Last week was our first installment of a series with OPC millennials talking about reaching millennials. (Link: Part 1: Ben Ward)
This week, we hear from Tiffany Ward. Tiffany is 25, a consultant for a healthcare company, and an author of a thriller trilogy (Amazon: TA Ward). She has a degree from Gordon Conwell Seminary, and is a member of Covenant OPC in St. Augustine. She is also the wife of Ben Ward, last week’s respondent! (We are trying to keep things interesting here at Outward OPC).
The rest of this post is a summary of each question we posed followed by Tiffany’s answers.
Question: There is a lot of talk in the culture about millennials. Some say they are snowflakes and soft. Some say they are cause driven more than other generations. Some say they are irreligious; others religious. Some say the religious ones want church to be free and fun; others say they want deep liturgy and tradition. In your experience how would you describe this generation? What makes them unique and in particular what should we (OPC/Reformed people) know about them when thinking about reaching people for the gospel in that demographic?
Tiffany: I must begin by saying that my answers are dependent on my experience, and may not accurately reflect the way all millennials think. Now to the question. First, a lot of the talking is done about millennials that is either unfair or uncharitable. A few weeks ago I was sitting at a dinner table where several older Christian couples complained about millennials, blaming us for socialist trends arising from our laziness, blaming us for a loss of religious values in our culture, and furthermore expressing annoyance at our continual technological adaptation. My husband had to remind the couples that he and I were sitting at the table, but they seemed unmoved by this fact. I wondered in that moment:
If I began to complain about Boomers, blaming them for the holocaust of abortion in our nation (circa 1973), or for raising their children with only nominal Christian values, would they feel offended? I imagine they might! In the church, we too easily trash-talk the next generation, but then we are surprised when they do not like conservative churches. The talking we do about different generations needs to be done with one simple thing in mind: love your neighbor as yourself.
To that end, we need to understand that millennials, like preceding generations, are diverse. We are religiously and politically diverse (and often mixed). We are more likely to vote independent of political-party affiliation (even in the church), and we are more inclined toward syncretism; e.g. “I’m a Christian Buddhist.” This means, in order to understand where a millennial is coming from, you actually need to talk to them!
Finally, I would say that millennials are more theologically and biblically illiterate than preceding generations. They may not know who Solomon was, or what the Passover is. They may not understand the term “Trinity,” and they may not understand you from the pulpit if you say “substitutionary atonement.” They do not have the biblical or theological background that would enable them to easily adapt to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, those who do join the church often have a zeal for learning deeper things, and for having a greater grasp of Reformed biblical truth (we have found this especially true with millennials coming out of nominal Christian households). Coming from a culture where many truths are considered equal, once we find the Truth in Jesus Christ we want to know it as deeply as possible. This is one of the blessings the OPC has to offer our generation: depth, seriousness, and unwavering commitment to the faith.
Question: Technology and digital communication is a seemingly ever-present topic when talking about this generation—especially for churches of varying stripes. Millenials are YouTubers, FB is so old, etc. What would you tell (OPC) people 40 and older about this generation’s media and digital habits that help churches better communicate to them? Will using new mediums of communication and media (video, podcast, current social media platforms) help churches communicate to AND hear from this generation? Any specific ideas or recommendations how churches could be more effective in this area?
Tiffany:Two things seem important here. The first is: older people need to invest in understanding the technological trends of the next generation. About a year ago I was sitting next to a fourteen year old girl who came across as shy and disengaged. I began to ask her, “What are some new social media apps you are using?” “What new phrases are popular that I wouldn’t know?” Her eyes brightened, and she began talking animatedly about snap chat, and teaching me new phrases like “OTP” and “Finsta.” Even though I had grown up in the digital era, and even though we only had nine years separating us, I needed to learn what her life looked like, including her social media habits. If this is the case for me, it is all the more the case for the generations above mine!
Specific suggestions for engaging millennials would include: graphically appealing, low-text visuals on social media outlets and on websites. We like websites that are beautiful, easy to navigate, and ones which do not overwhelm us with too much information. This is hard for the OPC – as we LOVE information overload. Next, Millennials like to follow Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, and we are beginning to listen to more podcasts and audiobooks in our daily lives. Putting OPC publications (like New Horizon’s or Outward OPC) into Audio-format could be an effective way to boost engagement.
The second thing we need to understand is that our social media engagement and technological dependence as millennials might be a problem. Depression and suicide rates are rising rapidly for our generation. Suicidal thoughts and attempts are higher for ages 18-25 than any other age group, and in some cases have more than doubled in the past ten years (since the introduction of the smart phone). While we can certainly grow as a denomination in how we reach the next generation digitally, our churches may also need to begin engaging in technology-addiction recovery programs (which would directly connect to our generation and the younger ones).
Question: There seems to be a sense that strongly Reformed churches aren’t always asking and answering the right questions for this younger generation. They engage with sources the older generations don’t even know about. They are engaged in cultural conversations many in the OPC are unfamiliar with……What do you think about the types of questions younger generations are asking and whether the church (as in OPC) is interacting with those questions? Biblical truth is of course timeless, but how we engage with the cultural moment–its institutions and ideas isn’t…..any specific examples of questions or categories of questions millennials are asking that the church (think OPC) isn’t engaging or isn’t effectively answering?
Tiffany: One topic immediately came to mind that I believe is not being fully addressed by our OPC churches: New Age religion. Many ministers, it seems, train themselves to answer questions about Atheism, Roman Catholicism, or Mormonism, but our generation is more likely to practice transcendental meditation or call themselves “spiritual.” About a third of our generation (between ages 18 and 35) are religiously unaffiliated according to Pew, and yet, are still spiritual in some way: two thirds of us believe “in God or a universal spirit, and one in five even pray every day.” The OPC has lived in the Postmodern era for decades, but we are still not well practiced in addressing pluralism, subjective-truth, and syncretistic practices.
I have been engaging with New Age millennials at a local coffee shop in town, and when I tell them that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that if they do not repent of their sins and trust in Him they will perish under God’s wrath, they will grab my hands, smile, and tell me, “Your truth is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us.” A moment later they will tell me, “Now Jacob and Esau… how I see their story is like a battle of two spirits, the two spirits living inside all of us, and when the brothers finally embrace it is like those two spirits being united inside our hearts. That is where we see the Christ consciousness within us.” Our people need to be effectively equipped to answer these religious ideas when they encounter them.
Question: Are there particular challenges that strongly Reformed churches face in reaching millennials—whether cultural, theological, relational? Obviously, there may be challenges over things we would never change or want to change, but others may be things we could work on. Either way, we’d be interested in your thoughts on what challenges we, in particular, face in reaching this generation and any ways we might work on overcoming those challenges.
Tiffany: I think the easiest way for me to address this question, is to state a little bit more about what millennials are like. It is a stereotype, but a true stereotype, that millennials want “authenticity.” Perhaps this is why so many evangelical taglines begin with the word “authentic” (“authentic-worship… authentic-fellowship… authentic-community…” etc). Being the young Postmoderns that we are, we are inherently skeptical of people who portray themselves as being all-put-together. We have tattoos and piercings, and we like them. We have hurt, we struggle with anxiety, loneliness, and depression, and we want to be honest about that. Just as importantly, we want our religious leaders and community to be honest and genuine.
If millennials are skeptical of people who seem “all-put-together,” it does not take a lot of mental energy to understand why the OPC may be unappealing. The unfortunate impression of our churches can be that we are “the frozen chosen” and even if not, that we are still upper-middle-class-stiffs who think we get everything right. This impression does not have to be the case (and indeed in many churches is not)! I have been heartened by recent examples of churches in our denomination hosting public talks at local libraries on the topic of depression, or addressing the struggle of families caring for people with disabilities, and others investing themselves in evangelizing Muslim refugees and tutoring their children. I have also seen a trend of pastors longing to be more open and genuine, to tear down the traditional wall of the impenetrable minister and his fish-bowl perfect family in exchange for vulnerability and openness. These trends can only serve to strengthen our connection with millennials.