“Millennial”. It has become an insult. Every day there seems to be some new study or op-ed piece about how this generation (born between 1980 and 2000) are a complete departure from their predecessors. They are characterized as self-indulgent, entitled and whiny with a complete lack of respect for authority. In a nutshell, they simply need to “grow up”! After all, what makes someone a grown up? You go to college and/or get a job, get married, buy a house and have 2.4 kids; you are responsible, patient and respectful; and you honor the institutions of education, government, marriage and the Church. It is these fine institutions that have led so many of us to happy and productive lives. Right? So why is it that they just don’t seem to be able or willing to get on board? Let’s take a closer look at the world millennials live in:
Millennials have a higher rate of secondary and post-secondary education than any generation before them, yet they continue to be more likely to experience unemployment, poverty and have lower levels of personal income and wealth than both Gen-Xer’s and Baby Boomers (the two generations previous) did at their stage of life. They sit under a far greater burden of Student Debt than any generation before them, and all the statistics indicate an ever increasing gap between the very wealthy (which they are not likely to be unless they started out that way) and the poor. Education has failed them.
Millennials live in a post 911 America. While the oldest millennials remember our nation before that terrible day, they also remember Marion Barry, Monica Lewinski and the Bush Gore recount fiasco. They have been given example after example of corruption, misconduct and incompetence in their nation. They are painfully aware that they are not immune to the evil in this world, whether foreign or domestic. They have also witnessed the continued increase in wealth that the very powerful enjoy side by side with the increased economic insecurity most Americans face. Government has failed them.
Millennials were born at the height of the divorce epidemic. Between 1980 and 1985 approximately half of all marriages ended in divorce. While the over-all number of divorces has decreased steadily over their lifetime 40-50% of all marriages in the United Sates still end in divorce according to the American Psychological Association. The reality is that less and less people are getting married. Marriage has failed them.
Millennials were born into a culture that was rebelling against the church. As they got older they witnessed Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and the Catholic Church embroiled in sex scandals (just to name a few). They have seen the Church, the place meant to give them purpose- which is the one thing they care about, sell them the same get rich quick schemes as the rest of the world. All the while seeing an increase in supposed “Christian leaders” speaking out with hate and vitriol towards marginalized groups. Regardless of their theological stance on various issues, they know Jesus led with humility and love. Neither of which seem prevalent in the Church. The Church has failed them.
The bottom line is this: every institution that was meant to build them up and guide them into a happy life has failed them. Worst of all being the Church, which is the one place that should be different from all the rest. Is it any wonder they are leaving?
While church attendance numbers are falling across almost all generations, Pew Research indicates that 26% of Millennials identify as having no religious affiliation. The Church failed them and they noticed. What is interesting is that while there is a stark contrast in declared religious affiliation, when it comes to belief: the belief in God and the afterlife, prayer, etc… they are on par with previous generations when at their stage of life. So it is not faith that they have been abandoning, it is the institution of the Church. “Organized Religion” has just as many negative connotations to millennials as the term “Millennial” does to older generations.
It is this very rebelliousness, this lack of respect for institutional authority that makes us afraid of them, worried for them, angry with them and concerned for the future of our beloved Church. I agree with that concern. I am not sure that our beloved Church is going to fair very well in the decades to come, but what I am not concerned about, is our faith.
If I were to paint a sociological and ideological picture of Millennials it would look something like this:
Lack of respect for institutional authority (both political and religious)
Heightened investment toward institutional and social change
Heightened sense of social responsibility
Heightened value on relational interaction (yes social media counts)
It is as if this generation would be willing to trade in all the valued and honored traditions that guided their predecessors and abandon the comforts and successes of this world in hopes to serve a higher purpose. It is as if they care more about relationships and social responsibility (Social Science, Humanities and Applied Science are the only areas of study to increase while all others are decreasing) than they do about the size of their house or their 401K. They are more racially diverse than any generation prior to them, and as a result are far more likely to connect with others regardless of ethnic heritage. They don’t see others first by their demographics and second by their character. In fact, for this generation, character trumps demographics naturally. It is as if they care more about the heart of a person than their station in life. Sound familiar?
I spent a couple years serving as an urban missionary in New York City. We would serve soup and drinks, give out socks and toiletries, play music and have community. We essentially threw a block party for our homeless and urban poor friends. While these outreaches were led by full-time missionaries, we were primarily “staffed” by teams of volunteers. As leaders, we were always careful to explain to our volunteers that we were about communion, not charity. We were not there to give handouts, but to build community. We would explain that one of the most important things they could do was make a friend. We had groups from all over the world come serve with us. We had families, church groups, school groups, seminary students and groups of pastors. We also had youth groups…lots of youth groups. These youth groups (millennials) were by far my favorite to serve with. While I will admit that I often had to repeat myself when it came to the logistical details of our outreach, I never had to ask them twice to go out on the street and love on people. I watched men and women who had decades of experience serving the Church struggle to get comfortable connecting with the folks we served, but those teens and young adults showed a love that was unconditional and relentless. That kind of love is the closest depiction of God’s I believe we will ever be able to show in our time on this Earth. When I watched them cry with a man who had just lost his wife or sing songs with a man who was clearly not in his right mind I didn’t see a group of disrespectful, self-indulgent whiners who needed to grow up, I saw Jesus.
I seem to remember reading a story about a Jewish carpenter who abandoned conventional life, challenged institutional authorities and spent most of His time with the people who He had no business being with or caring about. I heard about this Jesus at a time in my life when I had been failed by every institution I thought was meant to save me, a time when my demographics made me less than desirable; He came and cared about me anyway. That’s the kind of love I see in teenagers and young adults today, in millennials. The kind of love that doesn’t care what you have to offer or whether or not they are “supposed” to associate with you. The kind of love that doesn’t believe that the rules and regulations of this world are the ultimate authority. They see something higher, more meaningful and they long to be a part of it. They walk and talk and love more like Jesus than my generation ever did. So yes, this is a scary time for my beloved Church. But it is an exciting time to be a Christian!