by Bradley Hill
Although GenY may not technically be an “unreached people,” it may be on the endangered list.
Is GenY a “legitimate” subject of a church’s mission conference? That was the question before East Bay Community Church.* To many, it seemed that such a focus was too local, not sufficiently cross-cultural, and not concerned with the unreached peoples of this world. The mission committee nevertheless proposed such a conference, believing that GenY did indeed “qualify.”
The Joshua Project lists fifty-nine unreached people groups in the United States. Their website lists Cajan, Tosk, Senayan, and Oriya. They don’t list “GenY” or those born between 1980 and 1994 (there are many timeframes offered for GenY, but this is our operating definition). Although GenY may not technically be an “unreached people” (meaning it has less than two percent evangelical Christians among them), it may be on the endangered list.
Arguably, GenY is a “people group,” although more diverse than perhaps any other generation in American history (Armour 2005). A people group shares a common self-identity, which includes language, values, shared experiences, history, and worldview. Certainly, this characterizes GenY to a large extent. Souls in Transition extensively describes the fundamental worldview of 18 to 23-year-olds, then sums it up as “moralistic therapeutic deism” (Smith 2009, 33-88, 154).
Where Are the GenYers?
The data on GenY and the church is vast and varied, but the overall picture is one of disengagement with Christianity. Michael Spencer in the Christian Science Monitor announces the “coming evangelical collapse” and predicts that “within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants” (2009). Not to be outdone, John Meacham, writing for Newsweek, declares the end of Christian America (2009). Reggie McNeal writes that the current church culture in North America is on life support and that unless there is a huge change, it will die when the money-plug is pulled out (2003, 1). Thom Rainer puts GenYers “reached for Christ” (i.e., “Bridgers”) at four percent (1997).
However, after slicing and dicing immense amounts of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, Souls in Transition seems much less alarmist. Although the trend lines are undeniably away from committed Christian faith, only fifteen percent were “Religiously Disconnected” or “Irreligious.” When asked if they expected to be attending religious services when they are 30 years old, fifty-three percent said yes (Smith 2009, 140).
All this is to say that although GenY is far from being a “lost generation” and certainly does not qualify as an unreached people group, it may become lost and is increasingly unreached. Therefore, it demands the focused attention of the Church. The mission committee decided to forge ahead.
East Bay holds an annual mission conference. In the past, they have focused on refugees, different religions (e.g., Islam), or a global need (e.g., HIV/AIDS or sex trafficking). Missions in the mind of many means “foreign missions.” In every case, however, the conference brought the issues home to the USA. With about 350,000 refugees and asyleés in the USA, a growth in Islam, and the AIDS “epidemic” and sex trafficking in a town nearby, there are increasingly less clear lines between “foreign” and “local” missions.
Yet when the mission committee proposed that the next mission conference deal with reaching GenY, the responses were varied. The leadership was supportive, but the general membership response ranged from tepid to resistant.
Recovering Missional Health
During an assessment of “missional health,” East Bay came to the conclusion that it was an “at-risk church.” Outwardly it would not seem so, with weekly attendance of around three hundred people and a $750,000 budget. However, it was an aging, Boomer/Builder congregation. Although there were a number of GenXers present, generation-next was largely absent. Actually, East Bay was doing better than many similar churches. They could count at least twenty GenYers among them; however, few were regular attendees and almost none were in leadership. They were highly mobile and transient.
The mission committee did its homework. It involved their GenYers in the discussions. They confirmed the committee’s findings that their peers were:
• “Spiritual,” but largely unchurched
• Seeking community, but fearful of commitment
• Socially liberal, but surprisingly “traditional” in their articulated moral values
• Postmodern in worldview, but open to new narratives
• Hostile to dogma, but attentive to personal stories
• Immune to hype, but receptive to authentic expression
The church health assessment was the alarm bell—we were a dying church, though we were currently robust. It is similar to a physician’s check-up when all the numbers come back. Although you still feel and look strong, you have indications of cancer in your bone marrow. Tomorrow will be fine. Even next year you may see no difference. But in ten years you will be on life support. You will not live much beyond that.
The committee’s initial reaction was, “What must we do to assure our church’s future?” It did not take long to realize how self-serving that motive was. Saving the institution, so cherished and beloved, could not suffice. It would ring hollow in the ears of those outside. The Spirit spoke this truth to them: “These are my children, wandering, searching for me, the Unknown God…love them with me.”
So the next mission conference, “Reaching GenY,” was launched. After serious discusssion, the leadership team (a.k.a., the church council) agreed, but was relatively unengaged. The staff arranged a series of speakers to address a number of issues: Who is GenY?; GenY and Community; GenY and Media. This was supplemented with Sunday School discussions and recommended reading. Even before the conference started, the committee realized this conference was different than those held previously.
Earlier conferences called for a specific response. People could write checks to an agency, sponsor a child, or join an activist agency. The need was external to the church. This time it was internal. The question soon became, “What kind of church can effectively minister with and to GenY?” The Boomer/Builder leaders felt the gulf of culture, worldview, and language acutely. They felt they might not be the ones to reach across this gulf directly. But the GenYers present in the church could and would be those missionaries! How could East Bay minister with them? In what ways must the church change to be an authentic community attractive to GenYers? To be truly intergenerational (not just multi-generational), what must happen to the basic DNA, and what will be the cost of this bone marrow transplant? This was a mission conference that would re-evangelize the church itself.
As the momentum toward the conference rolled on, seven concerns arose. Each question had merit and reflected certain values and concerns. The conference would have to answer these, if not beforehand, at least during and after.
Marginalizing members. “What about us?” There was fear that East Bay would so cater to GenYers that the older members would feel marginalized. “Would East Bay become a GenY church?”
Falsely defining. “GenY is no different than young people from any era, so why all this fuss? We all eventually came back to the church; they will come back when they get married and have babies. And by the way, why aren’t they married yet? Perhaps this conference is making an artificial distinction in making GenY somehow different than previous generations.”
Shifting focus. “This focus is too inward. A true mission conference is about cross-cultural ministry and this is not that. Does this signal a change? What about the needs of the world around us? We don’t want to become too self-focused.”
Highlighting inability. “I don’t know what I would say to a GenYer. What am I supposed to do—have coffee with one of them?” Once the cultural differences were identified, they were larger and more far-reaching than previously thought. “I don’t text and don’t Facebook. I can’t relate.”
Raising anxiety. “If the conference does not lead to effective change, will we lose our current GenY group? Will this require too much of the congregation?” Previous conferences sought clear and contained individual responses. This time it would be about the whole church. “If the conference does not move the church toward reaching GenYers, what will this say to those now present?”
Managing change. “Even if all this is good and right, how do we change to meet this challenge? What does this mean in terms of worship and leadership? How does the church even begin to partner with ‘our’ GenYers to reach the unchurched GenYers?”
Identifying leadership. “Who is in charge of not only the conference, but all that it might unleash?” This was not just the job of the mission committee; this was about the entire church! “Who is at the helm and can they be trusted?”
As these concerns surfaced and gained intensity, four primary responses emerged.
Leader shift. The conference leadership changed. It moved from the mission committee to a task force. This recognized that it was not just “missions as usual,” but was about the whole church. The task force was largely comprised of staff, but included others.
Follow up. A follow-up task force was to be created that had representatives from each generation. Their mission was to discern and carry forward changes that came out of the conference. This group had difficulty finding a clear mandate, and at the time of this writing, its constituency is not yet clear.
Appreciation. The speakers themselves allayed some anxiety. When it was affirmed that, in general, GenYers do not want a “GenY” church per se, but instead want to be part of an intergenerational community, to be mentored and to mentor, fears diminished. In many ways, GenYers are drawn to many traditional elements of worship and are less inclined to even want the 1980s standard praise band. The Builders liked this; the Boomers not so much.
Commonality. Both continuity and discontinuity were revealed. GenY is different in many ways than previous generations. A lot has been written on this, so I won’t deal with it here (see Smith 2009). The worldview that embraces pluralism, relativism, and suspicion is like no other. Yet these very dynamics may also draw GenYers to Christ and his Church. In a fractured society, more than ever they want to belong, but belonging now may come before believing. “They” are also “us.”
I still don’t know how this conference will ultimately impact the church, but it has challenged us at every conceivable level. We are far more aware of this generation than ever before, and it has moved us to be far more intentionally intergenerational. Three or four informal groupings of GenYers have emerged. Any attempt at over-structuring and programming them, however, seems to result in their dissolution.
Ministering with and to GenYers is not a program; it is an orientation, a matter of heart and soul. We as a church are not only more open (which is a passive posture) to GenY, but consciously inclusive (an active role) in all ways. We have moved from “concern for the survival of the church” to a genuine love and concern for this post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything generation. That is mission at its best.
* name changed for privacy reasons
Armour, Stephanie. 2005. “Generation Y: They’ve Arrived at Work with a New Attitude.” USA TODAY, November 8.
McNeal, Reggie. 2003. The Present Future: Six Tough Questions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Meacham, John. 2009. “The End of Christian America.” Newsweek, April 4.
Rainer, Thom. 1997. The Bridger Generation: America’s Second Largest Generation, What They Believe, How to Reach Them. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.
Smith, Christian with Patricia Snell. 2009. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
Spencer, Michael. 2009. “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” Christian Science Monitor, March 10.
Rev. Bradley Hill is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. He and his wife served in Congo for nineteen years and has since pastored several churches in the USA. He is adjunct faculty at North Park Seminary and Fuller NW campus.
The Here and Now of Missions
By Genevieve Frahler
North American culture is changing at an unprecedented pace. Today’s culture is one of speed, information overload, busyness, and ever-increasing fragmentation and isolation. It is also thoroughly postmodern in thinking and post-Christian in morality. GenY is the first generation whose formative years were spent immersed in this neo-pagan, highly digital culture. Although the change in our culture impacts people of every generation, nowhere are the results more evident than in the hearts and lives of our youth.
Why is this important to the church? The change in our culture is so sudden and profound that it creates a culture barrier between generations. To the extent that people fail to cross this culture barrier, communicating the gospel to the next generation is nearly impossible. As culture barriers are felt within the church, principles of cross-cultural missions are applicable within the church.
Missionaries know they will feel an emotional reaction as they encounter a foreign culture. Symptoms of culture shock include frustration, fear, feelings of alienation, and negativity. Anyone who works in church ministry has seen emotional responses to culture shock within the church.
Culture shock can lead to a crisis point of rejecting the foreign culture. This is when a missionary remembers his or her calling to love people and communicate the gospel. Is the church in danger of rejecting the culture of the younger generation? Or is our love for people and our passion to communicate the gospel greater than any cultural barrier?
Missionaries step into a foreign country as learners. They spend time with people learning to understand their world, why they think the way they do, and what is meaningful to them. As they encounter situations that seem ridiculous or crazy, they cannot trust their judgments. They must ignore their own sense of cultural rightness.
Missionaries also find things in the foreign culture that are sinful. As missionaries gain relational opportunities, they speak boldly against sin, pray for people to be freed from bondage, and walk with those who respond with constant availability. Are mature believers in churches spending time with young people to learn their world? Are we willing to overlook cultural differences for the sake of relationship? Are we walking with young people in constant availability, speaking God’s truth, and praying through the deep issues with which young people are struggling?
The American Church, for the most part, reflects the culture of an older generation. Within that church culture are people with a deep knowledge of God’s word and ways, and a rich heritage of faith, worship, reverence, and holy living. Many young people in churches live in two worlds: their church culture and the culture of their everyday lives. They struggle with applying God’s word in the culture of their everyday lives: their communication on Facebook, their dependence on digital devices, their inability to focus their minds on God’s word. They struggle with how to respond to friends who are in same-gender relationships, addicted to drugs, or talking about committing suicide. They need to encounter mature believers in the culture of their everyday lives.
Missions is about entering a foreign culture so that the gospel might flourish in the lives of people and find expression in their culture. It requires sacrifice, becoming learners, being available, loving deeply and truly. This lifestyle isn’t only for those who live overseas. The lostness among the youth of Generation Y is a missional call to reach their unreached culture. A mission topic focused on people “out there” asks for straightforward responses: giving money, planning an outreach event, rallying support. A mission topic focused on people “right here” within arms’ reach asks for the most costly response: giving ourselves.
Genevieve Frahler grew up as a missionary kid in Belgium, France, and Quebec. Her passion for international missions and children led her to teach at a mission school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for three years. In the past two years, she served as children’s ministry director in the Chicago suburbs.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 430-434. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and
Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be
reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.