As a millennial who has grown up in the evangelical church, I’ve witnessed many painful interactions between “church folk” and members of my generation. You’d think the two parties weren’t even speaking the same language! It’s fairly well known that millennials have different values from the older generations that are currently sitting in seats of power in our society and in the Church and that this difference contributes to the breakdown in communication. To briefly name three, we value…

  1. Authenticity – we’re not perfect and we know you’re not either. We see through your facade and don’t trust it. Having grown up in the world of the internet and social networking where people can portray themselves in their best light all of the time, having the safety and space to authentically be who we are is important to us.
  2. Social justice – we care deeply about and prioritize people’s physical, mental, emotional, AND spiritual health. We want economic, educational, social, and political equality for all people.
  3. Flat power structures – we are wary of any one person or group that keeps a lot of power for itself. We are distrusting of centralized institutions and rigidly structured organizations including, you guessed it, the church. Power imbalance is one of the root causes of the oppression, exploitation, and inequality we’ve seen throughout the history of humanity.

Knowing this about my generation, here are three ways to engage with millennials, both churched and unchurched:

1. Don’t invite us to church…first

Before we want to come into a space that you’re comfortable in, where you know the right language and phrases to use, the songs to sing, the people to talk to, and the etiquette, invite us into a space that we’ll be comfortable in and get to know us. Maybe that means meeting at a coffee shop, your house, or another third space. We appreciate people taking genuine interest in us and, thanks to the inundation of marketing we’ve been hit with since birth, are generally really good at knowing when something is insincere.

2. Ask good questions

Everyone values being noticed and being listened to. Asking the right questions allows you to show a person that you are doing just that. Along with asking the right questions is not giving stock answers or using Christian cliches as a response. Especially if we grew up in the church, we know them all and are probably not impressed. It feels like you’re letting yourself off the hook and not truly engaging with what we’re expressing. As we’re talking, share a little about yourself as well. It makes us feel like we’re on the same level and not like you have an agenda for getting to know us.

3. Acknowledge and embrace the gray areas

The majority of millennials don’t believe the world is black and white. We see gray everywhere. It makes sense to us that two people would arrive at a different conclusion to the same question based on their differing life experiences, both positive and negative, their beliefs, and their valueseven two Christians. We have grown up in an increasingly globalized, yet connected world, and we have embraced all of the variety and diversity that comes along with that. We value and enjoy the range of opinions, languages, and cultures we experience on a daily basis and don’t press hard for assimilation. Jump in and explore this world we live in with us!

When asked what we would want church to look like, 48% of all millennials (churched, marginally churched, and unchurched) chose an image of a small-group Bible study, according to a study done by the Barna Group in March of this year. The image shows four people, engaging in dialogue together without hierarchy or teaching and clearly enjoying themselves. This is a Q Place. A group of people coming together as peers to discuss God and the Bible, in the context of issues that have relevance to them, with the hope of growing closer together and closer to the truth.

Because the truth is out there. When we’re ready to find it, walk alongside us and discover afresh how it can set you, and us, free.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Robin Tessier

    So well written, Sydney! Thank you for your honesty, love and concern for the survival of Christ’s Church. Proud of you!

    Every congregation has growing pains. To quote David, the man after God’s own heart. “I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken…” Ps 37:25.

    The young have so much energy, enthusiasm and hope to contribute! A church that discounts its youth is a dying one.

    Let’s not forget that the not-so-young have a wealth of experience and study to also add to the life of the Church. Please don’t put us all in Hospice.

    A mature tree didn’t start out fully grown.

    Its youthful vibrancy overcame any fragility in its sapling years. The ability to bend in the wind saved its younger life and it took nourishment from God’s nature to get it to its mature state.

    The roots didn’t stay at the same depth. They grew deeper and held stronger. The tree, *eventually, produced seeds. It is a mature canopy that displays the beautiful autumn colors so breathtakingly.

    And all of this would not be possible, had the tree never been a seedling, then a sapling – determined to keep growing and maturing to fulfill its ordained functions.

    The Omnipotent, Almighty, Creator God, stoops down to us all by saying, “Come, let us reason *together.” Isaiah 1:18

    I hope it is the aim of we older ones to support the fresh eyes and ideas of the younger ones in our congregations, coworkers and friends. Our old eyes do dim and our limbs tire quicker.

    We have walked many the same paths, however. We saw and were wounded by political corruption (which began when ancient Israel demanded an earthly, human king). We saw hopes dashed and fake facades exposed. We ruined our own families and economies in the name of self worship and greed. And with the thought that we knew everything about everything – that we had ‘arrived’.

    Truthfully, if there’s one thing we could ask of your generation, it would be to stay resilient and inclusive. Don’t stop learning or re-assessing the needs of all in the Church. God humbles the exalted and exalts the humble. Matt 23:12

    Never trade humility for power. That is our most lamentable sin toward the successive generation.

    God bless and equip our young ones!

  2. Mary Schaller

    Love this article Sydney!! Nice and clear and true from my own experience with millennials.

    • Sydney from Q Place

      Thanks, Mary! Glad to know it resonated with your experiences with us. Are there other observations you’ve had in your interactions with millennials? This is certainly not an exhaustive list!

  3. Noreen Lundeen

    Good Lord, this proves that there is truly “nothing new under the sun.” Do the
    “millennials” consider themselves unique? Even generation brings the same
    concerns and “growing pains” to the “older generation.”
    I was a “child of the sixties” and we had a lot less “aids” and communication
    means then they do.
    We fought poverty, injustice, “government control” and so on. The fact remains
    that what the “millennials” are experiencing is the results, not of our inability to
    change “the system” but rather the reality that most of us simply, whether willingly or not either “joined the system” or simply carved out a place half way
    in and half way out in order to survive.
    “Diversity” “Stock answers” we had the same reaction as you do, “Flat power
    structure” none of this is NEW. I wish I could live long enough to see if any of
    the “millennials” to some research and read “BOOKS and find that a good deal
    of what they are intending to fight for started long ago. Some of us are faithful
    most just “sold out” GOOD LUCK ” millennials.

  4. Diane

    Up front – I am a 63 yr old female who has been in ministry for over 20 yrs.

    I do trust you are NOT saying that all of us older folk are not authentic – that we don’t care about social justice or the whole person – that we are power hungry.
    I would offer that we are very similar – we do desire authenticity in our relationships and in our life. We are concerned with the whole person, not just a compartmentalized slice of spirituality. We also recognize that power can and has been misused, causing great harm.

    I would perhaps offer that the cause of oppression, exploitation, and inequality are not the results of power imbalance, but the result of sin. Power grabs are just a symptom of the sin within us.

    What I found helpful were your suggestions on how to engage with millennials – altho even that can be broadened to how to engage people generally.

    One thing I think could use a little more thought is – given a mindset which embraces variety, diversity, tolerance, a range of opinions, a concern with power/authority, a bias against black/white (which perhaps I am misreading, but
    feels to me like a bias against absolute truth) – what place does God and His Word have in defining truth, in defining us, in defining both the problems and the solutions of a fallen world?

  5. tami

    This is awesome and rings true to those I hang out who are millennia’s.
    I wonder too if this can be true for the board society. I think most people respond positively to what you’re saying here…authentic, open, people who value others with no agenda always draw others.