Oh, Those Millennials

Millennials—everybody wants ‘em, no one seems to know how to get them.

That’s the major take-away from a newly-released study by Pew Research, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions; Networked with Friends.” So the question for congregations naturally becomes, “How do we reach them”?

Some like Keith Anderson, a Lutheran pastor and digital media maven, see in the report a reason for churches to become more engaged with online social media. He’s become a leading voice in this movement, and has some fascinating ideas on the topic. And I have come to believe that he is basically right. The days of churches hiding within walls that members wish to be epicenters of people’s lives are largely over for much of Protestant America.

But simply shifting to digital ministry, or outside the walls of ministry, isn’t a sure-fire path to restoring religious life in America. (A fact I suspect Keith would agree with.) Because the problem remains—what do you say in this space?


In this new space of communicating, authenticity is everything. People can sniff out individuals and organizations that are using social media becaumillennials unmooredse they want to reach “the younger crowd” in the time it takes to hit re-tweet with a modified comment.

How do you know if you aren’t being “authentic”? Here’s an easy way. Look at your past ten posts/tweets/etc. Read them. Are these 10 items pushing events, making announcements, delivering marketing pitches? If more than two are, your authenticity is in question.

It’s this type of thing that sends Millennials, and others who “get” social media, scurrying.

Hence the Pew Report subtitle, which could well become a working definition of social media: “Detached from Institutions; Networked with Friends.” Social media is all about meaningful networks. And yet, this remains the major criticism of the medium. A charge largely leveled by those who don’t use the tools.  The person who charges, for example, that “nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters” fails to realize that good twitter communications are long series of 140 character statements among two or more users—i.e., conversations.

Almost by definition, institutions have a hard time interacting this way. Not that they don’t try—and largely fail (i.e., far too many are not authentic in their communications or spend all their time “pushing” information out and bragging about themselves).

Confused, or Clear-eyed?

Gone among the Millennials may well be the belief that institutions are the arbiters of what is right. Some see this as a sign of Millennial self-centeredness. But I have a different take. I see Millennials as bold people constructing meaning out of the world they live in—not the world filtered through an authority figure(s). This takes courage, as the world they discover is not clean and logical, but messy, full of injustice and right, pain and pleasure, faith and faithlessness.

And it’s a view that is growing. Looking at growth trends, older Americans are the fastest growing groups of people embracing Twitter and Facebook. They trail the Millennials in total adoption rates, to be sure, but the growth trends among those 40, 50, 60 and over adopting these tools is clear.

A story in The Atlantic describes Millennials as “Deeply confused about … politics, finances and culture.” As the story says, “They’re always connected but distrustful. They’re selfish yet accepting of minorities. They’re “independents” who mostly vote Democratic and love Obama while hating Obamacare.”

Confused? Or facing the world head-on? Social media has created a generation that must face the world head-on. There is no place to hide. And older adults, who learned this lesson the hard way, are coming to find the same value in the tools.

Savior Social Media

To take this information from Pew Research as ammunition to integrate social media into your church marketing efforts is to misread it entirely. Social media is no savior. It’s a social gathering place.

Forget marketing. Embrace the conversation.

That is the path to the Millennials. Not a path that will lead them to your door, necessarily, but a path that will pull you out of yours.

Sacred Language Communications specializes in helping faith communities improve their communications through social media. To learn more, contact us directly.

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