Millennials are a mystery. Especially if you’re a Baby Boomer like me.
In the Boomer era it was not unusual for over one-third of the nation to be watching the same TV show. During the day, up to half the neighborhood listened to the same radio station on their drive home. And every adult in town read one of two newspapers.
If you mention The Brady Bunch, The Beatles or Watergate to a roomful of Boomers, virtually every face will light up with nostalgic recognition.
Not so with Millennials. Today we have over 500 cable channels, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, podcasts, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and so much more. All with use-it-when-you-want-it capabilities.
Because of the massive array of choices, there aren’t nearly as many communal experiences as there used to be. But church leaders keep looking for that one key to the heart of Millennials.
Here’s a harsh reality every church leader needs to hear – starting with me.
There is no key the the heart of Millennials. Because Millennials aren’t really a group. They’re individuals who just happen to have been born within the same general timeframe.
As long as church leaders keep seeing Millennials as a monolithic group, we'll keep getting it wrong.
Millennials defy the kind of group categorization we’re used to.
Good for them.
(If you’d like more about this trend, check out my post, Why Millennials Won't Build the Kinds of Churches their Parents Built)
The Way Jesus Sees People
So, if Millennials can’t be clumped together as a group, like we’ve done for a generation or more, what should we do instead?
We need to see them like Jesus does. As individuals, not a demographic group.
Jesus never saw people the way others categorized them. He didn't treat women like women, Samaritans like Samaritans, or lepers like lepers. His meeting with Nicodemus (John 3) shows us that Jesus didn't even treat all Pharisees through the same negative lens.
Jesus saw and treated everyone as an individual.
The New (Old) Church Leadership Reality
So why do we keep looking for the key to understanding Millennials as a group? And why are Boomers especially susceptible to this?
First, because Boomers like being seen as a group. Our common experiences make us who we are. And we assume others must be the same, we just haven’t figured out what their Brady Bunch is yet.
Second, because seeing people in demographic groups is easy. Getting to know people one-by-one is hard. And helping those individuals unite on common ground – like in a church – is harder yet.
It’s so much easier to categorize people by labels like Boomer or Millennial, liberal or conservative, and create a program based on those categorizations. Especially when it used to work.
In the Boomer and Builder generations we shared so many common experiences that you could build a successful ministry using the church-by-demographics model. As long as you fit into one of the pre-designated groups, we had a great church experience for you.
If you didn’t fit into one of those groups? You were left out. (Sorry, but it’s more true than I want to admit.)
That era is going and gone. The ways we give and receive information is vast and expanding. The life choices available to us are endless. This is causing us to be splintered like never before, but it’s also opening up opportunities that have never existed.
The massive variety within our culture is nudging Christians to do church in a more first century way than the 20th century way we’re familiar with.
Stop judging people by the group we’ve put them in, and get to know them as individuals.
As long as we do that, we will be able to touch people’s lives with the good news of Jesus. But if we insist on using one-size-fits-all methods and programs, we will fail.
The Choice for Church Leaders
Church leaders have a choice, with two options:
Keep doing what we’ve been taught. What worked in a previous generation. What got us where we are, but won’t get us to the next place.
Keep designing churches and ministries that target people demographically. Keep teaching upcoming pastors that successful ministries are built by exploiting generational / cultural / socio-economic dynamics.
You might even gather a good number of Millennials that way. Because a lot of Millennials do follow the crowd. Just like their Boomer parents.
But we’ll lose far more than we’ll gain.
Get to know people as individuals. Listen first, talk later.
Stop looking for easy answers. And refuse to bite when they’re offered.
Give up on church-by-demographics and invest in people.
The Gospel Always Works
Understanding how people live their lives, receive information and build relationships is not a call to water down the gospel to the lowest common denominator.
If anything, by their stubborn refusal to be categorized, Millennials are forcing us to stop catering to them and stand up for what we believe in, since there’s no other handle to hang on to any more.
Let’s quit asking what Millennials are looking for (Boomers, Builders, and kids, too) and start living a life that draws them to Jesus.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal. Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.