Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Message: Generations

Before Lent I was writing a weekly blog on my study of generations and the church. So now, we go back to our regular scheduled message:

Millennials are not the problem because the new life stage of emerging adulthood, if there is a problem, it is emerging adulthood.  I think we’ve misplaced where we’ve placed the problem.

Delayed adolescence, or emerging adulthood, is a synonym. Emerging adulthood has only been out there about ten years, most people don’t know it, and I think the research is pretty clear on it.  The five stages, the five markers to full adulthood don’t happen until 27 or 28 now, for many people, in urban areas sometimes not until 30.

On surveys people over 30 believe full adulthood doesn’t start until 28.  On surveys, people under 30 believe that full- adulthood doesn’t start until 28. It is one thing the generations agree upon completely. So here they are, marriage, children, picking a career, (being pretty sure this is the career you want to pursue for the rest of your life), finishing your education, and being financially stable enough to consider buying your first home.

By these criteria determines when you are an adult. Then you are no longer a teenager or whatever, you are an adult, you’re grown up.

There are simply no Christian parenting books for people in their twenties, for emerging adults.  Parents will say, and even at a business conference, they’ll pull me aside and say, “My children are in my basement.  What is wrong?  I’ve got a mortgage and a kid at 25, and they’re a barista part-time and master of “Worlds of War Craft”, what am I going to do?”  Well, you are gonna chill because it is a new life stage where assembling your identity and figuring out who you want to be, because you are going to work until 75 not 65.  If the current trends on when you can retire and get government support, when you qualify for that, with the current trends in life expectancy, you’ve got a lot of years to work.  What you want to be when you grow up, you know parents are saying do what makes you happy, but most of our parents said, “You’ve got to find something.  Figure out happiness when you are off my dime.”

Chris Brown has said that 70% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement, so people are going to be working for a long time.  So for Millennials, there’s that emerging adulthood, what is your term? It was new to me.

Emerging adulthood; you’ve got it.

So that’s difference is that they just stay in that teenage phase where, “I’m not going to make that faith my own for longer, but when they hit those markers they come back to church?   What’s the argument there?

That’s the big question.  Even the fine folks at Baylor, the people who tend to be the most optimistic, they even say, “Ewwhhh.  They’ve been out a long time and children are what bring people back to church. “

That’s from 2007, but like I said some research says this, that you can explain the difference between Boomer church attendance and Millennial church attendance by singles.  Married Millennials have almost the same church attendance as Boomers who were married in a previous generation.

Boomer singles came to church far more than Millennial singles, especially Millennial single men.  And because the group of singles is much larger today, and people remain single longer, and because when they marry they have children later, the question is, are the neuro-pathways going to be so worn that even when they have kids they are less likely to come back?

They now have a decade of habits “away” from the church. So, is there enough muscle memory, to use David Kenneman’s phrase, to bring them back into church?  And, there are some people going, “Umm, I don’t know.”

So the question I think the church has to answer, I don’t think they are wrong.  I think that is where the “None’s” are coming from.  There are definitely more Millennials who are “none’s”.  They don’t dispute that; they dispute whether the drop is as big as it seems to be.  Yeah, nobody disputes that there are more Millennials who are “none’s”.  The question then is, “Can the church be both attractional and missional?” Because what the “none’s” prove is there are a whole bunch of people who no matter what we do, they are not coming through the front door.  So, in the whole attractional/missional debate, here is my philosophy.  The attractional/missional get going; we ought to attract those we can attract, but the “none’s” show us there are people who do not see the church as a source of help.  And that is much greater in the blue states than it is in the red states.

People will rub shoulders with somebody else and say, “Wow, you know I thought Christians were, I don’t know, but you are not like that.” And that opens up conversations, which open up opportunities to say, “Do you worry about what you are passing on to your children?” and people do. They worry about their kids.  So kids are still a powerful factor, but they don’t have the muscle memory and they don’t see the church as a source of help. Ed Spencer’s research on lost MIllennials, on Millennials who no longer attend church, who don’t see themselves as churched. It was stunning; of the Millennial “none’s”, over 2/3’s of them don’t think of the church as a place they would go to if they needed help with some problem in their life.

I  think you know for a Millennial who is struggling with an addiction or a broken relationship, or you know, my empty nester parents are getting a divorce, who am I going to talk to about this? They are probably not thinking church and they are not thinking pastor.   As we process all of this, and this is super helpful, and I appreciate the nuance in your discussion as well, it is just great to have.  We all sit there with this problem; we are church leaders and we sit there at our board meetings and staff meetings and our personal prayer time, trying to crack this nut, and it is a tough one to crack. It is complex, but for those saying, “OK, I understand the argument that the church isn’t dying, sure, maybe it was this bad in the 70’s and our polls just lied to us because the people were too polite or felt there were certain answers that maybe have changed.  And maybe OK, there is an emerging adulthood issue going on now, but our church is smaller now than it has ever been, the church seems weaker in our community than it has ever been, and I talk to a lot of mega-church pastors who are like, “Yeah, we are a little concerned about the 25 to 35 years olds because we are all getting a little grayer around here.  First of all, what do you say to that?  Then, what do we need to do?

What I say to that is yes.  That is the case in a lot of places.  I think the single biggest challenge the church today faces is five generations, we’ve never had it before.  God’s greatest blessing is 30 more years of life in the last 115 years.

Churches used to change, adapt to the younger generations, more often, and there were fewer of them.


Millennials really do want conversations with people who are older.  People who could help them sort through the choices they face.  So that is the first bit of advice.  What are four things that any church could do immediately to impact Millennials?

Number one…

Start changing. That is worth the price of admission.

First, you may have to ask the question differently.  Why don’t they come to my church is not a legitimate question.  They don’t come to your church because they don’t like your church.  That’s the answer.  Alright, so what does our church have to do differently to reach them for Jesus? That is the question.

If you are a 40 year old, 50 year old, 60 year old church leader, you’ve got all kinds of scars to show about how hard it was to change your church, to make it what it is today, and now your kids look at it and Millennials look at it and they go, “We don’t like it.”  But you’re like, “We do”, so we are just going to stay the same.

When my son, who is a Worship Minister and is 25 almost 26, in New England, he says, “Oh, I love the preaching at my home church, but man they are so old school, all that Chris Tomlin music, and Easter guitar solos.  I’m like coughing up a lung right there before the second verse.” You would not believe the wars we’ve fought to get drums in the house of the Lord.  Play that funky music white boy.  It was a fight to the death.

So what is he into?  He’s a music dude.

You know, it is more Americana, slow it down.  Last week I did church consulting in a church of 120, and it was the charismatic 58 year old women that said “Tell the 28 year old Worship Minister to speed up the song.  I’m dying here.  Speed up the songs!”  I thought, I don’t even know how to process this.

And, will one generation relinquish the church to the next.  I’m going to start preaching here.

You preach.  Here’s the second question.  I think we have spent years asking what we do to reach the younger generation.  The question is what we do with the people who have another 20 or 30 years of life and service, who are going to feel like they have been put out to pasture.

Or why are we so reluctant to get 20 and 30 and 40 year olds around the senior leadership table? It is the other question we have to ask.

It is a great question, because in the olden days young men were invited to the table.

Now we exclude them.  You can help, but you can’t lead.

That is exactly right.

So they’ll start their own church, if there are any left.

And they will.  Sometimes they do it online; sometimes they do it other ways, but yes. The older generation is like, “What happens to me?”  I had a whole chapter about what do we do with the Boomers and Traditionalists.  Boomers have reinvented every era and they are going to reinvent retirement.  Churches are not ready for Boomers who have corporate experience saying, “Pastor, I don’t want to fold the envelopes.  What I want to do is show you a hiring system that will increase your success in hiring from 50% to 80%, which is the top end of the national average.  I did it in three other places I worked and I’d like to help you here.”

So, what’s the answer to that?

The answer is churches need to go beyond spiritual gift surveys, and even Gallop strength finders and start looking at skills. What are the skills that people have developed?  As Carl George, my mentor, pointed out to me, we tend to recruit people and hire people who don’t make us feel insecure.  But we’ve got all kinds of Boomers with experiences now that will make ministry leaders feel insecure and loving our insecurities and bringing in people with experiences that we don’t have will transform the church in a new era.

So do you think that, “I don’t have to lead and I don’t have to be the top dog but I can help” is that the kind of team we will put together in the future?  Where older leaders would be like, “I don’t have to be the leader, or whatever anymore, but just let me help.”

You know what I think?  I think older leaders; I say to them, “Do you want a service that occasionally has the type of music you want? Put together a Sunday night service with hymns or Maranatha choruses, or whatever you think is your era.  You put it together.  Do not ask your Worship Minister to be out another night.  You know how to organize things; you want to take time away because you are retired.  So make a team of people who rotate being in charge depending on who is in town this month.  Share the leadership with the younger generation; you know how to lead from the side.  The beauty of the older generation is that we’ve learned how to get stuff done even when we’re not in charge.  Learn to lead from the side and mentor from the side, and then feel free to pop back in small groups with your own generation, because nothing feels like home.  Like people who catch our musical references and remember the entire theme song to Gilligan’s Island, or Bonanza, right?

I can sing Gilligan’s Island, but not Bonanza.  That is true. So, this is fascinating. You know the awesomeness of what you said completely derailed me so continue to wherever you were going.

So, number one, we have to ask different questions.  And the question is now not why they won’t come to our church; the question is what we would have to do.  The second question is what to do with the people who are older, whose church it had been if we are going to take it away from them by making it younger, and for another generation. What do we give them in its place?  That question never gets asked, so no wonder we can’t do change management.  One of the laws of change management is: don’t take something away without something else in its place. Then thirdly, understand emerging adulthood.  That’s one thing any church leader can do is begin to get Christian Smith, and begin to read up on  emerging adulthood; in his great research on emerging adulthood and the church.  By the way, I wrote a book that summarizes all of that.


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