Ministering to Millennials (Part II – Who Are They and What’s Driving Them Away?)

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Last week we said that the research suggests Americans are less frequently labeling themselves “Christian” and those who are have lost a great deal of Christian orthodoxy in beliefs and practice, i.e. basic Apostles’ Creed truths and regular public worship. The Millennial generation, by far, is the one that is disengaging from Christian churches most, and in historic numbers.

So who are these difficult-to-please “Millennials?”

Technically, someone of the “Millennial” generation was born between 1980 and 2000. However, as mentioned previously, when it comes to worship habits and other areas involving engagement in Christian faith, there is generally a large behavioral difference starting during the college years. So, while as of today, a 15-year-old is technically a Millennial, the faith engagement of a 15-year-old is comparatively quite good in our country. For our purposes here, when “Millennial” is used, it’s primarily then referencing an independent adult somewhere in the ages of early twenties to late thirties. Many generational researchers consider that the better categorization for Millennials.[1]

These Millennials are currently getting a pretty bad rap in the media. In his YAHOO! FINANCE column, Rick Newman notes that CNBC’s research has discovered a general impression of Millennials in the workplace as “narcissistic, godless, precious, lazy.” But Newman makes the case that Millennials are simply products of their Boomer parents. At least in our country, Boomers, rapidly increasing the nation’s debt and emptying the coffers of Social Security and Medicare, will never be remembered as careful stewards of the institutions they inherited. Furthermore, the tremendous institutional skepticism that Boomers birthed, Millennials have now nurtured. Newman says, “Why is anybody surprised Millennials are turning out to be cynical, untrusting and mercenary? In the world they see, those traits are necessary to survive.”[2]

Cable television entrepreneur Bob Buford discussed the uniqueness of Millennials in a fascinating interview he conducted with researcher David Kinnaman. Noting the shift in the self-assessment of various generations, he said that, in his surveying, when the Elder generation was asked to describe themselves, the most commonly used words/phrases were: “World War II and Depression, smarter, honest, work ethic, and values and morals.” Boomers described their generation using terms like “work ethic, respectful, values and morals, and smarter.” Busters (or Gen X) used terms like “technology use, work ethic, conservative or traditional, smarter, and respectful.” And then he noted Millennials. The phrases they most commonly used? “Technology use, music and pop culture, liberal or tolerant, smarter, and clothes.” He concluded, “Where has ‘respectful’ gone? Where is ‘work ethic’? To me, this shows that the next generation is not just sort of different; they are discontinuously different.”[3]

Scott Hess is the VP of Insights at TRU, one of the most respected and influential generational marketing consultants in the world. Hess has been quoted by major periodicals as a foremost authority on American youth. In his San Francisco TED Talk in 2011, his presentation “Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them” chronicled the major differences between Millennials and the generation before them, the Busters or Gen-Xers.[4] Citing some clear and drastic generational differences, Hess says that where Busters were lean-back slackers, Millennials are lean-forward engagers. Busters were cliquish and judgmental. Millennials are inclusive and tolerant. Busters were anti-corporate. Millennials believe in commerce guided by conscience. Busters perceived parents as authority figures. Millennials perceive them as friends and helpers. Busters consumed mass media. Millennials prefer personal media.[5]

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the nature of Millennials is by deconstructing their favorite brand for five years running – Apple. Apple is a premium commodity in its genre, yet still accessible to almost all. There is no such thing as “high end” Apple. Everyone gets the same one, everyone starts in the same spot, but then you can go crazy with templated personalization. The technology is both fun and massively practical. Constant innovations and updates are applauded, not seen as frustrating change. Finally, the Apple brand also feels a bit like a movement. They have added philosophy to form and function, the perception that they are advancing humanity. More than any brand, Apple embodies the spirit of Millennials.

What’s Driving Millennials Away?

We’ve already established that Millennials are leaving churches and that Millennials are “discontinuously different” in their outlook on life from previous generations. But what is driving them away? To simply say “this is a wicked and godless generation” and “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.” (2 Tim. 4:3) might apply here, or it might simply be dismissive, failing to acknowledge that we have yet to do the humbling, difficult, personal-preference-sacrificing work the Apostle Paul alludes to when he says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23) In other words, while acknowledging that they, like us, are sinful and naturally resistant to the truth of God (Rom. 8:7), perhaps ministering to Millennials is primarily a matter of acknowledging that they think differently, not inherently better or worse, but different, from many of us.

For starters, Millennials had a massively different upbringing than previous generations. Kids today are eight times more likely to have come into the world without married parents than were Boomers.[6] Understandably, without the influence of a healthy, functioning parental unit, they are then slower to grow up. And because the two figures (i.e. parents) that humans are created to trust most intrinsically cannot fully be counted on, not as a unit/institution anyways, these young adults are tremendously skeptical. Because their God-given authorities have often proven themselves untrustworthy, Millennials have had to navigate a different route to find authentic authorities. Authority tends to come only after personal investment and communal accountability, i.e. genuine connection, has been established. In other words, don’t expect Millennials to willfully submit to long-standing systems or structures of expertise. Traditional structures have largely failed them from birth. They feel very little sense of obligation and therefore care far less about pre-existing “rules” than their predecessors. Diana Butler Bass states the shift in the perception of authority like this:

“In the post-World War II period, Western societies underwent what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘an expressivist revolution,’ whereby obligatory group identity – whether of nation, family, or church – was replaced with a new sense of individual authenticity and the ‘right of choices’ based in personal fulfillment. External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward the authentic self in society. Whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point. This revolution has happened.”[7]

Without question, personal choice now trumps social obligation. Consumer mentality wins over organizational loyalty. This has significantly shaped the landscape of American church. What is a congregation to do if they try to enact church discipline? Only 59 percent of Americans currently believe in hell and far fewer think there is any chance that they, their loved ones, or the neighbors they don’t even know, would ever go there.[8] This young American “under church discipline” will simply find a new church that will be more accepting of their behavior, beliefs, or desires. Much like the average coffee chain that literally has nearly 100,000 possible options for drinks, the Millennial who doesn’t like some things that his/her church teaches will simply determine that this church “isn’t for me.” Unfortunately, the desperation for growth and survival has led many churches to accommodate. As we’ll see later, this is ironically one of the things that Millennials claim they dislike about churches – they are too shallow and unable to change lives.

Currently, Millennials don’t see much difference between Christianity and other religions, or more specifically, between the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon. Nearly 60 percent of them believe these works offer the same basic spiritual truths as compared to only 33 percent of adults over sixty-four.[9] As disheartening for Christianity is the fact that so few Millennials (less than 1 in 5) consider any sort of spirituality to be important in their lives.[10] In some ways, this is the scariest possible news. If more young adults were actually antagonistic about Christianity, then they’d at least have it on their radar, investigating its claims and considering the cause of their animosity. But they’re default is distrust. They’re agnostic about everything. They have so much difficulty untangling who in their lives they can really rely on that something like supernatural religious claims almost seems too undecipherable.

Consequently, Millennials rely heavily upon what feels right. What seems fair is more powerful to them than what someone tells them is objectively right. Since so many truth claims are scientifically untestable, and since Millennials grew up hating the relational dissolution they experienced with their parents, they are constantly pushing for unity. Boomers were often skeptical of others but caustic in their attitudes. Millenials want to get along. They are forgiving and relational and have great difficulty understanding why other generations don’t feel the same way. They love family. They long for togetherness. They hate constant negative speech about other political parties, have no time for comments that suggest racial bias, and will opt out of any Christian church that is obsessed with pointing out the flaws in other Christian churches.

Perhaps surprisingly, in light of all that that’s been said, Millennials still largely believe in God. While Millennials tend to be the most unbelieving in the United States, still only 1.6 percent of the overall American population claims to be atheist. When you add together the percentages of Americans who are certain of God’s existence with those who say they have some doubts, you get to approximately 92 percent of the population.[11] That number is fairly historically consistent with previous generations.

So why are so many Millennials leaving churches? David Kinnaman says:

“When someone uses this idiom (“You lost me”), they are suggesting that something hasn’t translated, that the message has not been received. ‘Wait, I don’t understand. You lost me.’ This is what many (Millennials) are saying to the church…it’s not that they’re not listening; it’s that they can’t understand what we’re saying…The transmission of faith from one generation to the next relies on the messy and sometimes flawed process of young people finding meaning for themselves in the traditions of their parents….But what happens when the process of relationships and sources of wisdom change? What happens to the transference of faith when the world we know slips out from under our collective feet? We have to find new processes – a new mind – that make sense of faith in our new reality.”[12]

Are Millennials a lost cause? Of course not. Let’s not forget, the Holy Spirit’s basic work is to take those who are dead and make them alive (Eph. 2:1-5). It’s no less miraculous that God awakened believers in previous generations where universal morality, recognized authority structures, and belief in biblical inerrancy weren’t in question. God can and will accomplish what he desires with this generation as well. However, he has tasked us with the unique, beautiful, messy responsibility of mission work to this “discontinuously different” generation.

The things that obviously don’t change? First, we continue to recognize that our true power to make impact for God’s Kingdom is the dynamite of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Second, we come before God’s throne in prayer, asking for wisdom, opportunity, and blessing (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Third, we approach mission work to Millennials with the humility that comes from having applied the gospel to our own hearts, understanding that the only reason we count ourselves as God’s children is because, by sheer grace expressed through our Savior Jesus, while we were dead in sin, God rescued us (Rom. 5:8). We can unabashedly and accurately admit to Millennials (and mankind) that we are all fundamentally more alike than we are different – we are all sinners gifted with salvation by the grace of Christ Jesus.

With that in mind, we can work to overcome the most common negative perceptions that Millennials undeniably have about churches and the Christians who attend them.


What are those negative perceptions? I’ll have 8 of the most important ones for you next week. Thanks for reading! 

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[1] Jason Dorsey. “The Top 10 Millennials & Gen Y Questions Answered”

[2] Rick Newman. “If Millennials Are Jerks, Blame the Baby-Boomers”–blame-the-baby-boomers-200028612.html

[3] Kinnaman, pgs. 37-38

[4] Scott Hess, TEDxSF – “Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them,”

[5] Another way of painting the generational difference is to look at late night television. Millennials largely now prefer Jimmy Fallon in contrast to Busters/Boomers, who prefer David Letterman (or Jimmy Kimmel). Many Busters/Boomers consider Fallon a little flaky and Letterman witty. Millennials see Fallon as funny and Letterman as kind of a jerk. Letterman is combative and exclusive. Fallon is self-effacing and inclusive. Who is “better” is largely an issue of generational perception. Consider John Walters’ “Fallon Is the King on YouTube but Not on the Night’s Talk Shows”,

[6] Kinnaman, pgs. 46-47

[7] Bass, pg. 141

[8] Ibid., pg. 42

[9] Ibid, pg. 51

[10] Rainer, pg. 22

[11] Bass, pg. 49

[12] Kinnaman, pg. 39