They’re socially minded, have a high interest in spirituality and chances are, they’re not in your church. How can you reach the millennials? Over the next 20 years, college-aged young adults will be at the heart of this emerging generation. Read on to learn why these years of higher education are the optimal time to engage this often elusive group.
- Would someone please define “church community” for me? Is it about me being there and available when they need me? I’m in a community group at church and due to some prior commitments, I’ve probably missed the last five times. And no one has called to check on me or tell me I’m missed.—Jonathan (college junior)
I’ve had a terrible experience trying to find a church. … I went to the same church for a good three months pretty much every Sunday, and the whole time no one ever even said ‘hi’ to me when I walked in. And I really liked the church and the atmosphere, as well as what I was hearing, but there was no community feeling whatsoever. I went to church with the same group of students every time, and they all felt the same way. I eventually stopped going.
- One thing I’d say to pastors: At least, be aware if we come. A little community and recognition wouldn’t be too much to ask for.—Savannah (freshman)
- For a while, I stopped going to church, and just decided I’m going to read my Bible, and that’s going to be my church. Every time I went to church, I just felt like a stranger standing among strangers.
But I finally found a church. I would never miss a Sunday, a Wednesday, a weird event they had … I did everything I could there because I really felt like they were family. I felt like there was a reason for me being there. And I knew that the pastor cared about me and my life. If I ever missed, I’d have people calling me to make sure everything was okay … asking if there was anything they could do. I stayed at that church until I was hired by another one to help in its student ministry.—Jen (senior)
- I went to a church for a year-and-a-half and never felt like I was a part of it. I even went to a community group there for two years. It’s hard to go somewhere for so long and feel like you don’t belong.
My advice to pastors: Be raw and real. If you say it’s good to see me, then look in my eyes and give me a big fat hug. Make me feel like I’m accepted and welcome.—Josiah (sophomore)
Raw. Honest. Passionate. Truthful.
Jonathan, Savannah, Jen and Josiah exhibit the core traits of a new generation of college students who are defying conventional wisdom and dramatically redefining the social, cultural, political and spiritual landscape of America and the world.
Yet, the alarming truth is that most studies indicate almost half of them will not be actively involved in the local church upon graduation. According to UCLA’s 2003 College Students’ Beliefs and Values study, 52% of college students attended religious services regularly before going to college, but by their junior year only 29% still attended regularly. Moreover, almost 60% of college freshmen today report that they are questioning their religious beliefs.
Why should you and your church respond to this emerging, often elusive group?
A Powerhouse Generation
Research indicates that over the next 20 years, college students will be at the heart of one of the largest and most impacting age groups ever to grow up in America: the millennials. Today, college-aged students are the junior members of this generation born between 1984 and 1988.
Boasting more than 81 million members (boomers have 77 million), millennials (born between 1981 and 2002) are confident that they’ll make a difference in their world. Having been raised by parents who are still actively engaged in their lives, this generation has been taught to respect authority, and is working within the fabric of society (instead of rebelling against it like the ’60s counter culture) to change the world for the better.
Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Vintage) who in 1991 coined the term “millennials,” say that this age group is on track to become what they call “a powerhouse generation full of technology planners, community shapers, institution builders and world leaders.” Like the fading and ennobled G.I. generation dominated the 20th century, Howe and Strauss believe that millennials are perhaps destined to dominate the 21st century.
What sets this group apart from previous generations is its mastery of technology, which in many ways has led to a world citizen mentality. Having cut its teeth on computers, cell phones and the Internet, this generation is completely at ease with harnessing evolving technology to accomplish its purposes. A recent Harris Poll found that almost all millennials are using technology: 98% are online, 90% own a computer, 85% own a cell phone and 60% access the Internet from their cell phones. They have grown up with this interactive technology and as a result, have built endless and diverse community from a global, not just local, perspective.
Wired for community and action, and living in a time when technology is shrinking the world, this generation sees a starving child in Darfur, Sudan, as its neighbor.
“Our parents succeeded if they made a lot of money and owned things,” says Jen Clark, a 2005 graduate of Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. “While our age group likes money and things too, we measure ourselves more by how we make a difference in the world.”
Recent research backs Clark’s observation. A 2006 online study conducted by Boston-based Cone Inc. and AMP Insights shows that in the past year, 81% of millennials have volunteered in some civic capacity. The study suggests that this generation has “the most socially conscious consumers to date.”
Bypassing the Church
Yet, while this tech-savvy group is both socially and spiritually minded, it’s not necessarily church-minded. While UCLA’s Beliefs study found that this generation is “highly interested” in spiritual things, a 2003 Barna Group study of today’s young adults shows that they aren’t necessarily looking to churches for answers to their questions.
“These individuals are making significant life choices and determining the patterns and preferences of their spiritual reality while churches wait, generally in vain, for them to return after college or when [parenthood] comes,” says David Kimmaman, strategic leader of The Barna Group (barna.org). “When and if young adults do return to churches, it’s difficult to convince them that a passionate pursuit of Christ is anything more than a nice add-on to their cluttered lifestyle.”
What’s Keeping Them Away?
In many cases, the problem lies with churches and the way in which they approach ministry, as well as the teaching in worship services. This group wants to be challenged intellectually and spiritually, which may explain why so many are turning to Buddhism, Kabbalah, Hinduism and other faiths, as well as selecting practices or tenets from diverse faiths and customizing their own. Unfortunately, says church researcher Thom Rainer, many church leaders don’t challenge their flocks. Content to stay status quo, they create worship services that are merely watched and stale ministry programs that require little sacrifice or effort from those who participate in them.
Millennials, who as a whole are estimated to spend 10 hours online weekly and receive six to 10 text messages per day, also want meaningful relationships—another clue as to why college students are leaving the Church. The more automated and technical we become, writes author and futurist John Naisbitt in Megatrends (Warner), the more we long for relationships, human touch and someone to listen and care. As college students Savannah, Jonathan, Jen and Josiah’s earlier comments illustrate, either failure to find community in a church, or simply not thinking of the Church as a place that could foster relationships if they were to try it, may also fuel the decline in church involvement among this age group.
Few researchers argue the fact that this tech-savvy, globally aware, service-oriented highly social generation stands on the cusp of making an indelible mark on the world. The crucial question for you and your church is: Will these young men and women make an eternal difference for the Kingdom or just make the world a better place in the short-run? And when is the most strategic time to reach them?
As Goes the Campus …
As equipping pastor at Inversion, the college and young adult ministry of Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tenn. (fellowshipnashville.org), Jonathan Phipps has seen that it’s crucial for churches to reach millennials at a time in their lives when they’re making their faith their own.
“I hang out with sophomores at Vanderbilt,” says Phipps, “and walk with them as they struggle to develop their own worldview. Here, in the university setting, at a time in their lives when most are faced for the first time with competing worldviews, is when the Church has the best chance to reach or risk losing them.”
Schools are the steering wheel of our society, says Curt Harlow, West Coast area director with Chi Alpha Ministries (chialpha.com). “As goes the campus, so goes the culture. Our leaders are shaped in university lecture halls,” he adds, reminding church leaders that every major church revival in the past was begun on a college campus.
And because this highly influenced and influential generation sounds a bullhorn of tolerance and is more interested in spirituality than its predecessors, the college years are often an optimal time for introducing unchurched millennials to a new community that shows them the love of Christ in ways that resonate with them: relationships, community service, global awareness.
“It’s not just the sizable decrease in church membership that would be the biggest loss if we as a church don’t engage this generation during their college years,” says Bill Wade, adult ministries pastor at Atlanta’s First Baptist Church (fba.org) and a former national college specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources.
“It’s the lost opportunity to mobilize for the Kingdom a generation wired to reach the world that could be the most devastating event ever experienced by the modern Church.”
MORE ON MILLENIALS
Statistics and findings you need to know to reach generation next
Family and education
• More than 90% of “first wave” millennials (ages 16 to 25) call their relationship with their mother close; 65% describe a close relationship with their father.
• More students are enrolled in college. The number of undergraduates in 2004 (17.3 million) was almost double that in 1970 (8.6 million).
• Education costs are rising though. Average tuition and fees at four-year public universities rose 30% from the 2002–03 to 2005–06 school years.
Making a difference
• Millennial students have been raised to feel that they are special and privileged, and it is their responsibility to give back.
• 66% of college freshmen surveyed last fall said it is “essential or very important” to help others, the highest percentage to say so in 25 years.
• Millennials have a deep desire to understand what an organization stands for and what their role is in it.
• They are characterized as confident, hardworking and tech-savvy but lack the resourcefulness and independence that marked earlier generations.
Diversity and tolerance
• Millennials are 61% non-Hispanic/white; 17% Hispanic; 16% black; and 5% Asian.
• They are a more racially diverse and tolerant group. To every three Caucasian Americans is one member of a minority group. With the ever-growing diverse population, the word “minority” may no longer have meaning to this and future generations.
• Last year, 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds dated someone of a different race.
• College students place a high value on their spiritual development, and many of them expect that their college experience will support this quest.
• 45% of college students report dissatisfaction with how their college experience has provided opportunities for religious/spiritual reflection.
• Only 30% of college faculty feel that colleges should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development.
• Millennials use technology to maintain relationships. Their multi-tasking lifestyles rely on iPods, instant messaging, cell phones and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
• 98% of Millennials are online.
• In 2006, the iPod surpassed beer as the most popular thing on campus.
Sources: American Sociological Association, Gallup Research, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Harris Poll, Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, National Center for Education Statistics, Student Monitor, U.S. Census Bureau
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