We’ve just hosted our first day conference exploring an aspect of pioneer ministry. Over 40 people came to SML in Poole to engage with the issue of Reaching Millennials. Millennials is a term used to describe the generation after Gen X. It roughly describes those born from 1980 onwards (some stretch this to 1975 onwards) who have come of age around or after the turn of the millennium. They are highly tech savvy, deeply networked, intensely aware of the brokenness of the world around them, eager to make an impact in the world for others, but often lacking the resilience to do that.

During the day we presented 3 ‘windows’ on millennial culture. ‘Gotta love millennials’ playfully made fun of some of paradoxes of millennial culture, whilst Simon Sinek’s widely viewed interview on millennial culture made a compassionate overview of the values of this generation (the latter video runs to 15 minutes but is superb viewing). We’d really recommend you watch these videos to get a feel for the dimensions of millennial culture.

The third window drew on a survey of 68m uses of the Bible in digital space. In particular, what the top 10 verses interacted with online are. This list served as an insight into the millennials image of God, on the basis that the generation that interact with the Bible in digital form tend to be the millennials. The list has no room for classic verses such as John 3:16 and very little room for Jesus. Instead what the list reveals is a generation looking for comfort and hope in a culture that is a huge challenge to the mind. Another survey of 3,000 US teenagers called this theology ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ – god is not an interventionist god, rather more like a divine butler offering polite assistance in the background (see Soul Searching: the Religious and spiritual lives of American Teenagers (2005)).

We hosted this day in response to two things: i) a sharp increase in the percentage of this generation moving to Poole (a trend that is likely to continue with continued regeneration) ii) a recognition that few churches in the area are engaging well with millennials. So we invited a number of people to help us think about the connection between church and this generation.

Bob and Mary Hopkins from Anglican Church Planting Initiative laid a foundation for the day, giving us the big picture story of cultural change in society and the increasing marginalisation of the church. Attractional methods are less and less effective in this context and a long patient process of listening, serving, and building community amongst those we are seeking to connect with must take place instead.

Later in the day we heard from 3 teams who have been doing this. Mark Hay from SML affirmed much of what we heard about millennials, and urged work with this generation to be long-term, relational and empowering. Chris Tebbutt from Canford Magna told the story of Breakfast@9, a multi-generational worshipping community that has seen a number of young families join church and come to faith. Jon and Tammy Oliver from Southampton then described how opening up their home for dinner with people from this generation and seen the development of a community of Christians, agnostics, atheists and seekers with a common desire to live life fully and radically.

The afternoon was given over to a facilitated discussion aimed at drawing out some collective ideas and wisdom inspired by what we had heard. At the end of this time each group was asked to offer 3 headline ideas or lessons from their discussion. We then clustered these responses into themes. Here’s a summary:

  • Start with i) love (millennials are not a problem to be solved, they are not aliens and ii) listening, to their culture and context – keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate.
  • Be patient – open to God’s plan rather than imposing ideas or models
  • Connect with world view. Address the ‘core’ concerns rather than externals
  • Church can help millennials define and measure impact they want to make, and help them live out a place in a bigger story.
  • Create authentic intergenerational spaces. We need mutual understanding – using multiple generations to reach non-churched millennials
  • Build and model community – places that address questions of identity, experience and purpose, that nurture relationship, that offer love, companionship.

It was a hugely stimulating day with a deepening awareness of the humble, long-term, compassionate engagement that will be needed to see the church connect authentically with this generation. But there were many points of hope and encouragement. Millennials are thirsty for meaning, for purpose, for community, for spirituality, for an opportunity to play a part in a bigger narrative than themselves, to make a difference and know that that difference has been made. The church must not tell millennials how to do this, but nurture a journey of discovery with them. We recognise how much the community of Jesus and the Kingdom of God has to offer this generation – but we must make space for them to discover it for themselves.

Many thanks to all those who contributed to the day. PMC are continuing to explore what response it might make on this issue here in Poole. If that’s something you might want to be a part of do get in touch. We’re also planning to host similar days in the future exploring different aspects of pioneer ministry. To stay in touch with PMC do sign up to our mailing list.