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Catching Up to the Millennials
Is it possible for the church to engage the newest generation of youth? Absolutely—and their energy, technical prowess and passion for justice might just turn the world upside-down.

Nothing excites me like spending a few hours with young people. They don’t hold back their interest in justice, the opportunity to make a difference, their opinions or ideas. This generation of youth—most often called Millennials—is about as unique as they come.

On the one hand, there’s never been a generation more passionate about justice, more frustrated with hypocrisy, and more determined to change the world. On the other, there’s never been a group as tech-dependent, materialistic and coddled as this one either. Their boomer parents bought them every electronic gadget going, and enrolled them in art classes, hockey, piano, ballet, soccer, tennis and swimming—to name just a few. And even when they lost a competition, they got a trophy just for showing up.

So how does the church harness all that energy and deal with all that entitlement? And how do Christian leaders ensure that we aren’t putting our new wine—the life-changing celebration of a relationship with Christ—into old wineskins that are simply not relevant to Millennials?

It’s a big concern. One expert we interviewed says only four percent of church youth are still in church by the time they finish college. A sociologist told us half of all church-going teens believe right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion. Clearly, the church needs to work harder to understand and engage with this generation, to capture their energies and passion for justice, and to mentor them into tomorrow’s leaders.

In this, and related WorldWatch articles (listed at the end of this article), you’ll hear from leading sociologists, youth workers, young leaders and a former Canadian senator—all of whom are passionate about this generation.

Catching up to the Millennials won’t be easy, but it is possible. Scroll down, and you’ll find plenty of tools to get into the race.

Dave Toycen is the president of World Vision Canada.

Millennials by the numbers

They’ve been labeled the Mosaics, the Millennials, Generation Y, the Net Generation, Echo Boomers and Generation Next. But whatever you call them, did you know that the generation born after 1982:

1. Is the largest youth generation in history.

Is less interested in religious institutions.

2. Is hard working. In 2005, Canadian teens did an average of 7.1 hours of unpaid and paid labour per day (weekly average, including school and non-school days), amounting to a 50-hour workweek—virtually the same as adult Canadians.

3. Is somewhat burdened. Teens average 2 hours and 20 minutes of homework daily. In addition, during the 2004-2005 academic year, 38.9 percent of students worked, up from 31.9 percent in 1997-1998.

4. Feels stressed. 16 percent consider themselves workaholics, 39 percent feel constant pressure to accomplish more than they can handle, and 64 percent cut back on sleep to get things done.

5. Is less interested in religious institutions. In 1988, 34 percent of youth attended a religious service at least monthly; by 1998, the number dropped to 24 percent.

6. Spends a higher proportion of their budget on foreign aid than the Canadian government does. Canadian youth donate about 5 percent of their money to charities that work outside of Canada.

7. Is community-minded and comfortable using technology to build community. 88 percent have participated in online social activity, 59 percent visit online social networks regularly, and 61 percent report the internet is important to their social life.

8. Isn’t online as much as you might expect. Youth 12 to 17 average 13 hours per week on the internet (compared to 19 hours for online adults).

… upbeat and optimistic, high levels of confidence, believe they will succeed…

Sources: 1: UN Population Fund 2007 2-5: Statistics

Millennial realities

What are the defining characteristics of Millennials? And what realities do they face? Author Neil Howe*, an authority on generations, gave us a snapshot of the generation.

Millennials’ defining characteristics:

  • interpret religious engagement differently from their parents (less emphasis on personal, inward faith; more on faith combined with works)
  • interested in social justice
  • socially-oriented, community builders
  • raised to believe they’re special
  • upbeat and optimistic, high levels of confidence, believe they will succeed
  • cooperative team players
  • conventional in terms of what they want out of life: career, marriage and kids
  • family-oriented
  • achievers, see themselves as cutting-edge
  • pressured

Among their commonplace realities:

  • Different family structures: single parent families, dispersal of family members, homes with two parents working are common
  • Openness to sexual expression, experimentation and lifestyles
  • Tolerance for differences in culture, race, religion, sexual orientation
  • Face higher costs for higher education than previous generations
  • Changing nature of work, requiring new skills and capacities
  • Use technology for connectedness and community building
  • Development of mass communications and media
  • Greater urbanization and migration globally
    *Visit Neil Howe’s website at:

Advice from the trenches

You’d be hard pressed to find people who understand youth better than those who work with them in the trenches, guiding, counseling, coaching and encouraging. We asked three experts to give us their best advice.

Tim Huff is Director of Light Patrol and Homeless Initiatives for Youth Unlimited. Says Tim:

They have no problem believing in God; their problem is believing in Christians.

  • Christian and non-Christian kids refuse to understand evangelism unless it’s married to social justice. Churches with thriving youth programs are not afraid. Unless there are outlets in churches for youth to live out their desire for social justice, they’ll just look elsewhere. They have no problem believing in God; their problem is believing in Christians.
  • Building relationship is about listening. We need to ask for their input. Respect them. See past the nose rings and tattoos.
  • Today’s youth believe they can make a difference; that they can shape their world. They see the impact of their tiny choices much more than we did.

Dr. Karyn Gordon is one of North America’s leading authorities on understanding and motivating the Millennial Generation. Says Karyn:

  • Spirituality is hugely important for this generation. They have a genuine spiritual hunger, and many are longing for a return to traditional values.
  • They will give respect if they are shown respect. That means listening, affirming, and challenging them respectfully. Respect is not just given, it has to be earned.
  • Give them opportunities to ask questions. It’s a generation that asks ‘why?’
  • Don’t be afraid to adapt the way you do things to accommodate culture; moving to casual dress for Sunday services for example. You’re not changing the fundamentals, you’re just adapting minor things that don’t really matter.
  • Use technology to help the conversation continue.

Melinda Estabrooks-Williams is the Cultural Correspondent for Listen Up TV, and a youth and motivational speaker. Says Melinda:

  • Today’s youth aren’t about religion, but relationships. They “get” Jesus (he challenged the religious establishment), but they can be skeptical of the Church and Christians.

    They think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind.
  • Be authentic and transparent. They don’t like fake people, people that appear too good or that have no problems. They want to relate to you, but they can only do that if they believe you’re being honest with them about your mistakes, struggles, triumphs and brokenness.
  • Give them something practical to do or to get behind: build a house, go on a mission trip, do the 30 Hour Famine, work at a soup kitchen. Give them the tools; show them how to hold the hammer, how to raise money, and if you’re passionate, they will be too.

Related articles

Tapping the Resource
Youth 101

Originally published in World Watch, January/February 2009.




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