MINISTERING TO MILLENIALS
This blog was originally posted at Courage International's Truth and Love website.
Born in the late 80’s, I came to youth ministry in the age of worship song hand motions and purity cards. The gay rights debate raged far and away from my Midwestern town of origin…or least severely under the radar. Women’s session leaders dressed in pink told me I was a princess and I wanted to believe them. I wondered which of the chastity pointers applied to me. I didn’t want to have sex with my friend, after all, just kiss her. Kissing can be chaste, right? And I want to marry a boy eventually. Probably.
As I moved into adulthood, Proposition 8 and Obergefell vs. Hodges were making news and taking no prisoners. The vitriol from some religious leaders and otherwise faithful friends left me shaken and disturbed. I started giving talks locally entitled “How to Talk About Homosexuality Without Sounding Like a Bigot.” The ministry leaders booking me were millennials themselves.
No surprise. Depending on the polls you examine, the numbers are significant. Dubbed “the gayest generation” by the Daily Beast, the number of millennials identifying as LGBT is approximately 7%. Depending on your survey, 16%, 35%, or roughly 25% of women and 10% of men fall outside of “exclusively heterosexual” categories for romantic attraction. These surveys are polls of the general population, but whether it’s you or not, millennials are more likely to know someone who falls into this demographic.
Here’s the thing. The essential truths of our faith transcend time and place, but the people hearing them do not. Every generation is partially a product of culture. Each person is a mixed bag of genetics and decisions, both their own and those of others. Still, personal development occurs within a particular milieu, a fixed time and place with it’s own attitudes, biases, and satellite channels. When fluid but faithful young people show up in your pews, at your Theology on Taps, or in your confessional, what do you need to know?
First: Millennials are Skeptical of Institutions
According to Pew Research, 50% of millennials describe themselves as political independents and just under 30% have no religious affiliation. Of all generations, millennials are least likely to be positive about their financial future, to see a significant difference in what Democrats and Republicans stand for, and to get married by their early thirties. Only 19% said that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted.”
These demographics could look a little different for returning or practicing Catholics, but doubt is in the water. News of the sex abuse scandal broke during our formative years. Most millennials I know in the Church love the Church, but we’re also acutely aware it’s both a divine and human institution. For those in pastoral ministry, simply being a representative of the Church is not enough. Trust must be compellingly proven on it’s own merit and love actively demonstrated to win the interest and allegiance of the millennial generation.
Second: Millennials are Digital Natives
Millennials have known life without the internet, but not for long. Leisure time is routinely spent online. 90% of millennials are on social media. 39% admit to interacting with their smartphones more than people. According to an American Press Institute study, 69% get news daily and 74% do so online. 86% “usually see diverse opinions through social media.”
Even millennials most active in their faith will spend a only handful of hours per week in your parish or ministry. In the meantime, social media feeds, TV shows, and breaking news dominate the way we take in information. Mainstream culture tells LGBT stories with power, pathos, and joy; from TV commercials to Netflix series to targeted campaigns. It’s no surprise that, within the general population, 70% see no problem with same sex marriage.
For Christians attempting to live the Church’s sexual ethic, being surrounded by this celebration can feel overwhelming or attractive, depending on the day. As the Body of Christ, we have a mandate to proclaim the full Paschal Mystery. The cross is inescapable, but so too is the resurrection. Millennials are longing to see from the Church what we’re seeing from broader culture - authentic witness and integrated personhood. This means that an overly apologetic approach will likely ring hollow. If we’re at your event, we’re at least partially convinced. Help us see that life can be celebrated in the midst of sacrifice, and that a “yes” to Christ everyday is one of the most fruitful decisions we can make.
Third: Millennials Value Authenticity
In the business world, 81% of millennials rank “open communication” as more valuable than other workplace attributes, including perks. A Barna Group study found that 66% of millennials believe American churchgoers are hypocritical and only 30% say churches have their best interests at heart.
Talking openly and honestly about imperfections, challenges, and the role of ongoing conversion can make millennials feel at home in your parish or ministry. We know that holiness is a long road for anyone. Sin distorts our vision and failures are inevitable. Don’t we love to remember St. Paul’s reminder that “there is no distinction” as we all fall short of God’s glory? And yet all too often mentions of same sex desires only occur in isolation as the subject of special sessions, ministry trainings, or politically-savvy homilies. When one’s personal experience is reduced to a “hot button issue,” it’s no wonder young people can feel dissociated from the larger Church. Treating this experience as “other” can cause a sense of isolation or alienation to creep in, and suspicion to rise. Being unafraid to openly communicate that same sex desires are a real experience for people in your pews can go a long way to making people feel seen, known, and loved.
I heard a homily at a young adult conference last fall. The priest challenged the congregation that following Christ doesn't exempt you from the journey of discipleship. He listed several near-universal experiences that still occur beyond initial conversion. As he neared the end, he added simply, “and your same sex attraction might not go away.” Then he moved on. Later that evening the priest shared with me that - following his homily - a young man came up to him with tears in his eyes. “Father,” he said, “I’ve never heard anyone include it that way from the pulpit before.” For the first time in his life, his romantic attractions weren’t an “other” experience. He wasn’t the “them” in a cultural diatribe. His experiences were just as valid to mention from the main stage as anyone else’s. For the first time in his life, he felt seen by the Church.
Sometimes it can feel like the tidal wave of culture is threatening to sweep young people away, especially those experiencing same sex desires. I assure you, there are plenty of us who want to be here. Will you walk with us?