American churches are at a crossroads, and they may not even realize it.
The Millennial age group includes anyone born between 1981 to 1996, which means the youngest adults in that age group–at 22–will graduate from college this year. An upcoming generation, called Gen Z and including those born after 1996, are finding their way through middle school, high school, and are now the dominant age group in college.
For pastors and Christian colleges, this presents a new challenge. Boomers are retiring, Gen X are in leadership roles–but the emerging generation of future leaders, church members, youth workers, and pastors are all shifting from one well-known generation to another. All of the stereotypes we know–that Millennials wear skinny jeans and sip lattes, that Gen Z were born with phones in their hands and Facebook accounts–are evolving faster than we think, and reaching younger generations will require radically-new approaches to ministry.
“What makes it seem harder to reach these age groups is that generational differences and traits seem to be magnified to the point that it scares some of the Boomer generation into wringing their hands, and/or stereotyping Millennials,” says Rev. Donald Wiggins, D.Min, the District Superintendent of the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s North Central District.
Wiggins says the church must figure out how to “close the gap” and train current leaders to better understand what drives Millennials and Gen Z, including what distinguishes them from each other. It’s too easy to assume the two age groups fall into neat categories, but as Millennials age and are no longer in college, the church must figure out what drives and motivates anyone under 35.
“We must be looking forward to the next generation as our future leaders, and our task is to empower them to do the work God has already prepared for them to do,” says Kyle Magstadt, the Director for Church Multiplication for the Alliance in the North Central District. “It’s so easy to get stuck in our ruts of how we do things and how we think about things.”
Dr. Bill Kuhn, the Vice President of Student Development and Campus Chaplain at Crown College, and Dr. Ken Castor, the Associate Professor of Youth Ministry, presented a series of seminars at a recent Pastor’s Conference in northern Minnesota. They discussed equipping the faith of both Millennials and Gen Z, and how to prepare for an emerging generation known as Alpha, those born after 2010.
“It’s been said that young people are leaving the church in North America,” says Dr. Castor. “I would contend that they aren’t ‘leaving,’ but rather they weren’t drawn into the fabric of the church community in the first place. Strategic churches equip young people to practice vibrant faith, and also include young people in significant practices of ministry leadership before they graduate from high school.”
At the conference, attendees learned about how to break down barriers between generations in the church, and how there are too many “power brokers” in older generations who make all of the key decisions. One salient point was to include both Millennials and Gen Z in all areas of church leadership as a way to reach, train, and mentor the younger age groups. If there are no leaders from those generations, the younger generations could be lost entirely.
At the same time, as Dr. Castor explained at the conference, the best church leaders don’t coddle younger generations and cave in to their wishes. They should act as encouragers and exhorters, training them in a way that leads to a better generational dynamic in the church.
“We have to expand into their realms,” says Rob Snow, the Program Director at Big Sandy Camp, which hosted the conference. “We need more Christian apps, videos, tweets, and snaps. We need to take the message to where the people are.”
Rev. Wiggins brought the entire topic into perspective, however. While it is always good to understand a younger generation of leaders, there are ministry practices that apply to all generations and are not limited to the Starbucks crowd or younger.
“The issue of personal spiritual brokenness before Christ, absolute surrender to his control, giving up my rights…those are the challenges for leaders in all generations,” he says.