This is the third conversation excerpting from an upcoming book, Just Hear Me Out: Conversations in the Generation Gap, a conversation between Baby Boomers and Millennials regarding church, faith, and all that complicated stuff. We’re talking about church, and what we value most as different generations. Feel free to offer your thoughts. (Click here to read the first installment and click here to read the second installment.)
Emily: Millennials value efficiency. I have been called into my boss’ office multiple times to fix what, to any 30 year old or younger, would take less than two minutes to figure out. But this technology is “too much for them to understand.” It’s only gonna get harder to figure out, honey. Better start now.
Oddly paired with technological efficiency, we also value seamlessness and minimalism. Not the sleek black and white minimalist tendencies of the early 2000’s; our minimalism focuses on eliminating obsolete technology and apps quickly and–you guessed it–efficiently. We are ruthless. If an app has a bug, developers have a set amount of time to fix it before users get frustrated and bored and move on to find something better. That amount of time is not long. Except for a few staples (banks, Facebook, Twitter), an app will lose its novelty. And some staples might even be in trouble. When there is a multitude of options available to me, my loyalty is hard to buy.
There’s an interesting thought. Loyalty. Millennials are not loyal. We like things that are nearby (to wherever we are), efficient, and culturally aware. If we are to stay with a brand, we want it to continually be evolving and changing as we do. I’m not sure, since I’m not a boomer, but it seems to me as if boomers value quality, communication, and privacy. I am less likely to go “shopping” around multiple places to find the right thing.
There are so many mediocre products that it doesn’t bother me to not have the best quality money can buy. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I want easy, quick, and—if it fits—quality. Now, I’ll do some research. I’ll know what brands to steer clear of for ethical reasons, what’s well made and in my price range. But I won’t narrow it down to one specific serial numbered product. I’ll probably pick a brand or two and go from there. Then it’s down to style and ease. If one store offers free shipping and the other I have to go into the actual store, it’s a no brainer. Even if there’s a shipping fee, it still might be worth it, depending on the product.
Time=Money has never been more true, and I’d rather have my time free than my money.
Jill: Unlike many other church watchers, I have tremendous hope for Millennials. I believe you have the heart and the power and determination to bring the church to amazing places. I honestly can’t wait to see what you will do.
This loyalty thing, though, strikes one of our deepest fears – the rootlessness of the Millennials. You don’t believe in institutions and feel no loyalty to them. With that, though, comes danger. To toss out institutions—marriage, family, church, denomination, company—is to trash not just a thing you can replace but a history. Yes, we have made a mess of some of those institutions. They are not what they ought to be. But to disregard them leaves you without a foundation. There’s nothing to build on except those dreams of yours and some crowdsourcing on the internet that told you you were probably right. Given the centuries of stability behind those institutions, that’s a rather paltry substitute for them.
Yes, you can retreat and wait for the ground to burn. But rebuilding will be far more difficult than you believe without any blueprints.
If we are going to trust a new generation to lead, we want to know they’re not going to be leaders like those bad neighbors everyone seems to have. The ones who have six old cars in their driveway that they are “working on,” which is really code for “I started restoring that but then I found another one I liked better and started on it but then…” Yes, those neighbors. We don’t want a church with a half dozen nonworking junkers in the yard.
In the discussion of value differences between Boomer and Millennials, this is huge. This is what frustrates the heck out of the Boomers. We don’t see you making the kind of commitment to a church body that we believe is necessary. Yes, maybe a commitment to Jesus, or belief, or some hazy thing called “spirituality.” But to the flesh and blood motley group we call our church family? Not so much. They seem as interchangeable to you as fast food joints and as unnecessary as a VCR.
Emily: But I would say this is not necessarily a Millennial trait. It seems to me that many of the late Boomer/early Gen Xers are choosing kids or sports or highly held personal opinions over church community as well. We just took it one step further, never fully connecting with any church community so that we could feel free to go off and not have anyone chase after us. It’s weird. The word “Christian” is hard to connect to because we don’t remember how to use it as a noun. Christian schools, Christian life, Christian values, the Christian Community. The word stimulates a mental image of a maple syrup glaze under which hypocrisy and pride intermingle.
Christ-followers. I don’t know who coined it, but let’s get on board with that.
Jill: Personal experience as a pastor makes me say you are correct on this. I have watched it play out as our obsession with a child-centric culture, aided and abetted by a Christian culture that encouraged that value, allowed for abandoning church for family activities. We even tacitly gave it approval, implying that putting the family first was Biblical and healthy practice. In real practice, what we have done is convinced our children that whatever they find valuable, be it sports, school, work, or sleeping in, has a viable right to precedence over the community expression of Christian faith.
As a result, “Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life. Religion, the young people in (this study) concurred, is a ‘Very Nice Thing.’”1
We modeled this, Boomers. And now we want to excoriate those kids when they grow up and take it to its logical conclusion. We told you connection and worship was important, but we did not model it. And as your generation is wont to do, you stood back, asked “why?,” and shrugged it off.
But I’m not convinced that a new paradigm is going to be the answer, either. When will it get old? When will new terminology be old terminology? When will a new time become an old one? I suppose you’ll tell me it will, and I should not count on anything lasting for long anymore. But it’s so exhausting to think about so much change all the time. Plus, when is it just novelty for its own sake?
Trying a new way when you’re talking about architecture or medicine or a sushi restaurant is one thing. It’s another when you’re thinking about something as foundational to human existence as family or Christianity. Your generation’s need to reinvent excites us when it’s dealing with hunger. It frightens us to the core when you’re reinventing doctrines and beliefs based on little more than what your peers say they prefer to believe. We do want to see loyalty to the church, with a capital ‘C’ and without, because we know that’s your tie to historical stability.
Emily: I think the problem is that we don’t see it as different than choosing a new sushi place. I mean, ok, in some regard yes, we do. But, as you’ve already pointed out, we have a hard time committing. I don’t think we have a problem with loyalty. We just don’t want to be loyal to something only to find out it wasn’t what we expected. We want to take pride in what we commit to, and it scares us to think that if we commit to something and it ends up doing something wrong, that we might be held accountable. We don’t like the idea that we can be held accountable for an action not done by us, but by a community we believe in. It makes us feel like we don’t know how to discern what is important or right, and it makes us more unlikely to trust the next thing to come along.
Jill: So for the church to earn your loyalty, it has to be a little more like TOMS shoes – you know where your money is going, you see transparently what they do with it (sort of), and you can morally get behind those values? You’re even willing to invest a little more than you normally would because you are proud to be associated with that company?
Emily: Sure. And there has to be continuity in behavior but also a willingness to try new things—for instance, TOMS isn’t just shoes, anymore. It’s expanded to sunglasses, bags, and backpacks, too, each with a different mission. It hasn’t put aside studies that show the importance of local economy and it works to build relationships within each community it provides for. As far as I am aware, back in 2006 it was just a fun startup that sent shoes to kids. The company has learned and changed and become more aware of the people around it.
That is what the church needs to do. Theology studies should come from theologians and ministers, but those studies that rely on society must come from that sphere first. This could even mean taking ideas from (gasp!) secular writers.
Jill: Or, gasp, mothers and daughters with random (well-researched and intelligent) musings.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.