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They are America's most educated generation, most diverse generation, and surprisingly, America's largest generation. They're the Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000. And they are beginning to get married, enter the workforce, and lead the world.
This generation is hopeful. In fact, 96 percent of them agree with the statement, "I believe I can do something great." But the majority say individual prominence is secondary to helping the community and accomplishing things for the greater good.
Yet this hopeful generation lacks a solid spiritual foundation on which to base their hopes. As few as one in four attend church weekly. Nearly two-thirds never attend religious services. Church leaders face unique challenges in reaching them.
Older generations tended to place a higher priority on church activity and attendance. The younger generation, however, demands to know the purpose behind each activity. For Millennials, just attending church does not equal faithfulness. The only way they'll attend is if they see the church as being a meaningful part of their lives.
Older generations also were less bothered with uniformity. The homogenous groups championed by the church growth movement worked well with most Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Builders (born prior to 1946). Most Millennials, however, prefer heterogeneous groups. Perhaps this is being driven by the diversification of our culture. For example, preschools are projected to become minority white in 2021. Diversity is normative for Millennials, and they will gravitate toward churches that look like their diverse schools and workplaces.
Unsurprisingly, the preferred style of leadership has shifted for this next generation. Fading is the era of transactional top-down hierarchies.
Millennials don't reject the idea of authority, but they have redefined how authority is exercised. They tend to follow leaders who operate in a transformational capacity—and ones who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. Rather than telling followers what the big picture is, these leaders allow followers to help create it. Transformational leaders inspire people to reach for a common goal, one developed through a shared vision.
In this environment, equipping and mentoring become more important than directing. Structure is looser, and what structure remains is not an end, but a means of helping people become disciples. Leading the members of the next generation requires a commitment to serve alongside them, not issuing directives from above them.
Appeals to positional authority don't carry weight with younger people. Leaders must assume responsibility to enhance the lives of followers. The debt of authority is the responsibility to sacrifice for followers.
Self-Expression, Corporate Unity
Millennials value churches where each person is empowered to use individual gifts within a unified body. Of course there's often tension between individual expression and corporate unity, yet this generation desires both.
Millennials refuse to sit on the sidelines. They want to be part of the action, or they'll be gone. A church without opportunities for the next generation is boring at best and disobedient at worst.
Contrary to the stereotype, most Millennials are not scared off by hard work. In fact, one of the best ways to keep them engaged is to communicate a large vision, worthy of their devotion, and then set high expectations.
This next generation is hungry for leadership, but of the right kind. Church leaders must reach out to Millennials without "selling" them something. They must inspire an older generation to loosen their grip on the methods of yesterday, and think of themselves as missionaries to the world of postmodern people. These leaders must be authoritative without being authoritarian, decisive without being dominant.
This next generation desires to be led. They are willing to follow if given a chance to make a difference. Unify them with other generations. And give them meaningful opportunities to participate in God's work in the world.
—Sam S. Rainer III is president of Rainer Research.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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