I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the main things recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials.

But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one clear message we’ve heard for years from experts and Millennial leaders is that the church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel. They see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happened. Suddenly, it’s clear that “political silence is complicity.” Those same experts (voices of a generation) assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines in the face of injustice.

So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are figuring out what they really wanted was different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’s quip about the fickleness of his own generation: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep’” (Luke 7:32). When John came, they called him a prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

That’s probably not the fairest read of the situation today. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. There’s probably a good case for that argument. But such apparent turnarounds raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

Listening Means Learning

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York magazine just ran a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another study of Canada’s youth splits my generation into six types like “New Traditionalists,” “Critical Counterculturalists,” or “Bros and Brittanys”—all with significantly varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

More importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be much of the conventional wisdom on the subject. You know the narrative: Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives, and are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the church’s problems. They’re not interested in going to churches that don’t take that seriously.

Listening ≠ Obeying

While I think there’s something to this point, it’s important for churches not to mistake an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or worse, obey them. “Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes.

Truth is, we Millennials are young and could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. So to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly—the naïve leading the blackmailed.

Further, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Joel 2:28; cf. Acts 2:17). Both groups will be doing this at once—the Spirit empowers both young and old to serve together.

Listening as Spiritual Parenting

I want to suggest that listening to Millennials (on the part of older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This verse gets at an important dynamic of the listening process. Nothing is more exasperating as a child than to feel like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get what you want, simply being taken seriously as a family member goes a long way. I think Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—and treated as real, contributing members (at least those who commit to membership) in any church community. They’re not only the future of the church; they are a powerful part of its present.

Churches must take seriously Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation. If you don’t know about Millennials’ aspirations, concerns, and common struggles, you probably won’t be adept at instructing them in the ways of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, and more. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right way. I suppose we can file this under “training,” but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons, and so forth. As Mark Dever simply puts it, “One way to view my whole ministry is getting my church ready for the next pastor.” Of course, this involves actually inviting them to do some ministry in the church. This shouldn’t be that crazy—some of us are already planting and leading churches ourselves. 

Yes, in established congregations this will involve risk. But all parenting does. That is why this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see all his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).