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Rainers examine beliefs of Millennials in new book

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, and his son Jess Rainer have teamed up to write “The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation,” a book released in January by LifeWay’s B&H Publishing Group.

The book unpacks the results of an extensive August 2009 LifeWay Research project that surveyed a national sample of 1,200 Millennials. Millennials are categorized as individuals born between 1980 and 2000, but for research purposes, only older Millennials, those born between 1980 and 1991, were surveyed.

Thom Rainer visited the “Inside LifeWay” studio and Jess joined the conversation via telephone to discuss the data and offer some perspective beyond the statistics themselves.

“The Millennial generation, by our count, is the largest generation in America’s history, so just the sheer number of Millennials is something that we want to focus upon,” Thom Rainer said, noting that about 80 million individuals can be classified as American Millennials. “We have to say, We need to know about this group, how the church can reach them and why we are not reaching them at this time.”

Thom Rainer and his wife Nellie Jo have three sons, all Millennials, so some of the study’s findings simply affirmed what he had experienced personally. For instance, Rainer pointed out that Millennials cite philanthropy as an important goal — a goal the elder Rainer said he has seen carried out among his sons and their wives.

“On a whole, [Millennials] seek to serve others,” Thom Rainer said, “and it is more about what I can do for someone else than what everyone else can do for me.”

Similarly, Jess Rainer said his experiences among his peers allowed him to accurately anticipate some of the study’s findings, such as how technology has enabled Millennials to become well connected. But other results, such as the importance of family among Millennials, did surprise him.

“[The importance of family] really grabbed me just because our family situation, unfortunately, in America is probably not what it needs to be,” Jess Rainer said. “It was good to know that the Millennials were wanting to get back into that family mindset. Two out of three Millennials say … the most important thing to them in life is their family.”

Father and son acknowledged that while the Rainer siblings provide some anecdotal evidence in support of the data, the sons differ from the majority of Millennials when it comes to aspects of church and faith.

Thom Rainer said the study revealed data that was “counterintuitive” to the common assumption that spirituality and religious issues are important to Millennials. Those things, he said, seem more important to Generation X or the Boomer generation.

“This [Millennial] generation is not negative to Christianity or religion in general; it’s just not on their radar screen,” he said. “As we began to speak with them and ask some questions about religion in general and Christianity specifically, they would come back and say, ‘No big deal. We don’t even think about it.'”

Jess Rainer said his experiences with peers during his undergraduate days affirmed the religious indifference revealed by the data. “People just saw religion as something that was there,” he said. “It was just something else that if you wanted to get involved with it, you could, but it was more ‘Good for you. We’re happy for you,’ but if not, ‘That’s great. Let’s move on.'”

While the Millennials’ overall apathy toward religion is somewhat discouraging, Thom Rainer said the data did expose characteristics and attitudes that should be encouraging for society’s future as well as provide clues for how the church can obtain relevance with this generation.

Several elements Millennials cite as important, such as family and service to others, for instance, are foundational concepts for which the church is known. But, Thom Rainer said, churches are failing to provide a “good” church experience that connects with Millennials.

“The facts are, churches are closing. The facts are, evangelical Christianity, not to mention mainline Christianity, is declining in America,” Thom Rainer said. “Why? One of the primary reasons is the church — many local churches, I should say, have become more about what we can do for our members than what we can do to reach out beyond.”

The Millennials, he said, are asking, “What can we do to become incarnational in our communities? What can we do to reach the nations?”

Members of this generation are “eager” to attend churches that are “really ready to make a difference and radically get into the community and radically reach the nations,” Thom Rainer said.

Jess Rainer, who is on staff at Grace Church, a new church plant in Hendersonville, Tenn., said he has observed that churches are making a special effort to reach out to the surrounding communities.

“I think members are asking, ‘What can we do?'” Jess Rainer said. “Millennials specifically are saying, ‘Where can I get involved?’ … It’s important that the church take that initiative from Millennials and really let them go and let them do what they’ve been called to do and not get tied down in a committee, and just let them serve.”

Beyond implications for the local church, the Rainers said the Millennials research exposed realities for the workplace of the future and institutions other than those within the religious community.

Thom Rainer reiterated that Millennials overwhelmingly say that family matters are the most important part of their lives.

“[Millennials] are so connected to their family that if we don’t recognize that in some way, if our business policy, if our church ministries don’t recognize that in some way, we will not hold on to this generation.”

In spite of the gloomy responses regarding interest in church, both Rainers expressed enthusiasm about what they expect Millennials to accomplish in the next 20 years. Jess Rainer said his hopes for his own future coincide with the focus on family and desire to make a difference that the overall Millennial generation advocates.

“Being a Millennial,” Jess Rainer said, “I hope to have many, many more kids. That connection is there. I look forward to taking family vacations … and spending time with that family.

“I hope that in 20 years I will have definitely made an impact,” he said. “If I look back in 20 years and see that I haven’t done anything that is beneficial — not only to society but to Christianity — I could see that as a disappointment.”
Brooklyn Lowery writes for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. See accompanying First-Person column by LifeWay President Thom Rainer today in Baptist Press at http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=34396.

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  • Brooklyn Lowery