The wave of the future is here. They are a generation called the Millennials, and the church better make room because business as usual isn’t going to work. If the rest of us want them included, we’d better adapt.
This is according to a workshop at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators’ annual event here Jan. 27-30. “Young Adult Voices,” led by Michael Harper, sought to help those attending better understand this generation, often called the Millennials. Harper is an associate for youth and young adult curriculum development in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Congregational Ministries Publishing.
Millennials were born somewhere between 1980 and 1995. They grew up on Nirvana and Pearl Jam, knowing how to use the Internet. Defined by 9/11, they don’t know what it is to greet someone at the airport gate. They are multi-taskers who use technology to communicate and are used to constant stimulation.
As this generation enters the workforce, there is tension between them and their bosses. Former generations threw themselves into work. Not this one. They have little patience for investing themselves over the long term and want the promotion next week, even though they just started last week.
This generation has a different perspective on work. As one young person said, “My job doesn’t define who I am. The boomers, their jobs defined them.” These young people want a job that gives them meaning and purpose, but they aren’t about to spend extra time at the office.
Impatience spills over into their attitude toward the church as well. As Harper put it, “Faith is a process — it gives meaning and purpose, yes, but it is a journey over the long haul.” This isn’t particularly to this generation’s liking — they want the answers now.
So what does all this mean for how they fit into the church? They are interested in the Bible and faith traditions but it might be more in terms of a pub chat than Sunday school. They will be more about their relationships within the faith community (that search for meaning, again) than they will be about the church building.
These young people are looking for genuine community. They want to serve and are very interested in mission, but they want to serve after they have established a feeling of connection in the faith community. They aren’t necessarily going to jump into the work of being the church until this sense of community is established.
As one young woman in the workshop said, “We have this idea that the church doesn’t dictate what we believe. We want to be in dialogue and figure out these things for ourselves.”
To skeptics who doubt the work ethic of this generation, Harper says “it’s just a difference in values. The greatest generation won the war and built the 20th century economy through hard work. This generation values relationships and connections and family over work. It’s not a ‘this is good, that is bad’ judgment call. It is simply a difference in what they value.”
So how can the church connect and welcome? First, get to know them. These young people enjoy dialogue across generations. Ask an older member to invite a young person for coffee.
“They want to be listened to, and they want to listen. It really is all about making connections for them,” Harper said.
Beyond programs or contemporary music in worship, this generation is about building relationships. And that is how the church can welcome them in: by getting to know them.