What should we do about millennials?
It seems everyone's talking about those born after 1980 these days. We've read the reports about them leaving the church, and we look around our own pews and see few people representing this generation. Small-group pastors are left wondering, How do we reach them? It's easy to become disheartened.
But there's hope as well. For instance, the Black church is retaining millennials exceedingly well. And we're seeing more and more millennial leaders in the church, especially in small-group ministry. The truth? Not all millennials are leaving. Many love the church, and they're invested in the future of the church. Even more, they're willing to shed blood and tears to help make the church better. To put it simply: This generation is rising up, and we need to listen.
So I interviewed several millennial church leaders to get their advice on two important factors facing small-group ministry: what we need to know about working with millennial leaders, and what we need to know about millennials to successfully reach them through small groups.
One thing I wish other church leaders knew about being a millennial church leader:
I'm not out to destroy the church. I love the church; if I didn't I wouldn't be here doing what I do. While I may see things differently and do things differently, I respect the traditions and the people that have come before me. The church has been reforming throughout its wonderful history, and I see myself (and all of us) as part of that continual reformation. I don't simply want electric guitars and smoke machines in the Sunday service (I may not want that at all); I want our church to make a global impact—that's how I understand what it means to live the Christian life.—Ryan Schaible
We often feel a great tension between managing our work and managing our families. We have seen church leaders from previous generations burn out or cause significant strife within their families in order to serve God. We want to avoid those mistakes. However, many church staff persons still retain the mindset that there's nothing wrong with an 80-hour work week as long as you're serving the Lord.—Sam O'Neal
Millennial stereotypes exist for a reason, but like many stereotypes, they're often a caricature or reality. If you assume that millennials are entitled, disrespectful, and lazy, and that they job hop and live at home until the age of 30, you probably haven't gotten to know many millennials. I own a home and haven't lived in my parents' home since the age of 22. I have invested my money wisely. I have worked in the same department at the same church for over six years. I've been married for ten years. Yes, I do chafe under structure and authority, and yes, I have strong opinions. But I have also learned that I don't know it all and don't have all of the answers.—Will Johnston
We relate to others through our own stories. What may appear to you to be an obsession with ourselves (selfies, endless tweets and statuses about our personal lives, etc.) is actually an attempt to connect with others. While you may perceive it to be a lack of personal filtering and TMI ("too much information"), we think of it as a way to demonstrate vulnerability. We tell our stories to those we lead to convey that we too are broken and in need of personal and spiritual growth. In spite of all of this, we feel guilty and wonder if we've said too much, if what we've shared will disqualify us from leadership, or if one day some dumb tweet will come back to haunt us. Still, the most rewarding moments of relational success we have are the ones that flow out of genuine authenticity. We see the breakthroughs that come from hearing and telling an honest personal story.—Richard Clark
We tend to see the success of our parents' generation—and even the curated success of our friends on social media—and think that we should be that successful right now. When this is paired with our desire to live fully with purpose, it can lead to debilitating decision paralysis, even in small day-to-day tasks. We're often intimidated to pull the trigger on a specific decision, fearing that a better idea or option might come along right after we push send. Encouraging action and learning through mistakes helps to quell that fear and teach us that it's okay not to have every detail perfect before taking action. Also, we want to feel like part of a family, not just part of a staff. We are so bombarded by information that we filter most of it out—unless it comes from someone we trust. Develop that relational component with us and your influence will multiply.—Amber Day
Hardly any problem with us is an information problem. It might be a motivation problem, a relationship problem, or any other of a host of things, but explaining things to us will simply not fix our shortcomings (even if we really need the explanation). Try for a deeper root with staff or relational issues, and be proactive about building us up in ways that can't be learned from a book or podcast.—Paul Pastor
We are not trying to leave anybody behind—including the older generations. We primarily care about bringing everybody together.—Christy Johnston
In the words of Haymitch from the Hunger Games series, "Remember who the real enemy is." Sometimes we will have crazy and unorthodox ideas that seem to depart from everything that you hold dear. Please know that we are incredibly grateful for and want to honor the legacy of faithfulness to God that you have passed on to us, and we want nothing more than to continue to make the name of Jesus known and honored. And yet the methods of 20 or even 10 years ago don't work as well as they used to. We're not choosing between tradition and cultural relevance; we're choosing Jesus. And that means we're all still on the same side. The church has a real enemy, and his name is not "change."—Laura Copeland
One thing I wish small-group pastors knew about millennials is:
The millennial generation is most definitely a post-church culture where your committed folks are probably attending Sunday gatherings 50 percent of the time. We need to shift how we approach discipleship to become less programmatic and more life-on-life and relational. On top of that, millennials have a keen awareness of opportunity cost when it comes to small groups. The thought is no longer, "Thursday night is small group night," but rather, "If I'm not catching a show, meeting up friends for happy hour, or checking out that new restaurant, I'll be at small group." In other words, millennials are flooded with a plethora of social events and opportunities, and attending small group may seem to fall near the bottom of the social calendar. To be blunt, millennials would rather not commit with a hard yes, but rather a maybe—if nothing better comes up.—Aaron Cho
We're not satisfied by simplistic answers. We would rather live in the tension of deep issues and work toward forging a gradual understanding than settle for a black-and-white approach to the complex issues of faith.—Sam O'Neal
In my pocket, I have a device that can pull up stupid cat videos, put me in touch with friends around the world, and expose me to a stunning diversity of facts, ideas, and opinions. In the span of five minutes, I can read two conflicting opinions—sometimes even conflicting "facts"—about the exact same topic. I'm skeptical of the "expert" because I know there is another "expert" out there who disagrees. More than additional information, I crave a safe place to try to make sense of it all. I have a deep longing for community and sense of belonging. I don't want to be entertained; I want to be engaged. I don't want to be taught; I want to have a dialogue. I don't want more information for the sake of information; I want transformation and to see how what I am learning can somehow push back the darkness in the world and shine the light of Christ.—Laura Copeland
You can't tell millennials what to do. I mean, you can, but unless you're paying them, they don't have a lot of reason to listen. And simply quoting the Bible isn't necessarily going to change that. What you can do is open your life to them and share meals, experiences, and wisdom in a relational setting. Show us the truth of Scripture lived out in your own life, and we'll begin to believe what's written there.—Will Johnston
Mentoring is a great tool to draw millennials into relationships they may or may not know they need. Not all millennials are leaving the church. In fact, some believe that this mass exodus is culturally related and mostly a predicament in the "white" church. While there are always people leaving the church for any number of reasons, we must consider: Am I called to focus my energy and efforts on those who are leaving, while not paying attention to the millennials who remain? Mentoring calls us to commit to the people who are right in front of us. The millennials we mentor are in the best position to reach other millennials—including those who have left the church or never came in the first place.—Natasha Sitrunk Robinson
Many of us appreciate structure, but not at the expense of authenticity. You may view authenticity as a buzzword, but for us, it's a genuine value. Forced conversation is the worst-case scenario, and "genuine moments" are the most valuable thing on the planet. We don't mind chasing conversational rabbit trails when it seems like there's something worth pursuing. We'll show up on time to small group and stay late—if the conversation demands it. We're happy to minister and serve alongside others, but we're not crazy about being forced into it.—Richard Clark
We are intensely interested in spiritual topics and conversations—which means that we can explore a variety of different points of view or theological perspectives. Please value our opinions, even if we see it differently than you or if we want to challenge assumptions and preconceived notions. If your small group isn't welcoming for my non-believing friends, or even my mainline, non-evangelical friends, then it really isn't welcome to me either. Don't try to be like me, but please try to like me.—Ryan Schaible
We're more conservative than you think we are, and we "get" concepts of moderation and balance in our lifestyles and ministries—a great set-up for maturity. The flip side of that is we're unbelievably good at hiding the things about ourselves that we don't want you to see, and that's our deepest instinct in relating to authority.—Paul Pastor
We understand that it's important to have close community with people who are both in the same life stage and with people who aren't, but we struggle to find that sweet spot on our own. Help!—Christy Johnson
We don't all need seeker-friendly tactics and the latest trends to draw us in. On the contrary, in a world of what seems like a lot of surface-level interactions and overstimulation, we are looking for something authentic and realistic: something practical we can learn from others. We're looking for something that will actually affect our lives.—Teresa Tucker
Even though it's easy to stereotype all millennials as having the same mindset, attitude, or even ambition, don't do it. We don't always act the same as the millennial next to us. Take the time to get to know us before assuming what we think.—Natalie Lederhouse
We want to hear your advice, too. Share your own tips on ministering to millennials below.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.