Ministry to Millennials
Millennials Have Short Attention Spans (really?)
The claim: Gen Y and Millennials have short attention spans. They cannot focus as long as previous generations. Dr. John Butler, a University of Texas professor, has conducted extensive research on innovation and millennials. He says one defining characteristic of millennials is their short attention spans. It is known as a “generational form of ADD” (attention deficit disorder).
A Canadian study stated that Millennials have an attention span one second shorter than a goldfish! Reasons for their inability to focus:
Quick pace of movies they constantly watch
Watching multiple screens simultaneously
Multitasking (texting; working; driving; 24/7; etc.)
Being plugged into several media simultaneously
Is that Claim a Reality? Are they really so different?
One study noted that “millennials generally are the largest user group for new technologies, but other generations are not far behind. For example, the Pew Research Center notes that 65% of American adults age 18-29 own a smart phone, but so do 59% of American adults ages 30-49. While 86% of those ages 18-29 use Facebook, 73% of those ages 30-49 and 57% of those age 50-64 do too.”
Another study noted that the “short attention span” among Millennials may be a myth: “Surely, the effort required to narrow the infinite stream of information aimed at millennials every day must be destroying their ability to focus on any one task. Right? Really, we have no idea. No one has mounted a long-term, standardized study of attention comparing millennials to a previous cohort at the same point in their lives. Michael Posner, a professor emeritus of psychology who studies attention and memory at the University of Oregon, says criticism of the millennial attention span is probably unwarranted.”
The studies by experts on this subject are far from unanimous in their conclusions.
Certainly there are some Millennials whose ability to focus has been affected by their use of technology – especially those who play video games and are on social media 24/7. But I know some mighty sharp Millennials. We have had a good number of young Millennials who have graduated from some difficult university programs with high honors. To do that you have to be able to focus through hour long classes… with multiple classes a day. And then they had to focus on writing their papers and reading the books assigned. On the other hand, I have also known some Millennials that could accurately be called “air heads.” You’ve seen them at the mall. But that has always been the case – in every generation. It takes all kinds! The Millennial generation is not a monolithic block. No generation is; and we don’t want to paint them all with the same broad brush. Millennials are a generation of unique individuals who have been born into a rapidly changing world – a world filled with incredible danger on the one hand… but also with incredible potential on the other.
We certainly are not going to criticize Millennials for the world into which they were born. God picks our date of birth. But in light of the spiritual and moral condition of the world into which they were born, church leaders need discernment and wisdom from above like never before. This is no time to lean on our own understanding; this is no time to follow the crowd and go with the flow; this is no time to be wishy washy and spineless. In times like this, we need leaders with courage to obey the instructions of the apostle Paul in Eph. 6:12-13 – “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
Two different words for stand appear here: Stand: to take a stand (stand FOR the truth); Withstand: to stand against (stand AGAINST the evils in the evil day). Without question, we are living in an evil day morally and spiritually. It is a spectacular day technologically and scientifically, but EVIL morally. Millennials are going to have to bring up their families in a very evil day. They need the help, support, and guidance of an older and hopefully wiser generation more than ever. We are not here to criticize this generation; our goal is to build them up and train them to stand in the 21st century.
How can the churches best minister to Millennials?
This is a legitimate question for church leaders today. I don’t question anyone’s motives. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists both want to reach this generation. But as so often has been the case, two very different approaches or methodologies have emerged: Bring the church down to their perceived level (dumbing it down for a generation unable to focus – so they say). Lift them all up to higher ground (via in depth teaching, instruction, exhortation). And while the intentions behind both methodologies may be good, the consequences of taking the wrong path could be devastating for the churches in the long run. The lowering of standards has the immediate effect of bringing in hordes of young people into the church – which is good. But the long term effect will have dire consequences: spiritually, morally, and doctrinally… if the end result is a radical transformation of the church that departs from the Biblical pattern.
Let’s consider these two OPPOSITE approaches to the situation.
Transform the Body of Christ to Better Harmonize with the Millennials
This approach is based on a Biblical principle we looked at previously: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” (I Cor. 9:20)
Paul’s point is that when travelling to foreign countries or ministering to people of a totally different culture, there are areas where it is best to accommodate the ones you are trying to reach with the gospel. But remember, the CONTEXT was always non-doctrinal and non-moral issues. Ministering to Millennials is not so much a cultural distinction as a generational distinction. The distinction Paul describes in I Cor. 9:20 is not like the difference between Jew and Gentile, but rather between the older generation and the younger generation. Normally the older generation is more mature and experienced while the younger generation is generally less mature and less experienced. Transforming the church to suit the younger (less mature and less experienced) is not wise; nor is it Biblical. The church is to be led by a group of men the Bible calls “elders” – older men who are spiritually mature. The emphasis on the use of that term (elder) is on experience and maturity, not just age.
My generation (baby boomers in their hippie days) tried to do the same thing decades ago: get the church to accommodate them. We preferred our own kind of music way back then too. We liked the casual atmosphere. And our way of dressing was far worse than most Millennials today. The difference was that back then, the church leaders were united in standing against the kind of change the hippie generation wanted to bring into the churches – thank God!
Today the thinking is that since Millennials have shorter attention spans, we need to cut back on the preaching… constantly flash pictures on the wall to keep their attention… play the music they like… and tone it all down or you’ll lose them. This methodology is not unique to Millennials. It has been around for a long time. Our adversary has constantly attacked God’s program for this age: the local church. You don’t design the local church to suit the preferences of men. The local church is to be designed as closely as possible to the pattern found in the Bible… which is the preference (will) of God. There will be obvious, irrelevant cultural distinctions from one nation to another; but overall the churches will be the SAME – same pattern, the same doctrine, same customs, same reverential atmosphere, the same God-centered worship.
Almost from day one here at Salem Bible Church, I have felt constant pressure to “dumb down” the church. Through the years here, I have been poked and prodded and pressured by folks right here who have vigorously urged me to lighten up on my teaching… to make the messages shorter… not to be so dogmatic… so doctrinal… I’m too hard to understand… Part of leadership is the ability to sift through all the advice and recommendations of well-meaning men and respond appropriately. PROVE all things: Take heed to the sound, Biblical advice. Ignore or reject advice not consistent with Scripture. We have had a good number of folks leave the church because I refused to lighten up... tell more jokes and stories. With all the talk about Millennials, all the blogs, all the articles, all the warnings, and all the well-intentioned concern, more than ever I am feeling the pressure to accommodate the Millennials by making the messages short and sweet. The reasoning behind their pressure has been that “studies have shown” that Millennials have short attention spans and that they won’t sit through a long message. The pressure for the pastor is this: Change the way we worship and the way you preach, or the young people will leave and it will be all my fault because I stubbornly refused to make even the tiniest changes to make the young people happy and keep them here.
This is extremely intimidating; especially when we see our young people leaving and going to churches that DO accommodate them. They want their kind of music. They want a casual atmosphere. They want sound bite sermonettes. And today, they have plenty of choices – not available in the past.
Ways to Minister to Millennials: Exhibit A: A Church Named: Crushed
The pastor says: “Our ‘service’ has three parts.” “For the first part, our gathering, I encourage everybody to bring their iPod and have people share a song or two,” Barker said. Because the group meets on Saturday nights, Barker’s goal is to create something casual to “lighten it up and make it feel like an actual Saturday night activity.” After this gathering time, (the pastor) gives a short sermon directed at some aspect of being crushed. The sermon is followed by a time of silence and then a time of group sharing. “The whole idea of that time is to allow people to be listened to.” (instead of being taught truth).
Yes, today the local church is being radically transformed into something else… all under the guise of winning the youth. This is a fad. To keep it going you have to constantly come up with something newer… edgier… cooler… pushing the envelope even further. This is NOT the way to win anyone to Christ. It is certainly not the methodology found in Scripture. We reject it and every form of it.
Transform the Millennials to Better Harmonize with the Body of Christ
God’s Pattern for the Local Church (Acts 2:42)
Acts 2:42 – “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” All four of these essentials for the early church are God-centered. Doctrine: God’s truth – I am the Truth.
Fellowship: is with God and one another. Bread: the Lord’s Table – communion with Him. Prayer: to God. When a Millennial gets saved, the goal ought to be that HE become transformed and suited to better fit into and function in the Body of Christ, the church, and in particular, God’s design for the local church. I Cor. 12:18 – “But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. Eph. 2:21 – “The building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” You don’t change or transform the Body to suit the person; the person is to be transformed to fit into the Body and to function as designed.
God has given us the blueprint for the church in His Word, and that is not to change. Of course every individual and every generation is naturally going to make each expression of the Body unique, but you don’t change the blueprint.
I think as a pastor, I have always tried to be open to change. But I do have three simple criteria: Change must bring us closer to the Biblical pattern not further away (Acts 2:42 – the apostle’s doctrine; fellowship; breaking of bread; and prayers). It must enhance not diminish the sanctity and reverence of the worship. It must be God-centered and for His glory – not man-centered. We are commanded to PROVE all things. If it doesn’t pass the test, we don’t want it. It will take us in the wrong direction.
The tendency today is to have a shorter time in the Word and they emphasize more performed music (usually a pop band). But note in Acts 2:42 that music was not even mentioned. That is not because they did not sing, but because it was not the emphasis in their assembly meetings. But it is clearly the emphasis in the churches designed for Millennials today. This is not closer to the Biblical pattern. It doesn’t pass the test. And the motivation sure does seem to be man-centered; not God-centered and for His glory. That doesn’t pass the test either.
God’s Plan: Transform the Believing Millennial by Lifting Him Up
Not all change is good. It must be in the right direction. Changes that don’t lift us UP spiritually will drag us DOWN. “Down” is the wrong direction; and it cannot be good for a church corporately in the long run. Nor it is good for the individual members of the Body either. Lowering standards in the local church may be easier, but it’s not good for YOUR spiritual life.
Very rarely is the easiest route the best way to go. It’s not always the best in the business world. It’s not the best route in education. It’s not best when learning to play an instrument. It’s not the best route to take if you want to excel at sports. And it doesn’t work well in the process of spiritual growth. For example: For example: I have a confession to make. I sing in the choir, and sometimes I get irritated at our choir director. It’s because I feel very comfortable rehearsing songs we have done before and the easier songs. But every once in a while he picks a really hard song – way beyond my ability. It is frustrating because it takes so long to learn; it’s hard; I have to focus and concentrate… But do you think the choir director would have mercy on us? Not for a moment! He keeps pushing us, working us and stretching us musically to our limit… and then some. He doesn’t relent until the song clicks and we get it. The end result is rewarding – there is a sense of accomplishment. The exercise of being “stretched” musically hurts; but it is good for the choir. Stretching is by nature uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of the learning and growing experience. And it is for us good musically. It equips us to serve God more skillfully. We should praise God for those believers who seek to stretch us, whether in ministry or in life.
A good teacher in any setting aims to stretch his students beyond their comfort zone… on to higher ground. What a foolish teacher it would be to teach the class at the level of the slowest student. We often hear, “Put all the cookies on the lowest shelf.” Well, some cookies should be on the lowest shelf; but more cookies should be on the higher shelves… so that you have to stretch to get them! Putting all the cookies on the lower shelf brings the learning level DOWN to the lowest common denominator. It’s called “dumbing down.” But God’s plan is to lift us up to higher ground. And how high up does God want to stretch us? II Cor. 3:18 – “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.” Phil. 3:13-14 – We are to be “reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Eph. 4:12-13 – “for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
And yet, there is still pressure to take the easy route in God’s work. There is pressure to shrink the sermon for the sake of Millennials. We also see the shrinking doctrinal statement. We see the disappearing evening services or prayer meetings. These are spiritually deadly trends that couldn’t possibly be good for the future of the churches. Even though it is easier, we don’t want to make those kind of changes. They don’t pass the test.
God has some incredibly HIGH expectations for Millennials. He has some pretty high standards for us: “Walk worthy of your vocation” (heavenly calling in Christ!) II Cor. 5:17 – “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” God expects much of His new creatures… old things pass away; all becomes new… in his life, not just from his mouth.
The purpose of the teaching ministry in the local church is not to make people feel happy and comfortable. It is to teach and train believers to stretch… to reach forward… to grow… to learn… to mature… to exercise unto godliness… to run the race with patience… not to settle for mediocrity, to strive for excellence. I don’t find in the Scriptures any hints that we should lower standards or lower expectations for Millennials because they have a shorter attention span. I would be profoundly insulted if I were a Millennial and was treated that way. It’s demeaning. At Salem Bible Church, we expect a lot from believing Millennials because God has equipped them with spiritual gifts and they have a lot to offer to the Body of Christ. We want to help them grow in their (1) knowledge of God and His Word, (2) in their level of dedication to Christ, (3) and in their commitment to the local church – SO THAT they can grow into positions of leadership and take the church into the next generation!
We are told that Millennials have a short attention span and you can’t expect them to sit through a full length sermon. We are told that they can’t handle that; give them sermonettes. The studies do not all agree that Millennials have shorter attention spans. But even if it were so, what should we DO about it? If you are preaching a gospel message to a group of unsaved Millennials, then you may want to keep it relatively short. You may well lose their attention – because the lost aren’t all that interested in the first place. But if you are preaching the Word to Millennial believers in the local church, it is best to use a different approach.
I keep hearing from well-meaning believers that I need to understand what Millennials are like. They can’t focus very long – so adjust to what they are like and teach the Word that way – short and sweet. If believers are unable to concentrate then instead of just accepting that fact, TEACH them to concentrate! If a lack of focus was learned behavior via technology, then they can reverse that too. If you were a pastor in a church in the jungles of Brazil, and the people could not read, you don’t just sit back and say, “Oh well, that’s the way they are. We’ll adjust to the way they are.” It may be the way that they ARE; but they can CHANGE. Christianity is about change, transformation, growth, and maturity into the image of Christ. If the “way they are” is illiterate, wouldn’t it be a good idea to teach them HOW to read!? Without the capacity to read God’s Word they will be missing out on a huge part of the Christian life… and it will greatly handicap their ability to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. If you were the pastor of a church of Millennials who could not focus long enough to THINK through a doctrinal truth, then the wise thing to do is to teach them to THINK and to FOCUS on things above. These are Biblical commands.
The ideal is for believers to be able to read God’s Word and to think through its meaning and applications. This requires focus… the ability to concentrate on truth… balanced, rational, logical thinking… If some younger folks are rusty at this – they can learn… they can be helped… and they can learn to excel at it too! God expects more than a bumper sticker understanding of His Word from Millennials – from all of us, regardless of the generation. You CANNOT adequately teach God’s Word the “quick and easy” way. There are no shortcuts to growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. It’s hard work; it requires stretching; exercise; practice; meditation; study; application; and years of experience. We could follow the crowd and dumb down the service – shorten the sermons; add more performed music; drop the evening service; skip prayer meetings. That seems to be the wave of the future. But is it good for you? We are convinced that that route is NOT good for God’s people today and it certainly does not bode well for the next generation.
God’s plan is for constant preaching, teaching, indoctrination, learning, study of His Word. If our goal is growing into the image of Christ, and growing into the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, then cutting back on teaching (God’s method for attaining that growth) is not the way to go. Acts 20:7 – “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them… and continued his speech until midnight.” That was no mini-sermon. The Bible is not the kind of book that you can learn unless you really APPLY yourself. If you don’t have a good attention span, then work on it; develop one; seek to improve; learn to concentrate and focus. Stretch yourself! That’s the only way to learn. The shepherd that caves in to the pressure to lighten up, to make the message short and sweet, and overall to “tone things down” for the Millennials does them no favor. It’s easier to drink milk than to chew steak. And sure, sermons should have some milk for new believers with a few cookies on the lower shelf. But it also needs some meat for the more mature believers – AND for others to strive for… to reach out for… to stretch for. Everybody likes milk and cookies; but once you develop a taste for steak, you discover that it is really good and good for you!
Consider Paul’s masterpiece: Romans, his treatise on sin, salvation, sanctification, security, and separation. He makes some lengthy arguments in this treatise that require concentration, focus, logical thinking, and following through on his lawyer-like presentation. Every Christian should do their best to master this book. But you won’t make much progress if you hear it taught in short little snippets. It takes time to develop an argument and see it through to the end. That’s the way God’s Word was written. The New Testament speaks of the “deep things of God.” We are sometimes ridiculed by our brethren for teaching that “higher life stuff.” I don’t know about you but I want a “higher life”; I want to grow from one level of glory to the next; I want to be progressing towards Christlikeness. And I am under pressure to dumb things down in order to reach the Millennials; and I’m sorry, but you cannot learn the “deep things of God” in 140 characters or less! You cannot communicate lofty, majestic truths in a Tweet! I know the present generation likes everything reduced to bite size – to a Tweet. But if you really want to learn God’s Word in depth then you have to change…
To our Millennial brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t believe the stereotypical description of your generation. If you are saved, you are an individual and you don’t fit into that mold any more. You are a new creature in Christ. And as such, God expects much more from you. Don’t settle for milk and cookies; demand strong meat. Don’t settle for a worship environment that imitates the entertainment industry; demand a worship atmosphere that is patterned after the Holy Place in the Tabernacle in Moses’ day… or the New Testament church in Acts 2:42. Don’t settle for a man-centered church whose leadership is bent on pleasing men; demand a God-centered church where Christ has all the preeminence. Don’t settle for a church where the doctrinal statement has been pared down to a few bullet points, their “core values”; demand a church that is built on a solid foundation of apostolic doctrine, teaching, and truth. In other words, don’t settle for a church that is part of the 21st century “downgrade”; demand a church body that is committed to going on to higher ground… in the midst of a culture that’s going downhill fast!