Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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Millennials in the Air

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2010 Sep 03

Like hundreds of thousands of others, I was grounded in April.

I was set to take off one Sunday afternoon for Munich, Germany, then on to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.  But thanks to an erupting volcano in Iceland, I couldn't get out of the country.  I was happy to be safely grounded.

It made me think of two new studies that have surfaced recently.  The first, and more widely disseminated, offered a window into the faith of young adults, or "Millennials" - so called because they are the first generation to come of age during the new millennium. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the headline is that this collection of teens and twenty-somethings are "less religiously affiliated" than previous generations.  To be specific, one in four Americans age 18-29 do not affiliate with any particular religious group.

As Stephen Prothero rightly observed in his essay in USA Today, this is not news, writing that it is a "sociological truism that young people cultivate some distance from the religious institutions of their parents, only to return to those institutions as they marry, raise children and slouch toward retirement."

But according to Pew, "Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle…and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults."

Yet these individuals are far from secularists.  Not belonging does not mean not believing.  Indeed, when it comes to belief, the report indicates that Millennials look a lot like the rest of the population.

So what is really at hand?

At the very least, we know they don't want to be labeled.  Millennials evidence an independent streak that runs against being branded Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, Baptist or Methodist. 

So bad news for the Republicans and Democrats, good news for new movements like the Tea Party.

But this, too, is tired news for most cultural observers.  Less discussed is how this independent streak, and desire to be unaffiliated with institutions, can cut Millennials off from individuals within those institutions who could pour into their life.

Here I am talking about the leaders emerging from the Millennial generation.

I have noticed a trend among Millennials interested in ministry.  They have a great deal of knowledge, but little real training, and even less wisdom - and it is training and wisdom which effectively applies that knowledge. 

As a result, many rush from a true calling to, say, immediate church planting or some other ministry launch.  But they have never been mentored in ministry, and sadly, do not seem particularly interested in it.  At least for any substantive length of time.  There are too many conferences that highlight the atypical success story of a peer, so why wait?  They feel they can have it all, and have it now.  Besides, those older are just learning how to surf the internet, and they are on to the ipad.  How can they add value?

Which brings me to the second, less noted report.

Researchers led by Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan found that older people are, indeed, more wise.  "Age effects on wisdom hold at every level of social class, education, and IQ," they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Nisbett noted that older people do not have greater knowledge about computers and other technology, "but our results do indicate that the elderly have…advantages for analysis of social problems."  They were more likely than younger or middle-aged ones to recognize that values differ, to acknowledge uncertainties, to accept that things change over time and to acknowledge other's points of view.

That's just one set of insights.  There's lot more where that came from on many other areas of life and work.

What is needed is for more Millennials to take time before launching out to gain some wisdom; to wait on the dream of their calling to ripen under the leadership of someone, or some group, that will pour into their lives and leadership.  And maybe, just maybe, consider joining their life call with the calling of those who have gone before and to contribute to already existing enterprises.

I recently met with a group of senior leaders from some of the better-known churches in the nation.  The senior pastor who led our discussion, whose name would be known to virtually anyone in American Christianity, said that he was targeting a group of young staff for strategic investment who were willing to commit to the church for an extended season.  He would do all he could to pour into them, and facilitate their ministries.  If they felt called to be a senior pastor, so be it; he would help them reach that goal when they were ready, or even groom them to take over his role.  But one thing was non-negotiable for his eventual, inevitable replacement:  they would come from within the organization.

That's one fortunate set of Millennials.  And one of them will soon be senior pastor of one of the most influential churches in the world.

So why did my grounded flight turn my thoughts toward these studies?  There's an old saying among those in the aviation industry: 
The only thing worse than being on the ground and wishing you were in the air, is being in the air and wishing you were on the ground.

I don't know about your neck of the woods, but my area is littered with church starts that have failed, or at least failed to flourish.  I have a sense they wish they hadn't launched so soon.  Or maybe wish they hadn't launched at all. 

They were in a hurry to fly at all costs; they needed more time on the ground.

And many of us would have been only too willing to give it to them. 


For the Pew report, titled "Religion Among the Millennials," see http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510.

"Millennials do faith and politics their way," Stephen Prothero, USA Today, Monday, March 29, 2010, 9A.

"Millennials shun affiliation, keep faith," Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, as carried by the Charlotte Observer, Saturday, February 27, 2010, p. 4E.

"Study backs wisdom of the aged," Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press, Charlotte Observer, Tuesday, April 6, 2010, p. 2A.

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