Reaching the Millennials for Christ

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2011 27 Jun


Today, I'm excited to welcome Jess Rainer to the blog. We'll be discussing an important new book that Jess co-authored with his dad, Thom: The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation. I recommend that pastors and church leaders (or anyone interested in generational shifts) consult this book for insights into the church's mission to reach this generation for Christ.

Trevin Wax: Jess, you and I are both part of the generation called "The Millennials." Labeling people according to their generation is a tricky exercise, full of complexities that make a common portrait difficult to ascertain. My first thought upon seeing The Millennials was: "I hope this isn't a one-size-fits-all portrait of our generation." I was surprised to see that one of the millennials you interviewed said roughly the same thing: "Don't stereotype my generation."

Despite my aversion toward broad generalities, I couldn't help but nod my head at the general descriptions you give in the book. Over and over, I thought, That's me. Or: Yes, these findings are an accurate characteristic of the Millennials I know. So tell me how waded through all the diverse pieces of information about this generation in order to pull out these commonalities.

Jess Rainer: You are correct that we can not stereotype any particular person within the Millennial generation. The diversity is far too great to even try to put the Millennials into one category. In fact, the first thing I discovered in the research was that I am not the typical Millennial! But despite all the diversity we found, there were still common themes throughout our generation.

One approach we took to understanding the 1200 different Millennial responses we received was to break the findings down by beliefs, actions, and expectations in all major life categories. These life categories includes items such as family, work, money, religion, media, diversity, as well as other categories.

For example, we asked these 1200 Millennials what they believed a family unit should look like. We asked what their family unit looks like right now. We asked what they expect their family to look like in the future. In asking these key questions, patterns or themes became more evident as more and more responses were received. This process is the only way to get a high level perspective of our generation. Anytime I looked at individual responses, I would be amazed how the answers would drastically change.

Trevin Wax: This strategy appears to put a strong emphasis on relationships during the information-gathering process.

Jess Rainer: Yes, that's right. In addition to the pure statistical research, my dad and I both made it a point to engage the Millennials on a personal basis. Observational research provided an extra source of validity to the massive amounts of statistical research we accumulated. These conversations and observations helped bring the major themes of our generation to the surface. For example, my dad and I quickly saw the lack of environmental vigor that was expected out of the Millennials.

It was an exciting time to read the statistical data and then engage my friends and peers. I think some of my friends got tired of me backing up their feelings and desires with percentages and fractions! The twofold approach to the research brought the book to life and provided the realness of life as a Millennial.

Trevin Wax: You mention the lack of environmental vigor as one of the facts that surprised you. Millennials are "green" in that there is an environmental sensibility about us, and yet we don't think that environmental issues should polarize people. This distaste for polarization is a key feature of the millennials that leads you to call them "the mediating generation."

Jess Rainer: Yes. Millennials are weary of screaming voices and lack of civility in work, politics, family, and religion. We see the extra efforts of unnecessary fighting as a waste of time and energy. I do not know how many times I have said the phrase, "If he would just stop arguing and do something about it..." Being in the ministry, I get frustrated with those who stand to argue about minor details when that time could be spent on effectively ministering to the those who do not know Christ. The distaste for polarization is a common sentiment within the Millennial generation.

Trevin Wax: What are some of the benefits of the Millennial distaste for polarization?

Jess Rainer: I think adopting this attitude will make the Millennial generation very productive. Not only in work and politics, but in family and religion. Families of the Millennials will take a mediating role instead of a "me" role. We are determined to keep families together. Millennials will also seek to serve others in their community. Religion will take a more outward focus. We are determined to make the church more effective in reaching out.

Having "can't we all just get along?" mentality can often be perceived as weak, but the research shows that millennials have strong convictions. A realistic peace is in mind for our generation. Trying to make everyone and everything get along will inevitably challenge the status quo. Millennials are ready to make large-scale changes if needed. There are impatient when things are not being accomplished.

This attitude could have a negative return by make big changes without thinking about the costs. The youthful knowledge of our generation with the desire to see change can have negative implications if we are not careful. It could also cause older generations to not give the Millennials the chance to succeed, which is already occurring, according to the Millennials.

Trevin Wax: Isn't the downside of this "can't we all just get along?" attitude demonstrated in a willingness to let go of religious convictions? I was distressed to see how low a priority religious matters were to millennials. The emphasis on family and relationships were encouraging, but religion is all but absent, which leads to discouraging views on matters like same-sex marriage. Even the Christians were wobbly on marriage, probably because the mediating position leads to a "let's stop arguing about stuff like this."

Jess Rainer: You are absolutely right. Millennials that enter churches only to find infighting and large amounts of negativity will become frustrated, leave, and avoid the church altogether. Those Millennials with minimal religious convictions will let go of them in order to maintain peace in their own lives.

I mentioned before that I am not the typical Millennial, so I see the church in a different light. The few Millennials that hold strong religious convictions desire to see the church change in a more positive, outward, and deeper theological direction. We are willing to maintain our convictions and work through disagreements in civil way in order greater God's Kingdom.

Those who match my Evangelical convictions only make up around 6 percent of the entire Millennial generation. But the other 94 percent of the our generation are not against the church or organized religion. In fact, using the very broad definition of Christian, 65 percent of the Millennials claimed it as their religious preference. Without using too many more numbers, approximately 85 percent of the Millennials are indifferent to the church.

Trevin Wax: Your book doesn't talk about abortion, but I wonder if you agree with the polls showing a surge in pro-life conviction among younger generations.

Jess Rainer: With such a large percentage of indifference, religious convictions are not present when making decisions based on same-sex marriage, abortion, military issues, or many of the other politicized issues.

I do believe there is a tipping point with these politicized issues, even though we did not perform specific research on this. Millennials hold strong convictions, even if they are not strong religious convictions. I mentioned earlier about Millennials seeking too much change too quickly. In some areas, the recent presidential election may be an example of that. While I have no statistical research on the issue, the Millennials may be responding to the recent change in what it means to be pro-choice. Obama's support of the Freedom of Choice Act may have caused Millennials to counter the pro-choice camp in order to show their disapproval. So, it is not that an indifference to religion or a desire to be the mediator will make the Millennials a generation of "peace at all costs." It's more the desire to have disagreements resolved in a fair and civil manner.


Trevin Wax: Jess, an interesting feature of your research was the statistical data that demonstrated this generation's interweaving of relationships and technology. The world is certainly changing.

You and I are both Millennials, and neither of us have ever owned a landline phone and answering machine. We live and relate through our cell phones and social media outlets. Right now, the research shows that technology serves the millennial desire to foster strong relationships.

Jess Rainer: Technology has indeed driven relationships to closer levels, especially within family units. As older generations began to embrace social media more, they were immediately opened to a world with heavy Millennial use. With the desire for stronger traditional family values, Millennials quickly allowed family access to their social media world.

Trevin Wax: Do you see technology also becoming a hindrance to close friendships? I've seen some research that shows younger millennials reticent to use Twitter. Many teens are admitting fewer and fewer friends to their FaceBook accounts, as they have decided they don't want their lives on full display to a large number of people. Do you anticipate a technological backlash of sorts with the generation that is 10 years behind us?

Jess Rainer: There is certainly another side to allowing family, friends, and co-workers access to a virtual diary with pictures. Stories about people not getting hired or even fired from a job for what was found on social media sites are abundant. The Millennials have quickly learned that technology can have a positive and negative affect for the present and future.

We mentioned in our book that we interviewed the Millennials born between 1980 and 1991. These older Millennials already indicated a shift in technology use even in this 12 year gap. Of this group, younger Millennials text 19 percent more than their counterparts. Additionally, email is dropping as a primary form of communication. The research shows a clear change in technology, especially how it is used as communication.

Despite the risks, I do not see Millennials shying away from technology. Twitter for example, tends to not fill a need in a generation that heavily uses Facebook (Facebook already has a built in status update). Although I use it frequently, I have very few close friends on twitter.

I believe our generation will always embrace the newest technology, especially if it has an apple on it. Although, Millennials will continue to learn and to demonstrate wisdom on how this technology will be used. Relationships will still be driven by technology. Millennials will just need to determine their own unspoken criteria about what will be put on public display and who will gets to see it.

Trevin Wax: I'd like us to end this conversation the way the book does - with insights that church leaders can take away regarding the Millennial generation. How should churches consider reaching millennials?

Jess Rainer: There are two different groups of Millennials that churches need to be aware of: the 85 percent group and the 15 percent group. As mentioned previously, 85 percent of Millennials are not Christians. And its these non-Christian Millennials that are indifferent to the church. Churches need to understand that they are not on the radar of non-Christian Millennials. It will take an intentional effort to reach our generation.

A great place to start to reach non-Christian Millennials is to simply invite them. When asked, these Millennials will attend church with a friend.

Also try to find a way to connect the Millennials to their Christian parents. Millennials are seeking advice and guidance from their parents on a regular basis.

Additionally, leaders must be transparent, humble, and have integrity. It's these leaders that need to demonstrate the deep meaning of following Christ.

Trevin Wax: What about ministry among the Christian Millennials? What suggestions do you have for evangelical churches seeking to engage this generation?

Jess Rainer: The Christian Millennials want to see churches challenge themselves. "Church-as-usual" is no longer effective in retaining Christian Millennials. Churches need to start with deep biblical teaching. Watering down scriptural truth will only cause Christian Millennials to look for another church. There has to be an outward focus as well. Churches need to commit to investing in their communities, love the nations, and direct revenue outwardly. Christian Millennials, like their counterpart, want to see leaders who demonstrate transparency, humility, and integrity.

It's not an easy task to reach the Millennial generation. I am experiencing these difficulties first hand as I reach out to our generation with my church plant. At the same time, I am seeing a small group of younger believers start to desire deeper teaching and community involvement. One of the biggest misconceptions is Millennials are unwilling to commit themselves to the church. It's this small group that is becoming more committed each week. Millennials want to radically commit themselves to something. There is nothing more radical than a true follower of Christ.