Jeff Slingo, an editor-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote about what he learned from a 10-day transcontinental train ride with 24 millennial entrepreneurs.
In the article, Slingo pushed back against the stereotype of millennials as “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents” and listed some of the things he learned in dialogue with these young adults.
What he discovered has implications for the church with regard to engaging young adults and to embracing a way of doing ministry that will renew the life of the church.
First, Slingo noted that we should “think and make connections across silos rather than within them.”
Young adults have been brought up in educational and recreational venues where they have interacted with people of many races, cultures and backgrounds. They don’t function well in “silos” cut off from the insights and experiences of others.
To reach young adults and to enrich our own ministries, we, in the church, must reach others across barriers – denominational, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic – in order to learn from those with different backgrounds and experiences.
This also is a challenge to the church to engage popular culture rather than attacking or rejecting it.
The music, films and other media that attract young adults have such a major influence on their lives that we cannot ignore it if we really want to understand millennials.
Second, Slingo asserted that millennials “learn by doing, not just by listening and reading.”
One thing that most churches have come to realize is that young adults respond well to opportunities to “get their hands dirty.”
We must continue to offer such experiences not only through one day a week or in weeklong mission trips, but also for extended periods of time.
In so doing, we must also provide young adults with the means of processing these experiences within community.
Third, Slingo observed that millennials will gain new understanding by forcing themselves “to disconnect and just think.”
The church is uniquely positioned to offer young adults training and encouragement to practice spiritual disciplines such as mediation, centering prayer, lectio divina and solitude. These practices pull the digitally engaged generation apart to get in touch with God and themselves.
Fourth, Slingo suggested that millennials should not “be afraid to ask even the simple questions.”
Churches can provide small group experiences where young adults can freely seek answers to their questions about life, faith and meaning without fear or ridicule or rejection. As someone said, “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.”
Since we can no longer assume that any adult in the general population has a basic understanding of the Bible or the Christian faith, small groups with a nonjudgmental, supportive attitude can provide a place to learn and grow.
Fifth, Slingo concluded that millennials want to “see and learn from the world, today.”
All of us, including young adults, need a global perspective. We gain this through travel and engagement with people from other cultures.
In an era when the numerical strength of Christianity has shifted outside of the Western world, we need face-to-face interaction with believers around the world. Churches can both encourage and facilitate these encounters for all adults.
As the church considers ways to effectively minister to the millennial generation, the reward can be a more vital and engaged community for all believers.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, BarnabasFile, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @ircel.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.