"God didn't give me these talents to just sit around being a model or famous. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a
country for all I know."
Alexis Neiers, member of "the Bling Ring"
Time magazine, May 20, 2013, p. 31
"I raised my kids to go to church. My son was president of the youth group one year. Our daughter was very active also. She even taught Sunday school during her last year of high school."
Paul stared off in the distance as he reviewed his kids' history. His eyes reflected a personal pain, as he switched to the present and speculated about the future. "Today, neither one of my kids go to church. They married kids who went to church, but none of them seem interested. When our daughter and her husband had our first grandchild, I thought that would get them back to church. It worked in my generation. But they still don't go. Where did we fail?"
Mark Zuckerburg (b. 1984) and Lady Gaga (b. 1986) are two well-known millennials. The millennial generation, sometimes called Gen Y, are those born from roughly 1980-2000, depending who you talk to. They represent 80 million in the U.S. alone. They are dropping out of church in large numbers. They say they still believe in God, but they are turned off to the bureaucratic and institutional side of church. As crazy as it sounds, they represent the greatest hope for Christianity. Read on, and you, too, may experience a breakthrough of hope. What seems like the greatest challenge may very well be the greatest solution.
For more than 10 years, we have studied, hands-on, what God is doing with this millennial generation in Europe. The best way to begin is to reach back 25 to 35 years when we researched those in Europe who were twenty-somethings then. We interviewed young adults of this previous generation on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, Brussels, and London. We set up interviews within view of large cathedrals and asked, "What happens in that big building? What is that all about?"
The responses were powerful to hear. "That's a joke! It's a church - it means nothing to our lives. It has no importance, no influence on our culture. It's where a few old people gather and do religion on Sunday mornings. It's a tourist site - a place where people take pictures of architecture from another century."
Twenty-five and thirty-five years ago, Europe had generally reached the bottom of spirituality and the height of secularization. The church was marginalized to the status of a relic, a spiritual museum, a shell of what had become religious irrelevance. At the time, many predicted the slow death and impending nonexistence of what represented the mass movement of Christianity a few centuries earlier, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. It seems that in the rollercoaster pattern of God's movement (see 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles), the people of God left in Europe were at the bottom. This is where God most often recaptures our attention.
Today, there is a growing movement back toward Christianity in many areas of Europe. For example, London has reported a steady decline of Christians, as a percentage of the population, for the last 150 years. This trend has just reversed in the last few years. This is a symbol of a resurgence of Christianity, not only in London, but in many areas of Europe! Christians of all ages are coming to a new level of spiritual vitality, and they are influencing others who are coming to Christ. Young adults, millennials, are playing a key role in this "revival" - this move of God.
It is helpful to observe and learn from Europe, especially if you are concerned about North America. Since spiritual trends tend to follow Europe about 20 years later in North America, then, as Phyllis Tickle says in her book The Great Emergence, Europe is a great classroom for learning what God will do next on this continent. It is a great way to prepare Christian leaders and churches for what is coming next. The millennials in Europe are the empowered backbone of the movement that is taking place there. There are many from other age groups who are supporting them, but the millennials are leading the charge. They are carrying the weight of this growing European Christian movement. The empowerment of millennials should be an intentional effort for those who pray for and work for health and vitality to return to the church in North America.
Christianity is, at its heart, a movement. The New Testament church is more like a movement than an institution. The church is described in Scripture as a body, the body of Christ. All the other metaphors describing the purpose and function of the church are living organisms.
However, the general trend for Christians is to over-organize the movement into programs and to further develop these programs into institutions. The development of the early Roman Catholic Church provided many upgrades for the Christian movement: order, training for leaders, development of strategy, and clarity of beliefs. However, when this trend becomes over-organized, the level of bureaucracy rises to a point where maintenance of the mechanism steals energy from the deployment of mission. The result is inevitable plateau, followed by decline. Welcome to the profile of many churches in North America.
Leadership guru John Maxwell makes an interesting observation: "There has never been a transformational movement in history without a parallel youth movement." (Maximum Impact CD, Volume 17, No. 8, 2013). Some movements that transformed the culture (for good or bad) include Communism, Germany under Hitler, the Jesus Movement of the 1970s and '80s, and Christianity in general. They all have had parallel youth movements.
Ironically, the chronic challenge of the church today is the massive loss of millennials. Yet, this young adult generation could be Christianity's greatest hope. The Pew Research Foundation has described the rapidly growing increase of the "Nones." These are young adults who, in each passing year, with increasing numbers, respond to surveys about religious affiliation by checking "None." This trend has grown over the last 10 years.
The research reflects what pastors know: the number of young adults in worship and involved in church activities is declining. Those who do participate are drastically reducing their rate of activity. For example, they worship, as a standard practice, once every two or three weekends. Behind this trend is the anti-institutionalism which most often is a subconscious feeling among young adults and church leaders alike. The likelihood of millennials ever serving on a board or committee is next to never. As churches continue to age - the median age rising - one wonders about the future of organized Christianity at all. Is there any hope?
At the other, radical extreme, are those churches in Europe where the median age is decreasing. Those are churches where millennials attend in increasing numbers, sometimes by the hundreds. They are on fire for Christ, enthusiastic to serve, and eager to share their faith.
There are signs of hope for North America as well. If you look closely, you can find some churches engaging millennials. They are rare - at this point - and you would not likely catch the key ingredients that make the difference. "Changing the program" is not the answer. Understanding the potential that millennials carry in their DNA is the place to start.
Many millennials want to make a difference - more than they want to make a living. Every three years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship hosts a gathering called Urbana, for young adults interested in pursuing mission work. It is held at the end of the year, between Christmas and New Year's. For university students, it means spending part of Christmas break at a Christian conference. This year Urbana was held in St. Louis. It drew 18,000 millennials. Many of them spent hours at the ministry exhibits, looking for a way to be involved.
Millennials are attracted to a challenge. They want to be challenged and are excited to be out of their comfort zones.Our friend Marybeth grew up in a fairly protected environment - a Christian home and church. She was homeschooled from grade school through high school. Marybeth then went to Africa to serve in a mission for children. The environment was often uncomfortable, challenging, and even somewhat dangerous. She loved it!
Millennials are wired relationally. Their "family" goes beyond biological relatives to include friends and acquaintances. Jon and Laura, given the opportunity to hang out with their friends, would often opt out of family gatherings, or just make a brief appearance. Their first choice was their extended family of friends. Friendship bonds and loyalty are key ingredients that make millennials an ideal culture for a mass movement.
Millennials are natural networkers. Early millennials were born with the cell phone at the end of their arms. Later millennials were born with iPhones. This is the first generation that came home from high school and checked their e-mail accounts. Now, millennials text their friends during class. Networking is a learned behavior for previous generations. For millennials, it is in their DNA. They are the "perfect storm" for a worldwide revival. As they catch fire for Christ, they do not require training to share their faith. They share everything.
Millennials are movement people. They will change your church - if they are around - from its programmatic and habitual traditions. In this sense, they are hope for the over-organized form of bureaucratic religion that consumes a massive degree of energy of church staff, leaders, and members. Do not worry, they will not modify the substance of the faith, only simplify clutter. Once you get over the changes in form and structure, you will find yourself liberated as your church is refreshed. Millennials are pragmatic idealists.
Millennials are a worldwide tribe. They grew up in the first era of globalization. Social media is not a news report from China but interacting, on the web, with a Chinese person. Millennials - around the globe - are more similar to one another than to their grandparents across town. What social media did for the Arab Spring (still very much in progress), Christian millennials can and, I believe, will do for global revival. WWW stands for World Wide Web. As a Christian praying for the discipling of the nations, think of WWW as World Wide Witness.
Millennials are overwhelmed with choices. No generation has faced this many career options or destinations. Through the information explosion, they are bombarded by choices no other generation has experienced. Some are paralyzed from overload. Others switch majors in college so many times their parents end up paying for one or two extra years of tuition - or the graduation debt will take decades for the student to clear. The breakthrough for millennials is to discover who they uniquely are, how God uniquely created them, to learn about their spiritual gifts, strengths, and areas of personal fulfillment.
The Strategy Paradigm
Can you feel the potential God can bring through millennials? The goal is easy: God uses them to change the world. The strategy, however, requires a paradigm shift. My deep gratitude goes to our friends in England, 20 years ahead of North America. They have helped us sort out a way to reverse the loss of millennials in church. There is more: the empowerment of young adults impacts the church in a way that can reach our world. My thanks to those in England: Dan, Jude, Mick, Alan, Jonathan, and Ben - and all those young adults who helped us develop this strategy for North America.
Perhaps your first thought is this: the strategy is to find a millennial who is still around church (there are some), and send them to seminary to become a pastor. Wrong answer for most. We still need seminary-trained pastors. However, think of them as "generals" of the army. Every army - even an army for Jesus (onward Christian soldiers) - needs generals. However, our critical strategy requires thousands of foot soldiers. Think as a millennial: seminaries and Bible colleges are institutions. If you want to raise an army of foot soldiers, think of a hands-on, experientially-based "boot camp" that has the feel of Jesus and His disciples. Think in terms of a movement.
Here's the strategy: 1) Pray for the millennial generation. Pray for yourself to see the potential of young adults. Pray for your church, that it may become more vibrant and healthy. 2) Look for young adults who are (1) faithful, (2) available, and (3) teachable. 3) Encourage them to check out a young adult training experience in North America. 4) Urge them to connect with one of the young adult graduates from that training experience. (Josh Humberger, leader of SEND North America, says, "We encourage our graduates to share their own experience with potential SEND young adults. The peer networking is what really matters. All of our graduates carry the DNA of this experience, just like those young adults in England.") 5) Look for a training experience that is inexpensive and short-term - 10 months. 6) Make sure the training experience helps them discover who they are in Christ, their gifts, strengths, talents, and fulfillment areas. 7) Use an experience that teaches, but also provides hands-on experience in various areas of Christian service. 8) Utilize a training system that focuses on spiritual formation, discipleship, and mission training: outreach to their own social networks. 9) Encourage the young adults to return to your church. 10) Continually encourage millennials to get this training and return to your church. Give them the freedom to follow their careers or the option of a position on staff. Either way their presence in your church will help you reach other millennials. 11) Allow these millennials to help shape your church for the next generation. 12) Ask God to humble you to admit that, if you are not a millennial, you are likely ineffective for reaching millennials. Millennials reach millennials, which is the dawn of new day for Christianity. Therein lies our greatest hope!