Millennials: They’re So Hard to Figure Out

by Matt Pinson

“We do face a danger, of course, when attempting to group individuals in a certain generation using sweeping generalizations. We risk missing the beautiful diversity of each generation, and the beautiful uniqueness of each person.”  —Jon Nielson

Recently I read a short article on the Gospel Coalition website by Jon Nielson, a 33-year-old campus ministry leader at Princeton University. It reminded me how difficult it is to “peg” the millennial generation, despite how much some people attempt to do so. One of the things the article tries to get its readers to do is to “stop trying to define millennials,” as a recent Huffington Post article urged.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry every time I hear someone in our denomination repeat this old, tired slogan: “The reason Free Will Baptists are losing our young people is because our churches are not cool enough.” The reason I don’t know whether to laugh or cry is that I know all the latest research from serious sociologists like Christian Smith and others belies this well-worn maxim of many in the FWB Baby Boomer set.

The social science research shows that evangelical churches across the board are losing their young people at the same rate—contemporary and traditional, urban and rural and suburban, large and small and mega, liturgical and charismatic—there’s no significant difference in the percentage of young people being lost or gained. Yet we continue to hear the attractional, “only-way-to-reach-Millennials” line over and over again. (For more on this, read another brief article by Nielson entitled “Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up.”)

But I’m kind of like Jon Nielson in the article below: Millennials are a lot harder to figure out than Boomers and Gen-Xers. I work with them everyday, and just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they surprise me.

Millennials want more depth and transcendence and beauty from their religion than many Boomers and Gen-Xers. They’re more interested in theology than just pragmatic “what works” methods—they want methods that actually grow out of theology. This of course doesn’t apply to all Millennials, but that’s my whole point—it’s hard to reduce them to a one-size-fits-all approach, either educationally or religiously.

This was illustrated when I received an article from a Millennial youth pastor friend of mine recently about church architecture. It was a Barna Research survey commissioned by a large church architecture firm. The firm wanted to know what Millennials like in church architecture. They showed pictures of three types of church sanctuaries—(1) the dimly lit “stage set” one (2) the center-pulpit, brightly lit “Baptist-Presbyterian” one, and (3) the formal-liturgical one.

Two-thirds of the Millennials liked the traditional sanctuaries and disliked the modern one. They showed three types of church exteriors that corresponded to the sanctuaries mentioned above. Again, two-thirds of the Millennials preferred the traditional buildings and disliked the modern one.

Now, my point here is not to make an argument about the “correct” type of church architecture. My point is that a lot of our caricatures of the Millennial generation are just that—caricatures. Millennials just aren’t leaving, or joining, churches for the reasons we often hear cited.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this brief but very insightful article by Jon Nielson.

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