​Expect to Be Surprised: 4 Ways Millennials Think Differently about Church

There are plenty of articles out there about the Millennial generation. Here are just a few of the headlines that caught my attention: Millennials are….

I was born on the very edge of the Millennial generation, but I have taught, mentored, and coached them most of my life, from directing youth camps to teaching middle school English for three years. With social media, I’ve stayed in touch with former students more than past generations would have been able to. I’ve gotten snapshots of them learning, growing up, making mistakes, processing heartbreak and disappointments, and entering the workforce—some of them are married with kids of their own already.

I remember standing in front of a classroom of 14 students in my homeroom on the first day of school. I had memorized their names and faces over the weeks of prep, and now here they were in front of me, all sleepy eyes, Axe body sprayed, and overly-gelled hairstyles. Back then, they weren’t the “selfie” generation yet. My students didn’t know they would be analyzed in Forbes and obsessed over by Human Resource departments. What I learned over those years of teaching didn’t seem to indicate the huge cultural shift in understanding under discussion now. They looked for the same things—encouragement, love, leadership, challenge, connection, and purpose—that every generation before had done.

They Did Surprise Me on One Occasion with Their Generosity

My 7th grade homeroom was a standard cross-section of middle-class students. They were alternately sweet, cruel, obnoxious, and usually a little smelly, just like you would expect. But they did surprise me on one occasion with their generosity. A kindergartener in our district had been recently diagnosed with a Bone Marrow disorder, and the teachers, PTA, and administrators pulled together a bone marrow match drive in honor of little Katie.

The announcements had gone out over a few weeks, asking for volunteers. One morning during a rowdy homeroom period, I spent a little extra time talking about the opportunity to make a difference by showing up, using the bone marrow drive that Saturday as a concrete example of something they, as 7th graders, could do. I knew not many students had previously volunteered, but we talked about the idea that in this event they had power to make a difference.

Whatever the reason, it was a total shock to me when I drove up to the school on Saturday morning and found twelve of my students, including the roughest and rowdiest boys from the class, industriously passing out cookies and juice, directing cars in the parking lot, and bugging the nurses who were managing the blood draws. The PTA leader in charge said they had shown up promptly at 8AM, getting their parents to carpool them in on a Saturday morning.

The two rowdiest boys from my class met me at the cafeteria door with a box of doughnuts. “Want one, Miss G? Miss G! Can we watch you get your blood drawn!?” The nurse nodded at me and the boys watched and made gross-out faces as the hollow needle filled with my blood.

Millennials Want to Participate

I don’t mean this story to account for an entire generation’s heart. But I think possibly there’s been so much marketing-speak about “reaching Millennials” lately, that it might be easy to forget that Millennials want to participate, to be part of something important, and to make a difference. Engagement may simply look a little different than it has before, and a lot of that has to do with Millennials being among the first generations of “digital natives.”

As digital engagement transforms the way our world and relationships work, Millennials are helping to define that shift. From remote workplaces to on-demand Facetime with family on the other side of the world, Millennials are accustomed to instant access, simple engagement, transparent records, and a quick, responsive ability to act.

When it comes to giving money, either to your church or non-profit, when reaching Millennials they are going to have four key expectations:

1. Simplicity

If a process like giving money is complex or time-intensive, you’re likely to lose them. I told a story in a recent blog post about my experience trying to navigate the complex system to support my sponsored child that illustrates the pain point. Millennials expect simplicity, and not to put too fine a point on it, this can translate into entitlement, an addiction to some kind of “easy button.” But when you can purchase groceries on Amazon, support a Kickstarter campaign for another friend’s small business, watch a movie, listen to unlimited music, read books, and chat with a friend traveling in Australia, all on your phone, why shouldn’t I expect simplicity when it comes to giving? In this context, simplicity is not entitlement. It’s normal, if not essential.

2. A sense of action

Millennials want to solve real problems, not just talk about issues. They’ve been raised on Kickstarter, Tom’s Shoes, and Warby Parker glasses, and the idea of direct involvement with a story is normal. “Slacktivism” is the negative term for the idea, but at the heart of this phenomenon is a desire for personal connection with a story, person, or idea. Forget tip-toeing around the words “tithes and offerings.” To reach Millennials they may need to hear about the whys and impact of giving more often, not less.

3. Flexibility and mobility

Millennials are likely to attend fewer Sunday services, and this means traditional church structure might need to flex a little. From starting podcasts to posting sermon series’ on YouTube, churches have been meeting Millennials by building up a digital presence, flexing service times, emphasizing online community-building tools, and creating more casual opportunities for meeting people. With Millennials, rarer church attendance doesn’t necessarily mean they feel less connected to their church community, they may simply go about it a little differently. Giving opportunities, too, shouldn’t be limited to Sunday mornings. And (in case you haven’t noticed) phones are pretty important to Millennials—87 percent say they are never without their phones. Reaching to Millennials where they are means including them on a mobile platform.

4. Invitations = notifications

Millennials want to participate, but the truth is they’ve been primed for an inbound-communications perspective. Notifications pop up on our cell phones to remind us of our bank statements, doctor’s appointments, and how many steps we have yet to walk today. Forget something regularly? You can set custom reminders to remind you to eat lunch, take that vitamin, or water the houseplants. Again, it can be easy to misread this as demanding or lazy; for reaching Millennials, prompts just make sense.

Yes, you may need to adjust your definition of church-as-usual to reach out to Millennials. But don’t count this generation out just yet. They may surprise you.

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