Scratching the Millennial Itch

Adriane Heins is the managing editor of The Lutheran Witness and The Journal of Lutheran Mission and editor of LCMS Catechetical Information.


Ask a Gen Xer or a Baby Boomer what he thinks of a Millennial—a person born between 1984 and 2002—and the response is usually the same: Coddled by their parents. Slow to adulthood. Avoiders of conflict. At ease with racial, ethnic and sexual diversity. Quick to cut ties with the Church after leaving home.

The response from the Millennial isn’t much better: “Yeah. So?”

“We get that you’re the Generation X and that we’re the Millennial,” says Kaitlin Jandereski, student at Central Michigan University, non-plussed. “What you say to us might not always register in our brains.”

The divide between the generations can be wide and deep. But with a bit of effort, the curious adult, especially one within the Church, can discover that the Millennial demographic isn’t as easily pigeonholed as he might think.

At its core, Millennials are a generation of question-askers. They reject their “Boomer parents’ fascination with novelty and reinvention,” says Issues, Etc. radio host Rev. Todd Wilken, who discusses similar topics on the “Christ-Centered, Cross-Focused” show. In a culture that’s forfeited the ancient and true, the foundational and lasting, they long for—but are unable to find—something substantive, meaty, that which they can sink their teeth into. In short, they are searching for a sturdy theological foundation, a churchly history.

“Today’s youth are often searching for answers to the foundational questions of life and truth that those in the generations that have gone before them have long taken for granted,” the Rev. Marcus Zill, director of lcms u, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s campus ministry arm, says simply.

Who Are We?

What questions are Millennials asking? Big ones, and Zill has heard them all. “Is there a place for objective truth in a world where all truths are being deconstructed and spirituality is viewed by most as being completely inward and subjective?” he recounts. “How can I trust God’s Word and know that it is true when there are so many other well-intentioned religious people who are not Christian, but who believe that their beliefs are equally true? How can I confess the truth of God’s Word and not come off as ‘judgmental’ in a world in which ‘tolerance’ is the supreme virtue?”

All the queries funnel down to one issue—an identity crisis—and a generation of young people asking the ultimate question,
“Who are we?”

The culture has an answer, but it
isn’t satisfying.

In fact, if it’s taught him one thing, Millennial Joe Muench, a student at Concordia University, St. Paul, says, it’s that: “We must not let anyone else tell us who we are. We find our true identity only by looking inside ourselves.”

The media, his peers, older generations … all have taught him that he deserves only the best, so “Letting someone else dictate who we are and what we believe about ourselves may harm our self-esteem,” he quips, and it “certainly won’t let us reach our full potential as the most awesome individual ever that we all are!”

The result is confusion—when the answer can’t be found—and then undue pressure, leaving Millennials “caught in the place between not trusting the constructs developed by Boomers and not wanting to repeat their mistakes,” notes Zill, “while not having an adequate foundation to build new
structures themselves.”

It’s a frustrating, lonely place to be.

The Anchor of Christ

“Our professors are talking to us about our upcoming tests. Our coaches are talking to us about running that extra mile,” Jandereski explains. “Our doctors are talking to us about eating the green stuff. But nobody—and I mean nobody—is talking to us about the one true God.”

This places The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod specifically and the Church in general in a prime position to care for—and answer the questions asked by—young people. Why?

Because amid the chaos and confusion, the lack of information and the overwhelming amount of it, there is good news for the searching Millennial (not to mention his parents, grandparents and friends). “Christ has a way of transcending all things, including our sin-filled stereotypes,” explains the Rev. Bart Day, executive director of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s Office of National Mission, which oversees youth ministry and lcms u. “Millennials, like all of us, need Christ.”

Indeed, “In a world of constant change, endless trends and gimmicks, fleeting hopes and eventual hard realities, the Millennial itch for something deeper is scratched by the ancient confessions in ways no new media propaganda can,” explains the Rev. Jonathan Fisk, creator of Worldview Everlasting, a Lutheran series of YouTube videos, radio clips and brief Q and As that address significant Millennial-esque theological questions in a faithfully winsome way. “It may not be my father’s entertainment industry, but it’s still Adam’s world in which Jesus Christ is the same: yesterday, today and forever.”

Millennials are looking for, and respond favorably to, a faith that has substance, “a real Jesus,” Day says. “Not a faddish Christ who buckles at every hint of cultural, social, economic and political headwind.”

They’ve got plenty of that already: fashion, media, music, relationships. It’s why they “need God in the flesh,” he says, “God as one of them, God in the sinful world alongside of them, bringing real life and salvation.”

And Millennials resonate to timelessness, to the quest for truth. “That Gospel, that preaching, that confession, that absolution—undying because He is not dead, spoken the same by generation after generation—that is not only something money can’t buy, but it’s something that we both already have and know the earth is literally dying to hear,” Fisk says.

Parents’ Spiritual Connectedness

Knowing the question has been asked—“Who am I?”—and answered—“A young man or woman died and risen for by the very Son of God”—emboldens the Church to speak words of comfort and truth to the Millennial.

And those words are exactly what they need. “What helps me grow in my faith [are] … the discussions,” explains Gunnar Campbell, a high school student from Tuscola, Illinois, noting that theological conversations with young people are “often overlooked”
in the Church.

“From discussions with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I have gained not only a wider scope of knowledge but an enhanced understanding and comprehension of what it is to be Christian,” he says.

The result: “It has strengthened my faith and made me confident in what I believe and declare.” And that in turn, he believes, “fuels a desire within me to constantly learn and grow in the faith.”

Recent studies also show that one group, more than any other, is primed to start those discussions, practically determining the extent to which Millennials will be receptive to hearing more about—or remaining a part of—the Church.

The spiritual ‘connectedness’ of the parent is the top indicator for the connectedness of young people,” explains the Rev. Mark Kiessling, interim director of lcms Youth Ministry. “Research bears this out across the spectrum of Christian denominations. Children of Christian parents observe, practice and learn the importance of faith in earthly life, pointing them to the promise of eternal life.”

In fact, “The connection is ‘nearly deterministic,’ said the University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study … ‘No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth … Parents just dominate.’”

And the Millennials agree. “This is where pastors and parents have a great opportunity to deliver the Good News of Jesus Christ,” Muench says. “In the face of a culture that demands perfection and that often forces people to put forward a false front of greatness for the public to admire, Christians find comfort in the fact that our identity does not lie within ourselves … our true identity is found outside of ourselves and in Christ and His righteousness.”

Opportunity and Responsibility

The substantial role of the parents in fostering a life of personal devotion, faith and piety, however, doesn’t mean the rest of the Church is off the hook when it comes to hearing and being heard by Millennials. “Congregations have a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to serve as the family, born of God, not the will of man,” says Kiessling. “As brothers and sisters in Christ, congregations can create hospitable environments for young people and their families to grow in their understanding of God’s Word and Jesus’ love for us.”

Jandereski agrees. “Talk to us,” she says on behalf of her Millennial peers. “Not just the, ‘My, how you’ve grown!’ same old, same old either. But really talk to us about things that matter, such as Jesus. I know it’s scary to approach a college student with his or her arm hooked up to an IV of strong roast coffee in the midst of midterm week, but we desperately want you to talk with us about our faith.”

Millennials want—and certainly need—the reassurance of the answer to their “Who am I?” question, and reminding them of their Baptism—of the way in which Christ uses His Word and water to rescue from sin, death and the devil—gives form and shape to the answer for which they’re looking.

It’s why Millennials want the “anchor of Christ and Him crucified that is found and lived in the life-giving waters of Holy Baptism,” Day explains. “The baptized life in Christ is the identity that transcends all generational categories. Millennials need Baptism because they need Jesus. They need a baptismal life that can endure and have meaning … Through daily contrition and repentance, their life in Christ is renewed and strengthened as they grow in faith toward him and in fervent love toward one another.”

And while it may not always be easy, “Adults of all ages can go out of their way to show care for young people,” Kiessling encourages. “Know their names, pray for them and tell them [you] did so, support youth activities inside and outside of church, let young people know they are missed when not at church and show understanding of challenges of growing up Christian in today’s world.” Doing so, he believes, will both show and tell a Millennial’s “local congregation as a place of grace, forgiveness, and life-promoting relationships.”

You’ve Given Us Everything

Opinions between Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and Millennials will still differ. Differences regarding conflict, diversity and adulthood will linger. But involved parents and a caring congregation—willing to answer the difficult questions of meaning and life with the answer of Christ and His gifts—will go a long way in coming alongside a generation spiraling deeper into questions the culture refuses to answer.

“Stop the pattern,” begs Jandereski. “Break open a Bible just to simply talk about the Word of Christ and being a Christian. Show us that it’s imperative to remain steadfast, bold and true in the Word of Christ.”

Because if the Church is brave enough to do so, she just may find that the Millennials are more mature than one might think, more prepared to speak to their faith than even they expected. “The great thing [about the Gospel] is that it is a free gift,” Muench says. “It is something far greater than all the wonderful earthly things this society tells us we deserve.”

“The righteousness of Christ is given freely by grace and undeservedly,” he notes, “so that no matter how one feels about one’s self, identity with Christ is right there to take hold of and grasp as one’s own.”

“By giving us the downright anguished Law that shreds us apart sin by sin and the bloody drenched theology of the cross, you’ve given us everything,” Jandereski says. “You’ve let us hear the Word of God. That’s all anyone could ever ask.”

End Notes

1. See the National Study of Youth and Religion.

2. David Briggs. Association of Religion Data Archives. “Parents No. 1 influence helping teens remain religiously active as young adults.” Accessed Nov. 23, 2014.

3. John 1:13.

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