The transition between December 31 and January 1 of every year is an arbitrary delineation; nonetheless, people across our country will use this existent-but-nonexistent chronological demarcation as the launching point for better decision making. We call these “New Years’ Resolutions.” Many will resolve to read more books, or exercise more, or drink more water in the New Year. Others might resolve to complain less and opt for more gratitude. I even saw a meme that suggested “petting more puppies” in the New Year as a worthwhile resolution. The efficacy of New Years’ Resolutions is the subject of another post, but as the member of the millennial generation and an active, ordained member of a mainline denomination, I have a suggestion for a New Years’ Resolution for my beloved Church and the leaders who serve it: leave anti-millennial stereotyping and scapegoating in 2016. It’s lazy. Full stop. It’s a shame that we have to continue to have this conversation, but it honestly needs to come to a swift and expeditious end.
The stereotypes of the “elusive” and “mysterious” (actual words I’ve heard to describe us) American millennial have been widely documented. We are entitled. We are lazy. We are slacktivists addicted to technology and ignorant of social norms that govern interpersonal relationships. We lack drive and ambition. We want free stuff. And what more shall I say? I do not have time to describe all of the negative ways older generations (and even some misinformed and self-deprecating millennials) use to describe us. Those stereotypes are dismissive and they hurt, but they especially hurt when they are parroted by churches and church leadership who are tasked with raising us and forming us in the Christian faith. Leaders in American Mainline denominations are quick to paint an entire generation of people with a broad brush of negativity and then sit back in their empty pews and wonder why Mainline churches are increasingly devoid of millennials. Well, wonder no more. The answer to why your church might be witnessing a quick millennial exodus of biblical proportions is probably due in no small part to the fact that when you look at us you see lazy, entitled, spoiled, slacktivist children who need to be coddled and tolerated, not engaged and empowered. In my anecdotal experience, the churches who perform the best among any group of people however defined are the churches who celebrate the those people and the gifts and experiences they bring, even if they are different. If we are truly going to follow Christ, we should probably emulate the way he encountered people across difference. He saw them as human and capable and even when he messed around and compared a foreign woman to a dog, he displayed contrition and recognized her humanity. We would do well to go and do likewise.
Are there entitled millennials? Yes. Are there millennials who are lazy? Absolutely. Are there millennials who are addicted to technology and who stand up for what they believe in by tweeting and Facebooking about it? You bet your sweet ass there are. But there are also those of us for whom nothing has ever been given. There are many of us who have had to work very hard, transcending barriers of institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia simply to exist in spaces not created for us, to say nothing of the ageism that reduces young leaders, despite the ministry to which we might actually be called, to children and youth ministers. There are many of us who worked multiple jobs in order to pay for an education that has outpaced inflation at a rate of 2.5 times and still have student loan debt that will outlive many of us. Your stereotypes might be true for some, but, in the words of one of my favorite novelists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” When you reduce an entire generation to a series of negative stereotypes, you diminish the ability of the Church to speak to and engage us where we are.
Here’s a suggestion: stop studying and quantifying us like lab rats in some ecclesial science experiment and have actual, real-life, face-to-face conversations with us. Stop engaging with us as children and employees and see us as people who are every bit as complex and nuanced as any other human being and worthy of, even “entitled” to, basic human respect (thanks for this, Megan). Stop describing us as lost and ask us what we are searching for and what we have found. Stop patronizing us and condescending to us and treat us as equal human beings with equal access to God’s love and grace and equal ability to work hard for the Reign of God. We may do it differently. We may use different tools and language. We may define and express ourselves differently. We might just be different. But, to quote the incomparable and preeminent Pastor-Emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, the Rev’d Dr. Jeremiah Wright, “different does not mean deficient.” If you think people employing different tools, speaking a different language, and simply being different than you is inherently deficient, I would encourage you to build yourself up in the most Holy Faith and cut that nonsense out. Instead of “trafficking in respectability politics,” how about just have some simple respect.
We are here. We are leading. Many of us have given our lives over to a Cause and a Church that promises no stable future apart from the parousia. We have given up family and relationships and security to follow Christ. We are organizing new communities. We are standing in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. We preaching, teaching, and forming another generation of Christians who will one day take the torch of faith from us and carry it forward. We are engaging the amazing new world Social Media has to offer as something viable and wonderful and filled with grace. We are baptizing, marrying, burying, and seeking to faithfully convey to others what has been passed on to us. And we are doing it all in a world that seems to spinning out of control and hurdling headlong towards oblivion. In other words – we are in the trenches with you. Many of us want to work with older and more experienced leaders to build this new world together, but we are never going to get there so long as we are treated like incapable, petulant children.
We have bigger things to engage and the world needs us like never before and unless we all die in the flurry of a Nuclear War (which seems to have gained popularity lately) or become victims of the coming Zombie Apocalypse (which also seems strangely likely), we have work to do. This generational warfare is a distraction from the actual work of reaching the world for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you are finding it hard to work with a millennial, it might because we are different than you and have a different set of experiences than you. Heck, we are different from one another. Use those superior social and interpersonal skills to find solutions to the generational divide rather than flattening the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history into simple equations and formulas.
Whatever you do, for the love of God, leave this mess in 2016.