Here Come the Millennials! A Conversation with Jess Rainer (Part 1)


Today, I’m excited to welcome Jess Rainer to the blog. We’ll be discussing an important new book that Jess co-authored with his dad, Thom: The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation. For the next two weeks, you can download the Kindle version of The Millennials for free. I recommend that pastors and church leaders (or anyone interested in generational shifts) consult this book for insights into the church’s mission to reach this generation for Christ.

Trevin Wax: Jess, you and I are both part of the generation called “The Millennials.” Labeling people according to their generation is a tricky exercise, full of complexities that make a common portrait difficult to ascertain. My first thought upon seeing The Millennials was: ”I hope this isn’t a one-size-fits-all portrait of our generation.” I was surprised to see that one of the millennials you interviewed said roughly the same thing: “Don’t stereotype my generation.”

Despite my aversion toward broad generalities, I couldn’t help but nod my head at the general descriptions you give in the book. Over and over, I thought, That’s me. Or: Yes, these findings are an accurate characteristic of the Millennials I know. So tell me how waded through all the diverse pieces of information about this generation in order to pull out these commonalities.

Jess Rainer: You are correct that we can not stereotype any particular person within the Millennial generation. The diversity is far too great to even try to put the Millennials into one category. In fact, the first thing I discovered in the research was that I am not the typical Millennial! But despite all the diversity we found, there were still common themes throughout our generation.

One approach we took to understanding the 1200 different Millennial responses we received was to break the findings down by beliefs, actions, and expectations in all major life categories. These life categories includes items such as family, work, money, religion, media, diversity, as well as other categories.

For example, we asked these 1200 Millennials what they believed a family unit should look like. We asked what their family unit looks like right now. We asked what they expect their family to look like in the future. In asking these key questions, patterns or themes became more evident as more and more responses were received. This process is the only way to get a high level perspective of our generation. Anytime I looked at individual responses, I would be amazed how the answers would drastically change.

Trevin Wax: This strategy appears to put a strong emphasis on relationships during the information-gathering process.

Jess Rainer: Yes, that’s right. In addition to the pure statistical research, my dad and I both made it a point to engage the Millennials on a personal basis. Observational research provided an extra source of validity to the massive amounts of statistical research we accumulated. These conversations and observations helped bring the major themes of our generation to the surface. For example, my dad and I quickly saw the lack of environmental vigor that was expected out of the Millennials.

It was an exciting time to read the statistical data and then engage my friends and peers. I think some of my friends got tired of me backing up their feelings and desires with percentages and fractions! The twofold approach to the research brought the book to life and provided the realness of life as a Millennial.

Trevin Wax: You mention the lack of environmental vigor as one of the facts that surprised you. Millennials are “green” in that there is an environmental sensibility about us, and yet we don’t think that environmental issues should polarize people. This distaste for polarization is a key feature of the millennials that leads you to call them “the mediating generation.”

Jess Rainer: Yes. Millennials are weary of screaming voices and lack of civility in work, politics, family, and religion. We see the extra efforts of unnecessary fighting as a waste of time and energy. I do not know how many times I have said the phrase, “If he would just stop arguing and do something about it…” Being in the ministry, I get frustrated with those who stand to argue about minor details when that time could be spent on effectively ministering to the those who do not know Christ. The distaste for polarization is a common sentiment within the Millennial generation.

Trevin Wax: What are some of the benefits of the Millennial distaste for polarization?

Jess Rainer: I think adopting this attitude will make the Millennial generation very productive. Not only in work and politics, but in family and religion. Families of the Millennials will take a mediating role instead of a “me” role. We are determined to keep families together. Millennials will also seek to serve others in their community. Religion will take a more outward focus. We are determined to make the church more effective in reaching out.

Having “can’t we all just get along?” mentality can often be perceived as weak, but the research shows that millennials have strong convictions. A realistic peace is in mind for our generation. Trying to make everyone and everything get along will inevitably challenge the status quo. Millennials are ready to make large-scale changes if needed. There are impatient when things are not being accomplished.

This attitude could have a negative return by make big changes without thinking about the costs. The youthful knowledge of our generation with the desire to see change can have negative implications if we are not careful. It could also cause older generations to not give the Millennials the chance to succeed, which is already occurring, according to the Millennials.

Trevin Wax: Isn’t the downside of this “can’t we all just get along?” attitude demonstrated in a willingness to let go of religious convictions? I was distressed to see how low a priority religious matters were to millennials. The emphasis on family and relationships were encouraging, but religion is all but absent, which leads to discouraging views on matters like same-sex marriage. Even the Christians were wobbly on marriage, probably because the mediating position leads to a “let’s stop arguing about stuff like this.”

Jess Rainer: You are absolutely right. Millennials that enter churches only to find infighting and large amounts of negativity will become frustrated, leave, and avoid the church altogether. Those Millennials with minimal religious convictions will let go of them in order to maintain peace in their own lives.

I mentioned before that I am not the typical Millennial, so I see the church in a different light. The few Millennials that hold strong religious convictions desire to see the church change in a more positive, outward, and deeper theological direction. We are willing to maintain our convictions and work through disagreements in civil way in order greater God’s Kingdom.

Those who match my Evangelical convictions only make up around 6 percent of the entire Millennial generation. But the other 94 percent of the our generation are not against the church or organized religion. In fact, using the very broad definition of Christian, 65 percent of the Millennials claimed it as their religious preference. Without using too many more numbers, approximately 85 percent of the Millennials are indifferent to the church.

Trevin Wax: Your book doesn’t talk about abortion, but I wonder if you agree with the polls showing a surge in pro-life conviction among younger generations.

Jess Rainer: With such a large percentage of indifference, religious convictions are not present when making decisions based on same-sex marriage, abortion, military issues, or many of the other politicized issues.

I do believe there is a tipping point with these politicized issues, even though we did not perform specific research on this. Millennials hold strong convictions, even if they are not strong religious convictions. I mentioned earlier about Millennials seeking too much change too quickly. In some areas, the recent presidential election may be an example of that. While I have no statistical research on the issue, the Millennials may be responding to the recent change in what it means to be pro-choice. Obama’s support of the Freedom of Choice Act may have caused Millennials to counter the pro-choice camp in order to show their disapproval. So, it is not that an indifference to religion or a desire to be the mediator will make the Millennials a generation of “peace at all costs.” It’s more the desire to have disagreements resolved in a fair and civil manner.

Jess and I will continue this conversation tomorrow, focusing primarily on how churches can seek to do effective ministry among and for Millennials. Meanwhile, I encourage you to download “The Millennials“, offered on Kindle for free for a limited time.

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