I was born in 1977 – that strange space near the end of Generation X and the beginning Generation Y (the “millennials”). Generally speaking, American millennials are the 77 million people born between 1980 and 2000, and they just recently became the largest living generation in the nation.1
To make things more interesting for me, my oldest child was born in 2001, just on the other side of the Millennial bubble in Generation Z. In research and study for this article, I found myself drawing many of my own traits from Gen X but others from Gen Y. My kids seem to have numerous Millennial traits as well as plenty of Gen Z tendencies.
But hey, “people are just people” right? Sure they are, but we can’t ignore the fact that our rapidly changing society over the past 50 years has created a very diverse set of human traits. We are affected by the values of the cultures in which our lives are formed. The way we respond and relate to various circumstances and stimuli can be very different. For example, the way my WWII veteran grandfather would react to his turntable breaking (you know, a ‘record player’ … a ‘big black CD’) would be to thumb through the phone book for an electronics repair shop. The way I would respond to his turntable breaking would be to heave it into the dumpster (while bending my knees) and subscribe to Apple Music on my iPhone 7!
So, how do we relate to this big group of millennials who are now flooding our church pews, church staff, and workplaces? There’s a lot of great research out there giving insights into this group. Comments range from “they’re stuck on themselves” to “enormously clever and resourceful” and plenty of labels in between. Based on my own ministry observations, personal study, and hybrid Millennial status, here are 5 thoughts on relating to millennials.
1. They want their voice to be heard, not ignored.
As members of a society that is in technology overdrive, millennials are used to being heard. With just one tweet, they can have an audience of thousands, even millions. It has never been easier to build a “following” or a platform with which to share your thoughts, criticisms, ideas, and dreams. This mindset carries over into the church, the workplace, and any relationship in which a millennial finds themselves. They are used to being heard and having a voice.
So, what? Let the millennials know that their opinion matters. Let them speak. Listen to their input and value it. You don’t have to agree with it or even follow it, but the fastest way to frustrate them is to make them feel like nothing they say is being considered. Whether it’s a staff meeting, project roundtable, or just a one-on-one over coffee, look them in the eye and give them the platform they crave.
2. They want to be inspired from the trenches, not commanded from the sidelines.
Millennials have a very hard time with leadership that seems shallow or distant. As a generation that has been bombarded with a steady stream of corporate, political, and religious corruption and scandal, millennials are wary of disingenuous authority figures. They will get on board with a cause you believe in, but not just because you say they should. They want to see your heart and feel your passion. They will need you to prove your words by demonstrating with your actions consistently. They are not afraid of work, but they will need to be able to look up from the plow and see their leaders right beside them.
So, what? Inspire by your actions, not just your words. Be very hands-on with the millennials in your church, whether staff or not. If you schedule a work day at the church, show up with gloves and work boots and put in a day’s labor. If you plan a community outreach event, grab a stack of flyers and hit the streets with your members. Let them know by your actions that you truly believe in the cause that you are promoting with your words. I’m not suggesting you have to be at every single church event, but be visible, and get down in the dirt with these people!
3. They crave authentic community over surface connections.
There were days in our past where you could get somewhat of a crowd by the “hype” method. As long as the promotion was big enough, you could continually one-up yourself and keep the momentum rolling. Sure, the turnover was pretty high, but there was always the possibility of some sticking around and being added to the church membership. As a general rule, hype doesn’t fly with the millennial crowd. They will see right through the noise and ask the hard questions. They will quickly get to the “why?” They aren’t interested in gimmicks or bait-and-switch. They will want to see your heart and know that you are real.
So, what? Be a servant-leader that models humility and vulnerability. Do not be afraid to show millennials your weaknesses. In fact, if you tastefully and openly admit your flaws, you are well on your way to creating the safe, authentic community that millennials seek after. The days of the bullet-proof superhero pastor are over if you want to influence millennials for the kingdom. Don’t make yourself the hero of the story or the highlight of the sermon illustration. Make Jesus the hero, and point to His sufficiency in all things. Let the millennials know that you’re human too, and rally with them around the Person of Christ and the needs of others. Make Jesus the promotion Sunday after Sunday as you fade into the background.
4. They are driven by passion over character.
Many of us remember the mantra “do right because it’s right to do.” Perhaps we’ve also heard the definition of character to be “the test of what it takes to stop you.” Here’s the thing with millennials – while raw character is important to them, it will not be the primary thing that drives them. They are motivated by deep passion rather than a desire to “gut it out.” It’s not that they’re unwilling to do what it takes to succeed, it’s just that they are very motivated by the things they value, and have a hard time being driven by lesser things. This is easily demonstrated in my Gen Y/Z son. He will go through regular seasons where he is passionate about a specific topic or activity, to the neglect of nearly everything else. It would not be uncommon to find that he stayed up until midnight researching every possible method of caring for leopard geckos, while completely ignoring the math homework that was due the next morning.
So, what? Find out what the millennials in your life are passionate about, and enter their world. You may not care in the least about bow hunting, or muscle cars, Netflix, or power couponing, but if you just blow off these passion topics, you will lose the opportunity to tap into the driving force of the millennial generation. Oh, that Christ and His kingdom would be valued by this passionate generation! Millennials will value authentic experiences, so show them Jesus. Lift up the cross every week, and allow the power of grace to capture their wonder and amazement.
5. They would rather innovate then iterate.
Growing up in the rapid technology age, millennials are well acquainted with innovation. “The next big thing” is pretty important to them. While mom and dad may be perfectly content with their flip phones, their millennial kids will stand in line all day to get the new iPad because it has a screen that is 3.2 inches bigger than the iPad they got 6 months ago. They will not be satisfied with “this is the way we’ve always done it” especially if “the way we’ve always done it” ceased to be effective 10 years ago. Millennials simply will not support inefficient and ineffective programs with their finances and energy. They will choose to focus their resources on positive change and forward thought processes. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the local church to resist the status quo and embrace a God who is always on the move.
So, what? Allow the innovative mindset of the millennial generation to keep you sharp and relevant as a leader. Don’t see their fresh ideas as a challenge to your ideals, but as a catalyst to bring about the change that is vital for growth. With God’s Word as your “true north” and the Holy Spirit as your guide, push forward into uncomfortable territory and answer the hard questions. Don’t be too proud to admit that a system is broken and in need of attention, even if it’s something that you made big investments in. The millennials in your church will appreciate your honesty and humility, and rally with you to achieve the desired result through innovation.
In conclusion, I understand that not every millennial will display all of these traits. The truth is, there have been many subcultures even within the millennial generation that have had different emphases and impacts on their millennials. The objective of this article is to simply point out common characteristics of this intriguing generation and to encourage you to engage them with your eyes and hearts open. May God help us to point them to Him!
1 “Pew Research Center, from Statistics Provided by US Dept. Health and Human Services” Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Pew Research Center. 26 April 2016.