My husband will tell you I’m fascinated with Millennials (people born between 1980-2000), and he’s right. Hence, the name of this blog, Millennial Creativity. Generations and their trends are so impactful, whether we would like to admit it or not, and it’s helpful to address those impacts so as to better reach out to one another.
I just want to spend a little time on Millennials today, putting them in the crossfire with Lent. You can join me, if you so desire. If you are a Millennial, you can decide if this fits you, and if not, you can observe a Millennial in action (me!) and hopefully learn a little more about us.
I think we need to change the way we do ministry, because the way we’re going at it right now isn’t working.
There, I said it.
It isn’t working. Every time I go to church, I see fewer and fewer members of my generation showing up. Even when I’m traveling, it’s the same. There are a sea of older grey-haired folks and some medium-sized families, but hardly any singles or young couples my age. Maybe 3-5 altogether… we only start showing up when we need our kids baptized or taught religion. Out of an entire population, only a handful are attending church in the meantime. How embarrassing is that. Unless it’s different where you come from, I’m pretty sure most communities have the same struggles.
This is where the Millennial in me gets all conflicted and tangled. Because part of me is half-relativist, half-optimist (I’m ashamed to admit the relativism part, but it’s true), and I say to myself, well, maybe my peers are finding God in some other way. Which is true for some, I have no doubt. But I wonder if the bigger portion of my peers just don’t care, or if they don’t see any purpose in it, if it’s outside of convenience.
Then the well-trained Christian side of me leans in and drops this little nugget of conflict: isn’t Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Do you really believe that no one can come to God except through Christ? Well, yes… I suppose that’s true.
Okay, I’m pretty sure I just lied so I wouldn’t commit doctrinal error. I suppose I don’t actually believe that. Let me provide a qualifier: I believe that Jesus speaks the truth. He is the Truth. But I look around at my peers and I hope that there is another way they can get to Christ in the first place, because the church just doesn’t aways do the best job of being Christ to them. And that’s a real shame.
So that brings me to ministry, and to Lent. You see, I don’t believe that the way to win Millennials is through better technology or better music or better preaching, though those things would definitely help a lot. The devil is in the details, and it’s easy for anyone, Millennial or not, to know when they’ve been put on the back burner. We can tell when the quality of the program isn’t there. The little things, like atmosphere and aesthetically pleasing materials, show a level of care that is not always given to ministry with Millennials.
On the contrary, these details get missed or neglected, but they’re not the only important details, nor the most important ones. Two things are greater: the message, and how it’s delivered. The message of the Gospel hasn’t changed, so that’s not the issue. The challenge is in the delivery.
Part of the problem has to do with the broken generations above us who are doing the ministry. The way I see it, every generation has failed in ministry, whether that failure was to teach doctrine, or failure to connect doctrine with everyday life. I think we need to do both of those things, and to hit it hard. Not the flimsy platitudes of “Jesus loves you” and “God will forgive you if you ask him,” though both are true. But if that’s all that faith is, and that’s all we’re showing to our young people, then we’ve missed the boat entirely.
Life’s challenges are much, much bigger than a simple bandaid phrase can fix. What is a young person to do with the death of a loved one, or the weight of peer pressure, if all they have to back them up is a list of 10 commandments and Jesus loves me? That doesn’t do much good when all your friends are laughing at you, or when your world is falling down around you. It’s rough being a human. We need to give them the tools to live their faith, and what’s more, it would be really great if they actually enjoyed it. It’s not impossible. It’s just a lot of work.
Millennials are unique, as is every generation, in that they have their own way of thinking. Just like the Baby Boomers and Generation X have their own quirks and mindsets, so too do Millennials. If you tell a Millennial on Ash Wednesday that they’re a terrible sinner and they need to change their life, there’s a decent chance that it might go in one ear and out the other. It’s hard for Millennials to interpret that, because a Millennial might hear it as, “You’re a bad person,” to which they may reply, “Stop judging me.”
The Lenten call to repentance and acknowledgment of sins is a hard call to answer, especially for a Millennial.
Millennials are all about community, and communication, and individuality. We like group work, generally speaking, but we are fiercely proud of our uniqueness and believe that we deserve recognition for the talents we have. Sin is a difficult thing, because there is a tinge of relativism in all of us. We don’t like to think of how bad we might be, and we do like to smooth it over with reminders like, I’m not as bad as that other guy, or at least I don’t do that, or well, that just doesn’t make me feel good, or my personal favorite: that just doesn’t work for me, but if it works for you, more power to ya.
We need to find a way to reach Millennials where they are (and their ideas like this is my own spirituality, it works for me, I’m a good person and a nice guy) to where Jesus calls them to be (and his command to lay down your nets, take up your cross, and follow me).
The current ways, the current language, doesn’t work. Even when I typed the word “command” in the paragraph above, I winced inside. I guess it’s an authority thing: the civil authorities in our lifespan have almost always failed us miserably, and we fear the same from religious authorities, even Jesus himself. We need to find a way to connect the core of the Gospel to our lives in a way we can understand and rally behind. I wouldn’t rally behind an order to “obey Jesus’s commands and go to confession” but I’m much more likely to “seek Jesus’s plan for my life and be freed from my sins through the sacrament of reconciliation.” These words may be Catholic, but they apply to all Christian disciples. These aforementioned phrases may mean approximately the same thing, but they have completely different tones. That’s what I’m talking about.
Finally, we need to challenge each other to make our faith daily, and personal, and alive, and real. Only then will I, as a Millennial, find a place for it in my life. But in order to make that a part of my ministry, I have to first make that a part of my own life, and that’s a challenge that everyone, Millennial or not, is called to do.
The annoying part of all this is that the tail end of Millennials are on their way out of high school, so a lot of our youth group related opportunities to reach Millennials have already passed. That’s not to say that there aren’t any Millennials left in the church; there are some good and faithful ones that do great work, but we have already lost a lot of them. It is our responsibility to try to reach out to everyone, in every generation, with the message of hope and the truth of the Gospel that they can understand and learn to love.
It’s a hard call to do that for Millennials, especially now that they’re free to do as they wish and have no parental obligation of attending faith-related events. How can we reach out to them and bring them into community? How can we minister to them as college students, graduates, young professionals, young parents?
Nonetheless, we’ve got to look forward. The next generation is on its way, and it is our job to reach out to them, and to do a better job than we are doing with Millennials. We are called onward and upward, to learn from the past, and to try to do things better in the future. May God strengthen us in our call to community. Amen.