See the sidebar, “Understanding and Appreciating the Four Generations“
By Gary Zustiak
It seems everywhere you look—from book titles to magazine articles to blog posts—there is a panicked cry about the church’s failure to reach the millennial generation.
Josh McDowell is quoted as saying: “It is clear that we have all but lost our young people to a godless culture.”1
The Southern Baptist Convention Council on Family Life’s research indicated “88 percent of evangelical children are leaving the church shortly after they graduate from high school.”2
Eric Tryggestad, in an article entitled “Are We Losing Our Young People?” claims only one in four members of youth groups will stay in the Christian community after they graduate.3
Is it time to sound the alarm?
The Bible has always taught the importance of preparing succeeding generations (Deuteronomy 6:1, 2; Psalm 48:12, 13; 71:18; 78:3, 4, 6, 7). When the generations fail to connect and pass on the essentials of the faith, disaster is the result (Judges 2:10-15).
The Bible has many examples of generational cooperation and of passing along the faith from one generation to the next: Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, Naomi to Ruth, Lois to Eunice to Timothy.
John addresses the church: “I write to you, dear children. . . . I write to you, fathers. . . . I write to you, young men” (1 John 2:14). You see, he is addressing three specific generations, all a part of—and all contributing to—the growth, life, and the community of the church.
We need to recapture that. If the church is to be healthy, all of the church needs to be present, contributing, and appreciated.
We Need Each Other
We need each other. The older generation needs the passion, energy, and the absolute willingness to believe and trust God that the younger generations have. The younger generations still believe they can change the world, and they are willing to try. They haven’t become jaded by disappointment and betrayal. They have energy, enthusiasm, and love for all people that exudes out of everything they do. Frankly, the church needs that because a lot of us who have been leaders for more than 20 or 30 years are growing tired.
Meanwhile, the younger generation needs the wisdom, experience, perseverance, and stories, of the older generation. And their vision for ministry is much more difficult to achieve without the resources of the older generation too. New church plants and mission teams to unreached peoples don’t just happen—they need monetary support to make those dreams reality. Those in the older generation have more money to give than those in the younger.
Frankly, the young generation really needs to hear the stories about living through the Depression, because they don’t know how to do without. The youngers are the entitlement generation. They want everything to be easy, free, and immediate. They don’t know how to delay gratification, or sacrifice, or how to persevere through hardship. They need the oversight, the modeling, and the mentoring of a generation who has been through it so they can steel themselves for the trials that are sure to come.
But this won’t happen if we isolate ourselves and refuse to find the good in what each generation has to offer to the ongoing mission of the church. Jesus said, a “household divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). That is true—even if the house is the house of God.
Challenges in Reaching the Millennial Generation
Millennials tend to hold more liberal views on a range of social issues, such as same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, and marijuana legalization. In all of these, they are more liberal than their elders. However, on some other social issues—including abortion and gun control—the views of millennials are not much different from those of older adults.4
While 55 percent of baby boomers say they’re religious, only 36 percent of millennials do. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox says, “Fully 29 percent of Millennials consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, a record postwar high. They are also much less likely to describe themselves as ‘religious’ compared with earlier generations of Americans.”5
According to a new study by the Barna Group6, non-Christian millennials hold ambivalent and sometimes extremely negative views about the Bible, even though 62 percent of non-Christian millennials have never read the Bible. The most common words they use to describe the Bible are story, mythology, symbolic, and fairy tale. Thirty percent of millennials allow that it’s a useful book of moral teachings, but nearly as many, 27 percent, say the Bible is “a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people.” Almost one in five say the Bible is “an outdated book with no relevance for today.”
So, what is the most effective way to engage a millennial with the Scriptures? Barna suggests reading your Bible around a non-Christian millennial is not likely to spark much spiritual interest. In fact, when they see someone reading the Bible in public they assume the Bible reader is politically conservative and they don’t have anything in common with the person, or that the Bible reader is old fashioned and out of touch. Fewer than 1 in 10 non-Christian young adults indicate any kind of positive response.
So how do you counteract that negativity toward the Bible among non-
Christian millennials? By simply living out the teachings of Scripture. According to Barna, “personal interactions” with people who have benefited from the Bible tend to bear the most fruit. Millennials value relationships. It is not required we be Bible scholars in order to reach millennials. But we do, however, need to practice what the Bible preaches, and be neighborly.
Stop Worrying about the Millennials
Andrew Root, professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently wrote “Stop Worrying About the Millennials” which appeared in Christianity Today. He quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to lend insight to today’s concerns about the younger generation:
Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God.7
I doubt anyone would disagree with Bonhoeffer’s statement. But Root offers great insight and application:
His words reveal a hidden agenda: He was striving to shake up youth ministry and free the church from accommodating the youth movement. Bonhoeffer knew that if the church of any age is to survive, it must disciple youth so that they constitute the church as they grow older. But he believed too many Germans thought the future of the church depended on getting spirited young people engaged in it.8
I wonder if the church today is succumbing to the same fears that plagued the church in Bonhoeffer’s day. Does the church think her future depends on her ability to attract millennials and accommodate their needs? Bonhoeffer would say, if that is the case, then the church has made the spirit of youth more important than the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would remind us that the future of the church does not depend on youth but only on Jesus Christ. Healthy ministry is not about getting the spirit of young people into the church, but about encountering the Holy Spirit, especially through the Word of God, with young people in the church community.
Thus, the best way to help the church engage Millennials is to stop wringing our hands over the Millennial problem. Instead, we might seek the Holy Spirit together with all generations, looking for concrete experiences of the presence and absence of God in the lives of the young, confessing our confusion, and telling our own stories of God’s work in our lives. That’s when the Holy Spirit binds and unites us, calling us beyond our generational divides.9
1 Josh McDowell, as quoted in Bradley R.E. Wright’s Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites. . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010).
2 Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites. . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010).
3 Erik Tryggestad, “Are We Losing Our Young People?” The Christian Chronicle, July 2007.
4 Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood,” March 7, 2014. Accessed at www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/.
5 Eric Metaxes, “Millennials and the Bible,” BreakPoint, November 14, 2014, accessed at www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/26406.
6 Barna Group, “Millennials and the Bible: 3 Surprising Insights” October 23, 2014, accessed at www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/687-millennials-and-the-bible-3-surprising-insights#.VOyvXrDF-zf.
7 Andrew Root, “Stop Worrying About the Millennials,” Christianity Today, January 6, 2015.
8 Root, “Stop Worrying.”
9 Root, “Stop Worrying.”
Gary Zustiak serves as professor and head of the psychology and counseling department at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. He served as professor of youth ministry for 13 years with Ozark.
See the sidebar, “Understanding and Appreciating the Four Generations“