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have we missed the boat on millennials?

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

When you think of that oft used idiom of “missing the boat,” another way of expressing a lost or overlooked opportunity, I wonder, have we missed the boat, so to speak, on Millennials in the Church?

Unfortunately, to a significant degree, I think we have.

Let me explain.

For starters, when we talk in the Church about “reaching the Millennials,” who, exactly, are we talking about?

Adolescents? The next generation? Those up-and-coming college-aged kids for whom we need to adjust our music and stage lighting or else they might leave us for that cooler, more relevant church down the road?

Millennials are not the teens or the emerging generation many still falsely assume them to be. And this is not just an issue in the Church; it’s an issue that is alive and well outside of the Church as well. If you don’t believe me, just check out this Huffington Post article from March 24, 2020 titled, Millennials Want To Make It Clear That They’re Not The Ones On Spring Break (

So, if Millennials aren’t the young adults partying it up on spring break, then who are they?

While there are varying opinions around the exact dates for when this age cohort begins and ends[1], an average of the various dates would place the youngest of this group to be around 24 years old.

24. Isn’t that a prime young-adult age, you ask?

Sure. But that’s the bottom end of this age cohort. These are the youngest Millennials. The babies. And if these are the youngest of the bunch, this means that the oldest Millennials are now pushing 40. 40? That’s hardly a teenager or young adult – that’s middle-age! No offense, to some of you reading this…

Millennials are not the “entertainment-addicted, entitled twenty-somethings”[2] they are all too often generalized as. They’re not kids. They’re not teens. They’re even not young adults – most of them anyways.

Rather, they’re adults. The vast majority of them have careers, mortgages, post-secondary and graduate degrees – or at least well on their way toward these life milestones.

Further, according to one source, this age cohort that now makes up an entire third of the adult population[3] and accounts for more than 35 percent of today’s workforce,[4] is the most educated generation ever.

So, who are Millennials? They’re adults, many of them responsible and educated adults.

And, whether we realize it or not, they are actively shaping the world as we know it, right now.

In the words of the most recent Barna report on this age cohort, Millennials “are a formidable and present force, actively shaping the future of our industries, politics, arts, neighborhoods and, yes, churches.”[5]

Millennials are not just up-and-coming. They’re here.

Another indicator of our misunderstanding of and failure to truly acknowledge this generation is the fact that many Millennials are now parents.

Yes, you heard me right. Parents. And not just parents to babies or toddlers, but many to middle schoolers and teens.

Yes, it’s true that the average age women in the US are now having their first child is 26 years old.[6] But even at these numbers – and 26 is the average, mind you – if you do the math, this means that a good number of those Millennials’ kids are now, quite possibly, in their teens.

Think about that for a moment… Millennials. Parents. To teenagers.

Again, Millennials are not simply up-and-coming; they are hardly the next generation anymore.

Millennials are here.

And truthfully, they arrived onto the scene, some 10, 15, even 20 years ago – just like our strategies to reach them, or at least listen to them, should have.

But sadly, they never did…

Instead, to a large degree, we, the Church, just talked about Millennials.

We complained, we generalized; we stereotyped and mocked.

We argued about their left-leaning political viewpoints, theology and praxis, all while discrediting their many questions as simply doubt or lack of belief or true Christian conviction.[7]

And when it came to their innate longing for an experiential, tangible faith, rather than join them in their internal wrestling through of the day-to-day implications of the gospel in all areas of their lives, [8] we simply gave an abundance of pat answers, of apologetic trivia, hoping that would shutter them up.

Others, yet, we patronized, inviting their opinion and participation: “Come, sit at the table,” we said, though not really meaning it; “Come, share with us your opinions, your creative ideas,” we asked, but never truly listening to their hopes and dreams, their fears, disappointments and heartache.

And others yet, we ignored, stifled, shut down, and intentionally or not, ran out of our churches – the very places many of them longed to find true community, belonging and acceptance, but, sadly, did not.

And all the while, we continued to say to ourselves – and to be honest, I still hear it said today – “we’ve got to reach the Millennials.”

And this is why I say we, the Church, have significantly missed the boat on Millennials.

The unfortunate truth is, be it due to our unwillingness to listen or to change, or simply our own naivety or ignorance, or something different altogether, we significantly missed the opportunity to shape this “next generation.”

We failed to act, failed to pull the trigger and change, adapt, acknowledge something was amiss. But most of all, I think we failed to realize this generation, this generation whom we were so eager to reach, grew up and out of the church right under our very noses.

Millennials are not coming, friends. They’re here. At least in terms of their arrival into adulthood. Whether or not they are “here” in our churches is another story…

On the flip side – and praise God – some Millennials who have left the church have and are, for whatever reason, returning, and a number of them for the sake of their kids.[9]

And this gives me great hope.

While the Church significantly missed the boat on Millennials, while we may have missed out on the opportunity to shape this generation as teens or young adults, I believe we have an opportunity to shape them now as adults, and as parents, the primary disciplers of their children.

Further, and perhaps most importantly, we now have an opportunity to shape their kids, Generation Z (born between 1999 and 2015[10]).

Let’s pray we don’t make the same mistakes with them, too, missing out on the incredible privilege and responsibility before us to reach and shape the true emerging generation of our day.

This article is the first in a series of articles on the Emerging Generation and the Church. Additional articles coming soon.


For more reading on Millennials:

Bibby, Reginald w., Joel Thiessen and Monetta Bailey. The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto: Dundurn, 2019.

Espinoza, Chip, and Mick Ukleja. Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.

Kinniman, David and Mark Matlock. Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Seel, David John Jr. The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018.

[1] Pew Research Centre defines Millennials as those born between 1981-1996; Jason Dorsey defines Millennials as those born between 1977-1995; the Barna Group define Millennials to have be born between 1984-1998; Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, et al., defines Millennials as born between 1986-2005; Espinoza and Ukleja define Millennials as born between 1980-2000. [2] Espinoza and Ukleja, Managing the Millennials (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), xv. [3] Espinoza and Ukleja, Managing the Millennials (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 4. [4] Espinoza and Ukleja, Managing the Millennials (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 3. [5] Barna, The Connected Generation: How Christian Leaders Around the World Can Strengthen Faith & Well-Being Among 18-35-Year-Olds (A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with World Vision, 2019), 7. [6] [7] “A significant percentage of young people leave the church because they feel it is doubt-less and incapable of helping them handle their doubt. They feel that instead of engaging them in their space of questioning, the church tries to steamroll and look past their legitimate doubts.” Kinniman and Matlock. Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 137. [8] Seel, The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 68. [9] “One in two [Millennials] agrees that it’s important for parents to teach their children religious beliefs.” Bibby, Thiessen and Bailey, The Millennial Mosaic (Toronto: Dundurn, 2019), 193. [10] Barna, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (A Barn Report Produced in Partnership with Impact 360 Institute, 2018), 10.

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