They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Colossians 2:19
This is part two of this weeks’ post, the first one exploring the spirituality of the next generations, both the millennials and Gen z (those who are just now entering college as freshman).
It’s one thing to gauge the spirituality of the next generation, something entirely different to engage them. This post will explore some of the trends and things that work, or might work, and is intended to be a starting point for the body of Christ to creatively engage the next generation.
By its nature, I can only go through some of the ways that Christianity can connect with the next generation. The major game changer from prior generations is technology, which has advanced since 2000. Not only has it changed methods of communication, it has resulted in changes to their values and habits.
One example to me is the recent growth of the mega-church which has tried to be a one-stop place to congregate, have coffee or even have exercise classes. They are having to rethink their approach to a generation that won’t darken the door of a church. It was fine for the latter part of the 20th century where going to church was the norm. Now, the church is seen as a bastion of rules, dogma and the bible is viewed with distrust by 27% of millennials.
As Tim Keller of Redeemer Church in Manhattan famously quoted: “We have enough churches in America; what we need now is more Starbucks.” His point? We have to come out of our fortress mentality and reach millennials where they are, not where we want them to be.
Dean Engebretson, a pastor in my home church in Pinehurst, has spent this year experimenting with ways to interact with millennials. He has a group of close to 30 millennials come to his house a couple of times a month for a meal. Each participant brings some ingredient, and they cook tacos together. Having a meal together is important – food opens up social avenues and relational connections.
Dean has learned that he gets better interaction if he breaks them down into small groups where they can openly discuss a topic. Afterward, they meet as a whole to discuss their conclusions. He has learned to be a facilitator, and the choice of topics are open to suggestions from the individuals in the group.
This is actually the flipped classroom model which colleges are now starting to embrace, for many of the same reasons (of course, without the food). Lecturers are now facilitators, and they guide their students through a collaborative discussion. Students learn to hear different views and they learn from each other, not just the facilitator.
This is quite a departure from the Sunday School model of yesteryear where a teacher sits in a class and gives a didactic bible lesson to students. As Dean acknowledges, a lecture is the least effective method of communication with millennials. Also, he has found the change of his role from communicator to facilitator has been a learning one. He can help shape the discussion but not lead it or really control it.
A facilitator in a millennial group context is similar to the role of a mentor. A mentor can guide a discussion in one-on-one meetings, but often the agenda gets dictated by the needs or agenda of the mentee. Both the facilitator and the mentor can insert biblical truths into the discussion as needed, but they can’t really control its overall direction in many instances.
Dean was quick to note that most in his group grew up in an Evangelical church, and they actually have a fairly deep understanding of Christianity. Sadly, they are becoming the exceptions, but they are the leaders of the next generation and they need to be equipped.
Another way to engage millennials was in a recent Wall Street Journal article. It had a story titled “YouTube Star Shows One Way to Reach Gen Z”. The subtitle is that teens are looking for authenticity online. Thirty four percent of Gen Z watch YouTube.
“The generation [Z – those born after 1995] favors irreverent, DIY [Do It Yourself] stars seen as “authentic,” who produce bite-size content, sometimes daily, tailored to social-media and other outlets.” Note the emphasis on authentic. That’s what the next generation is looking for – both millennials and Gen Z.
Ms. Koshy, the YouTube “Star” featured in the WSJ article, has 17.5 million YouTube subscribers. Her Twitter feed has 1.4 million followers and another 14.5 million track her on Instagram. Those numbers show an incredible audience by someone who just started doing snarky videos with offbeat humor, often poking fun at consumer culture and trends.
As a footnote, advertisers took note of her success, and she is now making some $10,000 to $15,000 a month from her YouTube account alone.
Another approach is offered by one of my close friends, Ralph Ennis, who I have described as a “Christian rocket scientist”. Ralph has spent his life studying cultures and different generations for the Navigators. He’s been instrumental in my sensitivity to generational changes over the past 25 years. His current focus is on a non-traditional approach to the next generation: using visual images to interact and cause spiritual transformation.
The last three generations – Gen X, Gen Y, and now Gen Z are much more attuned to images. Studies show that the brain process images 60,000 times faster than text. No, that’s not a misprint, according to Thermopylae Sciences and Technology in 2014.
According to Tammie Ploufe in Harvard Business Review, after 3 days, we retain 60% of what we see versus only 10% of what we hear. She notes: “Retention of decisions and “aha moments” is critical when it comes to achieving real change in behavior and alignment of action across perspectives.”
Ralph is now involved in the Visual Faith Project which aims to connect to the next generations through images. As Ploufe notes in HBR: “I’ve found that photos can create connections between people faster – and more profoundly – than any other icebreaker or team building activity I’ve ever used.” Good stuff, and worthy of trying her suggestions in a Christian context, with believers and non-believers.
As I mentioned in my last post, Casey Neistat has figured it out. Every day, he posts a short video online that documents his daily life as a creative entrepreneur in New York in an entertaining way. He now has some 7 million subscribers.
A typical church website has recordings of past sermons. That might appeal to an older generation, but not to the next generation. The next generation gravitates to and are much more visual than older generations. “Snackable” or “popcorn” videos or podcasts have promise – this is the content that they will listen to and appeals to them.
Jake Gosslin, a 27-year-old in his article on How the Church can Reach Gen Z, says this: “I believe if churches want to effectively reach Generation Z, they must start creating engaging, informative, and creative content that answers spiritual questions with a voice of conviction.” Good stuff, and I agree with him.
My takeaways are multiple:
- Millennials want to be engaged and collaborate with others as a learning model
- Creativity and innovation in reaching them through new media are new frontiers
- Content with short “Snackable” videos or “popcorn” podcasts may create new ways to communicate
- Using non-traditional ways through images to connect with the next generation is a promising innovation
- Group interaction is effective rather than traditional teaching models
- Churches need to seek input from millennials and Gen Z as to what works best – they want the ability to participate and collaborate
Our challenge, just I posited in my post on podcasts entitled Podfaster, is that new media are being used by the next generation, and the church has to think outside the box. Putting sermons on-line is not enough and it won’t attract the younger audience. A 20+ minute sermon will lose the generation that can only absorb 5 to 10 minutes, and who think that a 2-minute movie scene is too long.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: Mentors are relevant regardless of new media. It’s an age-old process that still works. Face to face communication by someone who is transparent and willing to share his or her life with another can have a huge impact on a mentee.
FURTHER STUDY: Jake Goslin writes an interesting and provocative article on three things the church should consider when approaching Gen Z: http://churchfront.com/blog-churchfront/2017/4/28/how-the-church-can-reach-generation-z-reflections-on-meet-generation-z-by-james-emery-white
Tammie Ploufe’s article on using photography to make connections has practical suggestions on the “how to” in using photography in a group: https://hbr.org/2017/10/to-build-connection-on-your-team-skip-icebreakers-and-talk-about-photography
For more on the Navigators Visual Faith Project: https://www.vibrantfaith.org/visualfaith/
Watch a video of Carey Neistat (caution R rated for language) entitled “Do What You Can’t” to get an idea of creative content: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtinbF-Q-fVthA0qrFQTgXQ
RESOURCES: James Emory White’s book is a good read for any church serious about reaching the next generation: Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.
WORSHIP: A song for the next generation by Tommy Walker: Taste and See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBRYZc-yy6I
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