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?