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What Do Young Adults Really Want?

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by Sharon Ely Pearson

In recent weeks there has been a plethora of articles, editorials, research statistics, and commentary about Millennials. This generation is now entering young adulthood and is the largest generation the United States has ever known – nearly eighty million strong, they are 21% larger than the Baby Boomer generation. Born between 1981 and 2001, they have been called “Gen Y” by generational theorists.

They are hopeful, optimistic, and largely happy (a very significant factor in Millennial spirituality). Millennial children have known more care, companionship, and privilege than any previous generation in history – which we shall see, according to John Mabry in Faithful Generations (Morehouse, 2013) has “turned out to be a mixed blessing.”  He writes:

Following the reactive Xers, the wheel would appear to have come full circle: according to Strauss and Howe’s theory of generational cycles, Millennials are expected to be the next Civic generation in the cycle. And yet, the Millennials are shaping up to be a stunningly un-civic generation – the watchwords of the G.I. Civics simply ring false to Millennials. Concepts like “personal responsibility” or “civic duty” are likely met with incomprehension. This is not a generation who believes in “shoulds” – which for Millennials smacks of division, coercion, and judgment (an unholy Trinity in the Millennial generation). They live instead in a world in which moral and cultural relativism reigns supreme.

For many Millennials, their parents were dubbed “helicopter parents” because of the close attention they gave to every aspect of their children’s lives. Despite this, many Millennials will state they are very close to their parents and view them as friends. 94% of Millennials have said that they greatly respect older generations.

Millennials were jolted awake by the events of September 11, 2001 – probably the most formative event of their life thus far. They grew up in a world of global terrorism and a world at war. Global warming is also of concern to them. Both issues shape their political views and their understanding of personal responsibility. They have always known a world with technology and they are the most connected generation, of which Christian Smith writes, “Myriad friends and family members are always available at their fingertips, through cell phones, texting, IMing, blogging, and messaging.”

So how do Millennials participate (or not) with religion? That’s what all the chatter has been in news feeds recently. According to the Religious News Service:

Every blogger and their mom has weighed in on what millenial evangelicals want and why some are leaving the church. I present to you Rachel Held EvansBrett McCracken,Trevin WaxJonathan FitzgeraldAnthony Bradley and feel free to add whoever else in the comments.

Everyone is responding to the many studies that have been around for awhile: Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press, 2009); Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (B & H, 2011); Graham Cray, Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Bob Mayo and Sara Savage, Making Sense of Generation Y (Church House Publishing, 2006); Pew Research Center, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” (February 2010); and CBS New’s 60 Minutes from 11/08/2007.

What seems to have started it all again was Rachel Held Evans’ post on CNN’s Religion Blog, Why Millennials are Leaving the Church, which according to her follow-up article, went viral with 165,000 Facebook shares. In her first article she writes,

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates  edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions  Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Her follow-up post (More on Millennials and the Future of Christianity) responded to her critics, mostly citing where she got her facts. But she also reiterates:

No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity, as does Generation X, the Boomers, and the generations before them. The article wasn’t intended to be a list of demands, but rather an expression of desires, a casting of vision and an articulation of my hope for the Church. Obviously, the real work begins when we come together in community to do the hard, daily work of reconciliation, listening, serving, and worshipping in spirit and truth.

I’ve been reading all the spin-offs of these articles and the additional blog posts that have jumped on the bandwagon. Having just turned in a manuscript due for publication in November 2013 by Robert Hendrickson, Yearning: Authentic Transformation, Young Adults, and the Church, I think there will be another book to add to the buzz. More young adults sharing stories of what they are seeking in and from a faith community. Authenticity. Good worship. Inclusivity. Social justice. Mystery. Being true to the Gospel.

It isn’t rocket science to put the generational theorists, the headlines, and today’s societal hunger to see what we should be focusing on in our churches.

How is your church true to the Gospel imperative?

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