So last summer I was asked to chip in an article for a CCU newsletter. This is what I wrote.
Think back, if you can, to your first high-school breakup. Besides my own experience at getting dumped, I've probably been on the phone or across the table with a dozen different teenage and college guys who have just gotten "the talk." There's angst, usually. A little anger, a lot of confusion, and a loving spoonful of self-pity. The details usually vary. But in almost every one of those situations, there's one rock-solid certainty: no one understands. This breakup is totally unique, and unlike any other in history. Those who feel otherwise are just showing how little they understand.
Recently, I’ve felt eerie echoes of this sentiment while working with young adults here in Cincinnati. Not from the men and women of my ministry, necessarily, but from the thinkers and the writers of the Christian world. I keep reading that the Postmoderns (and after them, the Millennials) are a new people, a new generation. They think differently, work differently, and want different things from life and from Church. Walk into your local Christian bookseller or check on Amazon… there are a lot of people writing books about “bridging the generational divide,” and a lot of people buying them.
A few years ago, I read one of the classic (if an eight-year-old book can be called a “classic”) books on the subject: Postmodern Pilgrims, by Leonard Sweet. In the book, Sweet takes the position that a church trying to reach Postmoderns must be “EPIC:” Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich, and Connected. These four letters, he contends, are the key to understanding today’s emerging culture and the people in it, and the church needs to adapt or face irrelevance.
The church needs to be “Experiential,” because the young adults of today don’t just want to understand truth, they want to experience it. The church must be “Participatory,” because postmoderns don’t want to simply sit and receive, they want to be engaged in what’s going on around them. The church must be “Image-Rich,” because the core concepts of this generation aren’t just words and phrases, but pictures. Finally, the church must allow its people to be “Connected,” because young adults long deeply for real community.
All of these things are true of almost every young adult I’ve spent time with over the past three years. There’s a problem here, though. These things are also true of my grandparents.
My grandparents attend a small church in a small town in central Michigan. They live in a house they’ve paid for, have a vegetable garden and a rose patch, and manage to get by while on a fixed income. I love them and respect them, but they’re not the cutting edge. When I hear people talk about the distinctives of the upcoming generation, I always ask myself “Fine, but is it also true of Ivan and Doris?” If so, it simply can’t be a distinctive of a particular age group.
My grandparents have probably forgotten more about community and connectedness than I’ll ever learn. They’ve modeled a participatory and experiential Christianity for three generations: they’ve never sat on the sidelines. They may not have icons in the church, but they have pictures of us plastered over their walls. “EPIC” doesn’t describe the youths of today, it describes the fundamental longings of the human heart.
That’s not to say that young adults don’t make up a different crowd in your church, or that you won’t need to reach them in different ways. But most of the differences have to do with “place in life” more than “generation.” Most of what’s left has to do with technological changes and the societal changes that go with them. So yes, your young adults think nothing of posting personal details on Facebook. They have short attention spans and little patience. They don’t have the perspective and maturity that forty (or sixty) years can give you. But in their hearts, they long for the same things we all long for: to know and be known, to be included in an adventure, and to understand the purpose of One who made them.
That doesn’t make them different from everyone else in your church. It makes them the same.