Home Youth Leaders Youth Leaders Blogs Feet Don't Lie: Learning About a Younger Gen by Their Shoes

Feet Don't Lie: Learning About a Younger Gen by Their Shoes

Saturday I took our daughter Hannah to a Valentine’s meal as I do annually.  I love these times at this season as they offer a great opportunity to talk about life, godliness, and relationships. We both love going to IHOP together, so we checked out the new one on Six Forks in North Raleigh.

I’m not sure how it is where you live but in RDU eating breakfast on a Saturday morning means a long wait. This particular IHOP happens to be in a strip mall that includes a store called Vertical Urge, mostly a supplier of skateboard gear. But they have one more item Hannah loves, one you can scarcely find except online.

This store sells TOMS. You know TOMS, those cloth shoes you wear with no socks that are so ugly they are almost cute. Here is why Hannah, and our son Josh, and many other Millennials I know love TOMS: when you buy a pair, they donate a pair to a needy child. Hannah has six pairs and displays her TOMS banner proudly on her car.  She had me buy a pair for myself, but since I am 51 years old I prefer to wear mine with socks.

A lot has been written lately about the Millennial Generation, the largest generation of young adults in U.S. history. Go to amazon.com and search “millennials” and you will see what I mean. I have read about ten books dealing only with the business side of this generation and their impact on the economy, for instance.

Get the books. Read the stuff. Do some research. But if you want to know this generation, start by looking at their shoes. You can tell a lot about a generation by the shoes they wear.

In middle school about a decade ago our son Josh had to have those Nikes. You know, the stylish ones, the ones that stores charged more than a Benjamin to purchase. We pushed him to buy them on sale and talked a lot of the lure of commercialism.  But these shoes defined the a generation of young men who wore them. Those were the days you read of people assaulting one another for their shoes. Most young men had a pair that seemed about 3 sizes too big and bright enough to light up the night. But that has changed.

Today, you are more likely to find Josh and his peers wearing TOMS, or if they wear sneakers, they will often be seen wearing Chuck Taylors. You know, Converse. The ones that don’t cost 3 bills.  Yes, they are still inflated in price, but nothing compared to the Nikes of the last decade. The shoes I wore when I was a middle schooler are back in style. Maybe this is just another example of the pendulum swinging in fashion. Maybe. But I think it means more.

Look a little deeper and you will see that Chuck Taylors have more to do with music than basketball. Nike’s economic engine runs via sports, but Converse grooves to music. Chucks became huge in no small part because a lot of pop musicians started wearing them. When Dwayne Wade’s contract ended with Converse they let him go to Nike because the people who sell their shoes in culture are musicians, not athletes.

Want to know this generation? Check out their music. And not the music on the local rock station. Learn about Indie music. After all, that was the story of the Grammies this year in case you missed it.  But all you had to do to know that was to look at their shoes.

So music is a big deal to a younger generation. No shocker there. The impact of social media, file sharing, and indie music nuances the music of the current younger gen.  But there is more to the shoe story than music. There is yet a larger story.

Social justice. The phrase evokes a variety of images from Glenn Beck’s apoplexy to a Social Gospel Movement that had very little gospel, to a renewed focus on mercy ministries in the name of the gospel.  From American Idol to new shows dotting television this year, a focus on giving to others has been growing for some time. Fueled by a younger generation a little tired of the consumerism of the times. TOMS shoes illustrates a very vital link in understanding this generation: they are about giving to help those in need. From invisible children to human sex trafficking, from orphan care to cutters (To Write Love on Her Arms/Love Is the Movement, for example), this generation has a penchant toward activism that helps the less fortunate and the broken.

Talk to student pastors interested in getting the gospel to their community and you will hear stories of meeting needs in order to share Christ. Talk to a group of teenagers in your church and, unless your youth group is the stereotypical games-driven crowd interested only in themselves, you will find some who are burdened for a friend who is a cutter or a cause like adoption. Our Hannah already plans to adopt, and she is 17 and a long way from marriage. I recently met a 14 year old girl in one of the largest SBC churches in North Carolina who has made no small stir via social media to raise awareness of human trafficking.

In other words, the TOMS trend has far less to do with a movement in shoe styles and far more to do with a movement of compassion.  And inside our churches a growing number of millennial youth tie the gospel to caring for people. Don’t get too nervous, Jesus did a lot of that as well. So did the early church. Yes, a lot of it is superficial and much of it is trendy. But make no mistake; if you want to understand this generation, you need to be aware of the causes for which they care. You don’t have to wear Chucks or TOMS next Sunday when you preach (please don’t), but knowing young people and what matters to them demonstrates we actually care for them.  And they care about music and about those in need.

After all, you can see it in their shoes.

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.