I get the question all the time from people, “How in the world do you minister to millennials?”
This is a rather complicated question with an even more complicated and (honestly) incomplete answer. To begin to answer this question, let me first lay down four preliminary working definitions.
Four Things To Consider When Doing Ministry To Millennials
First, Millennials are people born between 1980 and 1995 (Or in some cases 1980-2000). These are adults who are between 21 and 36 years of age today (Or 16-36 today).
Second, Millennials were largely raised under a cultural parenting paradigm of child-rearing influenced by Dr. Benjamin Spock. In Spock’s estimation, parents needed to make children the central touchstone of any parenting approach. Essentially, children are not to be directed by parents, but are to be accommodated by parents. The prototypical example of this approach is that when millennials sat down to evening dinner their parents gave them options for dinner instead of providing a single meal for the entire family. If Bobby doesn’t want what parents are eating, then Bobby gets to select mac and cheese, pizza, etc…
Third, Millennials have grown up in an American society whose highest cultural value is personality. I wrote about this recently at our church blog.
Americans used to hold to a common supreme individual cultural value — character development. The classic example from this time period of character development is a story about a young puritan girl who wants to help a homeless beggar to find a hot meal during a particularly brutal New England winter. The young girl waits until nightfall so as to be able to help the beggar under a cloak of anonymity. She finds some bread and meat, puts it into a basket, and stealthily places the food next to the beggar before slipping away unnoticed.
This girl from the example was trying to obey Matthew 6:1, which in the NIV reads, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
This portrait of a young person stands in stark contrast with a current portrait of a millennial. Consider this description:
No good deed ever goes unnoticed in the millennial generation because there is a fear of missing out (FOMO) of letting others known just how cool and generous you are. And the true motive as to good deeds has never been less clear in the eyes of the recipients of the good deeds. Is this person genuinely wanting to help? Or are they trying to increase their followers, likes, and clicks? Does this person even care about the larger issues of homelessness, institutional poverty, charity? Or are millennial selfie adults more concerned with image, perception, and personality?
You can read more about this here. But safe to say that our present culture is not one that expects to have the reward of steadfast character derived from a significant season of disciplined spiritual development.
Fourth, Because millennials have grown up with loads of options in every facet of life, they have always experienced a phenomenon known presently as FOMO — fear of missing out. In other words, millennials are skilled at constantly weighing the opportunity cost of any particular decision in all areas of life at every moment of their waking existence. The prototypical example of FOMO occurs when Joe asks Bob on Sunday if he wants to hang out on Tuesday and Bob replies, “Sounds good, text me on Tuesday to confirm.” Note that Bob has not confirmed that he and Joe are hanging out on Tuesday. Bob has seen this event on Tuesday as a place holder in his calendar. Bob may confirm with Joe on Tuesday. Or, Bob may see another event come along that is better that hanging out with Joe. By agreeing in principle to Joe’s offer without totally locking in to Joe’s offer, Bob keep his options open to maximizing his life experience.
Putting It Together For Ministry Purposes
So, with these four loose working definitions in mind, let me lay down a basic guidelines to ministering to millennials. I have borrowed the majority of these tips from my friend Shane Pruitt who wrote earlier in the Baptist Press:
- Invite and lead them towards participation. As Shane writes, “Remember, the younger generation is not the future of the church — if they’ve been redeemed with the blood of Jesus, they’re the church right now. Let them have some ownership of the ministry and be patient with them when they mess up, possibly a lot.” They likely are not interested in coming to learn from you in a lecture relationship. They are likely to learn from you as they participate with you in ministry.
- Offer them solutions to big hairy problems. Often times we want to talk down to those we minister to. Again, millennials have experienced everything you have experienced, only they saw it at an earlier age. Sex, drugs, death, divorce, depression, etc… They already know about these categories. So lean into it. Share your frustration with each with them (maybe not sex…but you get it). What they want is what you have — perspective. Offer them your perspective on how to solve these and other big problems in life.
- Invite them to a cause worth dying for. Mentoring for character development doesn’t sound good to millennial ears. Mentoring for the purpose of getting developed to love those in poverty, or to minister to those in a prison system, or to reach the nations with the Gospel is something millennials can get on board with. They may not call it “character development” but they will recognize the tools and development needed in order to tackle big causes. Character development will occur, but as a side benefit instead of as the main benefit.
- Shape their categories. Broadly speaking, millennials don’t know much about anything for various cultural reasons. They want doctrine. They want to know clear categories for interpreting life. They want to know global truths, not regional beliefs. So take them deep into scripture and into doctrine. Millennials have shown an excitement around Calvinism and Catholicism in particular. But there is still room for Arminian thought and other voices in doctrine. Bottom line, if you aren’t thinking about why all of this matters, then you are not thinking about what millennials are thinking about. Think about big ideas and invite millennials to join you.