Millennials. Everyone’s talking about them. Churches want to reach them; marketers want to understand them; Facebook wants to subsume their existence. They’re leaving church and not coming back. They’re leaving college with massive debt, unable to find jobs. They want the church to be known more for what it’s for instead of what it’s against.
The problem is, understanding who “they” are is a lot harder than one might think.
Some of us are married; others are single. Some of us have kids; others want never to have children. Some of us went to grad school as the next logical step in a career path; others took a year off. Despite what some may think, Millennials don’t think as one monolithic bloc.
Recently I have noticed two distinct streams of thought regarding Millennials.
First there’s the “delayed adulthood” idea. A post on the denominational Young Adult Leadership Taskforce Facebook page linked to an article in USA Today about the lengths to which some parents go in order to help their college grad children get jobs. It quoted one sentence from the article: “Our children CAN find jobs, they just don’t LIKE them,” and then noted “Millennials and that pesky call of adulthood.” Underlying this statement is the idea that adulthood is defined by such things as getting a job, marrying, and buying a house.
On the other side is emerging sociological research arguing that people’s 20s and maybe even their 30s are a new developmental category often referred to as “emerging adulthood.” Such research suggests that frequent job changes and delayed marriage are defining characteristics of these young adults. The task after college graduation is not to become an adult by getting a job, it is to be an emerging adult. Millennials today, says Todd Cioffi, professor of congregational studies at Calvin College, are doing exactly what they have been taught to do.
So what does the church do with this dichotomy?
First, we need to examine our own expectations about adulthood. When you look at college students, single graduates, or DINKs (double income, no kids), what assumptions do you bring? Do you try to set up the single accountant with that nice boy who lives across the street? Do you ask the young couple when they plan to have kids? Do you encourage students who continue their studies after college even if it means a couple more years without a job? The most well-meaning comments can be incredibly hurtful if they imply that this person is not really an adult.
This extends to church programming as well. Is there a distinction between “adult small groups” and “singles group”? Are Wednesday evening activities oriented to nuclear families or to the church family? Far too many churches attempt to stem the mass exodus of young adults with programming aimed toward them, not realizing that this has a tendency to exacerbate the problem. What if adults of all stages (as well as teens and children) were fully participating members of your congregation’s life?
Second, we need to give voice to the concerns of Millennials. Do 20-somethings have the sense that they are part of the life of your congregation? Are they serving in meaningful positions? Is anyone under the age of 30 on your church council or on the search committee for the next pastor? Are small groups led by single and married people? These things signal how important emerging adults are to the life of a congregation in a much more profound manner than starting a new round of programming for college grads.
Many of today’s young adults have a strong desire to understand and to learn more in respectful, healthy dialogue. When we welcome emerging adults into meaningful roles in our churches, we have the tremendous opportunity to be blessed by their rich diversity.