I love getting gifts. Whether its birthday, Christmas, or just a surprise from my wife, I love getting things that I don’t have to pay for. But my wife always tells me I am extremely difficult to shop for. I disagree; I know what I like and can never understand why she finds it so difficult. The church has a similar relationship to Millennials. It’s trying to reach out to us but always seems confused. Most Millennials can’t understand the difficulty.
As you read this, please know these are the thoughts of a solitary Millennial. Not every member of my generation will agree with these suggestions, but many will.
1. Don’t re-use answers.
Millennials have been strategically targeted by marketers from the time we began watching Saturday morning cartoons. We can spot a practiced speech, a canned answer, and an insincere response within five seconds. When anyone, but especially a young adult, approaches a believer with a sincere question and gets a cliché answer, it comes off as insincere.
Here is an example. Just after college I was talking about how hard it was to pay my bills making minimum wage. This very sincere believer said, “Well Teddy, God will never give you more than you can handle.”
My first thought was, “That really doesn’t help me. What I need is to learn how to budget my money, or how to find a new job. Also, God consistently gives me more than I can handle. If I could handle everything thrown at me, I wouldn't have to lean on His strength, mercy, and grace to make it through the day.”
I know what he was trying to convey, that God would take care of me, and He did. But the clichéd answer didn't offer any real help and, because he thought he had answered my problem, he moved on to other topics while I was left still wanting.
Your answer may be true and sincere as my friend’s was, but if the presentation seems like you are just reciting an answer you memorized long ago, it will often seem as if you are disengaged and uninterested. When a Millennial, or anyone else for that matter, comes to church with questions, keep at least three things in mind: listen, engage, and really answer the question.
Also, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Hearing that lets us know it’s okay to not know things and encourages us to ask more questions. Additionally, it gives an opportunity for multi-generational fellowship while we both agree to study the subject and learn about it together.
2. Don’t worry about being cool.
Life isn’t about being cool, or hip, or jive, or whatever you want to call it. Millennials know that church isn’t either. But both are about being authentic and deep. Most Christians believe homosexual practice is a sin and same sex marriage is not acceptable to God, the Creator of marriage. It is easy to say what Christians believe, but we need to offer the deep, spiritual and theological reasons why we believe it. We need to use Scripture, but we also need to put it into a contemporary context. Dive deep into the theology of marriage and family. If you aren’t comfortable with going that deep into theology, refer back to the third paragraph of point one.
This also delves into the way Scripture is taught. Pastors don’t have to use PowerPoint or any type of media. They don’t have to yell and pound the pulpit. One of the biggest preachers right now is Matt Chandler. People across the country are subscribing to The Village Church podcast not because it has great music (the worship isn’t included in the podcast) not because it makes great use of media (the podcast is only audio, but it does a YouTube channel now) but because Chandler teaches scripture deeply, simply, and sincerely. He doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects like homosexuality and abortion, but he stands on Scripture, historical Christian doctrine, and grace.
3. Encourage and allow Millennials to lead.
I have served as youth pastor in several churches, spoken at churches across the southeastern U.S., and led youth revivals and worship in many venues. But at most churches, I know I could never serve in the leadership. Why? Because I am under 50. I’m being facetious, but this is how many Millennials see church. Millennials have a deep desire to invest and lead. Are we going to make mistakes? Absolutely. Do we need to be guided in our leadership? Without question. Are there opportunities for Millennials to serve in most churches apart from the children or youth ministry? I haven’t seen many.
Anytime I have stated this belief among Christian circles, I typically hear two arguments:
1 Timothy 3:6 says not to let a recent convert be an elder.
I agree. I’m not talking about a newly converted Millennial. I’m talking about the person you saw walk down the aisle at age 15 who is now 25 and learning to lead his family. The one you saw learn, play, and make mistakes. The person you watched grow up over the last 25 years. That is not a new convert. That is an adult who is invited and encouraged to lead at work and home, but rarely among the local body of believers.
I don’t know of any young people who can lead.
I’m so glad you brought that up because it leads to my last point.
4. Build multi-generation relationships.
This is the most important point I could make. Barna has been researching Millennials for years. One study focused on five reasons Millennials stay in church. One of the biggest reasons was strong multi-generational relationships. While the author of the research points out that correlation does not mean causation, it cannot be ignored that “seven out of ten Millennials who left the church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.”
How is this done? It seems as though there is such a gap between the generation raised in the shadow of the cold war and the generation raised on Gears of War. (That’s a video game.) While some see this as a challenge, I believe it is an opportunity. The more differences between two people means the more they have to talk about. You may not understand video games, Reddit, Lord of the Rings or Doctor Who. Millennials may not understand the joy of gardening, bird watching, or waking up at 5 am. That just means there are many questions to ask each other and opportunities to teach each other.
I wanted to share some practical tips concerning how to build relationships with Millennials, but then it hit me: What you do doesn't really matter. What matters is that you are doing something. Remember that Millennials are used to being targeted by marketers. Authenticity and genuine relationships across the generational divide will do more to build the Church and the kingdom of God than any sermon, program, or class.