Millennials, and everything surrounding the conversation, has been a topic that gets a lot of attention, whether by the marketing industry, churches, organizations, the work force, and the like. But everyone is trying to figure out how this 'generation' ticks and how they can reach them and even acquire them. Now, of course I am not saying an entire generation of people does not exist, but what I have found over the years reading books, blog articles, surveys, statistics, etc. is that most of the time we are missing the mark. We are asking the wrong questions-- as though we can lump together over three decades of people into one category and dissect them as one living organism.
This video by Adam Conover (aptly titled the same and spurred me on to finally write this article) is a perfect explanation of what I mean. He is speaking at the Deep Shift conference in front of a marketing convention explaining how the stereotypes being presented of Millennials are patronizing and ultimately inaccurate (as it would be to do so with any generation):
The reality is that people are much more complex than what decade they were born in. I was born in the early 1980's and would be classified a Millennial myself. Though my life experience growing up in the 80s and 90s looks quite different from those who were born in the 90s and now the new Millennia. For example, I lived before the digital revolution of computers, smartphones and social media. I am not a native to it and can remember life without these things being ingrained into our culture. For example, when I went off to college the first time, not many people had their own personal computer and no one had laptops. We would either go to the library to write on the school computers or maybe pitch in for one with your room-mate. Computer screens were the size of small tube tvs and portability wasn't really an option. This remained the status quo until I graduated in 2003. After returning only 4 years later, in 2007 things had drastically changed. Where you would have never seen a laptop in class, now it was rare to not see one. Now a days, the idea of anyone not owning some sort of compact, personal computing device is unheard of-- be it a laptop, chromebook, tablet or smartphone. On arriving back, I remember explaining that very thing to a class full of first year students and their minds were blown. I've even explained to a room full of teenagers not that long ago, that I remember a world without cellphones (let alone smartphones), laptops or the internet and they were honestly surprised-- like I was from the 50s! But I am still classified as a Millennial, along side those who would have a hard time imagining the world without.
But that is only one layer to this whole issue. Even if you were to narrow the field and, say, take a group all born in the same year, you'd still run into the real issue of falsely lumping them together, assuming as though everyone acts the same, thinks the same, has the same preferences, speaks the same or has the same experiences simply because they are the same age. Let's take this a step further. Even if we were to take 100 people who were all born in 1996, making them 20 today, who grew up in the same town, same school and similar living circumstances, you would still not have 100 carbon copies of each other. This is the major issue with generational studies and, in turn, articles that read: 'Why Millennials don't..' or "How to get Millennials to...'. It assumes that all Millennials will predictably act a certain way because they fit into a certain age range and demograph. As if we can paint an entire generation in a predictable way solely because we have labelled them something.
As one who works the majority of his time in the church world, I see these kind of articles all the time: '5 Things Millennials Wish The Church Would Be.' As though we can know for certain why any person chooses to be a part of or not part of a certain community simply because they belong to a generational demography. What is worse is that a lot of these articles focus entirely on preference--like worship style, communication style, etc. Even if the reasonings were deeper ones, I would be so bold to argue that we still couldn't be certain on knowing.
If you were to take those 100 Millennials I mentioned above, and asked them why they go to church or why they left or don't go, you would probably get a wide range of answers. Some studies and articles I have read say Millennials want liturgical, while others are flocking to places like Hillsong New York. Some will say that they need meaty theological preaching while others need something that is relevant and speaks to them. Bare bones versus interactive. Maybe they left their church because it wasn't welcoming enough or was too flashy or not flashy enough. Everyone thinks they know because they see a trend happening in some Millennials, but then you can see another trend in others. It makes me wonder, that when we dig deep down into this conversation, we find out that we simply don't know. Because people are much more complex then their generational demographic. Maybe it is because you can't lump an entire generation into a nice and neat stereotype. This doesn't just go for Millenials, but most any generation. Generational studies and engaging differing demographics can be helpful and there are definitely useful information and things we can learn, including better understanding the values that each generation hold. But my hope in this article is to make the case to not swing so far that we put all our eggs into one basket. Let us go into the information we study and read and know that it is probably one small part of the bigger picture.
Maybe the answer isn't on how to reach an entire generation, but simply to engage a generation by simply engaging people, as that... people. Complex, unique individuals who need not to be stereotyped or figured out, but who need real community, real hope, real mentorship and some place where they belong, have meaning and can make a difference, etc. Just like every other generation. What this looks like will differ from community to community, organization to organization and even generation to generation. But, let us be careful to not treat people solely through the lens of their generation.
Drake De Long-Farmer
I am a passionate Frenchman who loves to see people thrive and come alive--to BELONG, wrestle with what they BELIEVEand BECOME the masterpiece God has destined them to be. I am a life learner and love being challenged to grow further. One of my favourite things to do is spend a good amount of time at a good café or coffee shop with a good book or challenging conversation. To be able to share in someone else's journey and experience the story that journey tells is always a pleasure and an honour. I currently serve as the Editor-In-Chief of boldcupofcoffee.com and as the Executive Pastor at Gateway Alliance Church, building & leading our various teams, speaking in various capacities.
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