This article was written by Dr. G. David Boyd and first published on BiblicalLeadership.com. Used with permission.
It seems as if no matter where you turn, Millennials are being blasted by the media for being selfish and lazy. Time magazine’s front cover characterized 20-somethings as “The ME ME ME generation,” and a recent Huffington Post article “Why Gen Y Yuppies are Unhappy” accuses them of being wildly ambitious and delusional. Amidst all the name-calling and blaming being done in the news, if there was ever a time when an alternative voice could be raised by the Church, it is now. Yet, most Christians are ready to jump in on the prevailing generation-bashing, or else they are simply silent.
The frustration in society isn’t brewing because they are Millennials (a term which describes those born after 1980), but because of their delayed development. The delayed development of our adolescents is an issue that the Church must address. Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor at Clark University, has stated,
Two of the least contested issues in contemporary adolescent psychology and youth studies are that (a) important aspects of identity formation, one of the pillars of human development, take place during the transition to adulthood, and (b) the transition to adulthood is now taking far longer than in the past, delayed until the late 20s for a significant proportion of the population (Arnett 2005, 85).
Arnett uses the term “emerging adulthood” to describe a new life phase after adolescence which is characterized by identity exploration, instability, self-focused, feeling in-between adolescent and adults and endless possibilities (Arnett). This new stage in human development can refer to any individual from any generation—although currently, it is the Millennials.
As an institution of our society, the local church has an impact on the development of adolescents, and it is time for that voice to be heard. Instead of generation-bashing and calling names, the Church must seek to understand and assist emerging adults during their development.
Here are three reasons (of many) why the Church must address the challenges facing this generation.
1. The Church is incomplete without their voice.
Adolescents and emerging adults must fully become a part of the body of Christ. Many times, young adults are not respected as adults when they walk through church doors. When I asked emerging adults, “Who is most likely to treat you like an adult: your parents, your work, your church, or society?” Society ranked as the least likely to give them respect, and the church was right beside it. Emerging adults do not feel fully accepted as adults when at their church.
First Corinthians 12:24-25 says, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Failing to show care and respect for all ages, (especially emerging adults) has caused divisions and has weakened churches.
Ageism was not an issue that Paul needed to address to New Testament churches, but it is a problem today. The necessity for the body of Christ to be complete with men and women from every generation is important for the health of churches. They need to admit their need for emerging adults, not just to help in the nursery or teach junior highers. We need them to lead, to speak, to shape and drive the church for the sake of the Kingdom.
Our culture is obsessed with peer-centered relationships which are a contributing factor to their delayed development. When teens are with their friends all day at school, during sports and then in constant communication through social media and texting, they tend to reinforce one another’s behaviors.
Age segregation has also been embraced by the church—we call it children’s and youth ministry. Separation is encouraged for worship, for Bible studies, for service projects, and mission trips. The local church is now beginning to wake up to the limitations of traditional youth ministry. But unfortunately, changes are slow to occur because everyone loves the youth and the things we do in the name of youth ministry.
I feel as if it might be easier to ignore the issue.
2. Our society desperately needs bridge-builders.
The relational gap between the generations is huge, and the delayed development of our adolescents is widening the chasm every day. Instead of seeing them as humans with feelings and emotions, we depersonalize and stereotype them into “others” or those not like us. Bridge-builders work toward building connections, emphasizing similarities, and establishing trust.
Our society desperately needs individuals from each generation to rise above fighting and name-calling, and instead begin to rebuild intergenerational relationships. Our government is not in a position to fill this role. Educational institutions are not equipped to fill this role. Secular media has chosen not to fulfill this role (because fueling controversy seems to translate into higher ratings and profits). But the church can – and must take up the charge. Christian Smith believes that, “Religious congregations and other religious organizations are uniquely positioned in the array of social institutions operating in the United States to embrace youth, to connect with adolescents, to strengthen ties between adults and teenagers.” (Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 242)
When the church accepts the condition of today’s emerging adults and offers a sympathetic ear and willing hands, it will fulfill a gaping hole in our present society. This course will not happen automatically, but will require intentionality, change, and work. If the church can find its voice, it can take the lead within our society by bringing generations together, and in the process, regain relevance and influence.
The Church has an opportunity to lead, rather than following trends. I am calling churches to examine and evaluate their structures. Church leadership needs to ask, “How can we help adolescents and emerging adults grow up?” One way is for intergenerational relationships to become woven into the structures of our churches, and the routines of our personal lives.
Now, I know it would be easier to ignore the issue.
3. The future financial impact on the local church.
The financial futures of emerging adults will affect the financial future of our nation as a whole, but of churches as well. Although emerging adults may not currently be the biggest givers, churches will someday be reliant on this generation. The instability of today’s economy has made it very difficult for emerging adults to find steady employment in spite of being highly educated. Their delayed entrance into the workforce hurts their financial contributions today and moving forward.
The vocational struggles of emerging adults are an open door for the church to meet needs, and connect them with your spiritual community of support and encouragement. Emerging adults are well aware that networking is crucial in today’s marketplace, and are eager to make connections which might lead them to a job. Churches have an opportunity to provide networking, skill assessments, classes, and biblical teaching on vocation. Churches should ask themselves: what are we doing to help emerging adults discover their vocation and establish themselves in the workforce?
The financial insecurity of this generation should be a concern for churches, but it’s not about Millennials having the newest gadgets or having their every little wish realized, nor is it about the church having all the newest gadgets, either! I point toward finances because that sometimes grabs people’s attention. Their delayed social, emotional and spiritual development will also affect the future church, but the financial repercussions are a little easier to envision.
I am absolutely convinced that it is easier to ignore the issue.
However, we no longer have the luxury to turn our backs on this problem. The time to act is now.
The Church will end its silence when we begin to address the life issues that are affecting emerging adults – finding community, developing autonomy, and discovering vocation. If churches take an active role in helping emerging adults in these areas, emerging adults will not only show up, but will stick around.
We are ready for a new voice—a voice that speaks truth, love and hope to emerging adults. If churches cannot find these things, then we are not being the Church.
Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties,by Jeffrey J. Arnett (Oxford University)
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith (Oxford University)
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