Understanding Millennials and Loving Them into the Kingdom of God
Generations fascinate Americans. Among other things, we study them for clues about who we are becoming as a nation. The recent research report from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, entitled Millennials in America: A Generation in Crisis, reveals new insights into where the nation is heading as the individuals in the youngest adult generation take on a growing number of positions of power and influence.
Defining Millennials as those born between 1984 and 2002, keep in mind that this group constitutes the largest generation living in the United States today. Some 80 million strong (and growing, thanks to immigration), they are roughly one-quarter of the nation’s total population and about one-third of the adult population. They currently outnumber Baby Boomers by some eight million people, a gap that is expanding by more than one million people per year. Their influence in the marketplace is already substantial: they are four out of every 10 working-age Americans, three out of every 10 registered voters, and the prime segment of consumers in a nation driven by consumption. They are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in our history.
Like every generation before them, they have been shaped by world events and how their nation and family responded to those events. Among the most significant life-shaping events they have experienced during their formative years are the end of the Cold War; the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots; the introduction and rapid growth of the internet; the mass shooting at Columbine High School; the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the introduction of groundbreaking technology such as the iPod, tablets, digital video game consoles, and smartphones; game-changing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; the destructive fury of numerous hurricanes, including Katrina and Sandy; the economic crisis of 2008; and the election of Barack Obama.
Considering the impact of those life-shaping events helps us to understand some of the life choices and goals that are defining Millennials. For instance, they have been actively redefining and redesigning family through their beliefs about the value of life, marriage, the appeal of raising children, and even their ideas about sexual identity and behavior. They have struggled to experience healthy relationships, at least partly due to their immersion in and reliance upon digital technology.
Millennials are known as poster children for the narcissistic lifestyle. That encompasses their pervasive yet uncomfortable materialism; hypersensitivity to criticism; and inconsistent and fluid norms, values, attitudes, and lifestyles. They are seeking to rewrite employment norms by valuing achievements (rather than hours worked) and the social value of the tasks performed. They are leading the “cancel culture” movement. Millennials are redefining religious norms as well, responsible for a long list of faith-related transitions. These include fewer self-professed Christians, less acceptance of the Bible and absolute moral truth, severely diminished interest in organized religion or institutional faith commitments (e.g., church engagement, prayer, Bible reading), strikingly low levels of trust in Christian pastors, common perceptions about Christians being hypocrites, and record levels of biblical illiteracy.
The research contained in Millennials in America: New Insights into the Generation of Growing Influenceprovides specific evidence of these trends. The analysis describes how all those conditions are summarized in four major symptoms of a deeper crisis. Those symptoms are the generation’s lack of a sense of purpose to life (acknowledged by 75 percent); the widespread, constant fear and anxiety they experience (admitted to by 54 percent); the struggle most of them have making, maintaining, and enjoying personal relationships; and the absence of a life-sustaining religious faith alluded to by more than three-quarters of them.
But if those are the symptoms, what do they indicate? The data produce an inescapable conclusion: the absence of a biblical worldview.
Worldview Is the Root Issue
Given the breadth and depth of the changes characterizing Millennials, some people question how worldview can be the central issue behind those transitions. The explanation, though, is deceptively simple. Worldview is the foundation of every decision made by every person every moment of every day! Understanding what motivates a person to make their choices, no matter what kind of choice it may be, requires an understanding of their worldview. There are numerous worldviews from which people may pick and choose desirable options. Some of the best-known are postmodernism, secular humanism, modern mysticism, biblical theism (i.e., the biblical worldview), and Marxism. Groundbreaking research by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University has shown that almost nine out of 10 American adults select appealing ideas from a variety of worldviews and create a unique, personally appealing worldview that is best known as syncretism. Even four out of every five born-again Christians have syncretism as their guiding philosophy of life.
How, then, do we explain the fact that seven out of every 10 American adults claim to be Christian but so few—just six percent of all adults and only nine percent who claim to be Christian—have a biblical worldview? The answer is that families and churches have been neither intentional nor strategic at shaping the worldview of their children; it has largely developed by default, influenced primarily by media, government, and schools.
Millennials fit the same pattern as everyone else. Slightly fewer of them claim to be Christian than is true among older adults, and slightly fewer of them (only four percent) possess a biblical worldview.
Because one’s worldview drives their choices every minute of every day, why would we expect our nation to reflect biblical behavior when we do not accept biblical principles? After all, we do what we believe. Most Americans do not really believe biblical principles; therefore their behaviors do not reflect those principles. Millennials are simply a more extreme example of these realities in practice.
The Millennial Worldview
To gain insight into Millennials—and the future they will create in America—let’s take a look at a few of the most significant spiritual perspectives of the generation. What we are about to examine are the most common perspectives; millions of Millennials are exceptions to every one of these views, but we are seeking to understand the flow and momentum of the generation’s thinking.
Millennials perceive themselves to be “good” people. Sin is not a concept with which they are comfortable, and thus they do not dwell on it. They do not believe that we are born into sin; they believe that every person makes life whatever they choose it to be, and most of them dismiss the idea of having a sinful nature.
They believe the purpose of life is to experience as much happiness as possible. They expect such experiences to come from personal accomplishments and material goods. Most Millennials contend that wisdom, insight, and meaning in life are the products of dialogue and voluntary acts of goodwill.
The much-discussed Millennial identity crisis is due to their excessive and biblically-unwarranted trust and belief in themselves. As a result of that self-reliance, they define their identity based upon a variety of self-determined attributes: gender, education, wealth, personal accomplishments, titles, and so forth.
Their relational challenges are not surprising in light of their worldview. After all, young adults typically harbor intolerance of opposing ideas and a conditional disrespect for the value of life. The Cultural Research Center data even show that most Millennials are indifferent to the “Golden Rule,” instead indicating that their response to other human beings should be driven by their emotions at the moment.
We might like to think that if they would just turn to God and understand who He is and how He is involved in their life, things would be better. Unfortunately, the foundations for such insights are missing. Consider the implications of these beliefs:
- 74 percent believe that all religious faiths are of equal value.
- 56 percent reject the existence of absolute moral truth; they list feelings, personal experiences, and advice from family and friends as their most trusted sources of moral guidance.
- 35 percent believe that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, just and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules that universe today.
- 40 percent are “Don’ts” — that is, people who don’t know if God exists, don’t believe that God exists, or don’t care if He exists; they are increasingly inclined to think of themselves as being their own “higher power.”
- 16 percent believe that when they die, they will spend eternity in God’s presence because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
- 22 percent believe that life is sacred.
- 11 percent define “consistent obedience to God” as the best indicator of a successful life.
In essence, then, the Millennial worldview can be summarized in four words: “life is about me.” Consequently, it is not surprising that this is a generation known for doing what is right in their own eyes.
See the Connections
Can you see the connections between Millennial’s worldviews and their life challenges?
No wonder many lack a sense of direction, purpose, and meaning in life. They have closed their eyes, ears, and hearts to their Creator. They have rejected His words. They believe that success is experienced through temporal pursuits driven by their intelligence and abilities.
No doubt they are having relational troubles. They have not invested in their relationship with God. They have placed themselves at the center of their reality and expect everyone to serve and care for them. They place the ultimate value upon themselves and little (if any) value upon others.
Of course, they are mired in emotional and mental health issues. They embrace wacky ideas from worldly philosophies, such as karma. That philosophy teaches that you get what you deserve. Naturally, a majority of young adults are troubled by anxiety and depression; what else would the notion of karma possibly produce? Our young adults fail to see that one of the beauties of a relationship with Jesus is that through His forgiveness and restoration, we do notget what we deserve! Instead, we get eternal life, forgiveness, hope, a special calling, and the gifts to carry out that calling. What a relief!
The anxiety and depression that most Millennials admit to is a natural consequence of a worldview that submits the God of Israel does not exist. Imagine waking up every morning thinking that it all depends on you, that there is no higher power to control evil or supply truth and guidance; you’re it! How could anyone possibly come to such an inane conclusion? Ask the millions of young adults who freely entertain the principles of Marxism, postmodernism, secular humanism, or nihilism, because those popular worldviews propose such foolishness. These fundamentally-flawed philosophies shape the decisions of Millennials and cause debilitating outcomes such as mental illness and emotional dissonance.
It is no surprise that young adults are feeling spiritually bankrupt. They have rejected the God of all creation. They have rejected the Savior of humankind. They have denied the existence of the Holy Spirit whom God has graciously sent to help us from moment to moment. They see themselves as good and ignore their sin and its implications.
They have bought into the notion of love as a feeling. They do not realize that God helps us understand that love is a commitment made real by doing what is best for others. Millennial love is narcissistic; Christian love is sacrificial.
Millennials are self-centered enough to think that because they choose a sexual identity based on emotion and desire, that is their identity. They fail to recognize the One who created them defines every element of their being, based on His perfect wisdom and purposes. As created subjects of the Master, we have no authority, competence, or capacity to determine our sexual identity.
How heartbreaking it is to watch a large majority of an entire generation so completely and unknowingly miss the truth of life and eternity. Contrary to their grand conclusion — “life is about me”—nothing could be further from the truth. Life is about God. We simply have the privilege of taking part in His universe, for His purposes, to enjoy and serve and glorify Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Anything else is just wasting time and opportunity.
Can They Become Disciples of Jesus?
Those with eyes to see and ears to hear understand Jesus is the only hope for deliverance from the devastating lies of the world. But most Millennials — 24 out of every 25 of them, according to the research—do not have the eyes and ears to perceive truth. Can we do anything to help them see God’s truth?
Of course we can. There is a remnant of believers in America — you are likely among them — who are called to be the salt and light so desperately needed by these young adults.
Here are four ideas for you to consider as you pray and prepare for your role in renewing the heart and soul of America, especially through your interactions with Millennials.
- Know what you believe and why
This suggestion is neither new nor groundbreaking. Unfortunately, it is inadequately practiced by the Christian body, an unfortunate consequence of only six percent of American adults possessing a biblical worldview. The ability and bold willingness to articulate and demonstrate God’s principles and truths to a doubting and hurting world is crucial to Christ becoming more real to the people we encounter.
With the local church having a limited impact on our culture today, the importance of the roles of advocate, evangelist, role model, and disciple-maker is magnified for each of us who claims Christ as Savior. To be effective in that multifaceted role, we must be able and willing to make the case for the relevance and reliability of the Bible and to share and explain its meaning to a world that is doubting and largely ignorant of its content.
Those conversations will enable us to reshape peoples’ notions of purpose and success and make God real to others. But we must be alert to those opportunities and be prepared to exploit them out of our genuine love for God and people.
- Build relationships based on trust
Young adults these days are suspicious of other people’s motives; that’s part of their daily fear and anxiety. We are most likely to defuse their suspicions if we do not perceive them as evangelistic projects but as the beloved sons and daughters of God whom we have the privilege of getting to know, love, and serve.
The research indicates that the most effective form of outreach is Socratic dialogue. That practice relies upon objective listening, followed by non-aggressive responses in the form of questions. Beware: seeking to be an agent of transformation without first investing in bridge-building usually produces disappointment. The process takes time; there are no shortcuts to loving people into the presence and kingdom of God.
- Tell your story
Millennials are sensitive to what postmodernists call “the grand narrative” — an explanation of the big picture of life and its foundations. The arc of the Christian story represents a grand narrative. Consequently, our hope to lead young adults into a deep, life-transforming relationship with Christ can be more easily accomplished by placing biblical life principles within the larger context of the creation-fall-restoration account.
Millennials are an anecdotal generation. They often adopt principles based on someone’s example. In such an environment, linking personal stories to biblical principles becomes invaluable. Making the stories personal is crucial because most Millennials do not believe there are absolute moral truths or principles, yet they also believe “your truth” is irrefutable for your life. Conveying your story and seamlessly weaving biblical truths into it is putting your best foot forward.
- Model it
Millennials are famously judgmental of others, but that often simply means they are looking for people, practices, and philosophies that seem genuine and authentic. Their immersion in the brutal world of social media exposes them to constant judgment, personal drama, and conflict.
Disciples of Jesus who are confident but humble regarding their worldview and immune to the criticisms of the world arrest their attention. When those people prove to be authentically in love with Christ and fully devoted to being Christ-like, Millennials will not instantly surrender to Christ, but they are likely to closely observe the believer in question as they seek to understand the motivation and means to such a life. If that Christ-follower remains true to the ways of Jesus and does not engage in evangelistic pandering, harsh criticism, or biblical compromise, meaningful and pointed dialogue is a frequent outcome.
Additional Pieces to the Puzzle
Other courses of action may be important in pointing Millennials toward Jesus and life lived through a biblical worldview. For instance, because most people’s worldview was developed on the run, anyone who can winsomely and strategically guide them toward connecting biblically-based life principles to a more compelling worldview is likely to have influence.
Also, because a person’s worldview is almost completely formed by the age of 13, working with people younger than Millennials is particularly productive. One way to reach Millennials is by working with their children. Most Millennials cannot guide their children to a biblical worldview because they cannot impart what they do not have. Working with Millennials’ children will sometimes cause Millennial parents to traverse that discovery journey alongside their youngsters.
Further, having reliable metrics to evaluate how you are doing in your quest to be an agent of transformation is crucial. After all, you get what you measure: unless you objectively measure outcomes that matter, it is unlikely that those outcomes will emerge.
George Barna is a Senior Research Fellow at FRC’s Center for Biblical Worldview. He is also a professor and the Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University.
George Barna is a Senior Research Fellow at FRC's Center for Biblical Worldview.