Never in American history has there been a generation of humanity picked apart and criticized like the Millennial generation. Baby Boomers were the focus of general study for decades, Gen Xers were largely ignored, and then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the focus turned to the Millennial generation. It is likely that Millennials only received more attention than Boomers because they are being studied in the age of the internet, which is a content machine whose thirst for content is never slaked.
Generally speaking, Millennials were born between 1981 and 2000. Most researchers agree on the beginning of the Millennial generation, but there is a significant amount of disagreement about when they were born. Some researchers say the Millennial generation ends as early as 1995, while some extend it all the way to 2000.
A lot happened between 1995 and 2000, namely the popularization of the personal computer and the prevalence of home internet. So, where one ends the Millennial generation can have drastic effects on how one understands the largest generation in American history.
I have been writing on Millennials and the Church since May 2014, and I am a Millennial myself. Born in 1990, I am right in the middle of the Millennial generation. As I have worked in ministry in the local church and for a Christian publisher, I have advised thousands of pastors and church leaders on how to better understand, reach, and serve Millennials in their churches and communities.
Millennials see church differently than generations who came before them because they see institutions differently. But before we get into that, let's clear up some common misunderstandings about Millennials that persist in the Church.
How We Misunderstand Millennials
Almost every major misunderstanding regarding Millennials is rooted in one basic issue: generalization.
I have written and said it a hundred times, but I'll say it again here: the only generalization you can make about Millennials is that they are too diverse to generalize. I don't just mean racially diverse, though that is true. Millennials are too diverse in their interests, their backgrounds, their experiences, and more to effectively generalize them.
If you read articles on the internet and come across Millennial content, you'll see all kinds of phrases like, "Millennials are killing __________," and "Millennials don't like to __________," and more. Throwing around phrases like this is dangerous because they are only ever part of the story.
When it comes to Christian ministry, some of the most common misunderstandings about Millennials are: Millennials don't want to go to church; Millennials hate hymns; Millennials reject Christian orthodoxy.
One major generalization about Millennials is true, however, and it has massive implications for how the local church works to reach and equip them.
A high percentage of Millennials have significant distrust for institutions: political institutions, economic institutions, relational institutions, and religious institutions. I could bore you with stats, but take my word for it: a significant share of Millennials distrust institutions.
So, if Millennials distrust institutions, what are they looking for?
What Millennials Are Seeking
What's the answer? What's the secret, the big mystery? What are Millennials looking for instead of a cold, crusty institution?
Millennials are looking for a community that feels like family.
Whether in their pursuit of a religion, a workout routine, a diet plan, or something else entirely: Millennials want to be part of communities that feel more like families more than bureaucracies or clubs.
In 2017, PBS NewsHour interviewed a Harvard researcher named Casper Ter Kuile about how Americans are engaging their spiritual side outside of the local church. He said, "In a move that confused a lot of my friends and family, I have found countless examples of other Millennials creating new forms of community that often fulfill the same functions that a traditional religious group would have." What are those "new forms of community?"
Casper goes on to list them: The Dinner Party, an organization that helps people meet and eat meals together, CrossFit, and Afro Flow Yoga, are a few examples of how Casper has seen Millennials engaging their spiritual side in community outside of the traditional church setting.
He continues, "Each of these communities and others like them shape participants' world views, ethics and behaviors. And in a culture where many are hungry for connection, these communities offer the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves, what some theologians might describe as experiencing the divine."
Casper's right. His equation of a local church and CrossFit or yoga is unfortunate and inaccurate from our evangelical perspective, but in the eyes of many Millennials, finding community in a Sunday morning "Afro Flow Yoga" class is not really all that different from finding community in a local evangelical churchin fact, it's better because their yoga friends don't judge people.
What does the local church have to offer alongside these community-building activities?
How the Church Can Reach Out to Millennials
So how does the local church reach out to a generation of people who are looking for a familial community?
It's pretty simple: conduct your local church more like a warm, welcoming family than a cold, corporate institution.
This isn't a marketing tactic or anything like that. The Church is a family. Structuring your local church to function like a family is simply being faithful to what you actually areit's not being disingenuous, but actually genuine.
What does it practically look like for a local church to act like a family?
Create a healthy culture of community groups that meet in people's homes on a weekly basis. Structure those community groups around a meal.
Watch each other's kids so you can have free babysitting on date nights.
Help each other move.
Get each other Christmas gifts.
Go on vacation together.
This sort of love and support is attractive to anyone, regardless of whether or not they believe in Jesus. Showing this sort of love to young people in your communities may present you with many opportunities to share the gospel motivations for your unconditional love.
A Parting Thought
Millennials just want a community of people who love them unconditionally. Unfortunately, they're looking for that in places that simply cannot fulfill their deepest longings.
For many Millennials, the community is the end in itself. The feeling of "belonging to something greater" is simply derived from hanging out with more than one person. "Greater" is almost used as a quantitative term, not a qualitative one. Even at its best, non-Christian Millennial community does service work that might be "something greater" but is ultimately temporary.
For Christians, community is not the end itself. The feeling of "belonging to something greater" is actually derived from belonging to something greater, something better, something eternal.
If you want to reach the young people in your communities, offer them the unconditional love of family and share the gospel motivations that fuel your love for one another.
Chris Martin is an author coach at a Christian publishing company. He blogs regularly at MillennialEvangelical.com to help pastors better understand, reach, and equip millennials. You can find him on Twitter@ChrisMartin17 or on Facebook.com/MillennialEvangelical.