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Tapping the Resource
How can the Church tap into the incredible resource the Millennial generation represents? Six experts share their thoughts.

Today’s youth were raised in the most child-centred generation ever, and they have come of age in a global age. How can the Church tap into the incredible resource the Millennial generation represents? Six experts share their thoughts.

Landon Pearson

The Honorable Landon Pearson has been involved in issues associated with young people for more than 50 years. She was president of the Canadian Council on Children and Youth, and advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on children’s rights. On retirement from the Senate in 2005, she opened The Landon Pearson Resource Centre for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights at Carleton University.

World Watch (WW):You’ve worked with—and advocated for—children and youth for decades. What are the most striking similarities and differences between this generation and previous ones?

“Today’s adolescents and young people have diverse experiences given the different political, economic, social and cultural realities they face in their communities. Yet there is a common thread running through all of their lives and that is the hope for a better future” (UNFPA Report: The State of World Population 2003).

Landon Pearson (LP): The generation I grew up in was much more optimistic, coming of age after World War II, in a world that was rebuilding. The generation of my children, the Vietnam period, was one of rebellion. With the late 60s, you began to get a lot of changes in family structure, such that the situation in which many children grow up now is less secure.

The impact of the media and of the electronic age has been huge. So this generation of children is quite different in cultural terms…. The opportunity to be more engaged in the world is there. There are an awful lot of young people who really are engaged and want to be working on behalf of others.

WW: What contributions can engaged youth can make that other groups can’t?

LP: They’ve already made inroads on things like the environment and the promotion of diversity. They’re so socially connected through technology, mobilization is possible.

They can teach us a lot if we’re prepared to listen.

WW: What challenges should Christian leaders be aware of as they engage this group?

LP: Congregations where young people are missing tend to be the ones that focus on ritual. Ritual may bring support and solace to a certain group, but it doesn’t engage the young. Engagement requires the imagination of over-busy adults, the capacity to figure out how to implement new ideas, and a faith that’s strong enough to say, ‘I’ll make this a priority.’… 

While churches debate whether to focus on social justice or the soul, those churches that have more success in engaging young people will tend to be the ones that have more of an outreach capacity.

James Penner

James Penner teaches sociology at University of Lethbridge, and is Associate Director of Project Teen Canada 2008, a national youth survey led by sociologist Reginald Bibby.* A former national youth specialist with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Canada, he currently runs James Penner and Associates, a consulting firm focused on Canadian youth research.

WW: What are the defining characteristics of Millennials?

“Yes, there’s a revolution under way among today’s kids—a good news revolution. This generation is going to rebel by behaving not worse, but better. Their life mission will not be to tear down old institutions that don’t work, but to build up new ones that do” (Neil Howe and William Strauss in Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation).

JP: The big one is that they’re extremely relational. They’re also very materialistic. After 50 years of increasing wealth and decreasing family size, and with parents who have catered to kids, they’re used to a lot of toys with little need to work for it.

WW:How important is family to Millennials?

JP: One of the myths about this generation is that family life is poor. They speak quite positively, particularly of their mother and, to a lesser degree, of their father. Two out of three view family life as very important. And three-quarters say they get a great deal of enjoyment from their parents—especially parents who demonstrate warmth and involvement.

WW:What about spirituality?

JP: The importance of spirituality is dropping. For many, the spiritual side has simply not been activated, and it won’t be activated without a relationship with someone who is spiritual and who values them. They value friendship, freedom, and being loved more than a connection with a higher power.

WW:What can you tell us about youth who identify themselves as Christians?

JP: In the 2000 Project Teen Canada survey, among the most vibrant Christian teens—the ones who prayed privately, attended church regularly, believed Jesus was God’s Son, and enjoyed their religious group—half believed that right or wrong was a matter of personal opinion. I don’t expect to see much change in the new data.

WW:What are the challenges for the church?

JP: Boomers grew up with one-way broadcasting via television where they were passive recipients of knowledge. Millennials have been shaped by the internet. They value interactivity, and are comfortable trying out new applications.

In a typical one-hour worship service, what percentage is one-way broadcast? Churches that will remain relevant will adapt. They’ll ask Millennials how they can be more interactive, and engage them to ensure their opinions, issues, ideas and concerns are considered.

*Data from the 2008 survey will be available in April 2009 in The Emerging Millennials, by Reginald Bibby.

Lois Mitchell

Lois Mitchell is the Justice Initiatives Coordinator for Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), and Director of Public Witness and Social Concern for the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches. She has a PhD in Sociology and teaches on globalization and civic responsibility at Atlantic Baptist University.

WW:Why is it important for Christian leaders to engage young people in global issues?

“Although they are better educated, more techno-savvy, and quicker to adapt than those who have come before them, they refuse to blindly conform to traditional standards and time-honored institutions. Instead, they boldly ask, ‘Why?’” (Eric Chester in Employing Generation Why?)

LM: Young people often know about global issues and want to engage…. Unless those who work with youth demonstrate a connection between global issues and the gospel, youth may miss that connection.

Today’s youth tend to be very justice-oriented. But many who have grown up in our churches haven’t heard it articulated well about caring for the poor and marginalized….

It’s important for Christian leaders to share young peoples’ interest in global issues, and to connect it with the good news.

WW:Where do we most urgently need the contribution of youth?

LM: One of the primary areas is the challenge of confronting our culture about the attitude of entitlement. Our whole society has this attitude, not just the youth. It manifests in the simplest things: when we turn on the tap, for example, we expect drinkable water to be at our easy access. We need to recognize that our affluence is connected to the poverty of much of the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we have consistently used way more than our share of the earth’s resources.

WW:What unique contributions can today’s youth make?

LM: Youth are incredibly creative. They want to be committed to a cause that’s bigger than themselves. Billions are spent in advertising dollars every year, to distract them from a concern for others, but I’m continuously impressed by the passion youth have in the face of injustice.

WW:What are the hazards of not engaging youth?

LM: The impact on churches will be increasing irrelevance and continuing self-centredness…. We’ve made church so much about preaching messages of conversion to people, and we’re just not helping people of any age to really engage the world.

Simon Gau

Simon Gau, 24, is a founding leader of Youth Church, an independent church in Surrey, B.C. whose 250-strong congregation consists primarily of young people between 13 and 25. Since their first service six years ago, they’ve daughtered five new congregations in B.C. There are plans to launch a sixth Youth Church in Chilliwack in 2009.

WW:Tell us how Youth Church began.

“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends” (Mary McLeon Bethune, Educator, Advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt).

SG: I was this random, ordinary kid… in grade 9 in a Christian school, going to church, and we went on a mission trip to Mexico, where I had the opportunity to put my faith into action.

When I came home, I wanted to put my faith into action here. But I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Christian! I realized I needed to be a missionary in my own world, not just in a foreign country. So I enrolled in a public high school, to be intentional about making friends who weren’t Christians. I invited all kinds of non-Christian friends to youth group. Seventy kids started coming. Unfortunately—for other reasons—that church dissolved and I realized I needed to find a new church to take my friends to. I searched, but nothing seemed to fit. Pretty soon I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something that’s relevant just for them? Something that’s authentic and has integrity? Why can’t we do church just for youth?’

A local pastor, Rick Ellis, became my mentor. Some friends and I started to meet weekly with him to pray. We formed a leadership team, had meetings and held our first service in a local elementary school gymnasium in September 2002.

WW:What did you take into account when you set out to build a church for youth?

SG: If our generation is looking for anything, it’s looking for truth and authenticity. Our mission statement reflects that: “preach it, live it, work it!” We want to actually live what we believe, not just talk about it.

WW:What should leaders know about today’s youth in order to engage them?

SG: No one’s going to care about what you know until they know you care. Build relationships. Love them. Meet practical needs. Serve them. Spend time with them.

WW:What are the top concerns of today’s youth?

SG: People are scared to be alone, to not be loved. But they’re also realizing that life’s not about the almighty dollar. They’re searching for purpose and questioning the values they see in older generations. We need to help them get the focus off themselves and put it onto others.

Brett Ullman

Brett Ullman is founder and director of Worlds Apart, a nonprofit organization committed to educating and inspiring youth to reflect critically on how we interact with—and are impacted by—media culture in our daily lives, habits, relationships and experiences.

WW:What do Christian leaders need to know about this generation to engage them?

“The involvement of adolescents in social development is a task most countries have yet to address. Broad social changes are increasing the time between physical maturity and acceptance into adult social roles. Social institutions must adjust to offer adolescents full participation because in many settings, they have proven to be dynamic agents of change” (UNFPA Report: The State of World Population 2003).

BU: We have this idea we can do things like they’ve always been done, and it will be fine. But it won’t. We’re into our third generation of youth that we’ve literally lost. We’re now seeing statistics like we only retain four per cent of any of the students in our youth groups by the time they graduate from college.

Times have changed. Students are not only graduating from high school, they’re going to university and then getting into Masters and PhD programs. Add to that the pressures of work, the breakdown of the family, the pressures of sexuality in a culture that’s very free with that, and the pressures of technology…. When I talk to students I hear the words “I’m drowning,” over and over again. I’m drowning in busyness and I’m drowning in life.

WW:Are today’s youth concerned about global issues?

BU: They are. They have an incredible love of justice. You talk with youth about the right to fresh water, about slavery, sex trafficking, and they stand up and want to be counted on things like that…. Older generations say we care, but we’ve nothing to show for it. A belief isn’t a belief until there’s some action added to it. This generation really does care.

But one of the things our kids are dying for is authenticity in the Church. And for the most part, we don’t have it.

WW:What unique contributions do today’s youth have to offer?

BU: As adults, we’re busy and jaded so we don’t get involved. Students are young and excited and they believe they can change the world. If you add their capability with technology into that mix, where students have a voice and they can connect online, the possibilities are endless….

If we can give them the tools; equip them and help them keep this mindset that they can change things, then teach them how to do it, I look forward to watching them grow older.

The churches that are going to survive in the next 20 years are the ones that authentically value their youth…. If we can listen to this generation, we can speak truth into them.

WW:What are their greatest needs and challenges?

BU: Discipleship and mentorship. As adults, we should all be mentoring someone below us, and imparting a solely biblical worldview. We can’t afford to lose any more.

Maggie Hynes

Maggie Hynes, 18, is a first year Public Relations student at Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia. A Youth Ambassador with World Vision Canada, she recently travelled to the developing world, where she witnessed poverty first-hand. Now, she shares stories of her experiences to motivate other youth.
WW: Tell us about becoming a Youth Ambassador with World Vision.

“The way that youth are practicing religion is fairly informal… as traditional denominations and groups try to reach youth and try and engage them in religious life, you’re not going to find them on Sunday morning in church, you’re not going to find them on Friday night at synagogue…. You’re going to find them playing softball … you’re going to find them at Christian rock concerts, you’re going to find them within social activity” (Anna Greenberg, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research).

MH: I became involved with World Vision in grade 10, when my family and I sponsored two children. I became passionate about the program and subsequently found sponsors for 20 other children living in Costa Rica. Since then, I’ve raised money for their many worthwhile causes, including stocking five medical clinics in a Third World country, building a house for AIDS orphans, and most recently, raising $15,000 to build a preschool in Senegal.

WW:What do you love about your generation?

MH: The youth of my generation seem to be volunteering and trying to make a difference…. We seem to be a generation of givers, and I am proud to be a part of that.

WW:What aren’t you so proud of?

MH: Apathy is still a huge problem. (Many) choose not to face problems such as child poverty because it doesn’t affect them directly…. They may find it too daunting to help cure AIDS or create world peace, so they don’t even bother to try to make a small difference.



Student Ministry for the 21st Century: Transforming Your Youth Group into a Vital Student Ministry, by Kim Anderson. Zondervan, 1997.

The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice, by Reginald Bibby. Project Canada Books, 2009.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, by Alex Harris and Brett Harris. Multnomah Books, 2008.

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss. Vintage Books, 2000.\

UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, by David Kinnaman. Baker Book House, 2007.

Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper. Crossway Books, 2003.

Goodbye Generation: A Conversation About Why Youth and Young Adults Leave the Church, by David Sawler. Ponder Publishing, 2008.

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott. McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Related articles

Catching up to the Millennials
Youth 101

Originally published in World Watch, January 2009.




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