The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation

Thom Rainer, Jess Rainer B&H Books, Nashville, TN January 1, 2011
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As in his other books (Simple Church, Breakout Churches, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, The Unchurched Next Door, etc.), Thom Rainer (president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources) and his team of researchers bring to the surface the latest in research on contemporary issues facing American Christianity. This time the focus is on the millennial generation, a population of 78 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000. Business and educational organizations have already been grappling with how to work with this emerging generation. Rainer (joined this time by his own “millennial” son Jess Rainer) offers church leaders a glimpse into this massive generational wave, considered by most observers to be the most diverse and the most educated generation in American history.

The research method behind the book was an in-depth survey of 1,200 older millennials born between 1980 and 1991. The racial mix of the respondents was 61 percent white, 14 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 1 percent mixed. The actual survey consisted of questions related to worldview (e.g., What is important in life?), views on the environment, insights on money, understanding of relationships and marriage, optimism versus pessimism as an outlook, perceptions on leadership, relationship to technology, and spiritual views.

From the survey and its follow-up the authors identify four overarching themes to describe this millennial generation. First, millennials are a hopeful generation, believing that they as individuals and as a group can do “something great” for society (although what that is may not be identified). Second, millennials are very relational, including relationships with parents, coworkers, and friends. Third, millennials are perpetual learners. For this generation, schooling was/is essential and parents were/are very involved (sometimes to a fault in being “helicopter parents”) in their children’s education. And finally millennials are not very religious. In fact one could almost call this generation agnostic toward all matters of faith.

The authors then develop ten insights about millennials. These insights include connectedness in regard to family (desiring close family ties), longing for parental involvement (still looking for parental advice), assumption of diversity (in race, lifestyle, age, and religious background), making an impact or a difference (strong belief in serving others), attitudes toward work (valuing balance and personal time over career), desire for mentoring, environmental sustainability, “on the go” instant communication, financial confusion, and religion. Because this is a book written for church leaders, the authors spend time developing this last insight concerning religion.

According to the research conducted for this book the millennials are the least religious generation ever in American history. While 75 percent of the survey respondents claim to be “spiritual,” most respondents do not claim to be religious and most could not even define their beliefs. This generation is not involved in established religious services or religious small groups of any kind. Applying the survey results to the larger population, the authors surmise that only 10 to 15 percent of millennials are true professing followers of Jesus Christ. Over 80 percent of millennials, according to the authors, believe in some type of works-based salvation. The authors sum up the belief system of millennials as theistic, ambivalent toward the Bible, and anti-institutional church. Shockingly 70 percent of the survey respondents saw the church as irrelevant. In addressing the millennials’ belief system, the authors state, the “church’s challenge is not overcoming an adversarial attitude from the Millennials. The challenge is overcoming apathy. Christianity is not the belief of the vast majority of this generation. And they believe the American church to be one of the least relevant institutions in society. . . . The bottom line is that most Millennials will not be lukewarm in their Christian faith. Most of them have made the decision not to embrace Christianity and to be forthright about their beliefs. . . . The vast majority is declaring that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not high on their list of priorities” (pp. 244, 246).

While many of the findings from the survey are depressing for evangelical believers to hear, the authors do hold out hope for the impact of the professing followers of Jesus Christ among this generation. Instead of being satisfied with “business-as-usual” churches, Christian millennials are highly motivated to invest in churches that are engaged in the cause of Christ through outward-focused ministry to the community and to the world. Thus a key to connecting with those millennials who already profess Jesus Christ is for churches to demonstrate tangible ministry in the local community and to the nations. Values such as transparency, humility, and integrity ring true for this generation. The authors also see this outward focus and these demonstrated values as appealing to nonbelievers who see the church as out of touch with the needs of the world.

While other books address the topic of this millennial generation in greater depth and with more focus in specific areas of application, the Rainers have developed a good primer for those who have never explored the intricacies of this rising generation. Just as the Baby Boomers influenced an entire nation (including the church), the millennials are comparable in size and will make a similar impact in all facets of life. The church cannot ignore this generation.

—George M. Hillman Jr.

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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