The highways of online media are strewn with attempts to explain millennials, my hard-to-pin-down generation that’s currently somewhere between the ages of 14 and 34 — and even that range is a little squishy. Churches, marketers and, yes, missions agencies, would love to know exactly what makes millennials tick.
But most attempts to put us in a box fall short. Millennials — even millennial Christians — are not monolithic. They defy unifying definitions, aside from superficial observations (“Those millennials and their iPhones!”) that often apply as much to other generations as they do to 20-somethings.
There is little doubt, however, that millennials are changing the missions landscape, probably in ways that are well suited for tackling the challenges of modern missions. Despite our diversity that eludes a single catchphrase, there are at least three things most of us share that are shaping our approach to global ministry.
1. We are driven to a personal response.
There are all kinds of evils in the world, and millennials have experienced most of them — if not personally, than through the power of media. And while theodicy can still keep us up at night, we have our own spin on the problem of God and evil: regardless of how you resolve the question, “How can a good God allow evil to exist,” evil still does exist, and that requires something of me.
This is an upside of individualism. With some notable exceptions (the Civil Rights movement, for example), earlier generations might have been more content to engage “the question of evil” at an intellectual level without further involvement. Millennials are convinced that the existence of evil compels personal action. The trick, already widely commented on, is getting beyond easy forms of activism (liking a Facebook page or retweeting something) to those that require more sustained personal investment.
2. We have individual passions.
In a post for Relevant, Tyler Franke commented that millennials’ tendency to play up their individualism is a value found in Scripture. While many others have pointed to passages like 1 Corinthians 12 (“For in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body…”) as evidence that individualism can only be a vice, Franke rightly points out that even corporate ecclesiology crumbles without some appreciation for the make-up of the individuals within the body. “A homogeneous mixture of identical material is not a body, it’s a gelatinous blob,” he says. “A body has many different parts, fulfilling many different roles.”
Christian millennials will bring their personal passions with them as they address the evils of the world, and that’s a good thing. The missions community has long known that we need a multitude of gifts to carry the good news of Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth; unfortunately, that hasn’t always translated into an ability to embrace the body of Christ in all its diversity. We’re learning how to do that, and the millennial generation will help us.
3. We are breaking from tradition.
For several generations, the North American church’s approach to global missions has remained largely unchanged. Missionaries have been sent from churches through missions agencies. Their funding has come from churches and individuals committed to their vision, and willing to give sacrificially to sustain it. Often, significant thought hasn’t been given to the missionary’s platform or the public face of their presence within a community. Missionaries often entered countries on religious visas that provided legal room for their presence without demanding a corresponding social or cultural justification.
It would be giving the millennial generation too much credit to say that any of this is changing because of them. It isn’t. But the “standard” approach to global mission is changing, and it’s changing in some ways that nicely complement many millennials’ willingness to shed the traditions of their mothers and fathers.
For example, fewer and fewer countries allow foreign workers to live within their borders for purely religious reasons. Simultaneously, many prospective missionaries are now asking how fruitful their presence will be within another culture without a culturally appropriate answer to the question, “What are you doing here?”
This impulse also fits nicely with the millennial generation’s instinct (and the biblical mandate) to couple gospel action with gospel words (e.g., Jeremiah 29:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Peter 3:15).
As with any generation, the inherent strengths of millennials have flip-side weaknesses: we are too quick to dismiss the value of tradition, group identity and thinking before acting. But God seems to do a new thing as He authors each new generation to carry on the work of previous generations. And whatever that new thing will look like in a century of missions shaped by millennials, we can rest in the confidence that we serve a God who is working through us and knows exactly who we are, even when we can’t quite put our finger on it.
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