What’s Up with Them? Engaging Millennials

Millennials

This article is taken from a presentation Pete Burak recently gave to the Cincinnati chapter of Legatus. Please contact him at pete@id916.com if you are interested in having him share this message with your group or organization.

Much ink has been spilled analyzing, bemoaning, threatening, and critiquing the Millennial generation. With an age range of roughly eighteen to thirty-five, these young adults have emerged into the world of adulthood with unforeseen and unique challenges and opportunities. We’ve exploded on the work and cultural scene, and everyone—including the Catholic Church—is grappling with this new reality.

We are selfish, materialistic, addicted to technology, lazy, questioning everything, allergic to commitment, entitled, subjective, over-stimulated, under-motivated, inclusive, cynical, and overly accepting. We are also more religiously detached than any generation in history. Less than ten percent of self-professed Millennial Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. Only forty percent think a relationship with God is possible, and only thirty-one percent of those people go to Mass regularly. We are the product of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “crisis of discipleship” in the Church today. We are Generation Maybe, Generation Me, Generation None.

But the above description only tells half the story. While we certainly embody many of those characteristics, there are many layers to understanding the hearts of Millennials. We are passionate, caring, resourceful, energetic, and creative. We long for meaning, purpose, community, authentic leadership, friendship, truth, and ultimately, love. Many of the burdens and wounds visible in my generation stem from an inaccurate and insufficient understanding of love. If only we knew the answer to our desperate pursuit for happiness was Love with a capital L. If only we knew the hunger inside us could only be satisfied by a Person. If only we knew Jesus. Not only Jesus, but also His plans for our lives, His freedom, His peace, His Spirit, and the power of living in a community devoted to growing as His disciples.

All of this was driven home for me the other day on my flight to Cincinnati. As I settled into my seat, I struck up a conversation with a young adult woman across the aisle. The initial pleasantries shifted to more serious topics later in the flight. I was on my way to Cincinnati for a talk on Millennials, so I felt like the Lord had orchestrated the perfect situation for some “market research.” The gentle question, “What do you think about Pope Francis?” led to “What is your source of truth?” Her initial surprise and confusion at the question changed to a very Millennial response; her source of truth is her parents, her friends, and her experience.

I asked her if she grew up with any religious background and—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—she was baptized Catholic. As we continued to talk and I continued to ask questions, it became abundantly clear that her story mirrors many of her contemporaries. She was raised in a home in which her family only occasionally went to church; once her parents divorced, the only faith life she experienced was attending Mass during visits with her grandparents. She had never heard of a personal, loving, life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ. She had never experienced a community dedicated to helping her grow in virtue and holiness. And finally, she had never been intentionally discipled by an older Christian man or woman. She epitomized the effects of a society reeling from a “crisis of discipleship.”

While the solutions to these problems deserve more space than I have here, I’d like to offer four tips for engaging, loving, and supporting these crazy Millennials.

1. Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray, pray . . .

Profound right? While basic in concept, intentional prayer cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Jesus repeatedly took time for prayer throughout the New Testament, and often His prayer centered on His disciples. (See Jn 17:6-26) Time with the Lord transforms our own hearts and allows us to love in a new and more powerful way. It’s an avenue to growth in holiness, which must happen so that we can shine more brightly in the darkening world. Additionally, God is a God of details, so we should boldly come before His throne with very specific requests for our Millennial children and grandchildren. Praying, “Please Lord bless my son,” is great, but “Lord, bring some solid Christian friends into Jimmy’s life and help him win favor with them,” could be even more effective.

2. Ask Questions.

Nearly everyone likes to talk about themselves, and the person who does the majority of the talking in a conversation is usually the one who feels the most positive about the exchange. Jesus was the master of the pointed-but-genuine question. He asks 307 questions in the Gospels! In our conversations with Millennials, asking thoughtful and authentic questions lays the groundwork for respect and mutual appreciation. By asking questions, we show our care for the other person and a humble spirit seeking to understand. No matter how bizarre the answer, often our response should include another question: “Wow, I’ve never heard that before, could you explain what you mean?” This conversational strategy, potentially employed over multiple conversations, can lead to the tables being turned and to the young adult asking questions of you. “OK, I’ve talked too much—what do you think?  That’s when you ask one final question: “Do you really want to know?” When they say yes, they’ve given you permission to speak your mind and lovingly present the truth.

3. Dive in.

My favorite definition of courage is the willingness to sustain a wound. Most of us have been wounded by a Millennial. Whether through cutting words, thoughtless actions, or poor decisions, these young adults who we love so much can cause us enormous pain. Are you ready to persevere in these relationships even when it hurts? Young adults need people who won’t give up on them, who are all in, through thick and thin. Consider this quote from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.” (24; my emphasis)

What a beautiful image for evangelizing young adults—reaching out to lovingly and openly expose yourself to their suffering. Instead of leprosy, we touch loneliness, sexual abuse, substance abuse, broken homes, depression, and much more. That’s what I mean by “dive in”—the action of leaning into the criticism and the scorn, because their souls are worth it.

4. Follow the Spirit.

Just as the anointing of Pentecost launched the first evangelization, each disciple of Christ needs a new Pentecost to empower their own participation in the new evangelization. A group of relatively uneducated, scared, confused, and normal men and women exploded out of the upper room and forever changed the world through their preaching, example, questions, and investment in peoples’ lives. None of this would have happened without the coming of the Holy Spirit. From Pope Paul VI,

Evangelization will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit . . . It is the Holy Spirit who, today just as the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by Him. The Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself, and at the same time the Holy Spirit predisposes the soul of the hearer to be open and receptive to the Good News and to the kingdom being proclaimed. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 75)

The Holy Spirit stacks the deck. He tells us when, what, and how to say something and readies the heart of the listener. Our job involves being open to the movement of the Spirit and embracing the grace-filled courage He provides to actually open our mouths and witness to the Truth. As St. Paul said, let’s pray constantly in the Spirit so we can be empowered, emboldened, and filled with the wisdom to reach Millennials and help bring them back into the life-giving relationship with Christ in His Church.

It dawned on me the other day that Jesus was a young adult. Therefore, it’s likely that at the time of the apostles’ calling, they were in the age-range of today’s Millennials. We should learn from how Christ engaged his disciples and brought them back after they scattered. He prayed for them, asked them questions, invested deeply in them, and ultimately filled them with His Spirit. The challenge is great, but let’s go after these crazy Millennials and watch the Lord do something mighty.

Want to hear more on evangelization from Pete Burak? Click here to purchase his new booklet, Game Changer: The Role of the Holy Spirit in the New Evangelization.

This article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ August 2016 newsletter. Click here to view the entire August newsletter!

Pete Burak

Pete Burak is the director of i.d.9:16, the young adult outreach of Renewal Ministries. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, and has a Master’s Degree in Theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Pete is a frequent speaker on discipleship, evangelization, and young adult topics, and he is the co-director of Pine Hills Boys Camp. Pete and his wife, Cait, have four children.

One thought on “What’s Up with Them? Engaging Millennials

  1. His description of Millenials is a perfect description of my children. I am thankful for the insight.

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