Some sociological studies say that millennials are selfish, greedy, and narcissistic. My optimism for this generation does not go unchallenged, especially by those in the Gen-X generation. (This includes those born after the baby boom, which ended in 1964, and before the millennial generation which began in 1982, thus they are between the ages of 34 and 50.)
Marketers and advertisers use this “selfish, greedy, narcissistic” stereotype to sell to this millennial generation. To some extent it does work. This is why they have been called “The Me Generation.” But the millennials I spend time with, Christian and non-Christian alike, are anything but selfish. They may lean towards being a bit too “entitled” but I find them to be an extremely thoughtful generation that is filled with enthusiasm for social justice and calls for a more generous lifestyle.
Churches are generally unaware of the potential of this generation, seeing them as people who do not want to join them in order to help run the church and its programs. This is completely true! Ironically, this makes some boomers (like me) a lot more like these millennials.
John M. Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, a well-known mainline church in downtown Chicago (which is also the second largest PCUSA church in America), recently wrote:
When I arrived at the church I served in Chicago, I inherited a program that shaped my views of young adults. The church pairs a needy youngster with a volunteer tutor for an hour and a half of academic study once a week. The program grew from 75 children to nearly 500, and most of the tutors have been young adults; in fact, many are young lawyers, bankers, brokers and doctors. They hear about the program through friends and social networks, decide to volunteer and become superb tutors. In many cases, significant relationships develop, some of them lifelong (Christian Century, January 8, 2014).
When Buchanan asked why these greedy, narcissistic young adults were serving in this way the answer became immediately clear to him. He says. “They are not greedy, selfish narcissists; they are generous. They want to make a difference in the world and in a young child’s life.” I totally agree. Now please understand me, there have always been greedy, narcissistic people in every generation but to stereotype this one generation as such is a big mistake.
Another things is evident in this story. These young adults have not written off the church, or at least not Christianity and serving. Buchanan says this tutoring program proved to be :the church’s most effective evangelism tool. The new member classes always held a few young adults who would speak about the child they’d met through the program and come to care about.” Buchanan concludes: “It was one of the best experiences of my life to preside in worship as those young adults affirmed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and promised to live in a way that reflects his love.”
I have seen the same thing as I have spoken to millennial groups across the country. I saw it in spades in Phoenix several weeks ago. This generation is waiting to be challenged to serve by serious older Christians. Here is what I saw. Give them something worth doing, and worth doing well, respect them for what they feel called to do, and then encourage them. Do not try to push them into your box called “our ministry” and allow them to dream with you about how to reach their peers and younger people than them (children) and see what happens. I short, stop trying to build millennial groups built around fun, games and programs. And by all means stop lecturing them with a Bible about heaven and hell. They will not “hear” you if you talk down to them from your station of age and power. Engage them, enjoy life experiences with them, ask them how you can really help them pursue their passions and dreams and then join with them in something that they want to do that involves real serving of others.
In an article titled “Millennial Searchers” (New York Times, December 1, 2013), Emily Esfahani Smith, a New York editor, and Jennifer Aaker, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, report that millennials are far more concerned about living a meaningful life than about making a lot of money. Reaching that goal means being connected to something bigger than self–to others, to work, to a life purpose and to the world itself. The most amazing thing they discovered, and this is precisely what I’ve experienced in the last months, is that meaning in life is discovered from giving rather than taking. This young generation intuitively knows that this is true.
This response sounds a lot like what Jesus teaches when he says: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NRSV).
Is our gospel too small? Are we ready to love people more than stuff and to invest our lives in others in loving and enduring relationships that serve rather than seek? Perhaps the “seeker” church might become the “give your life away” church. If it does then the next generation would respond in greater depth, and even larger numbers. One can pray and dream, right?