Monday, October 1, 2012

In Defense of Millennials

They are "digital natives," sending thousands of text messages each month. They don't value marriage highly. They are postponing the responsibilities of adulthood. They are narcissistic.

Who are "they"? If you were in worship with me yesterday, you would know the answer is "Millennials" or members of "Generation Y" -- the rising generation of men and women from the ages of 12-32.

Yesterday, the church I have been visiting took a break from our recent study of Colossians for a special presentation on the need to reach Millennials with the Gospel.

I have done little more than skim the abundant research on Generation Y (this article from The Atlantic provides a nice survey), but, being the narcissistic Millennial that I am, I am always interested to see how the established generations perceive those of us who are just reaching the threshold of our thirties.

The presentation was rather doom-and-gloom, featuring the typical sound bytes about my generation's dissociation from institutional religion, our ridiculously inflated sense of self-esteem, and our skepticism about marriage.

I'm not denying that those are some of the excesses and faults of my generation. I can only speak anecdotally, but I have railed against many of these traits in my own students, who are (at the youngest) still within ten years of my own age. For example, when they say in the same breath, "Yes, there are absolute truths," and "Opinions can't be wrong,"  I am tempted to bemoan the future of a world entrusted to such cheerful and unthinking relativists.

Nevertheless, yesterday's presentation dismayed me because it only presented aspects of my generation that seem to pose a threat to the spread of the Gospel.  After church I spoke at length about this topic with my mother, who has spent the past thirty years laboring to proclaim the Gospel and to build God's Kingdom among college students. She pointed out that while many Millennials are uninvolved in church, they are also more open to the idea of a spiritual life than many of the hard-line materialists of the previous generations. Similarly, while it is true that many young adults are moving home or moving from job to job, it is also true that we, unlike our parents, do not define our success primarily by our monetary wealth.

This conversation with my mother emphasized a point that yesterday's speaker only mentioned at the end of his talk, namely, that if churches want to reach Millennials, they cannot do it by demanding that Millennials learn the "cultural norms" of church-going Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and elders. Instead, he said, we must offer them the norms of the Gospel.

There is so much hope and power in that statement. Instead of creating a false sense of urgency about Millennials "postponing adult responsibilities," I wish he would have focused his presentation on the differences between the norms of, for example, the Baby Boomers, and the norms of the Gospel.

We want a better vision of adulthood than the mirage that lures so many men and women into lonely marriages, fruitless careers, and destructive communities. To ease my discontent with this Sunday's presentation, I tried to imagine what it such a sermon would have sounded like at Calvary, my church home in Texas. Imagination soon turned to memory: in January of this year I heard another sermon about young adults, but one with so much more precision and hope. If you'd like to listen, visit this link and listen to Jonathan Tran's sermon from 1/22/12. To hear the sermon, jump to minute 37:50).

Please don't misunderstand me: my generation needs the Gospel just as urgently as every generation since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden. We need good news and discipleship and communion. However, before you rail against us, make sure that it is the Gospel you are living, and not simply the norms of your own generation.

What are the differences between inviting people into "the norms of our [older] generations" and "the norms of the Gospel"? How can churches reach Generation Y?


  1. Perhaps because I'm a Gen-Xer, I've started to think about the stereotypical Millennials in terms of a series of ironies. On one hand, they do tend to be relativistic, but on the other hand, they have a fairly low crime rate and tend to get enthusiastic about social causes. On one hand, they display a superficial confidence, but on the other hand, they have a desperate need for confident leadership. On one hand, they have an inflated sense of entitlement, but on the other hand, the paycheck is not the most important part of their careers. The list goes on.

    I really don't know how that translates into outreach efforts. I don't particularly like to deal in stereotypes anyway. The Millennials I know have faces and names. They often end up in my dining room playing with my kids. Sometimes I know their brothers or sisters. We talk about the books they enjoy reading, and about their hopes and dreams and fears for the future. Most of them don't really fit the stereotypes anyway.

    -Steve S.

    1. I agree, Steve, and I'm also skeptical of the ways generation-specific witnessing often works. For example, up until very recently my parents were required to report how many "evangelistic text messages" they had sent each month because obviously, these Millennials only communicate through texting.

      Love transcends generational stereotypes. If a church will love a young person and live a life that is not captive to the world, then they don't need to worry about what generation anyone is a part of and what gimmicky methods might reach them.

  2. Bless you, Bethany, for highlighting both our faults and our successes. It is good to read writing that dares to refrain from polarity.

  3. While I fully believe that 12 is old enough to start moving towards taking the responsibilities of an adult, if almost half of Gen Y is too young to drink or to be recognized as an adult, is it fair to make assessments of the generation?

    Then again, isn't everyone, who came after the fall of man, naturally narcissistic. The original sin in any case was trying to be greater than God. So, I totally agree with your church: the Millennials are desperate for a savior! In fact, they need Him now. For they have a large portion of their lives left to live. If they surrender their lives to Jesus now, what amazing work we could accomplish. We could start a revival larger than any before our time. We do after all have the entire world at our fingertips.

    1. I'm with you on both counts. Part of the problem with Sunday's presentation, for example, is that "adult responsibilities" seemed to be either marital or financial. I firmly believe that my decisions not to marry have been decisions I made in order to be responsible to my calling and my convictions. Many 12 year olds are more responsible with their spiritual lives than adults who have spouse, mortgage, and steady job.

  4. The norms of the [older] generations include what types of songs to sing, what style of clothing (beyond modest), and sometimes (depending on the church denomination) not smoking/drinking/cussing/having tattoos.

    The norms of the Gospel include praising God with songs, dressing modestly, and recognizing that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit/we are to keep lies and filthy language away from our lips.

    The younger generations aren't very interested in following the norms of the [older] generation, but the norms of the Gospel are more intriguing.