Millennials and the Key to Mainline Decline

Well, it appears that we’ve gotten Millennials (that generation born 1980-2000) wrong.

Jean Twenge has famously tried to make the case that Millennials are lazier and more selfish than previous generations. In books like Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge has argued that today’s young people have grown up coddled, having been nurtured with an inflated sense of self-worth in an “every-kid-gets-a-soccer-trophy” world.

Dr. Twenge’s research, though, has been controversial among social scientists for some time. Up until recently the counterargument to Twenge’s assertion of Millennial narcissism centered on the idea that Millennials, far from being more narcissistic than their generational forebears, are just motivated by different things. What has sometimes been taken as laziness or a lack of ambition in the workplace is instead a refusal to chase money in favor of looking for happiness and flexibility.

However, it turns out that even happiness isn’t exactly the right description of what drives Millennials in their career choices. In an article in The the New York Times Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker argue that happiness isn’t a precise enough explanation of what Millennials seek. Instead, the data show that “Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning.”

Meaning, of course, is a slippery word, since the range of its possible significance seems so personal. Smith and Aaker, however, identify meaning as present in those whose “lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

This got me to thinking about the church.

Every time I write about emerging generations, I get email about how Millennials get too much attention, and about how they’re lazy, whiny attention-hogs (unlike Baby Boomers, apparently, who’ve historically suffered a deplorable lack of attention), and about how I need to stop acting like they represent the salvation of moribund mainline denominations.

Look, I don’t think Millennials are anything more than young people trying to make a go of it in a world where the economic deck has been decidedly stacked against them.

I don’t think there’s anything magical about them (being in their presence won’t cure Lumbago or pacify psychopathic serial killers).

I don’t believe that if we could just figure them out the church could reengineer its post-war hegemony in American culture.

But I do think they’re worth paying attention to.

Here’s my assumption: If mainline denominations have taken a nosedive in membership, money, and influence (which they have), and if you want a chance to figure out why (which I do), it seems like a good thing to start looking at the age demographic where the losses have been heaviest.

Care to venture a guess as to where that might be? Yep. Millennials. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

Oh, I know that’s oversimplifying, and that there are any number of people out there itching to tell me why looking for answers among those who are bugging out at the fastest rate is a lousy idea. But, you’ve got to start someplace, right?

An increasing number of young people have found organized Christianity scandalously underwhelming. Why?

Like much of the rest of culture (following Twenge’s lead), the church has tended to answer that question by assigning blame to Millennials: “Those selfish little narcissists just don’t appreciate what we’ve got here, what we’ve tried to do for them. They only care about themselves.”

There are holdouts, of course--those who’ve adjusted their approach to appeal to the immature impulse to “happiness” that they believe drives Millennials. There are churches who’ve tried to appeal to Millennials, believing that if they could just find the right mixture of “hip” music and upbeat theology, that they will have hit the happiness sweet spot. Believing (perhaps unconsciously) that young people care less about the more difficult aspects of following Jesus than with being entertained, popular Christianity has pursued what I prefer to think of as the “sitcom-ification” of faith -- that is, the life of faith should be presented as a series of challenges in an upbeat atmosphere that can be resolved in a half hour, and will include enough comedy to keep the laugh-track engineer appropriately occupied.

But what if the church quit worrying about whether there is enough carmel for the lattes in the church café or enough hair gel for the praise band?

Or what if the church quit whinging about how “these-kids-just-don’t-appreciate-the-church-we’ve-worked-so-hard-to-bequeath-to-them?”

What if the church took Millennials seriously?

What if the church viewed Millennials not as petulant narcissists or vacuous amusement hounds, but as serious adults living in an uncertain world, who are searching for something meaningful to which to give their lives?

What would we have to do to be that kind of church?

Whatever happens, I suspect that any chance mainline denominations have of surviving can be found somewhere in the answer to that question.