When pastors discuss generosity with their congregations, it usually focuses on one of two categories: Giving and serving. However, a new study by the Barna Group suggests some generations in the church—specifically millennials and boomers—have broader definitions.
Barna asked elders, boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials to rate how they defined generosity out of five categories: Service, emotional support, money, hospitality, and gifts. While acts of service ranked near the top across all generations, boomers and millennials ranked emotional support second, and millennials surprisingly ranked hospitality far higher than any other generation. Here are three ways these results matter for leaders wanting to see generosity expand at their church.
For millennials, generosity looks like building families
In Barna’s survey, millennials reported that one of their highest life goals is to be able to provide and care for their current/future family. This value is reflected in how highly they rate hospitality as a value. Those who have worked with millennials know they want (at least in theory) intergenerational interaction, from being in services/small groups together to mentoring relationships. Their high value of hospitality suggests millennials are trying to create the family now they hope to have someday.
It’s worth tying this in with both boomers and millennials rating emotional support highly. What this could mean is there’s an opportunity in the church to connect these two generations in this goal, fostering a strong intergenerational bond that is appealing to millennials looking for a church family to be part of. It might not always be opening up their homes, but boomers might be willing to open up emotional space for millennials looking to connect.
The church needs each generation’s gifts
For churches struggling financially or desperately needing nursery volunteers, a focus on giving and serving is right and good; however, it’s worth recognizing how a balanced dynamic occurs when each generation practices their understanding of generosity.
Gen Xers rate emotional support and service lower than other generations—possibly because they are the young families who have next to no time margin in their lives—but they are also more inclined toward financial generosity. Elders are by far more likely to see service as their “generosity lane,” possibly because of the time they do have.
Millennials, as mentioned, have a high value of hospitality due to how unmoored many currently are from a family of their own; however, elders register less than 1 percent on hospitality. Then there are the boomers, who rank highest in emotional support but still strongly in financial giving and acts of service.
When you look at all the generations together you get a very “Romans 12” perspective where God has given different people different gifts, and each “body part” needs the other. For leaders, this is both a theology to be encouraged, celebrating the gifts each generation brings, while also encouraging each generation to stretch where they are uncomfortable.
There’s a gap between saying and doing
Any pastor in a church knows there’s a difference between what a congregant knows to say they value, and what they actually do.
While millennials unsurprisingly give far less than other generations—possibly because they have less income, possibly because they see themselves less attached to a church or denominational institution—the generational differences in giving aren’t as drastic as you’d expect. While millennials are far more like to report giving $50 or less over the past year, every generation’s numbers drop low around the $500 mark. Barna’s research found that even among what respondents self-reported, the giving rates made up only 3-4 percent of their income. In other words, no matter what a generation says about financial generosity, they’re not putting the actual money where their mouth is.
Which in many ways brings church leaders back to where they started. There’s certainly a value to encouraging a fully realized, generationally-inclusive theology of generosity. And it’s encouraging to see the potential for millennials and boomers to build a strong intergenerational bond. But it also seems true that each generation has turned the American Dream into an idol that needs to be broken by the radical, financial generosity of God’s kingdom.