Keep Calm and Be Contextual

Our very own Hannah Skinner shares some ….

Millennial Musings and the Challenge for the Church

Gen X, Gen Y, the Boomers… if ever a license to group together a whole bunch of people with a set of values and behaviours is required just reach for your Generation Identifying Handbook – and you’re sorted! A sociologist-approved shorthand for capturing the mood and view of millions of people – like them or loath them cultural groupings are a ‘thing’, and a useful start point for working out who is being communicated with and who isn’t hearing (or maybe just doesn’t care so much) what the message is.

Which brings us to Millennials. Much parodied, somewhat derided… this man-bun sporting, yoga-loving, energy-ball munching bunch of over-anxious and self-entitled young adults are everywhere. Instagram, self-help groups, over-staying their welcome in their parent’s homes…. Everywhere except church.

Well, happily, there is increasing awareness within churches – inherited and fresh expressions – that there is more to this group than the cartoon caricature. That this group has much to offer and are in fact searching for meaning and community, but that a whole new approach is required to journey with these people. A new way of being church alongside this culture that requires an embedded, long-term and relational approach that goes beyond the event-driven, centrally-resourced models often on offer.

The official start and end of the ‘Millennial Generation’ are somewhat fluid, with various definitions in circulation. However, most demographers start the generation in the early 1980’s, which we’ll go with – if only because it gives your author a certain degree of indigenous authority, albeit towards the Geriatric-Millennial end of the spectrum (yes, we just made that new grouping up.) The end point of the generation seems even foggier, but we’re more-or-less talking about the generation who began adult life in the 2000’s.

So what do we know about these ubiquitous but largely church-abandoning folks – and what does church look like within this culture? How do we engage and build community with this group – other than waiting ‘til they have babies and then stepping in with toddler groups and open arms. Whilst it is notable from church and community engagement that it becomes easier to connect with people once they reach the family-making stage, as the average age for first time parenthood in the UK is currently in late 20’s-early 30s – what about all those years pre-bumps and babies in the church hall?

Poole Missional Communities (PMC) recently hosted a day conference which took a long, hard look at these questions – including examining incarnational theology in the millennial context and listening and learning from the experiences of people working amidst this generation. Their observations matched those of wider commentary – that millennials are ‘switched off’ from institutional, organised religion – but fired up about political and social issues. That they talk a good talk about being connected and busy via online and digital community – but actually experience deep loneliness and lack of meaningful relationship. They feel inspired to ‘make a difference’ and ‘be the change’, but a mindset of instant gratification leads to feelings of failure and lack of purpose when efforts don’t yield immediate effects.

In other words, what these millennial folk are after ‘the church’ (in its widest sense) has in bucketloads.

Meaning – tick.

Purpose – tick.

Community – tick.

A commitment to speaking into situations of injustice and inequality – tick, tick….

The challenge is to allow the prevailing culture amongst this generation to shape the offering. Yep, to get contextual. Where ‘Church’ says structure – they say relationship. Where ‘Church’ says “we have answers” – they say “we’re kind of OK with unanswered questions.”

The problem – as identified by the PMC gathering and others – is that for this disillusioned and somewhat cynical grouping, the inherited model just doesn’t connect. The model doesn’t fit – and no amount of vicars-in-trainers, funked-up worship music or #hashtags will change that.

Our offering of a Fresh Expression of church to this group needs to take seriously this context, and build up leaders from within this generation who can engage, live and work alongside their peers – developing sustainable relationships and working out what church looks like embedded in an emerging culture that doesn’t do church. A commitment to wondering together and learning from one another, a confident articulation of identity that doesn’t assert superiority. Pointing always to Jesus who lived in community, engaged with the political and social issues of the day, offered powerful alternatives to the dominant ideology and created meaning and purpose without a single selfie.

That’s the kind of church that this Geriatric-Millennial could hashtag, and not only that – one which perhaps this generation could find the belonging within that we know, deep down, we kind of need.