real impact and transformation for the sake of drawing people in the doors, they’ll want to leave. But it’s not just “trying to be cool” that turns a Millennial away. They also can sense when a church has been mired in routine and tradition so long that it no longer has impact, and those around them are just going through the motions. Believe it or not, what draws more Millennials through our doors is our willingness to dive deep into the spiritual truth of the gospel for the sake of changing lives, even if it’s messy.
But more than just pulling out deep theological conversations or raising the level of intellectualism in our churches, the deeper value lies around not just going deep, but in presenting something that’s challenging.
Pope Francis is a great example of a church leader gaining the admiration of Millennials. Chosen in a conclave in 2013 after the unusual resignation of Pope Benediction XVI, Pope Francis immediately began to make waves more by the way he lived than by the words he spoke. Sometimes referred to as “Pope Francis the Revolutionary,” this iconic leader of the Catholic Church has rejected fancy robes in exchange for modest attire. He has stooped low to wash the feet of female prisoners, and he has transformed the mansion of a German bishop into a soup kitchen.
In his first papal exhortation he wrote: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Millennials aren’t simply looking for deeper theology, they are looking for a faith that challenges them to change their lives to live for something more.
From Gathering to Sending
What if your Millennial ministry was unabashedly aimed towards sending young adults away from your church instead of gathering them to it?
We often think the evangelism and discipleship have different ends, one to attract others to the truth of God, and the other to gather those who’ve been attracted to the truth around it’s transformational power. We get them here, then we keep them here. For many of us, discipleship has been about the gathering, about the keeping, about the long-term stability of spiritual growth. But the transient culture of Millennials is forcing us to understand the nuances of discipleship that comes from equipping and sending.
We know Millennials won’t stay in one place for long. Their approach to the world is transient, the housing market they’ve grown up in is unstable, and their experience in the job market has proven to be unpredictable. So let’s spend our time preparing young adults for these very changes, fully aware that they’ll soon be leaving for another faith community, perhaps near, or maybe far away. If our perspective is to prepare these young adults with the faith tools and experiences they’ll need in the next iteration of their lives, we can find our discipleship much more successful and become sending churches, not just gathering churches.