Millennials, Gen Z and the Hobbit

Who are the reliable people in your church? Whoever they are, old or young, they are a Godsend to any hardworking pastor.

My own experience is limited, but it seems that frequently, these days the solid ‘never-miss-a-meeting’, ‘volunteer-to-help’ people at church come from my own generation. We are the ‘Boomers’, born somewhere between 1946 and 1964. We were young and idealistic when we were converted and caught up in the God-given renewal of interest in biblical Christianity and the local church which came through during the 1960s and 70s. We were inspired and caught a vision cast by people like Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott with the help of Banner of Truth books. That vision has never left us. 

Millennials are different

The generation which should now be taking up the baton in churches as Boomers begin to move on to heaven, are those the sociologists label the Millennials (born 1980–1994). These folk are between 30 and 44 at present, the age at which we expect people to take on responsibility. But often that seems not to be happening. Why is that?

I realise thinking about generations as a whole inevitably involves generalisations. This has its problems, but though we must make allowances for individuals who might not fit the statistical average, the overall trend is worth noting.

In an effort to gain some understanding I picked up the book Generations: The real differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and the Silents. It is authored by Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and is full of graphs and bar charts based on hefty research. It focuses on the USA, and perhaps the statistics don’t translate easily across the Atlantic. However, there are findings which help us think about the current state of the churches in our country. The headline is that Millennials have a very different mindset from Boomers.

Individualism as paramount

Praise God, there are people in their 30s and 40s in the churches. But there are not as many as we would like. Why is religion less popular with Millennials? Jean Twenge’s answer is, ‘In short, because it is not compatible with individualism – and individualism is the core value with Millennials above all else’.[1] We must concede that, almost unconsciously, this individualism has affected many Christians.

Advances in technology have to a large extent made individualism possible. ‘Until the twentieth century, it was difficult to live alone or find the time to contemplate being special, given the time and effort involved in simply existing…Daily living in (previous) eras was a collective experience.’[2]

Boomers had begun to lean towards individualism. But ‘while Generations Xers (born 1965–1979) turned the individualism of the Boomers to the level of a basic assumption, the Millennials raised the bar: The individual self was not merely important; it was paramount. It was also, almost always awesome.’[3]

Millennial traits

Here are nine traits which Twenge says tend to characterise the Millennials: Self-confidence; Entitlement (for some); Digital natives (totally at home with computer technology); High earners (though seeing themselves as poor and blaming the Boomers for this); Delaying committed relationships; Delaying or avoiding parenthood; Less sex (outside marriage); Less religion; Politically aware.

How would such traits affect church commitment? If these qualities are generally prominent in this age group, then, pastor, you can see something of why Christian Millennials often hang loose at church. For example, think about entitlement. This is the outlook that you have the right to do or have what you want without having to work for it or deserve it, just because you are who you are. A person with such a mindset is hardly likely to commit themselves to the sacrificial service of others. Or again, if the Millennials generally delayed committed relationships like marriage, they are likely to be just as wary of committing themselves to a church. Rather, they will want to treat churches as one-stop shops for their personal spiritual needs while avoiding getting too involved.

As you look at people in their 30s and 40s, pastor, this is something of what you are likely to be up against.

Millennial churches

Some churches try to ride out this kind of generational wave of less than serious involvement by going along with it. They play down things like church membership and keep the church going through a paid staff team while asking as little as possible of those who attend. But this is a far cry from the way the apostle Paul describes the members of a NT church where ‘each member belongs to all the others’ (Rom 12:5). Much contemporary preaching never addresses these problems, so churchgoers are often not even aware of their own inherent mindset which is reshaping churches. Their outlook is never challenged. Maybe those people would change if the preacher helped them to understand themselves rather more. 

Here’s an idea. Maybe pastors could look at Twenge’s traits of Millennials and use them in sharpening the applications of their sermons to their contemporary hearers. The whole church is likely to benefit because these characteristics will not be confined to just one generation. They will have often cross the age boundaries in one way or another.

Gen Z and the future

Have you ever heard of the word ‘adulting’? According to Twenge it is a word often used by those of Generation Z (born between 1995–2012). It correlates with no longer acting like a youngster and taking responsibility. It has quite a negative edge to it among the peer group. One of the major characteristics of this age group is the desire to delay growing up.

Here is Twenge’s full list of attitudes and behaviours likely to be displayed by those now twelve to twenty-nine years old: They believe in gender fluidity; More LGB[4] people among them; Less sex; Growing up slowly; Delayed adulthood; Restricting speech; Staying safe (physically and emotionally); Racially conscious; Dissatisfied and depressed (mental health disturbed by the pandemic); More online communication; Pessimistic; Politically polarised.

Not all of these characteristics are bad, and some of them stir our sympathy – the pandemic was not good for anyone. But some of them are clearly anti-Biblical. And the overall impression given is that this is a fragile generation who are very sensitive themselves and sensitive on behalf of others. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are bold enough to state that this rising generation have been fed three lies by well-meaning but foolish society.[5] The great lies are 1. The Untruth of Fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: always trust your feelings; 3. The Untruth of Us versus Them: life is a battle between good people and evil people (with no concept of ‘good’ people being sinners too). All this has produced an age group which tends to be very risk averse and has an unspoken desire to be continually looked after as they were as children.

Such a situation will have an impact on church and preaching. If the statistics are correct this generation are more likely to be takers than givers. Also, they will want a God of comfort but not a God of challenge. Will churches and pastors remain faithful to Scripture?

The Hobbit’s vision

How does a preacher get through to those whose priority is to feel safe and not take chances?

I am reminded of Devin Brown’s book Hobbit Lessons.[6] It gives something of an exposition of the life of Tolkien’s fictional hero Bilbo Baggins.

If you remember at the beginning of the story the little Hobbit is very much an unadventurous, circumspect creature, committed to routine and to homely comforts. But meeting with the wizard Gandalf changes everything and takes him on a dangerous and arduous adventure to face a dragon and ultimately to secure its ill-gotten treasure. But Bilbo grows and is changed for the better by the experience. Tolkien’s point is that what we gain on life’s adventures will be worth any hardships we have to endure. Surely, we would underline the truth of that concerning being committed to Christ’s cause and stepping out in faith for him. It is a lesson that Gen Z Christians are likely to need to learn.

If that is the case, then the pastor/preacher will need to be something of a Gandalf figure for Gen Z, who not only casts the vision of adventure for Christ, but who leads by example. Teach them: When adventure comes knocking, let it in (even if it makes you late for dinner). 

For a longer summary and reflections on Jean Twenge, Generations, see Paul Carter’s review.

[1] Jean Twenge, Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future (New York: Atria Books, 2023), 301.

[2] Twenge, Generations, 11.

[3] Twenge, Generations, 231.

[4] Twenge looks at Transgender separately

[5] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, (London: Penguin, 2019), 4.

[6] Devin Brown, Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013).