Back in the 1970s a lot of congregational prognosticators warned that the Church, in general, was in the process of losing a whole demographic generation known as Baby Boomers. Existing congregations, new congregations, and denominational approaches to ministry were losing the ability to appeal to this numerically largest generation ever born in North America. Generally the birth years of this generation were 1946 through 1964.
As this generation approached their 20s during the 1960s they became a generation known for their rock music, pursuit of mind altering drugs, guilt free sexual love, and demand for peace. While not nearly all—or even a majority—of this generation connected with all these issues, the segment of the Baby Boomers who did was loud. They rejected institutions and authority and saw the Church, in general, and congregations, specifically, fitting into their perception of irrelevant.
I was part of this generation, but missed out on most of the experiences. The only parts that infected me was a pro-peace bias, a belief popularized by Jacques Ellul that institutions do violence to individuals, and some learnings from Saul Alinsky about community organizing that have helped me work with congregations to organize them as social systems.
As the public crescendo of warnings by the congregational prognosticators reached its zenith and full volume in numerous places around North America, a new style of congregation known as contemporary was gaining traction. The most well know of these was Saddleback Valley Community Church and Willow Creek Community Church. Since you know exactly who I am talking about when I name these two congregations, it is obvious their approach worked.
The power of the response to these contemporary congregations was so great that with some modifications many of these congregations adapted to the next generation known as the Baby Busters. Generally the birth years of this generation were 1964 through 1982.
Millennials are Different! But Are they?
When we move to the Millennial generation, who were generally born 1982 through 2000, do things change radically? Certainly during their birth years we have been through the emergence of that age known as postmodern where paradigms shifted and many understandings of reality returned to zero and reset.
Certainly the heavy focus on vision during the last two decades of the 20th century has now shifted to a focus on relationships with God, one another, and the context in which congregations serve. Certainly absolute truth has morphed into the story of each person’s truth consistent with the overall written and living Word of God. Certainly connecting with missional causes about which they are passionate that make a significant difference in the lives of others is a higher priority for Millennials than loyalty to the fulfillment of a limited set of goals to which everyone is requested to connect.
Certainly the computer chip and the Internet morphed our communication from a centralized or decentralized pattern to a distributive or networked pattern. Certainly information that was previously imparted only by experts is now free on the Internet.
Certainly the shape of congregations, particularly in relationship with denominations, has changed. The fastest growing denomination beginning around 20 years ago is called non-denominational. The fastest growing type of congregation is the multi-site congregation. Some researchers are telling us that up to 8,000 congregations who are primarily non-denominational are involved in multi-site ministry. Of course that means that more than 340,000 congregations in North America are not.
Some things have definitely changed. The voices saying the Millennials are different are louder and broader. Not only are the congregational prognosticators telling us things are different, but the blogosphere, eBooks, and events to which they swarm give voice to a significant number of Millennials telling us they are different. Baby boomers did not have these communication methods so they took to the streets.
Let’s remember that a situation often seems more severe if you are in the middle of it and being impacted by it, than when you can figuratively go to the balcony of the North American Church and look at the larger picture. Further, let’s remember if someone shouts the Church is on fire they get more attention than someone who sees the fireplace is smoking up the gathering area of the Church and we need to ventilate the area immediately to get more fresh air, or in this case fresh dialogue.
Are Millennials that different? Are they really that much different to the current culture than Baby Boomers were to their culture? Maybe yes. May no. In either case they are worthy of dialogue and a significant response from the Church to their life situations.