n Sunday mornings, I lead a small group of teenagers in a discussion about why the Bible matters now and how to pursue Christ. On Wednesday nights, I teach a larger group of mostly “baby boomers” the details of fasting and finding Jesus in the Old Testament. Sometimes the gap between the two settings can feel huge.
I’m a millennial in ministry, the generation known for having no need of religious affiliation and no trust of anything that seems organized. In our 20s and early 30s, we’ve been called the “me, me, me generation,” lazy and entitled. We fail to launch out of our parents’ homes because our student debts prove suffocating. We’re more connected by technology but feel more isolated than any generation before us. When we can find work, we’re said to hop from job to job in a matter of months. With all that, you could say the expectations have been set pretty low.
So, what are millennials looking for?
Looking for Something Real
To be sure, we millennials have earned a reputation. Surveys by the Barna Group show we’re “digital natives” who reach for our phones first to read the Bible or check out a church. (If your church doesn’t have a website, we probably won’t attend).
Nearly 60 percent who hailed from a Christian background have dropped out of church. While this might sound discouraging, it’s not for the reasons you may think. Many of those who left are “nomads” who want to follow Jesus but don’t feel like they fit in with church. Some have been put off by legalistic environments, some have been burned by the moral failure of those in leadership, and still others don’t see houses of worship as alive. These nomads wander on the fringes.
I’m guilty on all counts. Never having a mooring in faith during childhood, I became my own highest moral authority. In college, I bounced around from one idea to the next, hoping for something real. Agnosticism gave way to a triumphant atheism, and then Jesus hit me with a road-to-Damascus light that cut right through my flimsy excuses. All that wandering finally brought me to a solid cross.
You see, we millennials are searchers, looking for a real and vibrant faith. We go from place to place trying to find something tangible. And when we find it—receiving salvation and the fire of Pentecost—we’re a lot like those in the hills of Appalachia who experienced the power of the Holy Spirit long ago: we can’t help but share it.
In fact, contrary to what you might expect, more millennial Christians report having shared their faith in the last month than any other generation, and a large percentage claim to be consistent about spiritual disciplines such as fasting, Bible reading, and prayer (Barna).
There may not be many of us in the pews right now, but set us on fire and we’ll burn brightly.
Encouraging the Generations
Paul’s admonition to the church in Thessalonica has become something of my battle cry in finding ways to bring the generations of our church together to reach these nomads:
For God decided to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. He died for us so that we can live with him forever, whether we are dead or alive at the time of his return. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing (1 Thess. 5:9–11 NLT).
No matter the differences between us, we have more in common than not. Although we might use different words to say the same thing or different tools to communicate, we share enough in our faith to encourage each other. After all, the part about “God decided to save us” never gets old or loses its luster.
To find what we all share, we simply have to look back, look around, and look forward.
Look back. As a church family, we have a shared identity. Heritage may not be as important to Americans as it once was, but there’s no denying the impact the past has on us. Past salvation experiences and past victories, as told by those who’ve been in church for years, can encourage those currently in their own battles. Your scars give others determination. When you can show what Jesus did, you’ll never find a lack of people who need to know.
It’s when we try to go it alone by not learning from the past that we stagger around. That’s why so many in my generation aren’t sure where to land. We need help seeing the importance of how God brought us as a movement to where we are now—the good and the bad.
Look around. Paul tells us, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). God is not through reaching people, no matter their age or category. Younger generations may come at church and faith in ways that don’t follow the old patterns. They may not understand (but are willing to learn) the terminology that used to be more common, such as sanctification and justi- fication. However, the same God brings them to realize how much they need Him.
Changing how we do things isn’t always comfortable, but seeing people surrender to the Creator of the universe never gets tiring. We millennials and boomers can work together to see that happen. We can learn to understand and depend on each other.
Look forward. Perhaps what most draws generations together is celebrating our shared destiny. In both of his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul tells church members to inspire each other by talking about the return of Christ. He wants to make sure they keep their focus on the main thing.
One day, all Christians will worship Christ together in heaven—no matter our age or cultural identity . . . so we should get a head start as a community of believers down here. Differences in musical tastes and styles can’t get in the way of a truly loving community that follows Christ.
After all, the gospel is the only force strong enough to not only bring people together across any category, but to keep us together—past, present, and future.
Signs of Hope
Over 50 years ago, baby boomers (teens at the time) began a trend of “testing the spiritual waters” to see what’s out there. Many of them dropped out of church and came back later in life. Millennials, however, have access to more information than ever before and take longer to explore—if they come back at all (Barna). Our search can go broader and take longer, but never get us anywhere.
What millennials outside the church (and the culture at large) need is a Pentecostal Movement that truly believes and shares the “hope of glory” that’s in us (Col. 1:27). As we live out this hope and encourage each other in it, the more our faith becomes real to the “nomads” out there. And real is what they desperately want—real family.
The beauty of the Church is that Christ brings together a disparate group of generations and cultures and molds them into a holiness-seeking, Jesus-exalting, Spirit-empowered family. Nothing else like it exists in our world.
John UpChurch is the senior editor for BibleStudyTools.com and a pastor-in-training at Enon Church of God near Richmond, Virginia. [email protected]