I’ve always envied people with long attention spans. Some folks can sit and work on a project for hours while barely blinking. I, on the other hand, will probably decide I need to get up to get a glass of water before I finish this paragraph. In studying Millennials (those born 1980-2000) over the last year or two for Focus Press, though, I’ve found that I’m not alone in this problem. Short attention spans are a byproduct of the digital age, and they aren’t merely an issue that pops up in small projects.
An article on businessweek.com from last Friday discussed the fact that companies are having a very difficult time keeping Millennials engaged and employed long-term. These young people change jobs far more often than their predecessors, with 18 months being a standard tenure before leaving for other work.
So… with a majority of Millennials who grew up in the church leaving and the church having a very hard time attracting young people, do you think there’s any correlation? Is there anything we can learn from the research businesses are doing to learn how they can keep young people engaged in their work? Let’s see what they’ve found.
– They need challenging assignments. Young people who are hired at jobs where they do nothing more than data entry or some other menial task won’t long be content there. The same is true if their church experience requires nothing of them. If the only opportunities for engagement available to them are worship and Bible class periods where they hear lessons that don’t present any challenges for growth in their lives, they’ll be disengaged.
Being a Christian is inherently challenging work, but the church routinely oversimplifies and diminishes that work in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. The fact of the matter is, it’s the challenge that makes it appealing and we have no reason to soften the church experience like TV salesman promising “5 easy payments!” with sermons that shy away from what God expects from His sanctified people. What better way to challenge someone than to involve them in evangelism? It’s difficult, it offers constant fulfillment, and it’s a lifelong pursuit. When we don’t offer this kind of challenge, don’t exemplify it, and wait for someone else to do it, we’re not going to be able to explain why the church should appeal to them.
– They need to feel valued. Putting in hard work at a job that offers no recognition isn’t a whole lot of fun. We as humans like to know when we’ve done a good job, and Millennials are no different. Again, the church offers exactly what they are looking for. What more sense of appreciation and love could we offer someone outside of what Romans 5 discusses, the love of God for sinners like us? Until we show people what the love of God means in their lives and demonstrate what it looks like when lived out, the church will continue to have no appeal.
– They need to feel like they’re making a difference. As analyst Karen E. Klein notes, “Millennials—on paper, at least—say they are more interested in working for companies that are making a difference in the world than for companies that are reaping big financial gains.”(1) The church has long tried to come up with ways to be bigger and more appealing by adding all kinds of targeted ministries. Research shows that in both businesses and the church, they don’t care about that. They just want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.
Who can give people such a sense of purpose and fulfillment better than the church? When “church” stays within the pews and hypocrisy between what we say and what we live shows up, the church will never convince people that we offer them something different.
There’s something a bit funny about this Millennial-specific analysis that you might have noticed along the way, and it’s the real “catch” of this article – none of these are really Millennial-specific at all. Very few people want to be subjected to the kind of work that asks nothing of them. Who likes to work a thankless job, going years without being recognized for pouring his heart and soul into it? Not many of us would want to be part of an organization that is seemingly going nowhere, with no long-term vision or effect on the world or community. If we’re subjected to boring, rote engagement without feeling like we have any connection with it, we’ll grow disgruntled.
The difference is, where a lot of Millennials just decide to walk away from such work, most people have just accepted that work is going to be like that and realize that responsibilities don’t allow us to do anything different. Work may be boring and unfulfilling, but it’s necessary. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how many Christians see the church. Yeah, it may be boring and without challenge, but we’re supposed to be there so we still attend. We have to stop settling for a church experience that asks nothing of us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said (with Luke 9:23 in mind), “When Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die.” That’s not a call to rearrange your Sunday and Wednesday schedules, it’s a call to be a part of a world-changing effort that reaches directly into eternity. Who else can offer people that kind of excitement and fulfillment? But what churches come across as exciting and fulfilling? We don’t need to change to reach Millennials or anyone else. We need to change to please God, and the appeal will be natural.
For ourselves, for the next generation, and for the world around us, it’s time we change our understanding of the church. It’s not what we do, it’s who we are. Once we get that down, our effect on and appeal to the world (Millennials included) will be drastically changed.
By Jack Wilkie
1 – Karen E. Klein, “How to Keep Millennial Employees From Getting Bored and Quitting,” Bloomberg Businessweek, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-08-22/how-to-keep-millennial-employees-from-getting-bored-and-quitting, 22 August 2014.