On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

  1. I hope you don’t mind some corrections you overlooked:

    (1) “Now not that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation.” I assume you don’t want the first “not.”
    (2) “(I think there’s probably good a case for that.)” I assume you mean “probably a good case.”
    (3) “(“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).” I think you want the period inside the parentheses.

    I hope you don’t mind those comments.

    Overall, I agree with a lot of what you say. When I’ve thought about this topic recently, I thought about how most people my age are going to decide whether to stay in the church or leave around the age of 20, around halfway through college. That’s not a firm number, but it helps put things in perspective.

    Along these lines, I think your last point is one of the most important. If at the age of 20 we have a childish understanding of faith, no grasp of biblical theology, zero opportunities to serve and learn to find joy (or to make the point more explicit, purpose) in serving, it’s really no wonder that people end up leaving. A lot of us want to help make the world a better place and if we cannot find that in the church, it sort of makes sense (even being wrong) that they leave and try to find purpose elsewhere.

    And one of the things doing this will help is actually encouraging millenials to actually care like they say they do. We might say we want to help the world, but are we willing to work with children, feed the hungry, or tend to the elderly? Do we want to help or do we merely want to think we want to help? One of the ways the church can help is channel our idealism by calling us to actually serve instead of worn out expressions or political utiopianism.

  2. I appreciate you making the distinction between “listening to” and “catering to.” So often I get the same feeling, whether it’s “listening” to Millennials or some other vocal group (I say this as a Millennial myself). It’s disingenuous to say “just listen” and then act betrayed when the person/group does not act in accord with all subsequent demands, and that’s a great way to make anyone skeptical of the request for listening (or “having a conversation”), though I hope that doesn’t happen — I hope the church doesn’t throw its hands up and walk away, because Millennials should be listened to, since as you say, we are just as much a part of the church as anyone else. We just need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re asking for.

    Also a comment on the idea that the church has become “too political” — I can also understand that confusion, and I think your distinction of “partisanship” is more specific. I will say that for me, I often make the mistake of using the word “politics” or “political” when I mean something more specific and don’t know how to describe it. I think I’m coming to greater terms with the fact that my Christianity was very much entwined with American nationalism, growing up as a conservative Christian homeschooler, and I’m still working to separate the strands of faith from those of mere patriotism and “heritage.” It’s not the politics that are the problem, it’s their place in my identity, and it’s how my American patriotism has coopted my Christian witness — something I still see today. That’s just my view, but I have heard similarly from others with a similar upbringing.

  3. Pingback: Lying to Unmarried Women, Google Knows You, & the Time C.S. Lewis Bashed on Disney – Summit Life with J.D. Greear
  4. I saw this pop up in my twitter feed and my first thought was “Oh no, what have I done now.” As a millennial who is trying to not to fall into the stereotype of lazy, entitled, etc. it has gotten to the point where seeing the word “Millenial” in the article title makes me nervous. However, with this, I am immensely glad I stopped and read the whole thing.

    I really identified with some of the things you said. I think, at our core, we millennial want to know where we fit into the purpose and story that God is weaving throughout eternity. We want to contribute to the church. We want the things we see, notice, and feel to be heard if not understood. In short, as you mentioned, we want discipleship and spiritual fathers to help guide us.

    For the Millennial and the Boomer generations to come together, I think it is fair to say that concessions will need to be made on both sides. I loved what you said about allowing Millennials positions of leadership and a seat at the table, so to speak. Instead of focusing on where the generations differ, it is imperative to understand that first and foremost, we serve an endless and ageless God who has ruled over all generations before us and every generation to come.

    Great article! Thanks!

    -Daniel C. Burton

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