“For years, we have been saying we have a problem with young people and the church,” said Allan Martin during the opening plenary session of the Reaching Millennial Generations event at Andrews University (AU) on April 10, 2018. “Well, we have a problem if we keep repeating that phrase but do nothing about it.” Martin, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and researcher, was among the score of presenters and hundreds of people who gathered on the campus of the Michigan, United States, school to network, discuss, and get acquainted with new and proven methods of reaching younger generations for Christ.
“We are talking about the largest generation of young adults in human history,” said Martin. “In many senses, it’s a generation like no other.”
Opportunities and Challenges
For youth leaders, working with Millennials can present wonderful opportunities, presenters noted.
“I’m privileged to work with Millennials every day of my life, and I know they don’t want business as usual,” said Andrews University president Andrea Luxton in greeting the audience. “We need their creativity, their perspective, their ideas.”
At the same time, relating to Millennials can present a unique set of challenges. “How do we reach people who take little pieces of this and that? wondered Adventist Church Global Mission Centers director Homer Trecartin. “How do you relate to people who think nothing is an absolute in their lives?”
Experts agree that current developments in technology and society, in general, have presented challenges never anticipated. “Post-Christian and secular—no doubt, we are living in a very complicated world,” acknowledged AU Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary dean Jiří Moskala. “Young people are bombarded from every corner.”
But there is a silver lining, he added, as current challenges have triggered essential discussions. “It has led us to reflect on the topic, which is very good,” he said.
Adventist Church Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies director Kleber Gonçalves agreed. “This is not just a simple event,” he said in welcoming students and leaders—“it is a platform for dialogue and engagement.”
From Protest to Proactive Engagement
Martin’s presentation did not try to sugar-coat current challenges to Millennials’ engagement in church. He said, “Millennials are asking ‘Does church really matter?’”
These are young adults who consider themselves fans of Jesus but not of the church. Many feel they cannot ask the more pressing questions at church. And technology gives them answers which seem to make sense but not necessarily the truth. “They said, ‘You lost me; you are not making sense to me,’” said Martin. “But if we are going to change the world together, we cannot afford another young person to say, ‘You lost me.’”
Part of the answer, added Martin, is to stop complaining about current challenges and become proactive to empower young adults — defined as post high school through pre-parenthood young people — and the ministries which focus on ministering to them.
Three Hands-On Suggestions
Martin shared three hands-on suggestions that he thinks can jumpstart greater engagement and interactions with Millennials.
First, he said, we need real dialogue—we need to stop ignoring white elephants in the room. “We must foster intergenerational relationships with Millennials by being willing to discuss science, sexuality, and other hot topics in a non-threatening environment,” he said.
In accomplishing this, the impact of older church members can be essential. “For Millennials, a youth pastor is a paid friend, so it often doesn’t count,” he explained. “They need older meaningful people in their lives who get interested in their activities.”
And a small, simple act can go a long way to reach out to them, Martin said.
He shared the story of a young Millennial, who when asked why she had stayed and was actively involved in church when many of her friends had left, told about her experience in a Florida church. Every winter, she said, a group of snowbird ladies would attend her home church. As they were preparing to go back north at the end of winter, the ladies found out that a music concert would take place in church, where young people, including this young lady, would be performing. “The snowbird ladies changed their tickets because they said they wanted to support the youth and watch me perform,” the young woman shared. “I decided to stay in church because of those ladies—it is thanks to them that I am still in church.”
Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Conversation
Another element in relating to Millennials is showing forgiveness and acceptance. Martin said he is thankful in many places, it is already happening. “Millennials are developmentally in process,” he said. “We must have patience—patience to build relationships before judging them.”
Drawing a parallel with Jesus’ parable of the lost son in Luke 15, he said older members should be willing to go the extra mile to reclaim young people who have distanced themselves from the church. “It is the host of the party who chases the eldest son and invites him to come back,” he said.
Finally, Martin suggested that older members create spaces for sharing stories. “Starting all your interacting with ‘When I was your age’ is a turn-off,” he said. “A turn-up, on the contrary, is simply replying, ‘Tell me more,’ and being open to listen.”
Talking, however, is not the only thing you can do with Millennials. “Taking part in intergenerational mission trips, for instance, is a proven method of creating spaces for meaningful interactions,” Martin said.
Personalized Prayer is Essential
Above all, and despite what statistics say, it is essential we remember Millennials are not numbers—they are actual people, said Martin. Putting his money where his mouth was, he invited everyone to think and write down the names of three Millennials in their home churches and to pray specifically for each one of them. He shared his experience when, in a presentation in one of the church’s world divisions, he invited people to pray for individual Millennials of their home churches, and one woman told him, “I can’t recall a single name of a young person I know.”
“It is crucial we know young people so well that we can pray for their needs and dreams,” Martin concluded. “Prayer will work wonders.”