I got into an interesting conversation with some older adults on Sunday morning.
One of my favorite things, besides Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music, is pastoring folks that are older. It's not that I delight in power trips. Nay, pastoring means serving. I simply delight in leading people into meaningful conversations that span any normal category of cultural interplay. For instance, there are not many organizations in the United States, mired as we are in cultural subgroups, that have older and younger interacting together on a regular basis. The church is one of the few (the only?) places where people who do not belong together are together. And when the nature of that conversation- older and younger interacting- takes the shape of what makes us different, I hone in.
So, on Sunday, I was talking with a bunch of folks old enough to be my parents, and we were talking about my generation, current Millenial young adults. And in my church, one of the responsibilities I have is to minister to folks of that age range. So, naturally, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, and those thoughts are as follows.
Generational monikers are a sociological invention. They are helpful descriptors (the Greatest Generation, the Builders, the Boomers, Gen X'ers), but in this day and age they can often overreach their claims. The USA Today or The Wall Street Journal or George Barna or some other news outlet is always seeming to run articles on the Millenial generation, trying to figure us out. We are told Millenials don't trust institutional forms of religion. We are told that Millenials are unnecessarily entitled. We are told that Millenials fit into some other box neatly.
There is a load of truth that goes with these descriptions, but there's also some misdirection as to whom Millenials are. Millenials have grown up in the Information Age, with a million different technologial choices presented to them everyday. Chris Anderson, in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, shows that economic preferences are continually more diversified today because of the rise of consumer technology, of which most notably is the internet. Increasingly, there are less "hits" in popular culture (movies, music, tv, etc.), but there is also a corresponding increase in the amount of content and consumer products that are available. No generation more characterizes this shift in consumer habits than the Millenial generation.
Millenials preferences and attitudes, then, are not monolithic. That's why the generational moniker has some, but not broad, explanatory power.
So I live and breath in the world of young adulthood, ministering to and serving with these folks. And I hear broad-sweeping statements from young and old alike on what young adults prefer in anything, often informed the various media outlets above. For example:
- "Young adults don't like institutional church." If that's true, then why are so many young adults flocking to Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox expressions of the Christian faith? Though these are the most institutional forms of Christianity, they also offer the highest expressions of the transcendence of God, and the mystery that lies therein.
- "Young adults prefer _____ type of music." If that's true, then why are so many young adults flocking to Orthodox expressions of the faith AND the Passion movement, filled with all types of modern worship? The answer: see the consumer spending habits noted above.
- "Young adults prefer a variable work schedule, and lots of verbal encouragement since they've been coddled all their life." How can this possibly account for all the young adult missionaries, increase of volunteerism, and social services that young adults are giving their lives to? How does it also explain the many young adults that are already worn on the service industry- restaurants, healthcare, etc.- and how variable and unsustainable that schedule is?
In other words, the Millenial generation, more than any other, is increasingly not able to be nailed down as one monolithic form of anything.
So I found myself in that conversation on Sunday morning, expressing thoughts along these lines. We talked about music style and how to minister to disinterested young adults. Regarding our choir, who is older, I suggested that one of the biggest reasons that there aren't younger people in the choir isn't worship style. That's because it isn't. The biggest reason is that choir is a 2-hour long practice on a Wednesday evening and most young adults are working then. And to top that off, the cardinal sin of ministering to young adults has gone unnoticed: nobody is inviting the younger people.
So the big takeaway is this: instead of trying to understand young adults, or trying to craft an economy or a church around such people from the data or misinformed impressions you have, have a conversation with a young adult. It will be wildly different than the conversation you have with the next young adult. Just get to know us, like those folks on Sunday morning took the time to get to know me. Reach out to us. Stop worring about statistics and just know one young adult in your life. Take them to lunch, and mentor them. If you are a young adult, then find someone even younger.
How else would you know that one of my favorite movies is The Sound of Music?