There seems to be some angst and hand-wringing over the newest generation of Americans that demographers have dubbed “the millennials.” They don’t think and act and behave like generations before them. That has many people spooked. In many circles, millennials are often mentioned with an eye roll, pejoratively, or as the butt of a joke. Yet statistically, they are the largest generation in American history and therefore are poised to make a substantial impact. “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood” has always been good pastoral advice. Understanding what makes the largest generation in American history tick is common sense.
This volume by the well-known church researcher Thom Rainer helps us view the world through the eyes of 1200 millennials. This is the millennials in their own words. It is co-authored by his own millennial son, Jess, adding a level of credibility. The book is primarily a research and statistical book, but includes plenty of anecdotes and stories to keep the reader engaged. Both authors are evangelical Christians, a bias they were quick to acknowledge, and which they went to some lengths to balance during the research process.
The Rainers define millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000. Their research skews toward older millennials, or those born in the 1980s. By design, the book tries to appeal to a wide audience. It includes chapters on how to motivate millennials, their interaction in the workplace, their views on media and technology, and their attitudes toward money. Pastors will find these chapters useful in painting a picture of the millennial worldview, but the information they’ll likely find most interesting is the later chapters in which the authors study millennial viewpoints on religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Chapter 10 is entitled “Their strange religious views.” The authors ask many good questions about the afterlife, attendance in religious services, and prayer. There is a more detailed subset of questions that examines specifically Christian beliefs. What are millennial attitudes toward Christ? Is he the only way to salvation, or was he simply a teacher of morality? Are sin, Satan and hell real? Is the Bible the word of God? Trying to pigeon-hole a whole generation of people based on 1,200 interviews is dangerous. That explains why the statistical evidence is varied (read the chapter; it’s also fascinating). But the upshot of the statistical evidence leads one to conclude that the largest generation in American history is thoroughly confused about religion. That’s our opportunity as Lutheran pastors and people.
A follow up chapter offers the authors’ advice on how the church can serve this generation, both the Christian and non-Christian. As the authors unfolded the backdrop for their conclusions, they offer a couple gems on the millennial mind: “The Millennial Christians abhor churches that focus inwardly, and they are more concerned about meeting their own needs than those of the community and nation” (255). A far more insightful and biting comment came from the 26 year old Rebecca who said, “The Boomers give money to the church, but it comes right back to them to keep them content. They hire the staff to do the ministry they won’t do. The money goes to make buildings more comfortable for them. And then churches begin all kinds of ministry for boomers and their families to keep them happy. Most churches today suffer from Baby Boomer reflux… I’ll never go to that kind of church. That’s not New Testament Christianity. That’s a religious social club” (267). What’s the takeaway for us? Christian millennials are watching, and they often find their father’s church selfish. They seek opportunities to serve within the context of the church, but also outside the church’s walls. Later in the chapter, the Rainers offer advice on reaching non-Christian millennials. The following quote sizes up the challenge we face, “Their attitude toward Christians and churches is largely one of indifference” (271). According to their findings, rampant apathy characterizes nearly three-fourths of millennials. They’re not anti-church or anti-Christian. They have other priorities; they just don’t care about God.
The shortcomings of the book are typical of most research books. It is largely data and statistically driven, so deep insights and meaningful analysis are lacking. For example, the authors make a point about how connected to their parents millennials are even into adulthood. I would have appreciated more insight into why. Is it because their parents were so-called “helicopter parents”? Are millennial attitudes unique to their generation or were they shaped by their parents? That nature or nurture analysis will have to be supplied by the reader. Also lacking is context. While the book focuses on millennials, it would have been valuable to compare them more to previous generations, in order to gain a better appreciation for any shift in thinking. How do millennials think compared to Gen Xers or Boomers? Is their apathy really anything new? Finally, since the book was written in 2011 the research is already becoming dated. God has a way of shifting our thinking and priorities through the natural course of life. Since many of the interview subjects were single, I wondered as I read the book how differently the book might read if the same people were interviewed today.
Nevertheless, this book is worth your time. It’s an easy read and it won’t take long to get through, even for the more sluggish readers among us. There’s a wealth of information both statistical and otherwise to help understand a generation of people we may not know well or at all, yet whom God calls us to serve with his Word. Because the authors are unabashed evangelical Christians, you’ll have to navigate the usual buzzwords and some preachiness, but the book’s value lies in providing a valuable overview of the millennial mind that is well researched and presented.
Thom S. Rainer is an American writer, researcher, speaker, and current president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Simple Church. Jess W. Rainer is the Pastor of The Church at Spring Hill. He received a B.S. in Finance from Murray State University and a M.A. in Christian Education from Southeastern Seminary. He also does work for Rainer Publishing, a small publishing company that he started with his brothers.