A Campus Pastor’s Glimpses into the Millennial Generation

First, a Disclaimer. I have read a number of books and articles about The Millennial Generation and the so-called “Nones” (Young people who check the “None” box on forms that ask about their religious preferences.) I have also read about the Builders, Boomers, and Busters. These categories have their place, and it is worth noting general changes in our society, but such labels are overused because they sell books. You and I look for shortcuts when it comes to understanding the people right in front of us, and there aren’t any. We dare not forget that every member of every generation is their own person with his or her unique experiences, preferences, and values. Thus, I can’t speak for “The Millennial Generation.” My experience with emerging adults is limited to the 200 or so students that I interacted with regularly in my five years as a Lutheran Campus Pastor at Georgia Tech, as well as my relationships with my own millennial daughters and their circle of friends, a paltry sample of the estimated 71 million young people in the U. S., ages 20 to 35, in 2017. Still, I offer my perspective on some amazing Children of God for the edification of the whole church.

The Complaints. As I make my way around to congregations, the two complaints that I hear about millennials most often are “They are too concerned with money!” and “They never look up from their phones!” Of course these are stereotypes, and we must admit that stereotypes are generally rooted in somebody’s experience, however myopic. But before we slap a huge swath of humanity with glib criticisms, we should unpack them a bit. For starters, America is a very different place, financially speaking, than when most of us grew up. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, only a few of the mothers in my neighborhood worked outside the home. Then it was possible to live a comfortable, middleclass lifestyle on a single income. As I got older, my own mom went back to work, along with other mothers in the neighborhood who started working at least part-time. These days most middleclass households have both adults working full-time and then some, and still the gap between rich and the poor grows wider, and many families struggle to keep from losing ground. It’s also true that our expectations for what is “necessary” to live a comfortable American life have risen substantially. We live in bigger houses, drive more cars, and have countless more electronics that we did a generation or two ago, but none of this is the fault of millennials. If anything, our kids are the victims of how we parents raised them. So yes, some of my students from Georgia Tech with substantial earning potential have paid close attention to their starting salaries, and other students with less earning potential have bemoaned the fact that their degree did not lead immediately to a comfortable income. But how can we blame millennials for that? It takes exponentially more money to live comfortably in 2018 than it did in 1975, and kids today are just trying to assimilate into the society that we created for them.

There is also plenty of blame to go around when it comes to excessive screen time. Facebook and other social media platforms have been unbelievably successful at keeping us all glued to our cell phones. I am the first to admit that I have been dismayed to walk into the living room at our campus ministry house to see have a dozen students and staff each staring at their phones or computers, instead of talking to each other! We are losing the art of being truly present with each other, and that scares me, but we who did not grow up in this brave new world must be careful not to curse this social media technology without also understanding its blessings. Our connectedness is just that connectedness. To be sure, we need to make room for connections deeper than 140 Twitter characters or a Facebook post. You and I must also beware that our constantly buzzing phones are not forever pulling us away from important relationships right in front of us. Still, our vastly expanded circles of influence, courtesy of cyberspace, are worth celebrating. Not all screen time is a shallow time-sucker. These days we have the opportunity to reach out and care for people in many parts of our lives, across time and distance, and believe it or not, intimacy can happen by e-mail and text, too! It may be that millennials just have an enormously expanded view of what it means to live in community than those of us who grew up with rotary dial phones. Like any tool, the cell phone can be a blessing or a curse, and they are probably both.

Hands for Service. Most of the young people that I have worked with deeply want to make a difference in the world. Unlike many of us, they are not content to give lip service to the problems of the world. Millennials want to roll up their sleeves and help. In high school both of my daughters went on mission trips to Haiti, and not the kind where well-meaning white people go to a place in need to build something while staying in their own little cocoon, barely interacting with those they serve. These trips were about standing in solidarity with some of the poorest people in the northern hemisphere. Likewise, my campus ministry students insisted on going on several mission trips where we got our hands dirty. As young people, they are convinced that they can make a difference, and they are ready to do it. They have little patience for people or institutions that just talk.

Not long ago I had lunch with one of my recent graduates who did not land in a high-paying job. She has enough money to support her lifestyle, but she told me over and over again that she wants to “find her passion.” Cynical adults might chalk trips and comments like these up to youthful idealism, but I see them as a God-given fire that is not satisfied with a paycheck. Older adults need to fan these flames. Of course, we must cheer on our kids’ hunger to help others, but more than that, we must to help shape and guide them. Passion, like young love, can be scattered and fickle. Older people need to be in relationship with younger folks so that we can understand their gifts, build leadership skills, and pick them up when the world disappoints them. And here’s a thought: instead of standing on the sidelines, maybe it’s about time that you and I roll up our own sleeves and join them in incarnational service! After all, isn’t that when Jesus meant in John 10: 10 when he said that he “came that we might have life and have it abundantly”?

Feet for Crossing Boundaries. Where I grew up in suburban Detroit, I remember only a single person of color in my high school of some 2,400 students. I did not know her. I am also sure that there were a couple hundred gay, lesbian, and transgender students, but if any of them knew this about themselves at the time, none of them dared to “come out,” and I certainly did meet them. By contrast, my own children went to high school in an affluent suburb of Atlanta with about 3,200 students, and the population was about one-third Caucasian, one-third African American, and one-third Asian, and the cohort of friends that had dinner at our house every Friday night for four years looked like the United Nations. On one occasion a pastor friend of mine visiting from a small Midwestern town remarked on the surprising diversity of the group, and my daughter looked at him like he just announced, “Look, all your friends have fingers!”
In addition, one of my daughters was an active member of the Gay-Straight Alliance all through high school and has continued that association in college. I saw this same openness at work this past year at Georgia Tech, when all four of my residential Interns were members of the LGBT community. Regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable the church may be with diversity of race or sexual orientation, we need to know that the young adults that I encounter simply do not see these lines. Many of the differences that so segregated our childhoods are as ordinary to them as red hair of left-handedness. Millennials are more able than most to judge individuals on the quality of their character alone, and boundaries of many types matter little to them. This is something that they have in common with Jesus.

Hearts for Jesus. There is no doubt that the young adults in my world are self-selecting. Only students with a spiritual hunger would ever darken the door of a campus ministry. I believe the statistics that suggest that fewer millennials, along with fewer older and younger people, are going to church these days. What amazes me is that we look around and see few young adults in our pews, and we tend to blame it on them, exclusively. I have never once heard someone say, “Older adults don’t like church the way that they used to. That’s why our attendance is down!” But when it comes to emerging adults, we assume it that it’s a generational fault, rather than, say, an inability or unwillingness of the church to speak to their hearts.
Lots of my former students tell me that they are struggling to find a church home after college. Part of the issue is a demographic. They visit a congregation and find few, if any, worshippers in their decade, and they do not feel at home. It becomes a vicious circle. They are no young people in church, so young people don’t come to church, so there are no young people in church. What we need is some young adult pioneers who are willing to be the first ones in a given congregation, who are willing to invest in a church that does not look like them, and build it into a congregation that reaches out to younger folks, but that’s a big ask. How many of us are willing to be pioneers in our 50’s and 60’s? Can we ask others to do what we won’t?

But the problem goes deeper than the numbers. Millennials of my acquaintance are drawn to Jesus. They hunger for the grace of which he speaks. They love his willingness to blow up societal boundaries, and they are ready to answer his call to serve, but too often students do not see Jesus’ over-the-top grace in our churches. They do not see Jesus’ fire to challenge the powers that be and serve the least of these, and they do not see the Lord’s own joy in our midst.
I am indebted to Kenda Creasy Dean and her book Practicing Passion where she suggests that young people are searching desperately for a cause worth dying for, a cause worth living for. I believe that we can attribute many of the fickle obsessions that kids throw themselves into to failed attempts in this search for meaning. Moreover, I am convinced that the young men who commit violent or terrorist acts represent a complete failure of the larger society to guide young people into healthy and legitimate meaning beyond themselves. In the church we know that Jesus is the ultimate cause worth dying and living for. Why else would you and I spend so many years in the church? We just need to show millennials that this Jesus still lives in church.

We Need Each Other. Younger adults and older adults are a match made in heaven. Younger people can help us to reignite the passion for our faith that we once had and remind us why we are Christ-followers. We can follow them into our own passions for justice and mercy. In turn, we older adults can help channel the sometimes wild energies of young people into healthy and effective pursuits. We can give them tips for changing cumbersome societal systems, and we can teach them resilience when all their dreams don’t work out on the first try. Simply put, we can disciple each other.Millennials are far from perfect. They are sinners and saints, just like members of every other generation, but it’s not fair to blame young people en mass for cultural problems that are bigger than all of us. Nor should we dismiss them because they are natives to a world of technology to which the rest of us are immigrants. Young adults coming of age at the close of the second decade of the third millennium bring enormous gifts that will bless the church and the world, if we will just support them.•