millennials

It’s Time for the Baby Boomers to Move Over and Mentor

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

Proverbs 22:6

Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy this year, a stunning reversal for a company that just a few years ago was the darling of all retail stores. When you read about the reasons why Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy, and there is a list of many reasons why. None address the fact that they missed an important demographic shift. Their core customers—the Millennial generation—grew up and became adults. The generation behind them—Generation Z—is much smaller and, while attracted to Forever 21’s merchandise, is not sufficiently large enough to generate the sales the millennials created. This shift burdened the former retail giant with a structure that could no longer support its costs and overhead.

This phenomenon of the millennials is not just affecting retailers. It is impacting our churches as well. Millennials are less inclined to worship where their baby boomer parents worship—or even how they worshipped.

Millennials are now between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-six years old. They number 75 million, roughly twenty-five percent of the total U.S. population, which now exceeds the current baby boomer population. They represent a full forty percent of the U.S. workforce. They are no longer the “future generation.” They are now the driving force of American cultural, economic, and societal issues.

Are Millenials Spiritual?

Many religious groups are complaining about millennials lack of religious views and attendance at church. But, much like Forever 21, these views miss the mark. Studies show that, while they stay away from traditional church, they still are as spiritual as their parents at the same point in life. Traditionally, for all generations from young adulthood to middle age is a period of declined spirituality. Spirituality becomes more important as we age.

These studies don’t address that a change is needed in the church’s approach. Not to bemoan their lack of attendance, but to upgrade to the way millennials want to experience God. Millennials are far more interested in missional work. In fact, the average millennial gives money to 3.3 non-profit organizations. Millennials are far more likely to go on mission trips than to Bible studies. These tendencies developed when they attended church in the past, not as participants in worship service but as members of their youth groups. While we baby boomers were in worship, they were learning to help.

When they were younger and in church, millennials didn’t sit with the adults. They were whisked off to classrooms. They didn’t pick out the music or the scripture; they picked out the places they could help. Too often they heard they were the future, while they were actually there in church.

Changing the Mindset

If the church doesn’t want to go the way of Forever 21, it must adjust to the reality of this enormous demographic bubble. Some churches are making this change and finding success. The campus pastor of New Life Church in Virginia Beach, Jeremy Miller, states, “we don’t focus or target the group, but instead see people in the fullness of who they are in God.” They have stopped telling the millennials that they must worship their way and seek to find out how this demographic wants to worship.

The church leaders act as a mentor and not a demander, in effect creating an authentic desire to hear their voice. They are permitted to pick out the music and scripture, making them actively involved instead of merely passively involved. Giving them a voice, while sounding obvious, hasn’t been the approach of the past. It has been more lip service than an authentic appeal. Pastor Miller has seen that this approach works, and his attendance by millennials has grown.

Consider the ordination process to become a clergy…

At a recent conference of the United Methodist church recognizing the retiring pastors and the incoming new pastors, I noticed that there were far more retiring than new. The reason isn’t that this generation is less religious. It is more about the many rules that are needed to become a pastor. These rules didn’t exist when the retiring pastors were ordained. It may take many years after they graduate school to become a pastor in the United Methodist church. They would rather help in a different way than wait in line.

This group doesn’t want to deny mentorship needs but insists it be authentic. Otherwise they politely turn away. It is time for us baby boomers to stop controlling the lives of our children; they are now adults. It is time we offer advice and not demands. This is a hard transition for the baby boomer generation. We raised our children with a more controlling approach than other generations were raised. It was always in the spirit of trying to help, but many times, it created embarrassing moments.

The millennials are not the future.

They are the present. It is time for us to listen and collaborate. It is time for us to back down on our demands and become partners.

As they mature, like all past generations, God will find them. They will move back to the church as we did. As was the case in our generation, we heard we weren’t as religious as our parents, and now we are repeating those same comments.

Baby boomers only have to look back at the time when they were emerging adults. We fought against Vietnam while our parents insisted we didn’t understand. We brought the idea of peace into the political discourse. In our own protest of  the then status quo, we found resistance. Eventually, we overpowered the status quo and got our way. Millennials are now doing the same. Their sheer numbers will also force the status quo their way.

If we want our children to attend church, it is time to bend to the new reality and hear their voices. It is time to reevaluate and not simply dismiss millennials because they are different.

Their time is now.

Our role is now to become authentic mentors not committed to our own ways but to collaborate. It’s time for us to move toward sharing the steering wheel. It’s hard to move over, but it’s time. After all, we are good parents.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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