Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them

This is a guest post by Jeremy Marshall who is the Minister of the Word at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. He is married to Megan. He holds a B.A. in Bible and M.A. in New Testament Studies from Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, TN. He enjoys exploring the intersections between biblical theology and popular culture, especially music and film.

I commend these suggestions for your consideration, and they are open for discussion rather than prescription.

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In recent years there’s been ample discussion and debate about how churches can reach and retain Millennials—those born from about 1984 through about 2001. A neglected micro-generation in these discussions is the so-called “Oregon Trail Generation,” or Xennials, those born roughly between 1977 and 1983—a cohort of which I am a member, and which I believe has significant gifts and a helpful outlook that can be very useful to the church moving forward. Many in both of these cohorts have fled their churches in recent years. But now some of those who’ve left are considering a return to some sort of church. Below are fourteen observations for doing ministry and life with and among Millennials and Xennials, many of who could rightly be classified as “Nones” and “Dones” when it comes to church experience.

1) You can’t assume they know “basic” Bible stuff. Even some of them who’ve been “in church” their whole lives. You may meet who grew up in church who don’t know Noah from Moses, or the story of Elijah and the ravens, or that Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. Don’t look down on them for this. And never put down their previous church experience, deficient as it seems to you. Something about Jesus has captured their imagination, and we ought to celebrate that.

2) Number 1) is actually a blessing. First off, it means they may be coming to us with less baggage, in terms of old denominational and hermeneutical squabbles. But it also means God is blessing us with an opportunity to tell our story afresh–to tell God’s story afresh. Isn’t that awesome? This permits us to be simply who the church was always meant to be: a people with a wondrous story to tell. A story as old as the heavens and the earth, and which will echo in the new heavens and earth.

3) If you’re blessed enough to have God guide these contingencies into your congregation, know that they do want to hear a story that makes sense to them; that makes sense of their lives and their world. They’re longing to be part of a larger story in a world that has forgotten the stories that make us truly human. I’d suggest you get a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Read it. Meditate on it. Internalize it. These Xennials and Millennials, these Nones and Dones, are rabbits looking for a safe and supportive warren to build their lives in.

4) It’s really time to brush up on the best of historical theology, because the questions these folks will bring to you have already been answered well by faithful saints of old. some titles I’d suggest up front include: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection; the Anabaptist martyr stories in The Martyrs Mirror; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin on the Psalms; Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections; Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System; and the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find them incredibly relevant, and you’ll probably learn a few things, too. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Remember observation 3), above: they want to be part of an ongoing story, a long-standing conversation about things that really matter.

5) Related to all of the above: I’m finding that they don’t like topical sermons full of proof-texts. They don’t want or need scattershot preaching. But they do want to be led into a story by a tour guide whom they can perceive as a peer. Not as an “authority” telling them “what to do.” Detailed eschatological timelines (complete with maps) and waxing didactic and pedantic over the intricacies of the psallo argument will tend to turn off folks from these cohorts.

6) Related to 5): Why don’t they tend to appreciate topical sermons? Because they’re smart enough to know how easy it is to manipulate the text to favor a preconceived idea. These young people–especially the ones who might come with church baggage–have been trained well in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Proof texts just don’t work on many of them. Thank the Lord!

7) Related to all of the above: I’m not saying to be an exclusively “expository” preacher, either. But I am strongly suggesting preaching textual sermons. Gently guide them into the old, old story. Make helpful observations along the way. And maybe give them one application to take home with them based on the story. And then let the story and the Spirit do their work.

8) Related to all of the above, but especially 1). This might be especially a paradigm-shift for those of us in Churches of Christ, though I’m thankful to observe this practice has been waning the past couple of decades. “Turn in your Bibles to …” used 20, 30, 50 times in your sermon will not work anymore, because you can’t even assume they know where Genesis or Esther or 2 Thessalonians is. It really wasn’t a great strategy to begin with. Probably we should thank the Lord for this: it means God has given us a generation that renders moot the strange idea that the more you quote from the Bible, the more “biblical” a sermon is. It’s not “biblical” when you’re ripping many of those passages out of context; ignoring whole swaths of scripture because they don’t fit your “pattern”; and overloading people to the point that they can’t be noble Bereans who search the scriptures to see if these things be so. Why should they have to look up 40+ scriptures and make sure you were preaching them correctly?

9) Preach the whole Bible, even the weird parts. Even especially the weird parts. I recommend using a lectionary–at least for a season. And deliberately preaching the unfamiliar passages. (I prefer Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary, but the Revised Common Lectionary is also great for preaching all the Bible. Both also get the church back into the discipline of the public reading of scripture having an essential role in the church’s worship.)

10) Put the scriptures in their place. They’re supposed to lead to Jesus (through the nudges of the Spirit), who shows us the Father. Make sure you say that out loud from time to time, if for no other reason than to keep yourself honest.

11) They neither want nor need propositions, a checklist, or a list of demands. They need a story to live by, and they need a supportive community to live it with. They may ask difficult questions about this story, and you may be tempted to just “tell them what to do.” Please resist that temptation. (I’m preaching to myself first, because I’m wired to be a “fixer.”) They will come to you (or someone else in the congregation) with the questions provided they experience the church as a safe place to explore, with safe people to explore with. Be that safe place. Be those safe people.

12) The church will need to provide a more casual, family-like environment for these folks. However, that doesn’t mean circle up the wagons and be all insular. Should the church be a “haven in a heartless world”? You bet! But we also must be open to the world. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between a church that feels like family, and cult. Don’t be culty. (Hint: sectarian is culty.)

13) Because of student loans and the general gutting of the middle and working classes, the Millennials and Xennials will probably not be able to contribute nearly as much financially as previous generations. This is a reality we’ll all need to accept. I’m going to be rather blunt: This is the new normal. Deal with it. But here’s the upshot: These cohorts are also generous with their time and talents and whatever possessions they have provided you send them on a compelling mission. The church of the 21st century will need to be lithe, streamlined, efficient, supple, pliant, and not program-heavy. So give them a compelling vision. Equip them. And crowd-source the dickens out of your ministries. Tips: be simple. Collaborate with other churches, ministries, non-profits, and even local government to do good. Focus on people, not programs. Be situational. Focus more on one-time or ongoing, simple, contextual, local opportunities for ministry that make sense for your church and arise organically.

14) Above all, resist the temptation to present the Bible as a source for “life-hacks.” We’re finding out now that most “life-hacks” don’t actually make your life better or easier, and can actually cause harm. Real life is messy and complicated; and so is scripture, sometimes. When I say resist the temptation to Bible-based life-hacks, resist trying to craft one-size-fits-all “solutions” from the scriptures. Resist theological platitudes. For every Matt. 7.14 (“the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult”); there’s also a Psalm 119.45 (“I will walk around in wide-open spaces, because I have pursued your precepts”). Is the way narrow and difficult; or is it wide-open spaces? According to scripture, the answer is somewhere between, “Yes”; and, “It depends.” Tension is life-affirming.

This isn’t meant to be read as an exhaustive or systematic checklist. It isn’t Fourteen Simple Steps to Reaching Millennials. These are suggestions and starting points, based on my own experience as a minister; as a member of one of these generational cohorts; and dozens of hours of conversations with people of these generational cohorts, both within and without the church. To put these into practice may take considerable work, sacrifice, and a willingness to examine our churches and make changes. But I’d also add, I believe it’s worth it. Because I don’t intend these fourteen observations just as a gimmick to reach and retain a certain generation. I believe many of these are simply best practices for a healthy, functioning church.



5 Responses to “Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them”

  1. Profile photo of Jim Woodell  Jim Woodell Says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  2.   Chuck. Orris Says:

    Excellent insights! Having just retired from full time ministry, these observations ring true to my experience. I’m sharing with my ministry colleagues and friends, whom I believe will be encouraged.

  3. Profile photo of John Kenneth King  John Kenneth King Says:

    Thanks for sharing these, John Mark. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and transparency, Jeremy. Generational differences appear to me to often come from the pendulum swings of “self identification.” Because our culture is so individualistic (even to the point of what I call “rank individualism”–it reeks of death via isolationism), it forces individuals from each new generation to exhibit how different they are from their parents, teachers, etc.

    Because our expressions of church are sociologically shaped by the preferences of former generations, this often becomes a battleground for self-identification. And youth ministry is often manned by in-between generations. The great tragedy of all of this (especially over the last 30 years is Discovery of what the Bible actually says has been lost. Thanks for suggesting dialogue–it is needed. [NOTE: Please do not missread my comments as bashing youth ministry or youth minsters. Travelling to other cultures has greatly enhanced my ability to see more clearly how my ministry efforts were shaped by my culture far more than I realized. I know that my 31 years of pulpit preaching underwent extensive shifts and I am thankful for that. I am also thankful for what I have continued to learn about the social forces which shaped me and my responses. The problem with blind spots is you don’t know you have them until you run over something and begin to recognize they are there. Then wise people put up signs to warn us that they exist.

  4.   Reggie Harrell Says:

    Good suggestions. I would say that all of them are on target. I am 71 years old and my wife and I have tried very hard to teach our kids about Christ. They are born again Christians but their view of the church is not favorable. Their “church” experiences have been appalling even to my wife and I. I fear that so many older Christians today hold a view that supports a “saved by obedience” mentality. Unfortunately, this consists of a salvation which consists of following to the letter all of the examples found exclusively in the New Testament. To me, this is little better than following a law. Perhaps all of us, old and millennials would benefit from the Law that gives freedom. Both generations would benefit from studying together without condemnation.

  5. Profile photo of Dwight Haas  Dwight Says:

    Ironically most if not all of these suggestions should be done towards everyone in general not just the Millennials and Oregon Trail generation.
    This requires a transformation from within not just to reach a few, but to be a people worth reaching towards.

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