The Strengths Millennials Bring to Your Church

The Strengths Millennials Bring to Your Church

Jon Nielson, Cameron Cole, and Kori Porter


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Jon Nielson: We have the stereotypes of millennials, that we’ve all heard. I’m 35 years old, and I’m actually on the older tip of what it means to be a millennial. And yet, even I resonate sometimes with some of the negative stereotypes that you get. Laziness maybe is one stereotype. Maybe a kind of overly optimistic or inflated view of the world is another. Sometimes, we can accuse millennials of how they want to change the world. And those attitudes can definitely creep into the church where I think the older generations—and I’ll even include myself in that—can develop a little bit of a cynical view toward millennials. I think we’ve seen that.

In fact, Cameron was saying, just a minute ago, he’s even said some things in a recorded way just poking fun at millennials.

Cameron Cole: Whoops.

Jon Nielson: But we do want to also think about pushing back on those stereotypes, and also thinking about what these people can add to our church context so . . .

Cameron Cole: Right. And I think millennials have been, in some ways, kind of like a punching bag or a punchline for people. Everyone likes to make fun of the snowflakes and all of that. But, you know, they’re made in the image of God. And I think a lot of the frustrations that people have with millennials in some ways is because they cut against and disrupt a lot of our cultural idols.

For example, I think one thing I hear about millennials quite a bit is that they’re lazy, they don’t have a work ethic, they don’t want to pay their dues, they want to rise to the top immediately. And one thing I will say is that it does seem like a lot of millennials, they have a little better work-life balance. They may value family, and friendships, and community, and relationships more than they value vocation. And I think a lot of the time why they kind of rub people the wrong way is because that undermines some of our cultural values.

I was raised in a traditional house where, you know, you said, “Yes, sir,” you said, “No, ma’am,” you had to have a summer job. And the family motto was, “While other people are sleeping, we are working.” [Instead we have] a generation of people who may not buy into that. There was a workaholic kind of idolatry in the community and culture I grew up in, and my family in particular. Maybe the resentment or the backlash may just be a reflection of our cultural idols related to work that millennials don’t necessarily worship or buy into.

Kori Porter: They’re not necessarily lazy. I think that they’re just disenchanted with work in and of itself because it may seem aimless or pointless. And so, I think that they’re trying to lead more with their hearts and actually want to do something with purpose. And so, they’re jumping from job to job, they’re looking for purpose, and they don’t find it. But they are the least churched generation, and we know they don’t have the gospel that anchor them, to hold them fast to understanding what it looks like to do work and do work well. And so, I think laziness is more of a symptomatic sense of a sin struggle that they have, not necessarily just a characteristic of the generation itself.

Cameron Cole: Yeah. And sorry, back to the idolatry thing, I think a lot of times older generations value security. And, you know, something positive is that millennials, they want to find fulfillment in their work. They want it to be meaningful. And they will take that over the financial security that [comes with] sticking with the job over a long period of time.

Jon Nielson: And if we feel threatened by that, that attitude which we feel like is an attack on our high value of hard work or workaholic nature, I think it’s fair to ask ourselves why exactly do we feel threatened by that, and what cultural idols might we have been worshiping that the millennials are beginning to challenge a little bit.

In terms of what Millennials bring to the local church, I do want to push back on one stereotype a little bit, and that is that millennials don’t want to hear from the older generation or that, you know, they are pushing out people who are older. In my experience, and I’m speaking anecdotally here a little bit, I have never met a young man or woman in their 20s who isn’t interested, when asked, in a mentoring relationship with an older believer.

I think we have sold them a little bit short in terms of their desire to learn from the older generation. We’ve assumed that a 25-year-old single woman, for example, is not interested in meeting regularly with a 75-year-old saint.

Kori Porter: Yeah, that’s good.

Jon Nielson: And in my experience, it’s just not true. I think the opportunities are not there, and I think we have an opportunity in the local church for that Titus 2 kind of older women teaching the younger women about the faith, older men mentoring younger men that I don’t think we’ve given millennials enough credit for actually desiring those kinds of mentoring and discipleship [relationships].

Kori Porter: Jon, you’re onto something. When I was doing campus ministry and I was in a local church setting, the thing that I had, the hardest thing of happening in discipleship was getting the older woman to feel as though they had something of value to give to the younger woman. It wasn’t that the younger women didn’t want the mentorship themselves, it was that the older generation felt as though they may not be equipped themselves to be able to impart really any type of wisdom to the younger generation.

And so, I think the onus is not necessarily on the millennial in that case, I think it is the older women of the church should be a little bit more intentional about us taking hold of that Titus 2 charge that was given to us to love women well through discipling them in the Word.

Cameron Cole: I think previous generations in the United States identify themselves in terms of competency. So if you’re talking about a younger kid, you know, I’m a math student or I’m a cheerleader, I’m a football player. Millennials identify themselves in terms of connectedness and community. And so, one thing that they bring to the church is a high value for community. The churches in my community that are doing well with millennials are churches that do community really, really well. And so, in that sense, that’s a positive aspect of their ecclesiology. They, a lot of times, see the church as a place where they find community. And that’s something we can really embrace and learn from.

Jon Nielson: Yes. I totally agree. Yeah, I do think that connects to another point that I’ve made and thought about sometimes about millennials is that they are the generation, in my experience, that has the sharpest radar for detecting a lack of authenticity.

So, you know, if you want to turn off a 26-year-old young man from your church, be fake and you’ll do it. And so, I do think what millennials can sometimes bring, and this happens in community, it doesn’t happen without community is encouraging our churches to be authentic places, encouraging our churches to be places where sin is confessed to God but also to each other, where there’s real conversation and acknowledgment of the ways that we struggle, but also, the ways that God is helping shape us to be more like Christ.

So, a lot of times, if we’ve got that gap in our local churches where we don’t have anybody in their 20s or early 30s, we can descend into some of that lack of authenticity, which is such a turnoff to young adults, I think.

Cameron Cole: Yeah. In that way, they really, in some ways, hold us accountable. Yeah.

I think one thing I would say that’s valuable about millennials is over the last 100 to 150 years in evangelical Christianity, there’s been a blind spot when it comes to taking care of the poor, matters related to social justice and racial justice. And, you know, millennials, they are not going to play ball with that. The millennials, they want to see a holistic kind of ministry where we’re not just concerned about discipleship, but in addition to that, we are being faithful to what the Scriptures have to say about taking care of the poor and being advocates for justice.

And so, that’s a real trend that you see that millennials in the evangelical context, that something that they are really calling for and demanding. And it’s an area where the church has needed to grow. And that’s something that they really bring to the table, a passion for that, and a sense of accountability that we are faithful to all of what the Scriptures have to say about those issues.

Kori Porter: Cameron, it seems like if we brought those two together, if we brought the energy that the millennial brings, the passion, the desire to seek justice, and we brought that under the authority, like you said, of the local church who is not necessarily carrying that out right now, it just seems like that we can see Christ to be more glorified when it comes to issues of injustice in the world. So it doesn’t seem like, to your point, something that should be divorced from each other, but it’s something they should be married more together.

Cameron Cole: Absolutely. And you see that millennials really do seem to have a vision for that, that the two are married together like you said.

Jon Nielson: Yeah. I’m curious, Kori, you know, so you’re discipling a ton of women. I saw you do it in person, you know, for a year when we worked together at Princeton. So you’ve got, I don’t know, dozens of 20, 21, 22-year-old women that are about to leave Princeton and go literally all over the country and all over the world. As you think about them going into local churches in New York City and Austin, Texas, and who knows, other parts of the world, what are you most excited about what they’ll bring from their time at Princeton, from walking with Jesus at Princeton University to their local church context in the years to come?

Kori Porter: Yeah. I don’t know if you know, Cameron, but Jon was my boss at Princeton. And so, you also kind of saw this, but Princeton or the Ivy Leagues in themselves are not necessarily as hospitable to the gospel as other places. And so, when a student has come to faith at an Ivy League institution, they’ve come to faith because they truly do see Christ as their Lord and Savior. So when they’re going into the local church setting, I think that they bring a sense of a more mature understanding of having weathered the storms of what it means to actually have your faith to be your own, what it means to have some slight persecution from their professors or from the social context around them. So I think they’re going in with a clear mind, sober-mindedness, knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

I think they also bring just a zealousness for the word. When I sit with my girls in Bible course, the way that they just love God is through, like, actually seeing Him in the pages of Scripture. I remember one time there was a girl, she was newer to the faith, and she was reading through the gospels with me, and it was the first time that Christ had spoke. And she just started to tear up because it was the first time she has seen Christ actually use words in the passage, and she was just overwhelmed with joy.

I think a real heart for the gospel, a heart for the Word itself, and also a conviction to live it out faithfully is something that they can help the local church.

Jon Nielson: Yeah. And I saw that too. And I think the students at Princeton, in particular, who really walk with the Lord, who really follow Scripture, who love Jesus, they understand what that’s going to mean from their peers.

I remember one student told me that for him to articulate what the Bible says about sexuality would be, for him, social suicide. I mean, I’ve never had to deal with that in the context where I’ve generally lived and walked where for me to say, “No, I think the Bible defines marriage as being between one man and one woman,” would be social suicide, that would destroy what my peers would think about me.

Some of those students coming out of context like that, whether it’s at a university, or a city setting, or a work setting, a work environment, have had to deal with owning their faith in a way that is socially damaging. That can be a great gift to what they bring to a local congregation in the years to come.

Cameron Cole: I think one thing that I really embrace and am excited about with millennials in the church is something that they’re criticized for is a lack of patience.

They have an expectation that they start a job and they should be the CEO by week two. But they have grown up in a whole different technological age than when I was raised in or older generations. And so, as a result of that, they do kind of have this sense of immediacy. A way that, that can be very positively directed is they bring a sense of urgency. They want things to change, they want things to change now.

So in terms of how that relates to evangelism, or discipleship, or taking care of matters related to social justice and the poor, there’s an urgency and a passion, “Things must happen right now” kind of attitude that older generations may be too patient and may be too complacent of.

Jon Nielson: Yeah. And that can be helpful even in the details of what’s going on in a local church where, a lot of times, it’s a millennial member who’s willing to say, “Why do we do that?” You know, “Why do we do that thing that way?” And we, I mean, as leaders in the church, better be ready to say, “This is why. This is why it’s biblical. This is why it’s in line with our theological tradition,” rather than, “well, that’s just what we’ve always done here, and we’re never going to change it.”

And so, I do think there can be a helpful dynamic of immediacy, like you said. Let’s be biblical, let’s be Christ-centered, and let’s not put tradition ahead of what the Bible actually is teaching here.

Kori Porter: We call it, students have an apathetic faith and think you’re going to reach them in a local church. They demand, like you said, authenticity, but they also demand us to push forward and be excited about the things that Lord is doing. But then I think they also demand change, like you said, in the heart, not just social change. But if you are called to stop sinning, I’ve seen my students be very persistent and very diligent in their sanctification.

And that’s not always typically true with people who will get a little bit more lazy in their faith. So I’ve always enjoyed seeing them really wanting to wrestle through things in such a real deep way.

Texting. Entitlement. Lack of commitment. Avocado toast.

These are just a few things stereotypically associated with the generation that reached young adulthood in the 21st century, more commonly known as millennials.

In this conversation, Jon Nielson, Cameron Cole, and Kori Porter draw from their experience in campus and youth ministry to counteract some negative stereotypes and emphasize the positives about millennials. For example, millennials value authenticity. Churches can be threatened by the questions millennials ask—or they can view the questions as a welcome opportunity to clarify the church’s teaching. Churches can welcome millennials’ desire to make a difference in the world and to care for the poor and the oppressed.

Christians from older generations may perceive that millennials don’t want to learn from them, but Porter says that’s just not true. Christian young adults are hungry for mentoring and discipleship, but they need older men and women to deliberately step into this role.

Cole appreciates that millennials typically place a high value on community: “The churches in my community that are doing well with millennials are churches that do community really, really well. And so, in that sense, that’s a positive aspect of their ecclesiology. They, a lot of times, see the church as a place where they find community. And that’s something we can really embrace and learn from.”

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.