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MILLENNIALS: Reversing the departure of a generation

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on the kind of leadership needed to engage, equip and empower millennials to join in the church’s mission to reach the world for Jesus Christ.

SUWANEE, Ga. (BP) — As a blessed father of two millennial daughters, I have a vital interest in seeing this generation reached, equipped and empowered to impact their church and this world for Jesus Christ.

Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, have come of age. Adult millennials are college and graduate students, have families, own businesses and lead churches throughout the U.S. They bring with them a fresh worldview, while older generations scratch their collective heads at the shockwaves brought on by the new kids on the block.

The generation, in the end, likely will be just as great and just as flawed as previous generations. Presently, though, they pose a challenge to local churches that is straining the wits of church leaders. Not on purpose, mind you. They are who they are, the creation of boomer helicopter parents of the 1980s and ’90s.

Millennials & the church

Thom Rainer and his millennial son Jess wrote in their book “Millennials” that less than one in eight millennials, though deeply spiritual, consider religion important. The Rainers reported in an earlier book, “Essential Church,” that 70 percent of churchgoing young adults stop attending church regularly for at least one year between the ages of 18 and 22.

The elder Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, shared with me that though there will be fewer Christians among this generation, they will be more deeply committed to their faith than counterparts from other generations.

Newer research suggests that millennials have a deep love and respect for parental wisdom — a notion millennials dare even to mention in the conference rooms of businesses across this land.

Are churches in danger of missing the mark? I believe so, yet the good news is that it’s not too late to see millennials worshipping together with their parents and grandparents in intergenerational worship. Such an occurrence honors God and opens the door to the inevitable transition in generational leadership ahead of us. This vision represents a longing in the millennial worldview that has not yet coalesced into typical church life. I believe it can.

In pursuit of this vision, I have identified four key values that drive millennials. How a local church relates to its millennial members with respect to these values likely will determine the future of thousands of churches over the next decade.

Millennials value personal achievement

Having grown up being told by mom and dad that they are the “best,” millennials believe they have what it takes to accomplish anything in life. They expect high achievement personally and professionally.

In terms of spirituality, millennial Christians take their faith seriously and seek to become the best Christ-followers they can be. They want their lives to align with their faith, knowing that the vast majority of their friends have no spiritual core. But what they sometimes see in church is less than enthused leaders who appear inauthentic but who continue to dominate the church’s decision-making processes.

Millennials value diverse relationships

Millennials value diversity. Their parents saw the color barrier broken in their schools, embraced interracial marriage, sat-in and stood-out for world peace and social justice. These values have been transferred to their millennial children with great success. What millennials want with respect to church is a place where all their diverse friends and co-workers can find and worship Jesus with them. But too often what they see is a church committed to worship the way it has “always been done,” regardless of who is neglected in the process. Instead of diversity they see “separate, but equal.”

Millennials value a positive world impact

Millennials earnestly desire to put their faith on wheels and take it to the street to impact the world for Christ. They fervently want to live out the “I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me” they memorized as a child. They are intensely missional in their view of church and want to make the world a better place. But too often they are told to sit quietly until old enough to serve on a committee or lead the WMU; in the meantime they can help with the children’s or youth ministries. What they see is a church that categorizes their ideas as too idealistic and naive. Helping teach children and youth is fine, but is there no more? Will their church’s “parent figures” who have mentored them over the years desert them now in such a time as this?

Millennials value the trust of mentors

Finally, millennials grew up with assurances of trust and accolades recognizing their worthiness. They want to act on that trust, demonstrating their worthiness through inter-generational relationships. Too often they see their churches cater to older, more trusted believers who become guardians of the status quo. Having heard the voice of trust and worth as a child from parental mentors, will today’s mentors withhold the trust that can lead to a satisfying, authentic change?

Leadership that engages millennials

Millennials value personal achievement, diverse relationships, a positive world impact, and they want to be trusted by those ahead of them. Absent these values, they are willing to walk away — from business organizations and church alike.

The answer is not another church program. Millennials are ideological yet are committed to create a better future. They will only be engaged by a leadership model that reflects the organic nature of church — that which flows naturally within the church context and recognizes all members in the process, including them — rather than the more traditional organizational structure found in many aging churches. Fully engaged and multi-generational is the leadership model of the next generation church.
Click here to read Part 2 of this series, Engaging & empowering the coming generation, and here for Part 3, Innovative leadership for the next generation. Mark Lindsay is associate pastor of education at Shadowbrook Baptist Church in Suwanee, Ga. He recently completed a doctor of ministry degree through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his doctoral research in the area of leadership and millennial engagement.Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Mark Lindsay