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(Not) talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation

Melissa Wheatley (right) helps with Sunday school classes at Trinity Church in Spring Hill, Tenn. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Joey Butler*
Feb. 4, 2010

Members of the Auburn Wesley Foundation take a backpacking trip.
Photo courtesy of John Carl Hastings.

When the original “Star Wars” trilogy was re-released to theaters in the late 1990s, I took my cousin, 10 years my junior, to experience those films on the big screen.

I told her how, when I was a little kid, I made my dad take me to see “Star Wars” eight times, and “The Empire Strikes Back” six times. Puzzled, she asked, “Why did you go to the theater that many times?”

“Because,” I replied, “we didn’t have VCRs back then.”

She looked at me like I’d said we didn’t have electricity. Or possibly fire. Now she has a sister, 10 years younger, who is dumbfounded that she survived a childhood without the Internet.

Younger generations live in a radically different world than previous generations did at that age. They have different beliefs, different concerns and different perspectives.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has launched a plan intended to lower the average age of United Methodist membership 10 years by 2019. To attract younger generations, churches must understand who they are, what they like and how best to reach them.

Meet the Millenials

“M*A*S*H*” was going off the air, MTV was launching, “Thriller” was in cassette decks and Generation Y was in its infancy.

Generation Y was born between 1982 and 1995. It is the most “wired” generation yet. Unlike their more self-absorbed Generation X predecessors, “millennials” are very team and community oriented, and more optimistic. They are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.

And they don’t seem to like the church much.

According to research by both Pew Research Center and the Barna Group, Generation Y has little trust in the institutional church.

Pew reports 18- to 25-year-olds are among the least likely to attend church regularly: 32 percent attend at least once a week compared with 40 percent of those over age 25. Sixteen percent say they never attend.

Even young Christians are wary. A 2007 Barna study reports half of young churchgoers perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical and too political. One-third called it old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

When Barna asked young people to identify their impressions of Christianity, one common theme was "Christianity is changed from what it used to be" and "Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus."

The findings led Barna president David Kinnaman to write unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity

“Young people are very candid,” Kinnaman writes. “In our interviews, we kept encountering young people - both those inside the church and outside of it - who said that something was broken in the present-day expression of Christianity.”

Depressed yet?

It’s not easy to hear such criticism about the church, but this generation isn’t a lost cause. It may just be what the church needs.

Jamie Dunham

“People in that age group have not rejected spirituality. What they’ve rejected is the tradition and what they perceive to be the hypocrisy of the church,” says Jamie Dunham, chief planning officer at Bohan Advertising, which works with United Methodist Communications on The United Methodist Church’s “Rethink Church” campaign.

For many years, Dunham says the dialogue has been about “what type of music was played in the worship service and what type of clothes you wore. The real discussion is what place does church have in our culture and community. This younger generation is looking for things that allow them to get outside the church to do things.”

Don’t say … do!

“The churches that I think have the healthiest approach today put emphasis on the actions that show they are people trying to solve problems in the community rather than trying to insulate themselves,” Dunham says.

Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, call Generation Y “the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s. … This is a generation of activist doers."

The more opportunities Millennials have to get their hands dirty, the better. Churches need to look into their communities and see what needs are there – perhaps a pancake breakfast for the homeless, a Habitat build or a community cleanup.

When designing ministries, remember young people in entry-level jobs and paying college loans often don’t have as much money to contribute as older members.

In a 2008 interview with “Church Solutions,” the Rev. Justin Anderson, lead pastor of the nondenominational Praxis Church in Tempe, Ariz., points out that young adults often have more energy and can give more time than older adults. Opportunities to share time and energy might overcome insecurity about small donations, a barrier that can keep them out of church.

Churches also can offer training or educational  opportunities that will directly benefit young adults. Kinnaman wrote in unChristian that while this age group is better educated than previous generations, they lack certain life skills.

“Coming alongside (young people) as they’re launching their life is important,” Dunham says. “Churches can succeed in offering classes like learning how to financially organize your life or job skills. Churches that embrace young people and what their needs are are going to be part of the solution.”

Get ‘wired’

All but the oldest members of Generation Y have had the Internet and mobile phone technology their entire lives. This is how they communicate and build community. Churches must adapt.

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The Rev. Andrew Thompson, pastor of Mount Carmel United Methodist Church, Henderson, N.C., and author of the blog “Gen-X Rising,” writes, “Most young folks … aren’t going to read the church newsletter … But they will gather around online content that looks sharp, reads smart and invites them into cyber-community.”

Dunham agrees. “They’re so wired. Generation X had that technology, too, but they use it more as a tool; for Generation Y, it’s part of their lifestyle.”

That doesn’t mean churches can just toss up a Facebook page and wait on the masses to show up.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick pastor of First Baptist Church, Ballston Spa, N.Y., blogs at blog.timesunion.com/Rudnick, “(This generation needs) more relationships, less programs. Everything behind Twitter, MySpace and Facebook is people. Those things are just about a faster way to share information, but if the people are not there on the other end, then those technologies do not work.” 

Reports saying young people mistrust the church are scary, but there is hope – if churches will be creative and find new ways to do ministry that appeal to this skeptical group.

“Generation X suffered from breakdown of the traditional household, and grew up in a time where they’re more pessimistic and fearful about the world,” says Dunham. “But Generation Y is hugely optimistic. They want to make changes for the better, and make the world better than what they grew up in."

*Butler is editor of content for 18- to 34-year-olds at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. This article is featured in the January/February 2010 issue of Interpreter Magazine.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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10 Thousand Doors

Andrew Thompson’s Gen-X Rising blog

Pew Research Center

Barna Group

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