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.