Months ago I sent my local Bishop this video of Simon Sinek. I told him that there were lots of insights here that may help the church in attracting the millennial generation.
Bishop Paul then asked me what about the video I found helpful and I wrote this response. Since then the video has gone viral a couple of times and so I thought it would be helpful to point these thoughts into the public domain. The idea is to take Simon's insights and apply the content in a fresh way to a context he wasn't thinking off- the Church.
1) Millennials grew up being told they were special (3m 08s)
This particular observation made me laugh; recently one of my siblings talked to my Dad about how this parenting strategy had backfired in her life and my Dad's response was "But you are special!” It is of course only the well intentioned result of parental love, but Simon is right that it can also be harmful for all the reasons he outlines.
How does Christianity respond to this generational trend? In a nuanced way, Christians are known and loved, down to each hair of our head (Ps. 139) and in that sense it is true that we are special. However the Gospel also sets us free from our need to be special by pointing us to Christ as the centre and the pinnacle of all Creation. Begin special because you are in Christ and because of his Life and Work, feels very different to having to be special because you need to live up to the expectations of your parents.
2) Millennials have disproportionately low levels of self confidence than previous generations once their self-image has been shattered (4m 19s)
I think the Church has a real opportunity here to speak to the needs of a generation if it addressed and spoke about this. The Christian understanding of humanity- that it is lovingly created, is essentially good, has been broken by sin and will be redeemed- offers real and deep hope without over promising and without having to sell the super spiritualised plastic platitudes of ‘God thinks you're special too’.
Again the emphasis here must be on God's work which results in human dignity and worth.
3) Millennials are addicted to technology (6m 52s)
Simon is scarily accurate in his observations here. I think his solution to the problem is right as well, we need human connection and that connection needs to be practised. I think the Church has an opportunity to turn something which is often regarded as a negative aspect of it’s life into a huge positive.
Could we learn to see difficult PCC meetings- where there is no agreement and yet despite the disagreement members stay in the room to talk it out- as a triumph of human connection in a world where it would be easier to google another church and move on? Could we provide technology free retreats to organisations who want to learn about human connection? Could the liturgical practise of gathering and communing around bread and wine help us to form counter cultural habits of human interaction.
It is often said that the difficult bit of church is the people who don't seem to get on- completely different people who only share their Christianity in common. In a lonely world bereft of human connection, this community should be seen as a prophetic counter culture which chooses to practise how to love one another even when it hurts.
4) Millennials are impatient but want to make an impact (10m 2s)
Here I find Simon’s insights to be particularly painful because these are desires and feelings I find strongly in myself. Books like “A long obedience in the Same Direction” by Eugene Peterson become extremely important in this context for providing Spiritual insight and motivation towards patiently following Jesus. I have lots of friends in my generation who feel impatient to 'achieve' in every area of their life and this includes their faith. In this context the life (and the speed!) of the monks in Mirfield becomes incredible, mysterious and strangely compelling.
In the area of ‘making an impact’ I think the Church with it’s social action mandate can really engage this generation. Millennials want to know that what they do makes a difference and the Church can provide opportunities for that to happen (like volunteering at a food bank or joining Street Angels). When volunteering on these projects myself, I have often had opportunity to discuss questions of faith with a group of people who would otherwise never enter a Church building. A higher percentage of this generation spend their time volunteering for good causes then any other previous generation.
There is an interesting article on this here – which is based on research done by these people which is based in America and therefore won't fit perfectly in a British context but still might be helpful.
This begs the question- what do we expect from Millennial Christians once they are in the pew? This question comes from considering my friends who have now walked away from the faith they had as students. I think, in part, the reason they left the Church is that they couldn’t cope with a faith that had run out of any sense of development. When you become a Christian, or when you are growing up as a Christian, there are ways in which you can make progress- learning about the Bible, how to pray out loud, lead a Bible study, taking communion for the first time, joining the PCC etc.
But once you reach your mid to late twenties it starts to feel as if the journey has run out of road. There isn’t anything else to learn, there’s no more progression to be made, the underlying message becomes “continue to be a good Christian, just keep doing the right things and turn up to church for the next 50 years- then we'll bury.” That is not a compelling vision of life for Millennials, and so they leave the church to find something which will help them feel like they are developing. Broadly speaking, I think this is a generation of activists and so they aren't interested in just taking a pew.
Simply put, should the church challenge this generation’s impatience or pander to their desire to make an impact? I think there is a nuance here and I’m not sure how to untie this knot, but it's worth considering further.
5) It is up to the companies to create environments where Millennials can overcome the obstacles outlined above (17m 59s)
I completely disagree with Simon on this point- it is the Church's responsibility. We should be providing spaces where these things are taught and character forming habits are learnt. It is this particular part of his presentation that led me to think that while Simon’s insights are fascinating and true, he is looking for the solution in completely the wrong place.
6) Finite vs. Infinite Games (19m 23s)
The second half the the presentation takes a different tacked but I think still has some helpful things to say about reaching Millennials.
Church growth is often talked about like it is a Finite Game- we need to ‘win’ by getting people back into Church, so that we can pay our parish share and keep the Archdeacon of our backs. And so mission, evangelism, church growth, community outreach and even the summer BBQ social, all become tactics for growing the Church and keeping the thing afloat.
However when viewing church growth and attendance with an Infinite Game mindset you start to see everything very differently. Rather than 'reaching Millennials' for the sake of getting bums on seats, I think the emphasis should be on helping Millennials lead healthy happy lives, tackling the problems outlined above and showing how the life and teaching of Jesus can provide solutions to those problems.
This could include freely offering solutions to their problems and environments within which they can grow. Once the emphasis is on helping this generation to overcome their struggles, rather than getting this generation to go to church, we would start playing an Infinite Game- and the great irony is that they would then be more likely to come to church!
I think this is like the difference between wanting a girlfriend because you feeling lonely and wanting to date a particular girl because she is interesting to you. I used to give this advice to the boys in my youth group: No girl wants to be the alternative to loneliness, if you are terrified of being alone you will look desperate when you ask her out. Ask a girl out because you find her interesting and she is far more likely to say yes. If the church only wants to reach the Millennial generation simply to increase the attendance figures, because it is terrified of decline, then we will never manage it. To use Simon’s language- we will be playing a Finite Game. When we find the millennial generation interesting in their own right we can start playing an Infinite Game.
This is a conversation that needs to continue being had because it is not going away. I understand that my Bishop then took the video to his round table meeting and they had a fruitful discussion off the back of it. As the Church we need to pray and work to reach every Generation afresh with the Good News of Jesus' resurrection. I hope this blog adds to the discussion in a productive way.
For further reading check out "Millennials: Reaching and releasing the rising generation" by Amy and Frog Orr-Ewing.