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Millennials & Mission: Demystifying and Unleashing a Generation

by Jim Raymo

Risking, winning, failing, and growing along with the millennials can result in a staggering blessing for the advance of God’s kingdom.

For over thirty years I have worked alongside, trained, led, and learned from younger people in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the USA. I have been inspired, bewildered, amused, and frustrated (as I am certain they have been with me!) by their challenging contributions. Along this journey, I have sought to understand and respond intelligently to generational differences, particularly in the context of cross-cultural ministry.

While participating in a doctoral study program, I decided to further investigate millennials, looking for answers to questions I encountered while serving as USA director for WEC International. How will this younger generation of Christians respond to dangers that seem pervasive in light of the biblical mandate to go to all nations with the teachings and life of Jesus? Will fear and an overwhelming desire for safety rule their choices? Will protecting family, job security, advanced health care, and retirement funds be seen as necessary insurance for a future without pain? Will disturbing challenges be seen as opportunities for the Church to demonstrate its core ethos and sacrificial roots, or as difficulties to be avoided?

One of the first elements of the millennial subculture that jumps out is a “me first” ethos, accompanied by expectations for success and being rewarded simply for being involved. My wife and I have seven children. When our first three children were young and began participating in team sports, trophies were handed out at the end of the season. Some were labeled “Most Improved,” others “Hardest Worker” or “Best Sport,” etc. Finally, the coveted “Most Valuable Player” trophy would be presented. To their disappointment and mine, none of my kids ever received that award, but they always cheered for the teammate who did.

Years later, when one of our younger boys played his first sport and received his award on the last day, I looked down and swelled with pride: he held the “Most Valuable Player” trophy! I began to congratulate him, but then I heard another dad nearby congratulating his son on earning the “Most Valuable Player” trophy. As I glanced around I saw that every child was holding an MVP trophy. Millennials have grown up shielded from failure and hurt feelings.

Studies of millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, do not show all negative characteristics, but instead reveal a mixed bag of strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Millennials seem to recognize their own negative inclinations: “A Harris Interactive poll found that 21 to 31-year-olds were voted the most greedy and self-indulgent even by the twenty-somethings themselves, who were actually more likely than the older generations to agree that the young generation had these narcissistic tendencies” (Twenge and Campbell 2009, 34).

Generational experts Neil Howe and William Strauss take a more positive view of this generation, claiming,
Millennials are reversing the long-term direction of change—the delta of history. Today’s kids are doing this so dramatically that, as a group, they are behaving better than their parents did as kids—and better than many of the parents (or leaders) behave even now, as adults. And they are doing it against a demoralizing riptide of negative examples from many of the same adults who lecture them so fiercely. (2000, 17-18)

Undoubtedly, we make generalizations when we speak of any generation. There will always be individual differences, but my experience confirms what sociologists report: generational differences are real and may be observed in a variety of social encounters.

What Not to Do when Working with Millennials
In light of my research and work with millennials, I have concluded that when it comes to inviting and integrating them into our organizations and churches, we need to be aware of the following deal breakers:

1. An unwillingness to consider the young worker’s ministry aspirations. Young workers typically enter ministry with a rather extensive background of study, short-term team experience, and practical preparation. Their hearts and heads are filled with dreams of what they can do for Jesus and the kingdom. Often, their notions may be unrealistic, but one of the worst responses is for a leader to outright negate their aspirations or to indicate a bored unwillingness to even consider their thoughts.

2. A distorted presentation of the ministry’s strengths or successes. This generation can be skeptical of unwarranted claims and would much prefer to hear a realistic overview of the “good, bad, and ugly.” Anything less may send them packing, looking for other organizations that recognize and communicate both strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, an individual should not appear to give a less than honest description of his or her work. Undoubtedly, there have been both mountaintop and valley experiences in everyone’s personal history. Sharing these honestly can be a catalyst to draw millennials closer.

3. Instruction rather than stories. Lectures, vision statements, and statistics are boring. Millennials love and are motivated by meaningful narratives of others’ journeys and God’s faithfulness. Mission history embedded in personal stories can be inspiring to a young person. Hearing or reading of an experienced missionary’s anxieties and fears, and of God’s faithfulness and provision over the years, can aid in growth and commitment, as well as in explaining the organization’s growth and vision.

4. Second-class treatment. Aretha Franklin sang it, and young workers want it: “Respect.” When treated condescendingly, or when older workers demonstrate or imply patronizing superiority, millennials react negatively. They expect to be treated as full members of their new organizational family. Leaders are on solid biblical ground when they take to heart Jesus’ words: “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt. 23:8).

5. Lack of opportunity and scope for worship. This generation loves to worship; it’s a major source of strength and vitality for them. They can benefit from education on the content and meaningfulness of historic hymns, but will struggle if “old” is the exclusive worship style of a mission. Older members may not completely appreciate millennial music, but nonetheless should give the younger people opportunity to share in leading worship. This will give them a tangible expression of respect and appreciation. Significant time should be carved out within mission activities, meetings, and conferences to allow for a variety of worship styles.

6. Immediate demand for long-term commitment. Earlier generations of Christian workers tended to make life-long commitments to a ministry career. Not so with millennials. Their attitudes and the short-term revolution have altered the landscape, although veteran missionaries may scoff. Of course it is true that much of the work of missions cannot be accomplished in the short term, (including Bible translation, language learning, evangelism, discipleship, and church-planting among resistant people groups).

Although millennials make commitments in steps, after a few years they may look back and realize with surprise that they’ve ended up spending a longer term in a ministry than originally envisioned. Initially, they will often commit to at most two or three-year segments. When it is time to consider further service with the organization, they are likely to ask questions such as: “Is my contribution meaningful and appreciated? Do I sense confirmation from the Lord to continue?” To pressure them for a deeper or longer commitment may result in either a premature decision to leave or a half-hearted agreement to continue.

7. Authoritarian leaders. Millennials have “no time for sergeants.” Older generations may have gone out to the field under a fairly tight regime that demanded much of new recruits. The expectation was immediate obedience in a somewhat military style: “Yours is not to question why, yours is just to do or die.” Senior workers are sometimes appalled at being asked to give reasons for why things are done a certain way.

Although millennials want to learn from those with more experience, they learn best in an atmosphere that encourages them to ask questions. Leaders and older workers who do not listen to a new person’s insights and perspectives end up with a disgruntled worker and miss opportunities to view the work through fresh eyes. Not all ideas from any generation are valid, but it is critical to maintain an environment of mutual learning and openness to new ideas and genuine concerns. One of my students agreed and wrote me,

Yep, that’s true of me. My mom and I used to get in pretty deep arguments because I wouldn’t stop asking “Why?” I wanted to know! I wanted to understand. I wanted to challenge ideas and opinions in order to reach a better conclusion, a better method, a better outcome. Though I strove to treat all authorities in my life with kindness and respect, the teachers I loved the most were those who treated me like a young woman with a heart and a brain. Not an underling. They were authentic because they valued me as a teammate and a rational, caring, capable human. I think rather than seeing me as a child, they saw me as a young woman on her way to maturity, and they were helping me get there.

Recommendations for Successful Integration of this Generation
Let me first share a tip with millennials: Be aware that criticism of more senior workers can make them defensive and put them on edge. New culture and language learners need to attempt to phrase their misgivings in the form of questions, not critiques. Some ministry operations may seem archaic, but they nonetheless have an important cultural history that, if neglected, could set back the work of God’s kingdom. Millennial appreciation for being heard needs to work both ways, and “being a learner” applies not only to national cultures, but to mission and team cultures as well.

Let me now share eight suggestions for ministry leaders and teams working with millennials.

1. Initiate conversations with young workers to learn how to integrate them into ministry teams. It is helpful if the team expresses a desire to understand the new workers. Studying this generation doesn’t eliminate the need to invite direct personal input from its members.  

2. Coach and counsel, not criticize and rebuke. Find out what is behind the young worker’s comments or actions. For instance, his or her demand for speed related to technology in the operation of the field is not a sign of laziness: utilizing the latest electronic tools is simply an efficiency issue for them. Discussion with new workers should include positive and negative, as well as always attempting to address the need for change by including their input. “What do you think could be done differently in the future?” is more effective than a lecture on what they’ve done wrong. Asking about what they think is working well and what is not, taking their comments seriously, and recognizing that they have fresh and insightful eyes and ears as they enter a new team or culture is helpful.

Their observations are not always wise or appropriate, but some could be useful to a team locked in the tyranny of tradition. Being heard means a great deal to a new worker. Wise leadership will attempt to draw out a worker’s thinking and heart leanings. This should be done frequently, and where possible through informal discussion over meals or coffee/tea rather than having the young member make a formal, office appointment.

3. Communicate the goal of church planting in line with millennial ministry aspirations. To respond to the reluctance of this young generation to engage in church planting, leaders should consider how the theological and practical elements of planting churches line up with the longings of millennials for meaningful contributions to others.

It is possible the influence of post-modernism has influenced these younger workers to view churches as religious clubs with rules that marginalize outsiders and restrict insiders. They love Jesus, but are not always sure about the church. If the true nature of the church can be communicated to them along the lines of building a community of people who love and follow Jesus and care for each other as his body, millennials may be quicker to embrace church planting.

4. Consult with younger mobilizers to gain insight into what works when talking with this generation. Those who speak the language of millennials (e.g., The Traveling Team and SVM2) can help traditional agencies with style and approaches that are appealing to them. When younger aspiring missionaries are engaged and feel free to ask questions or express opinions without being judged or thought unspiritual, then they relax and begin to feel connected. A deepening bond is created when prayer and honest concern for them are part of an encounter.

5. Be open to the possibility of pre-formed teams. Increasingly, millennials are interested in joining an organization as part of a pre-formed team. They may have developed friendships during college or on short-term mission trips and want to work together. Organizations may be hesitant about this kind of arrangement or feel that if this is encouraged, then new workers may not fully integrate with members of the existing team or field. The end result might be a team within a team. I’ve found that if reasons are shared respectfully with new workers, they usually understand. If the young workers’ appreciation for collaborative efforts on the field are informed (not imposed, but offered as counsel) by the wisdom of more senior workers, then flexibility on everyone’s part result in a “win/win” situation.

6. Work toward building multicultural/multiethnic teams. This generation loves diversity of thought and culture, which dovetails with the growing ministry trend toward multicultural international teams. Multiethnic teams provide a picture of the whole Body of Christ and refute the assumption that Christianity is a Western, white man’s religion. Millennials are willing to undergo the struggles of misunderstood communication, and cultural mistakes and adjustments, to be part of a diverse team.

7. Include parents in the process. For some millennials, parents are not only their closest friends, but also their most trusted confidants. They should be factored into the process of integrating the young people into a ministry organization, particularly if the applicant wants this. Authorities need to reject the feeling that parents are adversaries in the process. Leaders can assist parents in seeing both the biblical mandate to the Church to “go,” and the promise of God to be with their children wherever they are.

Young people who sense a “calling” from the Lord will experience real anxiety if hindered from fulfilling that call by nervous parents whom they love and respect. Leading from God can provide a strong undercurrent of confidence to move forward into the unknown, even if parents misunderstand or object. But this generation certainly would prefer parents to bless and be part of the ministry pilgrimage.

8. Help new workers to find a productive niche in the ministry. Effective work by the younger generation is related to current interests and passion. They want to be fully committed to their chosen task. Leaders will want to ensure that they are engaged in the best possible dynamic mix of the ministry’s goals and the workers’ vision, and to regularly make informal inquiries into the worker’s attitudes. Although any worker may at times need to temporarily fill a critical, though personally unsatisfying, role on the team, leaders should attempt to limit these periods as much as possible. They should help the worker understand how necessary this is for the adequate functioning of the team as a whole.

As this generation joins the ministry team and begins to offer ideas for change, where possible, new workers should be invited to undertake challenging activities in line with their concerns. For example, one new missionary demonstrated a particular gift in languages. This young lady was critical of the early mentoring given to her and other new arrivals on the field. She felt they were patronized and “spoon-fed” in culture and language adaptation.

After her first year on the field, the team leaders took a risk and decided to put this worker in charge of the language learning process for new missionaries, with a senior worker responsible for oversight. This resulted in a successful language adaptation program and a satisfying ministry for the young missionary. New arrivals felt understood by one of their own and were more comfortable during the stressful stage of learning the language.

A Final Thought
In order to be successful, these suggestions must be overlaid with a genuine appreciation for the new young worker, both his or her person and contribution. Millennials have acute “baloney detectors” and will withdraw from anyone trying to control them with flattering, disingenuous speech.

But when they believe leaders have their best interest at heart and demonstrate a humble commitment to Jesus, their hearts will connect with us. They want to walk and work alongside others, including seniors with ministry experience who continue to be learners along with their younger colleagues. Risking, winning, failing, and growing along with the millennials can result in a staggering blessing for the advance of God’s kingdom.

References
Howe, Neil and William Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Twenge, Jean M. and W. Keith Campbell. 2009.  The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press.

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Jim Raymo is a mobilizer for WEC International and teaches at the University of Northwestern SP and Bethany College of Missions. He has a doctorate from Bethel University.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 158-165. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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