Young adult clergy representing American Baptist congregations and missions across the United States discuss issues impacting the church at the Connect 2018 gathering in Evanston, Ill.
Photograph by Joshua Kagi
Millennial leaders in the trenches: Things the church should know
Rev. Corey Fields
September 27, 2018
For years now, sociologists and demographers have been abuzz about the “Millennial” generation. While it depends on who you ask, in general, Millennials are those who were born between the early 1980s until around the year 2000. So, the youngest Millennials are graduating from high school, and the oldest Millennials are in their 30s and producing the next generation (whatever their name will be). Yours truly was born a little too early, and I’m considered by most to be a younger member of Generation X.
I attended American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) recent Connect 2018 event for American Baptist young adult clergy. Held in the Chicago area, it was a well-organized and generously sponsored event with many American Baptist agencies represented. Registered attendees were mostly Millennials with a few of us Gen-Xers mixed in. We learned and shared fellowship without being bothered by these sociological distinctions.
Nevertheless, for all the faults of these labels, they function to help us understand the ways in which people of different age groups have experienced the world differently. Most of Generation X has entered middle age. The young adults (aged 20-30 years) preaching in pulpits and leading ministry today are, indeed, Millennials. My time at Connect 2018 afforded further reflection on our youngest leaders and what the church needs to know.
The negative stereotypes about Millennials include their being lazy, entitled and always staring at their phones. Like most stereotypes, there is some truth. However, it is unfair to apply the stereotypes widely, and many examples exist to the contrary. Take the issue of phone usage, for example. Research by Nielsen Holdings found that, on average, members of Generation X use their phones more often than Millennials. The latest Android operating system update, developed by Millennials at Google, features a “digital-wellness” assistant intended to help monitor and control the time one spends on a device.
In their 2000 book “Millennials Rising,” Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that, despite what people say, “[Millennials] are smart, well-behaved and optimistic.” As Millennials have been coming of age, we have seen things such as teen pregnancy, teen substance use and high school dropout rates hit new lows since peaking in the later 20th century. Millennials are proving to be one of the most motivated, action-oriented and socially conscious generations in recent memory. According to the authors, Millennials “will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America.”
To be sure, not all the news is good. Millennials are largely absent from church (although interested in spirituality). However, the decline is not the whole story. Some of the most innovative new ministries, faith-based nonprofits and church plants I’ve read about were started by Millennials. Millennial, young adult ministers—at least in American Baptist circles—sometimes seem to outnumber their middle-aged counterparts. Millennial Christian leaders are exactly as Howe and Strauss describe the generation. A Millennial staff member from ABHMS offered a riveting message of hope at Connect 2018’s closing worship session.
At the same time, Millennials are in the trenches of a church that’s in crisis, a Christianity that has been corrupted by nationalism and a society that is wracked by unsustainable economic inequality. Speaker and poet Dana Vivian White was brutally honest via viral thread on Twitter: “[The term] ‘Milliennials’ is used in the media to infantilize, discredit, and instill distrust of an educated, hard-working, low-earning, fed up generation of 30-somethings living through the worst of capitalism, police brutality, government corruption, and a resurgence of hate violence. … Our protest and demand for revolutionary change is written off as some sort of tantrum. … In our relatively short adulthood thus far, we’ve proven that we can innovate, adapt, and persist.”
Millennials are in the trenches of a church that’s in crisis, a Christianity that has been corrupted by nationalism and a society that is wracked by unsustainable economic inequality.
Millennial Christian leaders are working within a space for which their predecessors’ experience offers limited guidance. Although I’m almost a Millennial myself, I write this as an observer who admires the qualities I see in our youngest Christian leaders. I see patterns in their leadership that are desperately needed in today’s world, for which I urge the church to be open-minded.
- Millennials are leading through immense cultural turmoil and struggle. As mentioned previously, many aspects of American life today are not only working against the church but also against the very well-being of our youngest leaders. They are facing unprecedented financial, psychological and institutional challenges.
- Millennial leaders are often the “Marys” in a “Martha” church. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus praised Mary for taking
timeto sit at his feet, listen to him and be present. Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping with all the tasks. What Martha was doing would have been the expected, culturally appropriate thing for an honored guest, but Jesus challenged that and said that Mary had chosen what is better. Millennial leaders may not give the time and attention to some tasks of the church that older generations will want or expect them to, but perhaps that’s by design. To be clear, it is short-sighted to dismiss the institutional church outright, as some like to do. But is it possible that the church has acquired too much baggage and that God is raising up this generation for such a time as this to refocus our priorities?
- Millennial leaders do not reject tradition but are helping us embrace its most helpful aspects. That young adults need everything in the church to be hip is a common misconception. I once visited the House for All Sinners and Saints, the Denver church founded by Nadia Bolz-Weber. The average age in the room couldn’t have been much above 35, yet, their worship featured liturgical readings, prayer stations, icons and other elements commonly associated with “traditional church.” Millennial Christian leaders seem knowledgeable and appreciative of the 2,000-year history of the church and creatively incorporate it into genuine, meaningful worship experiences.
- Millennial leaders are doing ministry that is not often recognized as “church.” Notwithstanding a surprising number of Millennials leading from the pulpit of more traditional church settings, others are reaching their communities for Christ through new and creative ways. One example is “Dinner Church,” a movement to center people around low-budget, community-building ventures of prayerful fellowship around a table. Although neither the U.S. Census nor their grandparents may recognize what they’re doing as “church,” it is one of
modernday’s closest counterparts to what the original first-century church was like (Acts 2:42-47) and has proven much more effective at reaching both the poor and the disaffected.
- Millennial leaders are naturals at things the church has been trying to figure out for decades. More than any other generation of Christian leaders, Millennials naturally connect with the “unchurched”—those who are unfamiliar with the culture of church
and thosewho are suspicious of religion. It may have something to do with Millennials’ high level of connection with the world at large and their resistance to view someone through the lens of “unchurched” in the first place.
These brave and creative leaders have my support. What about you?
The Rev. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.
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