ST. LOUIS (BP)–Is the church losing out on its greatest resource? In underutilizing Millennials — students born between 1977 and 2000 -– some missions workers believe Southern Baptists may miss out on the greatest opportunity to impact the Kingdom that the convention has seen in more than 50 years.
Touted for their global perspective and service-oriented personal goals, Millenials turned out in droves for the 2006 Urbana Student Missions Conference in St. Louis in late December. Yet, Southern Baptist workers indicate there is a downward shift in the number of students volunteering for mission projects.
Mike Lopez, director for student mobilization for the SBC’s International Mission Board, says two years ago about 8,000 students signed up for missions through his office. In 2006, the number has dropped to 6,500.
“I’m seeing that with other organizations too,” Lopez said. “I don’t want to say our numbers have disappeared, but I’ve noticed they are down in recent years.”
In spite of low numbers, Lopez says the youth culture is serving more than previous generations through human needs and disaster projects. “Our organization still has 30,000 high school and college students on mission. The numbers are great, but for Southern Baptists we could be doing a whole lot more.”
Lopez says he has 300 requests for 6,000 student volunteers from missionaries currently serving in the field. “Many will go unfilled through the year because of the lack of response.”
If Millennials desire to participate in community service projects, why aren’t they serving through local churches and signing up for missions in greater numbers?
Ben Christy and Jeff Trubey of Kyros Entertainment, a Nashville-based college lifestyle marketing group partnering with the IMB, have dubbed it “the Great Disconnect” as the church has become disconnected from the current generation.
“[The students] are very spiritually hungry to do missions. They are wired for that,” Christy said. But they perceive a lack of opportunity for service with Christian organizations, “so they are thrown toward secular organizations like MTV, which has sponsored a lot of mission opportunities for Katrina,” he said. “And it’s not about reaching nations and generations with the Good News of Jesus Christ as much as doing good work.”
Currently facilitating the IMB to connect with Millennials and plug them into missions opportunities, Kyros Entertainment has found the problem is not isolated to the SBC. Throughout the country, there is a tendency among some students who participated in a local church before college to find the church less significant in their lives.
So, these collegians are seeking vehicles for service elsewhere, Lopez said. “Years ago, we rarely saw students going on mission in teams. Now they like to be with peers and move in herds.”
Additionally, many local churches and organizations lack comprehensive mission strategies that appeal to Millennials. “They want to make a difference and know they are making a difference; they don’t want to just stand on the street corner and hand out tracts without understanding the larger strategy,” Lopez said. “We tell our missionaries that they need to help students understand their strategy.”
As Kyros’ Trubey puts it, “What is it that they are going to accomplish? Because if the vision is cast for them to use all their wirings for the Kingdom, they are going to effect such incredible change that we’ve never seen before.
“However, if the vision is not cast for them, they’ll do a bunch of wonderful things that will ultimately be for naught.”
In responding to the problems posed by declining missions involvement in college students, Lopez suggested several steps of action for local Southern Baptist churches.
First, Millennials need a face-to-face connection with a real person in order to plug them into missions and service causes.
“The local church is the closest face-to-face connection with these kids. The closer I get to that student’s face, the more they will pay attention to me,” Lopez said, adding that the IMB’s recent SONICFLOOd concerts were hosted in local churches to strengthen the relationship between ministers and the students residing in their cities.
“We are pushing hard and aggressively to try to get close to the face of these students and get close to their ears so we can see them eye-to-eye.”
Second, students also need to be presented with a challenge. Lopez said most local churches are not presenting a call for missions from the pulpit. “If our kids aren’t challenged, then is there any wonder that they aren’t following the call? They don’t know there is a call,” he said, adding that IMB strategies such as the SONICFLOOd concerts and “The Task” video series were created as tools for local churches that want to challenge their students and youth.
“We’re trying to turn the tide. Kids just need to be challenged, and the local church is the best place to do that -– they are the closest to their faces,” Lopez said.
Third, students appreciate an overall strategy rather than isolated activities, Lopez said. Churches can adopt a people group and over the course of five years focus on that group through mission trips, learning their language, collecting funds and prayer.
“Missions is more than a weeklong trip,” said Lopez, urging churches to develop strategies. “We try to get people out of mission trip thinking, and we want them to think mission lifestyle. Am I living a lifestyle that gives evidence of God’s call on my life and God’s heart for the nations? Students need to understand a biblical view of missions is not something we do, but something that we are.”
Fourth, all types of conferences should be supplemented by local congregations, Lopez said.
“What these conferences are doing is great. This is one place where students from all over the nation can come together and be challenged to be on mission, but the churches need to supplement what they are hearing,” Lopez said. “They are not a sending organization, it is a conference. So once they get home, someone needs to follow up with them.”
Based on their research among college students, Kyros Entertainment likewise believes the responsibility to minister to students is the initiative of the local church.
“The local church, if they are near a college, should call the Baptist campus minister or call the state convention office and find out who on that campus they could connect with,” Trubey said. “Go and ask how they can minister to them. Every Wednesday they are probably providing a lunch and every Tuesday night some kind of program. Don’t expect the students to sit in the pews. Go where the students are and create relationships with them.”
If creating a college missions strategy seems daunting, Trubey recommended starting locally first. “The local church can create community service projects for college students. If the church isn’t getting to know them and creating relationships with them and building opportunities for them in a community that is compelling, then the kids won’t spend time on it.”
John Robinson, team leader and strategy coordinator for the IMB’s Celtic languages team, regularly utilizes students in his work in Wales.
“I’m very encouraged by this generation. University students are really coming to seek the Lord and to seek God and seek His direction,” said Robinson, who recently spent time recruiting students at the Urbana Student Missions Conference.
To attract more students to work in his area, Robinson said a tentmaker program is being developed through which students raise their own support to learn the language of a select people group. After mastering the language, the student finds employment in the secular arena and begins ministering as a genuine member of the community.
“One of the reasons that I love students is they often exhibit two character qualities that I look for in those who serve with me. I look for people who are passionate about Jesus and people who are teachable,” Robinson said. “Skills aren’t that important, because we can train people. But I find that these two character qualities that I look for in general are more prevalent in this generation. And I think that is going to make a difference in world missions.”
Despite the dipping numbers in students signing on for international programs through the IMB, Lopez remains positive about the future of missions.
“High school and college students are just the best thing going right now. If we are going to change the world, we can do it with this generation,” he said. “But they have to step up and be accountable to God’s call.”
For more information about collegiate missions opportunities or creating a missions strategy for your church, contact Mike Lopez at MLopez@imb.org or visit www.thetask.org. For more information about Kyros Entertainment, visit them online at www.kyrosentertainment.com, call 615-397-1034 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.