Reaching the world with the gospel requires us to understand the world around us, doesn’t it? We study statistics, chat with our colleagues and watch the world work. Understanding the cultural makeup and behavioral tendencies of those around us helps us better live on mission and share the love of Christ with others.
One of the most popular people groups to study today in Christian and non-Christian circles is “Generation Y,” more commonly known as “the millennials.” All sorts of studies are published on millennials regularly. As less and less Millennials (or maybe just white millennials) attend a local church with regularity, pastors frantically read books and blogs about how to keep young people in the pews (or chairs, perhaps).
The organization blazing the trail on millennial analysis is Pew Research Center. Over the last few years, they have published a significant amount of data on generational analysis in general, but they’ve given special attention to millennials. In March of this year, they released a significant study on millennials titled, “Millennials in Adulthood,” which has served as a sort of gold standard of millennial data since. While Pew is leading the charge on millennial research overall, Barna Group has done the most significant amount of research as it relates to millennials and the church.
Turns out it’s a bunch of bunk.
At least that’s what Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard says. And he just might be right.
The problem with studying millennials
In his appropriately-snarky article on the crackpot social science of generational analysis, Ferguson explains how, basically, millennials can be whoever you want them to be to fit your situation. He writes of millennials,
They are nature’s gift to “generational analysts,” those big thinkers who are able to grasp entire national cohorts in their meaty arms, lift them up, turn them upside down, and shake them till every last cultural insight falls from their pockets. Generational analysts can make any assertion they want about the 80 million people they identify as millennials and then dare somebody to disprove it, though hardly anyone ever tries.
This summer I started a blog called Millennial Evangelical in an effort to help the church better understand, reach and serve millennials. As I’ve studied and written about millennials somewhat consistently for about three months now, I’ve realized exactly what Ferguson is saying: pick a stat and make it dance however you’d like.
Pastors and church leaders are desperate for more data, more stats, more analysis on the millennial generation and how they can get them in the church. There seems to be a sort of insatiable hunger for millennial resources.
In addition to my own blog, I help manage a couple blogs of other leaders in the evangelical community, and just about any blog post about millennials is guaranteed to draw more traffic than other run-of-the-mill blog posts.
Millennials are a hot topic in the blogosphere and in our churches, and in some respects, deservedly so.
But pastors and church leaders, we’ve got to be careful, and we’ve got to use discernment. Here’s why:
The “millennials” are made up of 80 million of the most diverse people this country has ever seen.
If you aren’t careful, millennial statistics can become missiological tea leaves from which you can read whatever conclusions you’d like.
Millennial data can be a Magic 8 Ball—it can really mean whatever you’d like it to mean—because if there’s one thing we are sure about when it comes to Millennials, it’s that they’re so diverse, we can’t be sure about much at all.
Perhaps we need to spend less time traipsing down the path of “crackpot social science,” as Andrew Ferguson writes, and more time doing our best shepherding Millennials like they’re any other people group: in Christ-like humility and love.
The way to reach millennials
Spending too much time wading through the muck and the weeds of generational analysis can leave one weary, discouraged and none-the-smarter. Sure, without a doubt, certain steps can be taken to better minister to millennials, boomers and everyone in between. But, when it really comes down to it, the way you reach the unbelieving millennial and the way you serve the believing millennial is the same: love them as unconditionally as Christ has loved you.
Praise God that his love transcends racial, cultural and generational boundaries. The sacrificial love of Jesus, though able to be expressed in a myriad of generation-specific ways, is the love of Christ regardless.
As I said before, we can be sure of only one thing when it comes to millennials—they’re diverse in almost every way. Thankfully, the way we reach millennials is no different than how Christ reached those around him: with unconditional, sacrificial love which can only be found in him.