Millennials aren't who pastors think they are
If you read enough articles documenting the challenges of American evangelical churches reaching millennials, you'll find a lot of information about the ways that millennials reject the church, use technology differently, and struggle to relate to pastors far removed from their life experiences. You'll find plenty of words like 'authenticity' and 'tolerance/intolerance', but you may not find a lot of help nailing down who exactly millennials are.
While technology use and views on church are important to understand, some wider trends may cause church leaders to misunderstand the wider socio-economic forces driving the decisions of young adults in their 20's and 30's.
The misconceptions about millennials
Millennials are often portrayed as smartphone-addicted young adults who live in hip urban neighborhoods, wear the latest styles, and work at jobs that offer opportunities for personal growth and well-being. It's easy to weave a misconception of millennials based on these studies, assigning trends and observations more widely than warranted and then overlooking some other key trends in this generation.
While a study by the Harvard Business Review may accurately portray what a certain subset of millennials desire out of a job, it's easy for the casual reader to overlook a related study that also found Millennials are willing to switch jobs for a modest raise of 20 per cent or less. Is this a sign of entitlement from a selfish generation? It's more likely that millennials are actually operating from a different set of values: survival.
It may surprise many that only 30 per cent of millennials have a bachelor's degree. The majority, 37 per cent, have taken 'some college classes', while most of the rest topped off their education with high school or a 'general educational developent' test. Many millennials face a sluggish job market, stagnant salaries, and rising housing prices in most urban centers. Those carrying student loan debt find it that much harder to make ends meet with a median salary of approximately $35,000.
Rather than moving into higher end urban centers, millennials are shifting to neighborhoods outside of urban centers or suburbs - although some suburbs have been restructured to resemble a more urban feel. Regardless of aspirations to live in an urban, walkable neighborhood while working at a fulfilling, personally enriching job, the reality for many millennials falls shorts.
Many are switching from one job to another in search of their ideals and a slightly higher salary while moving to neighborhoods that meet their limited budgets. Since millennials are more likely to delay marriage, they are either living with roommates or cohabiting with a romantic partner in order to save on rent costs.
Implications for churches
Any piece addressing trends with millennials and the church should come with the disclaimer that millennials defy many of their stereotypes, and they do so with great gusto. They hate being labeled as a monolithic group, even if that label asserts they hate being labeled.
Regardless, it's possible that church leaders today are so wrapped up in the past church experiences and use of technology by millennials that they overlook these far more pressing socio-economic trends. For instance, are suburban churches fully aware of just how many millennials may be living in their neighborhoods? Are urban churches aware of the economic strain that young adults in their area may feel?
Are any churches addressing the issue of cohabitation from an economic perspective, assigning overly simplistic motives for such a living arrangement? Christians should agree that marriage is essential before a couple moves in together, but teaching on marriage and sexual ethics need to take account of this shifting trend.
Most importantly, are these churches, whether urban or suburban, unware of the sizeable portion of millennials who may not have completed or even attended college and who face significant challenges in today's job market and the accompanying economic strain? Simply assuming that most millennials have college debt, as I've certainly done, reveals that we are probably overlooking a sizeable portion of this generation. Will these millennials see a place for themselves in the sermons and ministries of their local churches?
Planning ministry around any general demographic trend can risk alienating the many members of that group who don't fit the accepted 'profile'. In the case of millennials, our trend pieces may do more harm than good for churches who are struggling to minister authentically to these young men and women. Whatever our surveys say about generational trends, we don't need a major study to tell us that every person who walks through the doors of a church wants to be understood as an individual, not as a demographic group.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com.