This is installment 7 in our series. You can find the other posts here: (Millennials Talk Millennials).
This week, we hear from Dan Adams. He is 31 and the Associate Pastor to Youth & Young Adults at Redeemer OPC in Ada, MI. Dan has spent the last 12 years working with younger people and college students. He and his wife, Nora, have been in Ada, MI since early 2018.
The rest of this post is a summary of each question we posed followed by Dan’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?
Dan: I would say that at root, many of the issues that are facing the younger generations (Millennials/Gen Z) are the same that previous generations faced. The difference is that the “volume” on a number of issues have been turned up beyond previous generations. Many of the young people I work with feel like life is changing so quickly, but the tried-and-true answers of previous generations do not adequately deal with current state of things.
It’s best when trying to understand a particular group of people to actually look at evidence/data, rather than to rely on the perceptions of a select group or the media. Fiscally, many millennials face greater challenges than preceding generations at their age, with college tuition doubling since the turn of the century (leading to a doubling of students taking out loans for school), all the while wages have been diminished. In order to get into fields of study, many must undergo further schooling or internship, which stunts their finances as well. These financial worries have tended to cause many millennials to wait longer to marry (if at all) and have children. Fewer millennials will own houses, and more will have at least 4 major career changes in their lives. For the first time since the Great Depression, more millennials live at the poverty line than previous generations when they were at the same age. Many of the markers of a “successful life” are still out of reach for millennials and Gen Z. The church would do well to be aware of these changes.
Added to these shifts in life experience from previous generations, the culture around has shifted dramatically. Within about at 20 year span, the approval regarding same sex relationships flipped, and public approval of transgenderism is continuing to rise as well. The average first exposure to pornography is 8 years old, and it is usually through a phone in their own home, rather than an alley or hidden away in a basement. Rather than wait two weeks for a book to arrive from across the country, we only have to wait a day. Instead of calling someone to ask if they had a baby, you just go to their facebook page and check out the pictures.
Many millennials I work with struggle with a fear of missing out on everything life has to offer them. Because they have the ability to see all of the options of what life could be, many feel unable to make a decision about what is good and right for them. No longer do you just have the choice between mustard or mayo, but now you have to chose between chipotle-ranch, french dijon, sriracha ketchup, smokey mountain bbq, and that extends to just about everything. As one popular speaker, Jordan Peterson, has noted, freedom and choice do not lead to meaning, and ironically, to buy into that myth leads you into being crippled into indecision.
Regarding the whole fun/free approach to religion or more traditional, my own experience is that many who stick around in the church after High School are looking for something deeper than what has been offered in big box evangelical churches, and I think for many there is the appeal to the appearance that things go deeper than just what our parents made up. I have had a good portion of my time in ministering to millennials dealing with the claims of Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox. That presents a real opportunity for churches that have a history and a liturgy, but we need to be sure to try to root them in Scripture when they drift our way, or the pull to higher church models will keep pulling them.
Question: Technology and digital communication is a seemingly ever-present topic when talking about this generation—especially for churches of varying stripes. Millennials 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?
Dan: Nobody my age or younger that I know pays for local tv or cable. Everything is done through a stick or by casting things to our Smart TVs. News is easily accessible through reddit and other community forums. Many I talk to at least occasionally listen to a podcast or check out clips on youtube. Many of the biggest influencers on these generations have a podcast and a youtube channel (Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, etc.).
I would say that if you want to use technology, you have to be committed to trying to stay up to date on the platforms you choose to use. Many of the older generations use facebook and/or instagram in a way that signals they don’t really understand how the platforms effectively communicate information. Additionally, the platforms that are in use one year can be out the very next year. Be willing to adapt.
I know numerous “seasoned saints” who are skilled at using these platforms because they ask questions and are willing to learn from younger generations. Younger and older generations have a great deal to teach others about communication in general.
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?
Dan: I think this younger generation is asking a lot of good questions that we should welcome. Questions provide us the opportunity to learn more and cling more closely to the things we believe. Many of the questions are hard, complex questions that might not have been asked in this same way before. In general, we need to be more discerning about what are good questions, and helping others see that there are some questions that we (as humans) cannot provide a satisfying answer.
Many of the big questions connect to our doctrine of man. What does it mean to be human? To be body and soul? To be gendered? To be renewed after the image of Christ? Questions of bioethics are particularly relevant. Why should we be against genetic doping? What might be wrong with selecting certain traits for our unborn children? Are our bodies important? Strongly Reformed churches have tended to have an underdeveloped doctrine of man, and we would do well to reflect more on Genesis 1-3 to understand our composition, dignity, and destiny.
If the OPC wants to see more 18-30s come into the church, we need to be willing to explain ideas and concepts that might seem obvious. There are a lot of insider language and cultural assumptions in Reformed churches in general, so we should strive to open as many doors (and windows if we have to). To do this winsomely and without a sense of superiority is key.
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.
Dan: Strongly reformed churches need be stronger at understanding the culture around us, and seek to be more relational. I think there are a number of things happening around us in the culture that don’t make any sense to us, but are perfectly rational in the minds of the unchurched. In a more post-christian society, we don’t share as many values and beliefs that our neighbors do. Understanding their perspective will often take more work and be less obvious than it once was. Being charitable and asking a lot of good questions are critical.
Relationally, our churches need to be places that put to death gossip and pride. I think those two particular sins harm our witness the most, as they most look like the world. There is nothing countercultural about talking behind each other’s back, or talking about how great we are. We look like the world when we do that.
Being committed to the long run is also extremely important. The world is filled with so much change and is quick to discard you whenever you make a mistake. To have a community that is is centered on the task of genuine discipleship and grace will be genuinely countercultural and I think attractive to younger generations.