Earlier this summer it seems like Facebook almost broke with all the shares that were happening around Rachel Held Evans’ post: Why Millennials are Leaving the Church. Her post set off a firestorm of response. Lost in the back and forth of debate is a detail that I believe will cause the church not only to continue to lose more millennials, but ultimately fail to meaningfully reach the entire generation: how we define “millennials”.
The Millennial Generation is generally considered to include those who are born in the decades of the 1980’s and 90’s. We are the group who came after Generation X. Because we’re entering the workforce in large numbers (with the disposable income that accompanies that) there’s a huge focus on us from corporate (and church) America. In reality, a definition for “millennials” should be quite simple.
But, when you read articles on the web, you suddenly see that millennials are:
- “…quite prideful. Quite self-centered. Quite addicted to what’s newest, quickest, fastest and easiest.”
- “…sinful and lost — perhaps a bit more narcissistic than the generation before.“
- “…perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak.”
Are you picking up on a theme?
How has the most diverse generation in U.S. history come to be labeled with such blanket statements?
I work with Latino college students. I grew up in white, suburban, middle-class America. A world far removed from many of the students I work with. Many grew up in urban America. Some are lower on the socio-economic ladder than me. Some are from significantly higher. Many have Catholic backgrounds. I’ve never been to mass in my life. Until I started ministering alongside them, I could have cared less about immigration reform.
So why are we okay with making such blanket statements? Why are we so quick to take a narrative that fits our experience and apply it to everyone else who happened to be born within 10 years of us? Do we really not know people who are different than us? (40% of White Americans have no friends who belong to a different race.)
This could be the biggest barrier that keeps the church from meaningfully reaching the millennial generation: assuming that the majority-culture self-centered narrative applies to everyone in the generation. Why does “Millennials” usually get defined by the church only in a way that reflects my white, middle-class story? When do ethnic minorities get to have their story represented? When do we begin to care about what they might be looking for in church?
Suffice to say, with such different backgrounds and stories, my reasons for attending (or leaving) church are probably far different from theirs. While the “Me Generation” label may apply perfectly well to this child of the suburbs, might the “We Generation” fit better for the communally minded Latino students I’m serving?
The majority culture church in America is being presented with an incredible opportunity in our increasingly diversifying society. What could we learn from ethnic minorities about how to reach this generation for Christ? The narrative isn’t the same for everyone: Black millennials aren’t leaving the church. If we acknowledged their part within the broader narrative, might African Americans have something to teach us all?
Wherever you stand on the issues of Millennials leaving the church, can we agree on one thing? Millennials are far more diverse with far more fascinating life narratives than any of our blog posts give them credit for. If the church is going to figure out why they’re leaving (or maybe never coming in the first place), maybe we should first stop to get to know them before assuming our experiences apply to everyone.
Because you know what happens when we assume…