By ROBERT GREEN
This week’s Time magazine cover calls them the “Me Me Me Generation.” It says they are “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” They grew up on reality shows and likely know their number of Twitter followers far better than the tally on their car’s odometer. They take pictures of themselves and post for all to see. They are “Millennials.” Who exactly are millennials? We know “Boomers” are those born between 1943 and 1960. (Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks) We know that “Generation X” refers to those born between 1961 and 1980 (Jennifer Lopez, and Jon Stewart). Millennials were born between 1980 and 2000 (Mark Zuckerberg and Lady Gaga). This group is being characterized as entitled and restless with random work patterns, inflated self-esteem, and Twitter-sized attention spans. Gosh—pick your pejorative.
But not so fast! What if we looked past their problems, to their potential? At our church this past Sunday, we dedicated babies—six children, on display by proud parents. These little joy bundles haven’t been labeled with a generational tag yet. But Psalms 128 says they are like “olive shoots” Not olive trees, or olive branches—but “shoots” They are not now what they will be. We asked each parent to take a vow to envision their future and pray for their potential. Though years ahead of these babies, the future for millennials teems with possibilities.
Lady Gaga, a millennialist, said recently, “I suppose you could say I’m quite a religious woman who is very confused about religion.” Evidently, she’s not alone. Folks are leaving the church in droves. But I see hope. And while I see hope, I have hopes. I hope we will be better at six things:
First, live the good news. The gospel as lifestyle improvement app or cheap marketing pitch is wearing thin for street-smart young adults. A watered-down gospel is powerless to help real people in our real world. By showing how the life and death of Christ brings reconciliation with God, neighbor, creation, and self, young adults will heed the call. Young people know in their toes that what Jesus taught and how He lived is more dangerous than what they see. They know better than we do, the price for trading in travel soccer for Sunday morning worship, for seeking a vocation and not just a profession. What about giving away 20 percent of our income? Casting our lot with a struggling faith community instead of a thriving one? Or risking ridicule by waiting to have sex until married? Is Christianity worth the risk?
Second, make connections. When I travel to conferences with other church leaders, the gurus talk a lot about how to create atmosphere. Honestly, I think we don’t need to create atmosphere as much as we need to cultivate relationships. Churches that are intentional about connecting college age kids with older adults, and holding older adults responsible for discipling younger people, will flourish. Millennials have been marketed to since childhood. They can smell it a mile away. They can step into church and sense it. Our “Young Adult Outreach” may be well intentioned, but it comes off as phony. When they sense that we are preoccupied with attendance among their “target demographic,” they feel like we are making them into a number. Guess what? They are like us. They want to be known and valued as individuals.
Third, invite participation. Contrary to what some are saying, millennials aren’t allergic to responsibility. They just want to make sure what they commit to really matters. It’s not like they want to get on board with the general cynicism about the church. They want to participate. Maybe they know what we don’t—that the church is alive when we are problem solving, studying, and serving together. What if some of us older leaders looked at them and said, “Go after those who are seeking God. Don’t copy our ways. Don’t do what we have done. Innovate. Try. Fail. Succeed. Forge a new path. Build new kinds of churches and new communities. Show us a new world founded on love.” The result? Some losses and many wins.
Fourth, talk about money. What Jesus taught is true—we can either live spiritually or materially. Millennials are the generation that demands fair-trade coffee and supports eco-friendly companies, but will dump them just as quickly if they’re caught “greenwashing.” There are too many people living in poverty, and far too many churches doing nothing about it. Young people who visit our church for the first time are asking questions like these: Where is our money going? What are you doing for others? Are you feeding and clothing the homeless? Are you hosting support groups for addicts? Are you finding childcare for single parents?
Fifth, you must be present to win. The essence of love is presence. Too often, we promise to pray for people at some later, undisclosed time rather than praying for them right then and there. Often, we allow the distraction of our mobile device to keep us from being fully present.
Sixth, be more like Jesus. Be inexplicably generous, unbelievably faithful, and wholeheartedly committed. Be a noticeably better person than you were last year and the year before that.
Robert Green is the Lead Pastor at Fondren Church in Jackson, MS. For more information, visit www.fondrenchurch.com.