By Sam S. Rainer III
America’s largest generation seeks change through hope, knowledge and authenticity.
They are America’s largest generation, slightly edging out the Boomers. They stand to become America’s most educated generation. Almost all of them want to make a difference in this world. And none of them like to be stereotyped. They are the Millennials, born from 1980 to 2000.
It’s difficult to generalize a generation that doesn’t like labels. Indeed, many make a point to fight against categorizations. Rather than oversimplifying a diverse generation into homogeneous units, my aim is to show how this diverse amalgamation of young people is shaping the culture.
Regardless of descriptive labels they may claim or not claim, Millennials are changing the attitudes of our society. They are poised to become the dominant adult population in the next two decades. And as they enter the workforce, get married, have kids and begin to lead, they will challenge the status quo. They will inevitably elevate new cultural norms over old ones.
1. Hopefulness over greatness: As the Baby Boomers moved into adulthood, they tended to pursue individual greatness. Millennials are no less ambitious, driven, or determined than previous generations. Many desire greatness. Many desire fame. The difference is that Millennials tend to elevate hopefulness over greatness. In other words, they seek a greater good more than they do personal fame, fortune or power.
This generation would rather make a contribution to something meaningful than rise to individual prominence. They are more hopeful about a positive future for everyone than they are driven by a desire to attain personal greatness.
How can the church engage this cultural change? The church must be both authentic and hopeful. The Millennials understand not all is well with the world. It drives them to make a difference. Churches that engage this generation will be real about their internal problems and external challenges. But these churches will provide an avenue of hope and optimism with which the individual can make a collective difference.
2. Education over religion: The Millennials are poised to become America’s most educated generation. Their rates of receiving undergraduate degrees have surpassed that of all previous generations. The college degree has become, in many ways, a requisite for advancement in life.
While this generation has created an expanded culture of learning, religion has become less important to Millennials. Only 13 percent of Millennials consider any type of spirituality to be important. Education is the new religion.
How can the church engage this cultural change? Biblical depth has always been paramount. It’s even more important now. Most churches simply will not capture and retain the Millennial generation with superficial sermons and shallow Bible studies. The most educated generation will desire to know deep doctrinal truths, even if they do not initially agree with them. This generation is real. This generation is educated.
They will view shallow churches for what they are: inauthentic and insubstantial.
3. Connectedness over anti-authoritarianism: Every generation rebels against something. It’s common for young people to reject previous norms. The Millennials are no exception. The difference, however, is they value a connection to family and friends more than they desire to rebel. In an open-ended survey question, the number one item listed as important to this generation was family.
Additionally, Millennials have a positive view of previous generations. Ninety-four percent of Millennials state they respect older generations.
Many come from non-traditional families. Many have non-traditional views about what constitutes a family. But they take marriage seriously.
Eighty-six percent of Millennials desire to marry only once or not at all. And they use all means — technology included — to stay connected to family.
How can the church engage this cultural change? Rather than approaching ministry to young people as if they desire to be separate due to rebellious tendencies, bring them into the heart of the church. Give them opportunities to lead, even in roles where they lead people of older generations.
Put them on important committees; give them teaching opportunities. Don’t segregate mission trips according to age. Have people of all ages serving together in various activities. While each generation needs support from common groups (i.e., age-segmented Sunday school), isolating these groups in every aspect of the church will not reach the Millennials.
This generation is far from perfect. They have many of the same problems as their parents. They struggle with many of the same things as their grandparents. They want to be connected to all generations. Churches can be the vehicle by which they attain the significance they desire.
Family of researchers
The astute reader of this article will have recognized that the author, Sam Rainer, is the son of Thom Rainer and the brother of Jess Rainer, the two of them authors of The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (B&H Publishing Group, 2011).
Thom Rainer is president of LifeWay, and Jess Rainer is the administrative and outreach pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. The third son is Art Rainer, business administrator at First Baptist Church, West Palm Beach, FL.
Interestingly, Thom Rainer points out that all three sons of he and his wife, Nellie Jo, are Millennials, “so some of the study [on which the book was based] is simply affirmed what the author had experienced personally raising his sons,” according to LifeWay’s Facts and Trends.