calendar May 18, 2011 in Communications, Connecting

Millennials Challenge Church to Change


Ministry with the generation aged 10-30 today “looks more like the church of the 1st and 2nd Centuries” than the institution of the 1960s that many leaders fondly recall, said 2011 Assembly keynote speaker Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia and an expert in the faith of young adults.

Instead of catering to a dwindling tribe of insiders, the church has the opportunity to reach out to religious “immigrants” who “have no experience with the church,” Nishioka said.  Research shows that youth and young adults coming of age in the new millennium are hungry for spiritual experience rather than religious knowledge, and are open to the mysteries of faith when presented in ways that resonate with them.

Nishioka outlined a number of trends among these so-called  Millennials that challenge the church to change. For example, this generation is looking for authentic, gifted leaders and doesn’t rely on academic credentials.  Also the rapidly pace of change this generation has grown up with forces organizations to shift focus from long-term to short-term plans.  Seekers are looking for real experience of faith, not just a tradition to join.  This generation is also hostile to traditional mass evangelism but is open to one-on-one invitations, he said.

Youth and young adults who are seeking a faith community report that authenticity and warmth are key factors in whether they will return to a congregation, Nishioka said. They will not return to a church where no one welcomes them and engages them in the community, nor to a church where they sense that the people sharing God’s peace with them don’t mean it, he said. (Incidentally, research shows that small congregations are the worst at being warm and welcoming because they often ignore newcomers, he said.)

Adapting to the Millennials’ world is not easy for the institutional church.  Millennials view themselves as vastly different from their predecessors in “Generation X,” aged 30-50, while many in the church are of previous Baby Boomer and Builder generations, Nishioka said.  The average age of ELCA members is 57, while the average age of the U.S. population is 33.4.

This emerging generation cut its teeth on immersive games and virtual worlds online, and researches on Wikipedia rather than in World Book. They also have a different trust in “experts,” as they see economic bubbles burst and diseases like measles resurface in America, he said.

“Knowledge is participatory for this generation,” Nishioka said. “Knowledge is not handed down from above by women and men with the letters R-E-V in front of their name… They do not want to be given knowledge, they want to be able to create it. This is a big shift in how we impart scripture and doctrine.”

Because many Millennials have been taught by parents, schools and media that they are “special,” and being happy is a major goal in life, this generation tends to be optimistic about the future, collaborative and achievement-oriented and carry a sense of entitlement, he said.

As a result research shows that Millennials have a theology of a “therapeutic moralistic deity,” a distant, all powerful god who “wants people to be good, nice and fair,” who sends bad people to hell and wants good people to be happy, Nishioka said. “God is not particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

Unfortunately, “this theology does not place Christ at the center — it places us at the center with God orbiting around us.”

The church’s opportunity, he said, is to help young people (and their parents) see the goal of life as responding to God’s amazing gift of grace in Christ. Pastors, teachers and parents might say, “I want you to find a life of meaning. I want you to be faithful and just. Live a life worth of your calling,” he said.

This message must be presented in an open, real and fair way, but must be honest. “If you are serious about this, there is a cost,” he said. “The God who gave himself for us is the only one worthy of being at the center of our lives.”



Friday session

Keynote Friday from SEPA Synod on Vimeo.


Saturday session

Keynote Saturday from SEPA Synod on Vimeo.

Dr. Rodger Nishioka on trends among millennials that challenge the church.