Following service as a pastor and then founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth, in 2005 Thom Rainer became president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Thom is author of several books, and one of his most recent—co-authored with his son, Jess—is called The Millennials. He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Who are the Millennials?
Rainer: The Millennials were born between 1980 and 2000. Seventy-eight million of them means it’s the largest generation in history if you use live births as the marking point. Boomers had 76 million; millennials have 78 million, so slightly larger than your generation and mine.
It’s a generation that in many ways is defining our culture, defining our workplace, defining our churches. They really are much the future and the present, and much of what is going on in America. So 78 million, 1980 to 2000, young adults, students and a few kids in there.
Preaching: The book itself focuses on the first half of that millennial generation, the ones who have reached young adulthood.
Rainer: If you start getting into the people born in the year 2000—the latter part—at the time when the study was done in 2010, you would have been talking to 10-year-olds. Only the older part of the millennials is in the study.
Preaching: What are some characteristics of millennials that makes them stand out? What is distinctive about this generation?
Rainer: You know, generational cycles tend to come and go and there are a couple of words I want to say about generations to answer your question. Generation has at its root general, so you are making generalizations…
Anytime I do a conference or speak on millenials, someone inevitably will come up to me and say, “That’s not my experience of my millennial.” You’re probably right, because when you’re dealing with 78 million, even if you’re talking about 60 percent of them, you’re talking about millions and millions and millions who don’t fit that characteristic.
So, I always have to say when we talk about generations, there are generalizations about them; but I will give you some words that describe this generation. One of them is relational, they are highly connective, particularly to family. Probably more than any generation, at least in any generation we have measured; this generation is tied to its parents, close to its siblings, close to friends. Relationships mean a lot to them.
I am convinced much of the social media phenomenon is tied to the relational aspects of this generation. This is a generation relational to its parents in a way I have never seen before. Its parents, as a rule, were helicopter parents. They hovered over them for much of their lives, but the kids don’t resent it; they want to stay tied to that. So, one characteristic would be they are relational.
Another would be committed. You could say millennials are connected and committed if you wanted to alliterate on that. They’re highly committed, they’re highly loyal. Yes, they’re loyal to those with whom they have relationships; but they can be loyal to institutions, even a local church if they believe that institution is making a difference.
I would say that commitment manifests itself not only in words, but in deeds, as well—they are highly action-oriented. They do not believe you should only say you’re committed to something, but do something about it. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but those are some of the characteristics of this generation. I also would say on religious matters generally they are apathetic. We’ve gone from antagonistic to apathetic on general religious matters.
Preaching: I want to pick up on the issue of their emphasis on family. In the book you put a lot of focus on that issue and how connected they are in their relationships. What are some of the implications, such as for marriage for example—how this generation looks at family and marriage.
Rainer: Marriage in many ways could be not necessarily given a new definition but certainly given a new emphasis. They are part of the generation that has seen broken families. Either their parents split, or they have a close friend whose parents split. It’s common for them to see divorce and broken families.
The millennial generation is committed to staying together: one husband, one wife for life. It’s too early to be able to see if that’s going to be a reality. They either will delay marriage or not marry at all because they take it so seriously. Or they will go into marriage determined to make it work.
Really, the pendulums are swinging. They’ve seen the broken family relationships. They’re determined to make it work. When we did previous interviews with genX or younger boomers, they simply would say, “I’m going into marriage. I don’t know if it will work; but if it does that’s good; if it doesn’t, that’s OK.” The millennials are going into marriage at least attitudinally saying, “I want it to work.” Or they’re delaying marriage because they’re so serious about it they’re concerned that it won’t work.
Preaching: It is interesting to consider to what extent the growth of social media may be tied, at least in part, to this whole emphasis of the millennials on relationship.
Rainer: What comes first: the chicken or the egg? What comes first, social media or the relationships that emanate from social media? The more I listen to our study and the interviews with the millennials, the more I’m convinced the social media phenomenon is a result of the relational attitude of this young generation.
Some of us old dudes such as me and you, we’re catching on to social media. We’re tweeting, and we’re on Facebook; but the driving force behind it is the millennials and some of the genX, as well. The more I listen to this generation, the more I think we have social media because they are so highly relational. Social media does not preclude their one-on-one relationships. As a matter of fact, they’re probably more intentional about being with people physically, being in the presence of people than my generation ever was. Social media relationships are an add-on to that.
Closely related to social media—although this doesn’t neatly fit under the umbrella of social media—is the texting generation. This generation communicates by texting in a way we would never have predicted. Some would say it’s because of the type of media that’s available to them or the fact that they can do it. I say it’s because they want to be in touch continuously.
So when you see them in a mall, when you see them at a movie, you see them in church or you see them in school and they’re using those two thumbs at a speed I never dreamed was possible, I think it’s because they want to stay in touch continuously.
You know, it’s something to be preaching to this generation and not only to see them texting, but most of them—if they’re following the text of Scripture—are following on something electronically, as well. So I don’t know if they’re having a fun time on some website or they’re actually following me on one of the digital versions of Scripture.
Preaching: That’s true. In college chapel, we can no longer say “no phones,” because that’s their Bible they’re carrying around.
Rainer: When I’m listening to a preacher my wife still doesn’t want me to have my iPhone or iPad out because she thinks it’s communicating to the rest of the world that I’m doing something else; but that’s my Bible!
Preaching: You mentioned 65 percent of the millennials rarely or ever attend church. You mentioned a general indifference toward things of faith and religion. What are their attitudes toward religion, and specifically toward the church?
Rainer: What’s instructive to me is to follow a generational trend—a generation-to-generation trend. Let’s go back to the Builders, those born before 1946. The Builders were institutionally loyal. They were loyal to the church even if the church stinketh. So if they were in church, there was a sense of loyalty. Even if they were not in church, they had a general loyalty toward the institution of the church whether Protestant or Catholic.
Then you get to the Boomer generation, and the Boomer generation becomes somewhat adversarial to the church. Our generation begins to question institutions, government, church, family. A lot of the seeker-friendly movement was to try to counter the adversarial attitudes of the boomer generation.
You get to GenX and it goes from loyal to adversarial to antagonistic. The majority of the opinion of that smaller generation was that local churches are not effective. “I don’t want anything to do with organized religion.” There was an antagonism.
The good thing about antagonism is that at least they were engaged. There was a conversation going on.
The Millennial generation moves into the realm of indifference. They don’t get mad about church; they don’t get mad about religious matters as a general rule. The bad news is it’s not on their radar. They are simply not engaging in religious matters.
I hear quite often—and there is a little bit a truth to this but it’s not entirely true—I hear quite often they’re spiritual but not Christian. Well, the trend we’re seeing in the millennials is they’re not spiritual. They’re not thinking of a higher power or a God with a little “g.” That is another compartment they often do not engage. So indifference as a general rule describes this generation.
We tried to estimate what percentage of this generation was Christian. You can’t ask, “Are you a Christian?” You can’t ask, “Do you go to church?” The best way to ask is to ask a series of belief questions; and although that’s imperfect in itself, we estimate this generation is about 15 percent Christian. If you go to previous generations we would say 65 percent of the builders and about 35 percent for the boomers, 24 percent for gen X and then 15 percent for millennials. So there is a continued trend of less Christians in this generation. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that of the low percentage that is Christian, they do define the word radical in a very New Testament way: highly committed, highly action-oriented, determined to make a difference for the cause of the gospel. It is not a coincidence David Platt’s book Radical is one of the best-selling books, or Crazy Love by Francis Chan, which talks about this unbelievable love of Christ that He has for us, and we respond accordingly. That’s this generation.
Just south of Nashville is a suburb called Brentwood, and in Brentwood is a lady by the name of Katy Davis. Katy Davis at 19 became the mother of 13 Ugandan adopted girls. She’s 22 now and still has 12 or 13 adopted Ugandan girls. She went to Uganda; she saw the problem of orphans; and instead of simply saying, “That is a bad situation,” she moved to Uganda as a teenager, as a young 20-something began adopting these girls, and is now starting a school. You say, “Well that’s extraordinary.” It is extraordinary. There are not a lot of Katy Davises around, but that attitudinally is where the Christians are in this generation. I think the 15 percent can do more for the cause of the gospel than the 35 percent of my generation, the boomers or the 65 percent of the builders.
Preaching: That has all kinds of cultural implications, as well as implications for the church as to how they see faith. In addition to providing statistical data, the book contains excerpts of interviews with millennials. Some would say, “Well, I guess I’m a Christian because my family always identified as Christian; so yeah, I identify myself as a Christian.”
Rainer: There is nominal identification, but there is not the true belief identification that we try to find in these, except roughly 15 percent, and I won’t hold to that number. I don’t know the hearts directly.
Preaching: The intensity of the faith commitment of these young millennials who are in the church tells us something about the need to engage them in hands-on ministry. They don’t want to be observers; they want to be involved.
Rainer: The church has quite a challenge, and I’m speaking of local congregations, not the universal Church. Local churches in the United States have a twofold challenge. Challenge number one is to reach millennials who are unreached—if our numbers are right, roughly 85 percent. That’s an incredible mission field, and that’s an incredible challenge.
Similarly, the church has the great challenge of reaching the Christian millennials because most churches are not engaging them. When a Christian millennial walks in and says, “This church is irrelevant,” it is not because they’re antagonistic, not because they’re indifferent, but because they look at this church and see it’s so inwardly focused. Most of their money goes for us. Most of the action is for our programs, our ministries.
In order to engage most millennial Christians, a church has to be so outwardly focused that it is not only in the community, but is making a difference in the community. It not only gives to missions, but is involved on the mission field on an ongoing basis. They’re not only listening to preaching, but the preaching is well-delivered, well-prepared and challenging.
This generation is not going to take Churchianity as usual. This generation is determined that if it’s going to be a part of a local congregation, that congregation has got to be changing the world. As you know, we’ve seen it again and again that there is going to cause—and is already causing—a clash of the generations regarding what church is supposed to be. This is no longer the worship wars; this is the “how we do church” wars; and it’s beginning to play itself out in some churches.
Preaching: It really goes to the core of what church is. We haven’t yet seen how this generational conflict is going to shake out in many congregations.
Rainer: I think we’ll see some churches that are transformed, that become more like New Testament churches. I think that is basically what the millennials are asking for, and I think you’ll see more and more new church starts with this more radical element to it. It’s going to be fascinating to watch what this minority Christian generation does to turn the world upside down for the gospel.
Preaching: You mentioned church starts. It seems that a lot of the best and brightest young ministers coming along are saying, “I’m not going to inherit the problems of a previous generation of churches. We’re starting fresh with new churches.”
Rainer: You’re absolutely right. I have one son of my three who is involved in a church plant. These millennials, these young adults, many of them are frustrated with church as usual, with local church actions, business and what they perceive as irrelevancy. So they’re starting churches.
Yet I would have a challenge for some millennials as well. Keep planting churches, have that attitude; but we’ve got about 400,000 established churches in the United States that we cannot give up on. I would say not only start churches, but prayerfully go into these churches to try to revolutionize them even if it takes a lifetime of ministry, because we’re not planting enough churches to sustain the fall off of the established churches. I hope we’ll see both groups rise up, more church planters and more church people as millennial leaders going to established churches to turn them around.
Preaching: That does pose a real challenge for these established churches that are going to be looking for leaders in the future; as one generation of leadership moves off the scene, some are going to be desperately looking for new leaders.
Rainer: I don’t have database information, but I think my anecdotal observations would be backed up by some good research. Churches are taking longer to find pastors no matter their policy—whether congregational vote or a search committee or there’s an appointment process. No matter what their policy is, they’re taking longer to find pastors because they’re having trouble finding the kind of pastors who want to go into these established churches.
I was visiting with a church recently. 20 years ago, this church would have had 50 to 100 qualified prospective pastors lined up. Now they went two years and were still struggling to find a qualified person willing to come to that church.
Preaching: That’s a challenge. You mentioned preaching before and how the millennial generation will look at preaching. This is not a group that’s going to go for preaching- and teaching-lite, is it?
Rainer: You hit the nail on the head there. This generation wants to be instructed in the Word, to go deeply into the Word. One of the most significant phenomenons—I mentioned him once and I’ll mention him again—is Secret Church with David Platt. How David begins exposing the Word, expositing the Word at 6 p.m. and does not typically finish until 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. with a couple of 15- to 20-minute breaks.
I’ve gone through Secret Church twice, and my rather heavy posterior begins to feel the pain of sitting there; but I watch these 20-somethings—3,000 of them packed in; tickets sell out in 3 minutes. That’s one of the reasons our organization (LifeWay) is simulcasting them, because the demand is so high and they’re devouring it.
Is that an exception? Yeah, Secret Church is an exception; but the desire to hear deep biblical preaching absolutely is not. That is symptomatic not only of the Christians in this generation but the non-Christians, as well. They’re not going for preaching-lit.
Preaching: What attracts them in terms of teaching and preaching? If a pastor is thinking about how to connect with this group, is there some counsel you could provide?
Rainer: First of all, do not take the moment of preaching lightly. Be extremely well prepared. Study. This generation knows the difference between a sugar stick and a well-prepared sermon—not that all sugar sticks are ill prepared—but they know the difference. You know, you go to
Also, as they are looking at the preacher and as they’re hearing from him, they are demanding transparency. They are demanding a real type of preacher, not one who is using a language of Zion just to make it sound more preacheresque. They also want to know the person in the pulpit is a person of integrity, that they are living what they preach. Well-prepared, transparent, integrity: Those are some of the things I think you’ll hear more and more about preaching and particularly what the millennials will be looking toward.
Preaching: You mentioned that probably as many as 85 percent of this generation are not Christian. You’ve taught evangelism; you are an evangelist yourself in terms of sharing the gospel. How do churches go about seeking to evangelize the millennial generation?
Rainer: Here’s the irony: This is the smallest generation of Christians, we think, in America’s history. We could begin to lament that reality and say there’s absolutely no hope. The irony is that this is the greatest opportunity to evangelize.
There are several reasons for that. It goes back to one of your early questions. This generation is relational. The more we connect with them as Christians, the more we invest in them, the more opportunities they have to see Christ in us, which gives us the opportunity in the platform to be very articulate about what the gospel of Christ is. I don’t think that any time in my 56-year lifetime has there been a greater opportunity to connect relationally with this generation.
Remember, also connected to this relational issue is this issue of family. If—for example, I’m a boomer parent of a millennial child—if that child is not a Christian, that boomer parent (if he or she is a Christian) has a ready audience with a child, even the adult child. I have suggested to some churches that they strategically use their boomer and older genX parents to connect with millennial Christians. Don’t take for granted the influence a parent might have.
Third, this generation is very open to deep truth, understanding what truth is even if they are apathetic toward churches and Christianity in general. If we engage them in discussion on a deep level or on a deeper level about what the Bible is and get them to attend church, then we have a ready audience.
Fourth, they aren’t adversarial to coming to church because they’re so relational. If you say, “Hey, would you like to go to church with me this next week?” that’s like asking if they would like to go to Starbucks. “Sure, I’m willing to try that out.” It’s not like this church is this bad institution they never want to enter the gates. They will go because it’s relational. It’s one of the greatest opportunities to evangelize we’ve ever known.
Preaching: This comes back again to the issue that we talked about: Pastors would make a mistake if they interpret millennials as being antagonistic toward religion. The reality is they’re apathetic. It’s not that they’re against us; they don’t think about us.
Rainer: Not on the radar; and that means they’re blank slates, and we can start writing on those slates. It does not mean there is no hope. It just means in many ways the 21st century is the first century again. Whereas the Roman roads and the Roman ways offered opportunity in the first century, we have all of these metaphorical Roman roads open to us in the 21st century.
Preaching: Based on what we know about the millennials, as they begin moving into the leadership roles in our churches, which is inevitable, what are the implications for the church as they become the leaders?
Rainer: Some of those implications are already playing out. This is a very pragmatic or practical response, but they will start looking at the budget right away. They will ask, “OK, we have 10 percent of our money going to this cause. What’s happening behind it? I don’t want to just give 8 or 9 or 10 percent. I want to find out what’s really happening with those funds. I want to find out about the funds used internally in the church. What’s behind it? Are we really making a difference with those funds?” One of the implications is just budgetary.
Another one of the implications is who is in leadership. Whether elders, deacons or any type of servant leaders are leaders within the church, they’re going to demand those be true leaders in the church.
This is a generation that demands their churches be involved in the community.
Preaching: You’ve been a pastor; you’ve taught at a seminary; and now as president as Lifeway, you have a great vantage point for an aerial view of the church. What do you see as the challenges American churches are dealing with right now, and where do you see us going from here?
Rainer: I will begin answering that question with this statement: The American church is at a crisis point. That sounds very negative. Actually it’s not because until you get to a crisis point, you are unwilling to make changes and you’ll just do business as usual. I am not smart enough to know where this crisis point will lead. Will it lead to revival and renewal, or will it lead to further decline? I simply know, to use a metaphor, we’re at a hinge moment defining what church does and what church means. We’re at a hinge moment in the preaching ministry. We’re at a hinge moment in what it actually means to be committed to a local church as a layperson.
I’m not the metaphorical ostrich with my head in the sand; I don’t deny what is taking place. Conversions to Christianity in America are declining. More and more churches—as many as nine out of 10 churches—are either in absolute decline, or if they’re having any gains they’re not meeting the growth rate of the community—nine out of 10 in that category and roughly seven out of 10 or eight out of 10 in absolute decline. I could go on with dismal numbers. From a high level view, it looks bad.
In the midst of all of this, I remain an optimist about the church because I see selective examples of churches that are doing some great things for the gospel. I wrote a book several years ago called Breakout Churches; in that book I said, “OK, in the midst of all the decline, there are some churches that could not have turned around, but they did turn around.” We’re seeing more and more of that.
I’m actually hopeful of the millennial generation and the Katy Davises of the world that we will see a renewal. I’m not in a position to make that an expert prediction; but I can say I am hopeful and prayerful that when it’s all said and done, the American church will have a renewal in the next 15 to 20 years.
Preaching: We could hope for that and even as we deal with the struggles here, one of the things that is a source of optimism is the advance of the gospel globally.
Rainer: We are becoming the mission field. What used to be the mission fields are sending the missionaries to us. That’s another reason for great hope.
This past weekend, I was in South Florida at a church, and I looked up on the platform and I just happened to ask the pastor—I think there were maybe nine or 10 who were in the praise group singing at one time or another, and I noticed among them different colors, certainly a mix of male and female. They even sang in different languages.
I said, “How many different nationalities are represented here?” He said probably 30 or more. That’s just indicative—that’s south Florida, just one example—but that’s just indicative that the nations are coming to us, and they’re sending the missionaries. The hope is that we will become the mission field that will gladly receive the work of God from other points around the globe.