“Will millennials be the death of the church as we know it?” This was a question I saw someone ask online. No generation is going to kill the church. Jesus promises that. But the question itself suggests that millennials may arguably be the most criticized generation to date. Ministering to a younger generation can always be challenging, but I believe the future is bright not in spite of millennials but because of them. Let’s talk about how to disciple the millennial generation.
I don’t know if you’re a sports fan or not, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say you aren’t likely a diehard follower of the Montgomery Biscuits. (Why can’t all sports teams be named after delicious breakfast foods?) The Biscuits are a minor league baseball team in Montgomery, Alabama, and they made news this summer by offering a promotion called Millennial Night. Here’s what their promotional tweet said: “Want free things without doing much work? Well, you’re in luck! Riverwalk Stadium will be Millennial ready on Saturday, July 21st with a participation ribbon giveaway just for showing up, napping and selfie stations, along with lots of avocados.”
Minor league baseball teams have long been known for their creative promotional events to try to entice people to come out to the ballpark. But the Biscuits took some flak over Millennial Night. Not everyone appreciated their humor. It’s become a trendy thing to poke fun at millennials. A church produced a popular video called “You’ve Gotta Love Millennials” that made the rounds on social media. And in the end, I guess that song title is sort of the point. You do gotta love millennials. We have to love them. The church must love millennials because millennials are people. Every generation has had its own set of challenges and characteristics. That uniqueness can challenge us to change our methods, but the fundamental message is still the same. God calls us to make disciples of all generations. So, how do we disciple millennials? The goal of this article is to help answer that question.
What is a Millennial?
Millennials are often defined as people born in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some extend that to the early 2000’s. That means that today millennials can range from teenagers through those in their mid-30’s. Though every generation has its own unique characteristics that help to distinguish it from previous generations, it’s impossible and unhelpful to limit people or stereotype them based on their generation. Not every Millennial is going to think the same way or have the same tendencies. Our discipleship methods change over time to fit those we’ve been called to reach and must adjust person to person as we get to know the individual. Now that we’ve clarified that, let me share with you several tips for discipling millennials.
8 Tips for Discipling Millennials
1. Develop strategies for connecting millennials with one another and with other age groups.
Millennials are interested in relationships yet often struggle developing them.
The need for relationships isn’t unique to millennials, but they face some extra challenges. In a stroke of irony, it appears that in many cases social media is making us less social. It’s easy for millennials to be acquainted with hundreds or even thousands of people, but not genuinely connected to anyone. There really isn’t such a thing as non-relational discipleship. When God does something in our lives, he most often does it through other people. Because millennials have a great likelihood to desire close relationships but actually struggle finding them, it’s important for us to connect our discipleship processes to more than just teaching information.
“We aren’t imparting facts. We’re connecting people. Millennials want (and need) relationships with caring people, spiritual mentors, and other Christians who can engage them mentally and simply live life with them.”
2. Show millennials what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus out in the “real world”.
Millennials want their spiritual life to impact their daily life in practical ways.
Our tendency is to see life in various boxes. We compartmentalize things quite nicely. We have our work box, family box, fun box, and our God box. This is one reason why so many Christians don’t see the need for discipleship. They’re quite content to serve God by attending church on Sundays but fail to integrate their faith in practical ways throughout the week. God doesn’t see our life in various boxes, and neither do many millennials. As a whole, millennials are a “what have you done for me lately” generation. Our grandparents used the same toothpaste for decades, bought the same model of car, and attended the same church for a lifetime. That’s not how millennials typically think. They want to see how something is relevant to them and helps them in their daily life. Millennials aren’t looking for a Sunday Jesus. They want a Seven Day Jesus (to steal the name of an old Christian rock band). We must show millennials how their work, school, free time, and all aspects of daily life are impacted by our desire to be disciples of Jesus. There is no sacred/secular divide for millennials. Everything is sacred because Jesus is involved in all of life. We must help millennials understand that. This leads us to our next tip…
3. Develop a holistic definition of what it means to be a disciple.
Millennials are not as church-centric as previous generations.
I became a Christian on April 18, 1993, at the age of 14. (Well, that was about the thousandth time I had become a Christian, but that’s when it finally stuck.) So, I grew up in a Pentecostal Christian culture of the 90’s. At that time, we judged whether or not you really loved God by how often you came to church. It didn’t mean anything special to come on a Sunday morning. We were more interested in whether you came on Sunday night and Wednesday night. We’d pay special attention to who was and wasn’t there. This was often our way of justifying our own spiritual self-worth. I’m more committed to God than this person because I attend church more often. That generation saw the Christian life as being completely connected to a person’s involvement in a local church. We can debate the merits of that approach, but that’s not how millennials think. They don’t view the church as the centerpiece of their faith.
I have been a pastor. I believe in the local church. However, I’ve personally learned the necessity of extending my understanding of discipleship beyond the reaches of the local church. We must develop a more holistic approach to discipleship. For example, much of what we’ve preached as discipleship is simply behavior modification. We’ve judged discipleship by how often someone attends church, how few curse words they say, etc. As long as you are doing all the right things and not doing all the bad things, then you’re good. The problem with that approach is the goal of discipleship is not behavior modification but heart transformation. Millennials have figured this out better than some of us long-timers. Being a disciple of Jesus affects every area of our life. Jesus helps me to be a better husband, father, employee, and friend. Not just a better church member.
4. Build a discipleship based social media presence.
Millennials enjoy learning and digesting information in small bites often through social media.
Money is not good or bad. Music is not good or bad. Food is not good or bad. Social media is not good or bad. No “thing” is good or bad. They’re all just tools. If millennials are using social media and spending excessive amounts of time on their phone, it only makes sense to use that tool for the task of making disciples. If you are involved in discipling millennials, then it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity that social media offers.
When it comes to social media, you have to play the long game. For example, I have purposefully and strategically attempted to tweet encouraging, thought-provoking,gospel-centered, Christ-focused, grace filled (and occasionally humorous) messages 140-280 characters at a time day after day after day for years. I’d get some favorites, likes, and retweets. But then something happened. I started getting messages from millennials letting me know how much my posts meant to them and that when they’ve had a hard day they will go to my account to read and think about the things I’ve said. I am trying to make disciples one tweet at a time, and millennials have often responded in a positive way.
These have been our first 4 tips regarding how to disciple millennials. Make sure to look out for Part 2 of this blog series where we will discuss the final 4 tips. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit gives you new insight and fresh opportunities to disciple millennials as they can grow to become everything God has called them to be and take on important leadership roles within the church and community.
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