Reaching Millenials – A Contrarian Perspective

1contrarianReaching Millenials – A Contrarian Perspective

My office was the quietest place in the building until four millenials walked in for a conversation. What started with an agenda to plan our annual Soccer Camp soon was injected with emphatic vitriol. All I did was briefly mention (since they actually asked) that one of the hot button issues in church ministry these days was reaching out to millenials. Little did I know that I was soon to get “both barrels.”

“Robin, I don’t want to be reached.” “Yeah and I don’t want to be targeted.” “Tell me about it, I don’t want to be talked about and analyzed as if I, my friends and my generation were organisms in a petri dish. We know what the Church is really after. We are the subject matter of numerous conferences, books and studies all for the purpose of solving the Church’s issues. The Church needs people in their auditoriums and dollars in their dwindling offerings. All I know is that I feel like we are being used. It is SO aggravating to be talked about as if the Church was even really interested in us. We know what’s really up…”

To say the least, I was taken aback by those tirades. I had called these young people, people who actually follow Jesus, for a simple conversation about a neighborhood connecting ministry that we had done for four years running. These young people were whom I regarded as partners. After the initial emotional blast, one of the young people, who just so happened to be Hispanic, expanded the conversation;

“I am just so offended…whether it’s millenials or Hispanics or blacks, we ALL know that we will NEVER have a place at the table in a meaningful way. It’s racist and ageist. We have to fit their box…their container…their ways of doing church…they just need us for the bottom line.”

Friend, it is trendy to talk about millenials. You cannot read a major church leadership website or blog or even peruse a book table as a conference without running into a speaker or seminar or keynote about reaching millenials. It is true, they are the “missing generation” in organized religion. It is also true that everybody wants to reach them but, you know what, they do not want to be reached. They don’t want to be targeted or dissected. They want a relationship with NO strings attached.

“The idea of a church trying to market to a group of people, trying to get into their heads to figure out how to reach them so it can sell CHURCH to millennials, however well intended, feels very commercial and not relational at all. Make the connection and have it be genuine and personal. Speaking for myself, there is always the question of "what's this person/organization trying to sell me or get out of me with this pitch?" Creating genuine relationships can remove that.” “

If I’m in a relationship with you, don’t try to get me to come to your church. I don’t want to be there. Now, if you are interested in helping me start a church, some form of faith community that engages me and my friends in a manner that actually takes our lives and concerns seriously, then we’ll talk.”

If you are attempting to reach millenials, check your motives. If you want a KINGDOM WIN you may have to give up your desire for millenials to boost your attendance and giving statistics. If you are ready to “turn over the keys,” then there might be some common foundation from which to talk.

The REALITY is that millenials have been birthed and steeped in a different way of looking at life than most of contemporary church. In academic circles we would call this a “worldview.” Millenials adhere to a worldview that is secular, materialist, humanistic, and steeped in naturalism. Yes, they may be people of faith but faith issues are so tangential to real life for these individual. What is apparent is that worldview shift is what can actually be seen in many of the generational behaviors that we are witnessing. Actions proceed from a person’s worldview. A worldview is the lens in which a person interprets life and acts in the world. So as you take a good look at the actions of new generations, you would be hard pressed to NOT acknowledge that the world has changed. You have to conclude that the worldview that affirms cohabitation, relational and ethical expediency, polyamorous paradigms, faith as “hobby” (a form of spiritual dualism that has not been seen to this extent in centuries), profane language, and a form of hedonism that is underscored and lived out in culture is one of divergence from what many churches consider the “norm.” Millenials have a decided clarity in how they actualize a lifestyle has as its foundation a humanistic and “closed system” of reality. If spirituality is a concern at all, it is a form of supernatural existentialism which affirms individualistic desire for meaning and purpose that is disconnected from traditional forms of faith and theological category.

The REALITY is that this generation is a product of their parents. Christian Smith’s groundbreaking research in which he coined the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” demonstrates and illustrates repeatedly that millenials are by-products of past generational narcissism. Yes, in many respects, you can blame the parents (most of US) of these young people for the state of their disposition toward church. For there was never an opportunity (whether soccer, academics, karate, etc.) that was denied to these young people. When you grow up knowing and seeing how issues of faith are simply one part of a tapestry or smorgasbord of options that a person has in life…when parents paid more attention to traveling team sports and recreational activities and less attention to spiritual formation and faith community connections, you can understand why we face our current predicament.

When leaders, speakers and authors outline the characteristics that distinguish millenials the implication is formulaic. In other words, to utilize a brief outline I heard recently at a conference, IF a church provides vocational discipleship, doesn’t focus on “hipsterism,” and capitalizes on the generation’s longing for spiritual connectedness and transcendence, you will see a Newtonian formula in action. A + B = C. Do those things and the millenials will come. It is interesting to me how USUALLY boomers are the ones lecturing about millenials. Again, you can’t be MORE “boomish” than adherence to process, systems, and guarantees. Unfortunately, millenials don’t fit nor do they want to fit in anyone’s formula.

In the town where I live we have a state prison. Recently, I met with the prison chaplain about what was happening in prison ministry. I’ll never forget what he told me when I asked him about how “we” could reach out to the prison population. He said, “Robin, do you want to minister to prisoners? Don’t reach a prisoner from the outside in. Commit a crime, be one of the prisoners and then talk to me about doing ministry with them on level ground. “

I believe the same dynamic is true for millenials. Build relationships with millenials….invite them to your home, have dinner and conversation. Build a discipling, a mutual discipling relationship with them. Empower them to speak into your life. Talk about Jesus (they have opinions about Jesus), share life and live out your faith. Don’t bring up church but rather be the church whether or not they ever darken the door of our congregations. For millenials KINGDOM wins are more important than Christendom or Organized Church wins. You want to be on a mission WITH millenials not FOR millenials. Be wary of formulas and resist the temptation to put the entire generation into a box of predictabilities. Remember, if you engage with the expectation of church participation, you are bound to lose. Rather, have a redemptive relationship. Walk through their life with them on THEIR terms. And by all means, drop the “reaching millenials” language or maybe you will be the one who ends up hearing and experiencing the next barrage of millennial religious angst.

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