(Originally printed in the Fall 2011 Issue of the MCOI Journal)
For many years, the current youth generation—“Generation ‘Y’ ” or the “Millennials”—has been the focus of numerous books, articles, and studies. From a Christian perspective, much of the analysis has been developed to equip ministry leaders with the tools they need to reach into their lives and connect with them at a level relevant to this age group. But some of the analysis has been for the purpose of acknowledging and giving credit to the value system of this younger generation, thereby leveraging this segment of the population and their sometimes immature worldview for political purposes. The trend continues.
In her book American Individualism, Margaret Hoover reminds us how integral the Millennial generation was to the campaign and ultimate election of President Barack Obama,1 with 66% of their vote going to Obama and 31% to McCain. Her core argument is that while young people do tend to vote more liberal, the Republican Party need not view this as a total loss. There are areas where Millennials have “distinct conservative leanings,”2 and Hoover describes these areas as primarily economic in nature. Hoover, the great-granddaughter of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, considers the moral and spiritual framework of this generation:
The Pew Center for Research[*] tells us that millennials are the most liberal generation in America. And here liberal means socially liberal—“permissive” in their attitudes about sex and sexual orientation … Millennials have diverse and broad tastes in music and film. They communicate readily with one another, and with their peers in foreign countries, using social media. And by comparison with earlier generations of Americans, they are less likely to be affiliated with organized religion—even if they are privately spiritual.3
As I continued to read American Individualism, it was almost impossible not to consider how the church may have been a contributing, though passive, factor in the shaping of the worldview of this Millennial culture. From the time they were very young, this generation was being inundated with ideas of religious pluralism, moral relativism, and the idea that all truth-claims have validity—or none do. This is the Postmodern generation I often encounter in the college classroom that wants to embrace the belief in absolute truth but rejects doing so if it has the potential to cause anyone offense. As a result, ethics and spirituality remain at the right hand of relativism.
Hoover’s book is written primarily to locate pragmatic solutions to America’s political crisis by arguing for conservatives to abandon their public platform on abortion and gay marriage in order to gain the support of this new generation on other conservative issues, thus making it more desirable for them to claim the GOP as their political party. But the truth I believe Hoover ultimately revealed in her book is the waning influence of the church in the lives and minds of Millennials—a problem that began a long time ago with roots in various social changes—to which I’m not sure the church adapted her ministry. While Hoover’s book didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about their beliefs (a glance through Amazon’s web site shows a plethora of books written on the Millennial generation), it successfully serves as a wake-up call to evangelical Christians about the worldview of Millennials.
About the Millennials
Born roughly between the years of 1982 and 2001, the Millennial generation enjoys the fruit of technological achievement like no generation before them. They have witnessed mobile technology go from large to micro, but they can’t imagine what life was like without the ability to text in abbreviated English at a pace that challenges NASCAR speeds. And while they experienced a period of great financial prosperity during their childhood, they were also witnesses to the attacks of 9/11 and the economic turmoil thereafter. In terms of entertainment, they virtually have no recollection of life before cable television and can barely remember the 30-minute sitcom (no real loss); it having been replaced by highly edited “reality” television (no real gain). And to Millennials, through both personal experience and the inundation media messages, the nuclear family seems more like a Twentieth Century relic rather than a timeless cornerstone of culture.
Marriage and Family
Another recent Pew Center for Research poll4, not cited in Hoover’s book, found more than half of Millennials (52%) believe being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life, while only 30% of those polled believe the same about marriage. This seems to tell us Millennials have experience being children of single parents and conclude that while marriage can be a good thing, it isn’t necessary. While I know and agree there are many single parents doing a great job raising their children, we need to recognize the disconnect between marriage and parenting which will continue to lead to single-parenting by choice. And while divorce continues to permeate the life of the church, the future worldview of church members may very well be one that finds marriage irrelevant.
On divorce, researcher George Barna observes:
There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage. Interviews with young adults suggest that they want their initial marriage to last, but are not particularly optimistic about that possibility. There is also evidence that many young people are moving toward embracing the idea of serial marriage, in which a person gets married two or three times, seeking a different partner for each phase of their adult life.5
While I cannot offer you any specific statistics on the increase of serial marriages prior to and during the childhood years of the Millennials, anecdotally we know this increase is real and amplified by culture. In our own families and in the very public lives of Hollywood and social elites, serial marriage has been the trend for some time. In a very real way, serial marriage has contributed to irrelevance of marriage. This happens with anything that is trivialized.
Ministry to Parents of Millennials
We should ask ourselves if our own ministry tactics may have caused us to inadvertently miss out on ministry opportunities to this young generation by missing those on the fringes in the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s and resulting in this spiritual and intellectual disconnect now being attributed to Millennials. In the 1990s, we saw the beginning of the Promise Keepers movement—which served as a very positive and healthy ministry to the church by asking men to remain devoted to God and family. Promise Keepers was available to men in the church during a period when women’s conferences were also gaining in popularity through Women of Faith events across the country. These generally focused on a woman’s personal relationship with Christ through very engaging popular womens’ speakers and writers.
While preservationist ministries are important—and I view both Promise Keepers, Women of Faith, and currently, the True Woman conference to be about preserving the biblical model for the church and family in both theory and reality, we also need to be about recovering these biblical models for those on the boundaries of faith.
On the feminist front during these years, we saw wives and moms entering the workforce in greater numbers. As divorce rates increased, as single-motherhood lost more of its cultural stigma, non-nuclear families may have found themselves further away from the influence of the Church. As a result, their children may have missed out on hearing Gospel-preaching, the foundation of a Christian worldview. Whether I’m correct in my analysis or not, who knows. But as the Church continues to minister from this day forward, perhaps, we need to think more strategically about how to reach the youth who are the future of the Church. We shouldn’t repeat the errors of the past, no matter what they are.
It is often said if you can get dad to come to church, you can get the entire family in the front door as well. This, of course, presupposes dad is functioning as a leader in his home. Today, with many intact families abiding by a secular egalitarian family structure, no one can be confident of the influence dad has in the home anymore. (This is the same mantra of those warning us about the feminization of the church, a glass half-empty perspective on ministry—but that’s another article for another time.)
The truth is, as more and more homes are composed of people who have divorced (or never even married) and moms continue to be the primary care-givers of children, the church absolutely needs to consider the vital role women’s ministry can have in the church and community. As women reach into the lives of other women—by following the Titus 2 mandate to mentors; by following the example of Mary by regularly studying scripture and following after Christ (cf. Lu. 10:38-42); by following the example of Priscilla as a woman who had an enormous intellectual grasp on the content of her worldview and a parallel ability to communicate truth (cf. Acts 18:24-26); and by becoming spiritual influences in the lives of children like Eunice and Lois, the grandmother and mother of Timothy (cf. 2Tim. 1:5) the church can have hope for future generations because of the present ministries. But this means womens’ ministries must get beyond social aspirations and integrate robust Bible study, theology, apologetics and cultural engagement into what they do. What this means for the church is that our pastors and elders must be ready to equip women in the church for this ministry if these women are not equipped already.
Though the discussion about the values and beliefs of the Millennial generation provide reason for a great deal of pessimism, know that there are young people of this generation who are passionate about their worldview in very refreshing ways. Because I teach ethics to this age group at a community college, I was asked to speak to a group of Christian Millennials in another context. A tremendous blessing they were as they showed me the future of the church is in the hands of a generation who really do love God, truth, and despise compromise of any sort. But let’s not be slack, because our generation is responsible for the generation coming up behind the Millennials. Let’s not make their work any more challenging than it needs to be.
*The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does so by conducting public opinion polling and social science research; analyzing news coverage; and holding forums and briefings. It does not take positions on policy issues.” ( http://pewresearch.org/docs/?DocID=10014 )
Sarah Flashing, M.A. (TEDS, 2005) is the founder and director of The Center for Women of Faith in Culture, a ministry dedicated to the life of the mind of women in the Christian community. She is a contributor to the Christianity Today women’s ministry blog, Gifted for Leadership, and Evangel at First Things online. Since 2004, Sarah has been speaking to women on a range of topics including Christian world view, apologetics, and bioethics. In addition to her writing and speaking ministry, she teaches ethics at McHenry County College and serves in women’s ministry at The Orchard Church in McHenry,Illinois. For more information, visit www.womenfaithculture.org.
- Hoover, Margaret. American Individualism. (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011) p.53 ↩
- Hoover, Margaret. American Individualism. (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011) p, 54 ↩
- Hoover, Margaret. American Individualism. (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011) p 198 ↩
- http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1920/millennials-value-parenthood-over-marriage ↩
- http://www.rutherford.org/articles_db/commentary.asp?record_id=669 ↩