So yet another blog about Millennials came across the social media feed recently, and it kind of got me going. It was actually one of the better ones, to be sure, and let me just say right up front, that it is far more credible than anything I can write here, because it was, in stark contrast to this, actually written by a Millennial. It wasn’t this specific piece that got me going, though, as much as it is the collective conversation of blog after blog trying to get at “what Millennials want” in a church and how “they” express and experience their faith. Keep in mind that this is all just my observation. I am not a Millennial, but my heart breaks for them. I think they get a bad rap in church-world today, and I think we church leader folk have a lot of work to do today to earn our voice back with them. So this is just my Old-Man-Gen-X attempt to defend them a bit. There are three problems I’m seeing in this whole conversation: One, we have to stop generalizing this generation. Two, we need to stop figuring out how to “reach” this generation (or any other demographic, for that matter). And three, we need to stop mistaking their hunger for authentic meaning as selfishness.
Generalizations: First of all, we need to stop painting Millennials with such a broad brush. This is, quite possibly, the most diverse generation our culture has seen. The world has broken wide open for them (or did they break the world wide open themselves for us?), and they are (what I think) is the most socially, religiously, and politically diverse generation this nation has known. Their tastes and preferences are all over map. They love rap, they love country, they love classic rock, and they love the symphony. They love to eat out, and they are deeply passionate about feeding the hungry. They want a home in the suburbs with their spouse, khaki pants and blue blazers, 2.5 children and a 7 passenger SUV; and they want an apartment in the city with one environmentally responsible vehicle, 1 child, two bikes and a bus pass. They voted for Obama. And they voted for Bachmann. And when it comes to church, they like tradition, and they also don’t. So let’s stop trying to figure out “what millennials want” because, especially for us old folk, their wants will always be a step ahead of us. When it comes to worship expressions, I don’t think there is any one style that you can say Millennials want but for one thing. To put it bluntly, I think they want something that doesn’t suck. It doesn’t matter what “style” it is, just do it well and do it honestly.
Reaching versus Calling: More than any of that, though, we need to stop trying to figure out what millennials want because we need to stop trying reach them and be better at calling them. Or, perhaps better put, we need to be better at unleashing them to live out what they discern as God’s call. Kenda Creasy Dean once said about young people that they are “not to be a target of our own mission, but participants in God’s” (something I believe is true about any demographic). If we make Millennials the target of our mission, we will fail. We will fail because, one, they are (I think) totally fatigued of being targeted. They are targeted everywhere they go, and they see right through it. But more importantly, and second, we will fail because they are not to be reached but called. We need to stop developing programs to lead and teach them, and start developing systems to be taught and led by them. To reach them mean we need them to listen to us. To call them means we need to listen to them, and we cannot dismiss what we hear because it makes us uncomfortable. They are smart, savvy, creative and innovative. We need to take great risks in calling them into real leadership in our congregations even if we don’t think “they’re ready”. We need to take the risk of calling them out of the boat to walk on water, even if they may sink. We need to loosen the grip on the mantle of authority and let them take it, even at risk of them “messing it up”. Because, let’s be honest: The church in America could use a little “messing up”. What we see as “messing it up” might just actually be a renewal, a restoration, and, dare I say, perhaps even a reformation.
Selfishness and Meaning: And finally, we need to stop labeling the Millennial craving for authentic meaning as selfishness. When it comes to “church”, I’ve never seen them as selfish. What I see in this generation (and here I am generalizing!) is an authentic hunger for meaning. They want to live out and express their faith and life in ways that have a practical, transcendent, personal and communal impact on their everyday lives, and they’re not willing to waste their time with something that doesn’t do that. And, yes, this sounds selfish, but if we really listen, I think what we find is what we’ve all wanted- meaning! The Baby Boomers are no different. That’s why they rebelled against many social norms in the 60s. It’s why they brought the drum set into the sanctuary (and thank God for that). It’s why they started ordaining women. The current ways of “doing church” were not authentically meaningful to them, so they changed it. It’s why my generation started asking “why”. It’s why we questioned, it’s why we whined, and it’s why we still whine. We’ve all been searching for authentic meaning, and what separates millennials from other generations perhaps is that they’re not willing waste their time on something in which they don’t find it. I commend them. My generation, by and large, wasn’t finding meaning in church-world, and what we did was go into a corner and pout. They Millennials started finding meaning and expressions of that meaning in new ways. They did and are doing something about it. All that might make them “selfish”, but it also might make them honest. And we can call it selfishness, but the reality is that they, perhaps more than any other generation, see the church as a vehicle for healing a broken world more than a container of religious ritual and expression. They are slow to attend a worship service, but quick to attend a Feeding My Starving Children event. We need to pay close attention to that.
I really do not intend to offend or hurt anyone in this, but I just think some one who is not a millennial needs to stand up and defend this generation. I believe they are no more selfish than I or my mom and dad were when we were in our 20s and 30s. And I think that thing that we are discerning as selfish is actually a hunger. Millennials, more so than my generation, I think, are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice. And according to Matthew 5, because of this hunger, they will be filled. It’s just a question of where and how. So I challenge all of us church-world leader folk to rethink our views on the Millennial generation. There is a deep spiritual hunger there that goes beyond “spiritual but not religious”. It’s an authentic hunger, and they are some darned good cooks. Maybe we need to stop asking them what they want to eat and just get out of the kitchen and let them cook.