Connecting with digital generation essential for the church
Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. R.J. Gore has taught at Erskine Seminary since 1996. He served as vice president and dean from 1998-2003, and dean of the seminary from 2003-2006. His wealth of experience as a U.S. Army chaplain includes service as Group Chaplain, 172d Corps Support Group in Balad, Iraq, from December 2003 to December 2004. Since 2005, he has served as a Command Chaplain, supervising some 80 chaplains, chaplain candidates, and chaplain assistants.
As part of his growing interest in preaching to postmoderns, he developed a body of instructional material for chaplains focused on ministering to millennials, an emerging generational cohort in both the military and the civilian workforce. He recently updated this material and presented it to chaplains and chaplain assistants during monthly installation Unit Ministry Team training at Fort Gordon. Here he offers his insights on the millennials and what their increasing influence means for the church.
Thank you for agreeing to share some of your reflections with Erskine alumni and friends. First of all, who are the millennials?
Pollster and researcher George Barna writes that those born between 1984 and 2002 constitute the millennial generation. They are called millennials because they came of age at the beginning of the new millennium. They are “digital natives” who have always had access to cable or satellite TV and cellphones. They have no memory of life without the Internet. A recent publication notes that “‘for Millennials, everything begins and ends with social connections’” and that “80-90 percent . . . use social media.” They are the “boomerang children” who keep coming home. Because of the hovering of their “helicopter parents” and their delayed assumption of adult responsibilities, this generation has given us a new sociological category: “emerging adults.”
Isn’t that a negative characterization?
Well, to some degree, but the millennials also have many good traits. Unlike my generation (“trust no one over thirty”), the millennials have a surprising respect for their elders and most have a good relationship with their parents. Millennials enjoy working collaboratively and 75 percent say they would like to have a mentor! They are open to new experiences and have transcended some of the barriers of previous generations. Millennials are the most religiously and ethnically diverse generation in American history. They have a great appreciation for diversity, and among them, interracial friendships, dating, and marriage are unexceptional.
Why are you so interested in millennials?
Just look around; our world has changed drastically since the early 1960s. And the church has not coped well with all that change. With some notable exceptions, the church in North America has been declining for two decades. Church renewal expert Reggie McNeal observes that “the farther you go down the generational food chain, the lower the percentage each succeeding generation reports going to church.” There is increased interest in spiritual matters, but often this manifests itself in non-Christian religions and new age spirituality. Another author describes the religious experience of millennials as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” In short, the church has not been very effective in passing on the faith to the next generation. The gospel does not change, but the world around us does. We need to better understand our changing world.
How long has this been your research interest?
A little over 10 years. Since 2002 I have regularly lectured on preaching at the US Army Chaplain School. In 2003, I began to focus on preaching in a postmodern world. A few years ago I wrote a dissertation on preaching in the digital age. Flowing from that research, I looked, more broadly, at ministry to millennials. This was in preparation for a number of regional training events in 2011 for the Army Chaplain Corps. This fall I lectured at Fort Gordon on developing a new chapel program for millennial soldiers.
What does the future look like for millennials and the church?
Gabe Lyons, in The Next Christians, argues that a new form of Christianity is on the horizon, focusing on community, relationship, and caring for whole persons. “The idea of restoration is critical in the next Christian discussion. . . . They see themselves on a mission, partnering with God to breathe justice and mercy and peace and compassion and generosity into the world.” (59). Millennials are not interested in checking off boxes. They will not warm a pew on Sunday morning because their neighbors expect it. Indeed, their neighbors are as likely to be Buddhists, Muslims, or Wiccans as they are Baptists or Presbyterians. Millennials will not “do church” to impress anyone, but they are interested in “being the church,” in living out the Christian faith in a transformative way.
The good news is that, because of their interest in spiritual matters, there is openness to Christianity’s claims. Many profess to have respect for Jesus and an interest in hearing about him. Those who are “Christ followers” (a term many prefer to “Christian”) understand that true Christianity involves authenticity and change—and that real discipleship can be costly.
Can we learn from the millennials?
Yes! Baby boomers—like yours truly—frequently learn new tricks from our millennial children. They teach us how to download with iTunes and to upload with YouTube. They text us (too) frequently, and “friend us” (sometimes) on Facebook. They show us how to get along with those who are different, and how to collaborate to accomplish great things. Most importantly, it appears they have something to teach us about “being” the church, too. It may be that God is doing a new thing in our time and we are privileged to witness it. Now, if we baby boomers can only quit hovering around and get out of the way!
This article was originally featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Inside Erskine magazine.