The Table Podcast

Reaching Millennials in a Shifting World

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock, Dr. Jay Sedwick and Matlock discuss millennials, focusing on how the church can better serve them.

Millennials in a Shifting World
  1. Understanding Millennials in a Shifting World
  2. Reaching Millennials in a Shifting World
Millennials and loosening relationships
Millennials and globalization
Millennials and technology
Millennials and the church
Responding to skepticism about the Bible
Prone to Wander conference at Dallas Seminary
Resources Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
Darrell Bock
The next category – there’s seven on this list. The fifth is loosening relationships. And the claim here is, and this might be something that we may even disagree about. The claim is there are fewer meaningful relationships and less community. There’s more individualized lives. There was a book years ago called Bowling Alone that was studying this. But there are changes in how those relationships are maintained. I think the argument here is that there are more superficial relationships, and there are more relationships that stay in touch with one another because of technology because of distance. But there are really actually, when you look at it, fewer meaningful, deep relationships or long-term relationships.
Mark Matlock
Yeah, I think when that book was written, so much was just happening. I don’t even know if Facebook was completely realized at that point. So I think what we have to realize, and I think this is what’s important for the church, is the nature of relationships is a little bit different. As older people, we look at the kids on their phones we’re like, ‘Oh, come on. Be with people. You don’t know how to be with people.’ And you know what? Maybe they do. But they’re being with them in a different way. We don’t know yet.
Darrell Bock
I think that’s fair. The rest of this one goes, because it’s more complex, they move more so they have less time to be close to a consistent circle of friends. But they stay in touch with those separated far more than the previous generation. So the result is they’re less likely to be tied to an organization for the long term, they’re less institutionally tied in because they’re more mobile, if I can say it that way. They still volunteer, but the volunteering isn’t with an organization that I’m going to be with over decades. The volunteering is related to, ‘I want to do this and help in this way.’ So it’s more scattered in terms of its associations. Then finally, the way they maintain their social relationships is completely changing.

Those are the observations that are being made. And I think that’s true that the mapping that goes on, the way in which relationships are – I actually think I have a metaphor for this. And again, I’m going to use my son because his life is so contrastive to my own.

That is when Steven was in college and even when he was a young adult just out of college and in graduate school, his social time was spent in packs, if I can say it that way. There was a group of about 15 or 20 friends. And my joke with him is, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ It would be about 8:00 in the evening and he hadn’t made his plans yet. I knew that somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00 his friends would either text or phone and they would decide what they were going to do and about 9:30 he would go out and do what he was going to do.

Completely different from my life. We dated. A pack for us was a double date. Alright? A close friend who you’re hanging out with, etc. We would know 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening what we were going to do and have it planned out and go through it. I think that’s just a picture of the difference.

Also I think it’s a picture of, and we haven’t talked about the kind of ubiquitous elephant in the room, the way in which technology and communication have changed the way people socially relate and what they’re capable of doing and the way they plan and all the features that are a part of that. So these loosening relationships is a part of the equation. I’m going to go through the rest of the list so we can talk about them all together.

Globalization is the sixth, and this is obvious. We get news and we have competition from everywhere, so we’re not in the little isolated local bubbles that we used to function in. I like to use this illustration. In the first century, the average person lived in a 30 mile radius. Now think about that for a second.

Jay Sedwick
And that’s all they probably knew.
Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right. That’s all they knew about. A 30 mile bubble. That’s 15 miles in each direction. That’s not a very big lifespan. I remember hearing a story of someone when we lived in Scotland, it was a father of one of our close friends in a little town of Torphins of 800 people in Northeast Scotland, and his father had slept in the same home every night of his life except for one night, and he was 79 years old. Except for one night and that was by accident because he got stuck, fogged in in Edinburg and couldn’t get home. When this guy was telling us this story about his dad, I can’t even imagine that. The point is look at how localized that is versus how global much of our relationships are.

There’s a higher percentage of non-citizens in our population going from – and this is male and female numbers – from 4% to 6% to 13% to 18%, and that’s probably low in comparison to where we are now. That’s continuing to expand. So one of the effects of globalization is not only that we’re more connected and we’re hearing from other parts of the world and our world is bigger and we’re living in a larger sphere, but the world also, as this has often been said, is coming to us. We get the same mix here.

I think I’m right in saying that when my kids were in high school at Hillcrest there were like 178 languages represented in the high school. That’s staggering to think about.

Mark Matlock
And people are not assimilating to the country that they’re moving. I mean, Germany is going through a major conflict with this saying, ‘We’re losing our identity as a nation.’ In the United States, we have a whole different set of values that guide us. But that’s one of the challenges, right, is that we’re trying to figure out how to be multi-cultural. Then groups can connect in ways that they couldn’t.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And it’s not unusual when you move to a foreign culture to look for people who are like you to hang together, to feel a little bit of stability in the midst of the adjustments that you’re having to make. And that takes a couple of generations actually to sort itself out.

That’s interesting for the churches that are built that way because ethnic churches – I hear this in Chinese and Korean churches all the time where the Chinese or Korean parents are talking about how their kids are so assimilated to America that they feel like they’re leaving their roots and all the anxiety that that creates. Again, just a small snapshot of a large area that impacts in a lot of ways.

And then the last one, the obvious one that we’ve been talking about a lot which is the information explosion with the internet and feeling comfortable using technology. This group really grew up with the computer from day one.

Mark Matlock
Our graduating seniors have never been alive when the internet wasn’t pervasive. Those that are entering college as freshman have never known life without the internet. And our freshman entering in were barely alive when 9/11 happened. To think about how those things – that’s going to be ancient history to them.
Darrell Bock
Right. So the point here is that all of this is impacting the church. We’ve got marriage and children and employment opportunities and education that are pushing and controlling in many ways students lives and choices in this early period, it’s impacting what they have to do. And what’s really key in a lot of that is the way in which coming to a family tends to push one to church. But with that being delayed, that’s not happening. And with all the other choices that we’ve talked about because of the choices people make about how they live and in some cases they’re aware about how churches feel about that, that kind of thing. So there are these disconnects.

So the large question in the last ten minutes that we have together is what is the church to do? How do you cope with all this variation and what is it that’s supposed to happen with this age group?

Mark Matlock
We just did a study of pastors on just trying to get an understanding of what their experience in their church is as it relates to teenagers. One of the things we found, 51% of pastors said the hardest group to reach are twenty-somethings and college aged students. That was the largest group. The next largest was high school students at 27%, a pastor said that’s the hardest group for them to reach. So this is obviously a challenge for the church and it’s something that’s important.

And there are a lot of shifts going on. The American Bible Society just released a report looking at scripture engagement among the generational categories, and they broke them into four groups: friendly, engaged, neutral and antagonistic. So among the Millennials – all adults, 17% were antagonistic. But among the Millennials, 29% were antagonistic towards the Bible, meaning they had a negative view. Those that were neutral, they didn’t have much feeling, it was about the same for Millennials and all adults. But when you look at the engaged people that are actually using scripture, 21% of all adults read it at least four times a week and have a very high view of it. Only 14% of Millennials. So there’s a really different way that generations are using scripture even in their lives, and that’s shaping, I think, a generation. To have that antagonistic view, I think, is something.

Darrell Bock
Now how much of that is a combination of what I would view to be two factors. One would be the presence of technology and the amount of time kids spend on technology. And they’re accessing information and playing video games and the variety of choices that they have. And then the second is the general cultural discussion about the Bible I would say is mostly negative in terms of this is an ancient book, you don’t really need to take it seriously, that kind of thing. Is that the double whammy that we’re getting?
Jay Sedwick
I think you’re in the middle of that, too, with your discussions over the years with Ehrman and some of the things along those lines. So I think that it’s definitely a factor. And most of the discussion has been on a popular level fairly negative, and the voices like yourself and others who would be defending the reliability, the veracity of scripture, are not being given the time or the media time that it needs to get a fair hearing. So I think that’s definitely an issue.

What is ironic about the whole thing is with technology the way it is, I don’t know about you but I’ve got I can’t tell you how many versions of the Bible on this little deal right here that I can take with me and study and do incredible things that the scholars of old would just die to have access to things like this, the things we can do and we can access. And that’s all available to these young Millennials as well.

Darrell Bock
I’ve just come from a week at Logos Software doing mobile ed for them and seeing about what it is, and of course Laga’s program, their starting point was here –
Mark Matlock
Was here at DTS, that’s right.
Darrell Bock
– library where we were contemplating what we could do with technology and the study of scripture. And I love to tell the story of when I look at backgrounds in scripture, I used to walk into class talking about Second Temple Jewish resources, and I’d walk in with a stack of books about yea high and hand them out one at a time so the students could be familiar with them. But the only way they could access them would be to go to the library. The last few years, I’m at the point where I don’t have to walk in with a single copy of a hard copy book. Everything is on the computer. I could put it up on the screen. Everything is a click away. And I think about what that means for me in actually doing my work with scripture. Talk about opportunities. I’ve got opportunities to do things I couldn’t have dreamed of doing when I first started.
Jay Sedwick
You couldn’t live long enough to access the materials you would need to do the things that you could do right now. Exactly.
Darrell Bock
The time it would take me – I could know what question to ask, but the actual time it would take me to do that, I would have gone, ‘Okay, I will write that one piece in my life.’ Now I can do it, and because of the speed of light and other things, boom. If it’s not there in about five seconds, I’m upset.
Jay Sedwick
So this is the question. It’s never been more accessible than it is right now. And yet, they’re not accessing it.
Mark Matlock
They’re not accessing it and there’s actually negative views toward the Bible and scripture. Some of it we’re moving from literacy to visual-cy in the way that we interact. Back in 2008, UC San Diego did a really interesting study and they found that the typical American receives about 34 gigabytes of information a day, but only .1% of that is text. So what we’re realizing is that words are not the information that people are taking in. We don’t know what the effect of that is. We don’t know how that’s changing –
Darrell Bock
You know, this relates to the way that I think about communication because there’s an exercise that I do when I’m doing cultural engagement stuff in which I tell them, my daughter was once buying furniture and I’m not an interior designer so while we were at the store and my wife was helping them, I was off to the side watching MTV and everything would come up about every four seconds. I would count how long a visual was up there, and I’m not even counting the stuff that’s going on on the side. I didn’t get to four any time in a five minute period. So I called my wife over and I said, ‘I’m going to do something for you. I’m going to count how long the visual is up there.’ I went through the same exercise. Another two minutes, I never got to four. Then I turned to her and said, ‘That’s how young people are processing information.’ It’s in bursts. If you look at our magazines etc., they’re structured to be quick and crisp. The idea of going through an outline.
Mark Matlock
To write a paper?
Darrell Bock
What in the world is that? And think about that in comparison to a web page?
Mark Matlock
And yet we have a generation that’s reading some of the biggest books, Harry Potter and the Twilight series. So there’s an interesting contrast, right? And I don’t know what that means for the Church. But I think if there was one thing I would tell a church right now just based on the Millennial situation is we have to think about how we go to where they’re at and be in their space. And we have to think about how many clicks does it take to get them to a place where we can talk to the gospel. We want to go from zero to gospel in as short a period of time, in four laws if possible. And the realities for this generation, it doesn’t work that way. And so we have to really be interested in them, being with them and helping them.

When you consider that 70% of those 82% that wanted to be married said that they want to be fully developed as a person, that’s part of what we offer as the Church is how to become whole. But we want to move people so quickly somewhere that we’re not willing to walk with them a little while until maybe that moment happens. So maybe our churches need to be offering career and vocational counseling. Maybe we need to provide mentoring programs with people in our church in different industries to connect with teenagers and people in the community. Maybe we need to put together parks and make our space more community accessible, and be okay with dad bringing the kids to use the playground with a six-pack like he would at the park down the street. Be okay with that and not necessarily feel like we have to sit down and share the gospel with him right then, right there.

I think that’s one of the things that we have to be a little more present with people because there’s a lot of skepticism and a lot of mistrust in what we’re trying to do as Christians in the Church.

Jay Sedwick
I agree with that. I think the Church’s strategy has got to be a lot more holistic than it has been. One of the things, at the risk of plugging Gabe and the fact that he’s going to be here, one of the things he talks about is a lot of the problem with Millennials is that they’ve watched the older generation live out their Christian lives and they’ve gone, ‘It ain’t working for these people and I don’t really want any of that.’ At the risk of using a clichéd term, we need authentic Christians who are living a life of discipleship with Jesus in front of this other generation. As Mark said, the mentoring and those kinds of real discipleship relationships with the younger people so that they can watch and see that, you know what, if you do it the way scripture tells you to do it, it actually does work pretty well. Your life does go better.
Darrell Bock
Again, I’m going to use a picture or a metaphor and I’m going to come back to the outline and the web page because I think that’s this is kind of what’s being said. The outline has one way to structure things and here’s the sequence and the order, it’s your four laws. But a web page is more like think about the possibilities of the choices about which I access information. There is no rule on a web page as to what you go to next once you get that up on the screen. And you’re full of those choices and interacting with those choices. And I really think that interacting with young people who are used to dealing with web pages, if I can say, it’s more like dealing with a web page than it is with an outline.

So you’re walking alongside the person, to use your picture, and you realize there are seven or eight different ways this thing could go, and you go with the flow. With one person you might go this way. With another person, you might go that way because of the way things are. You’re interacting in a more open-ended as opposed to a formulaic kind of way, and you’re treating them as the individual that they are in the midst of the process.

And you’re also interacting with them in a way that analogous to the way that they’ve handled information all their life. So I think that’s a way of kind of picturing what we’re talking about.

Mark Matlock
If our only transaction is to try to proselytize or convert somebody, then that becomes the basis of the relationship. And somehow I think there has to be something more than that, and I think it’s sniffed out, that this is transactional. And I think that this generation is going, ‘Well, are you willing just to be with me and walk with me?’
Darrell Bock
Yeah. I don’t want to be a notch on a gun belt, a number on a evangelistic list.
Mark Matlock
Well, I think we’ve enjoyed this really interesting time, the Field of Dreams, if you build it they will come. Right? And if we put church on, everybody will come. And I think about 80% of the population was reachable that way ten years ago and earlier. Now I think it’s more like 20%. So the mega-churches are doing a great job capturing that 20%, but that’s not transferable to a smaller church because the pool of people that it will attract in is very small. So when you’re dealing with this other group, you have to actually go and be where they are at in the present.

So I think right now some of the greatest innovation is going to come from smaller churches that are willing to literally take a walk around their community and say, ‘God, what are you doing here and why are we here where we’re at?’ Not trying to get people to come in 20 or 30 miles away, but literally in our neighborhood, our walkable radius.

Jay Sedwick Like the old parish concept.

Mark Matlock
Exactly. I think we have to go back to that if we’re really going to be effective.
Jay Sedwick
I work with tenth grade boys on a regular basis in our church and one of the things that I tell them every week and pray every week is. ‘You guys are representing Jesus in every sphere of influence; you need to do that well.’ And the local church has got to do that. They’ve got to represent who Jesus is not just in word, which we’ve gotten good at, but we’ve got to do it in terms of all of our deeds and all of our relationships. Most Millennials aren’t attracted to a brand in terms of a church brand. They’re more attracted to a cause. They want to be involved in something that actually does something that makes a difference that they can see tangibly, this is helping people; this is changing the way things are. And churches that are involved in the community that are making a difference are very attractive to the Millennials.
Darrell Bock
Our time is more than gone, but it’s been quick and brief and whew.
Jay Sedwick
The fastest 53 minutes in the world.
Mark Matlock
This always happens to us.
Darrell Bock
And it’s but the start. I’m sure I’ll have you guys back to talk about more of this because it’s a topic that’s going to be with us for awhile. And dealing with the challenges of a shifting life, this is one of the great cultural shifts that we’re in the midst of, it’s something churches are going to have to wrestle and think through. And as I said, we’re just a couple weeks away from a conference that’s going to focus on this and try and help pastors and churches deal with this in a significant way. And I think that senior pastors and their staff, particularly their youth leadership, will benefit from the conversation, and hopefully they’ve benefited from what you’ve shared with us today. In fact, I’m confident that they have.
Mark Matlock
Yeah, I just want to encourage people to think positively about Millennials, not negatively. I think that changes everything. They’re not broken, whatever. We’re all broken. Every generation is broken. Look at them in terms of the opportunities that we have to play into. You change that paradigm, and I think that’s a lot of what we’re going to do at Prone to Wander is try to change the paradigm about how we’re engaging them. But I think that’s really important for leaders.
Darrell Bock
Well, thank you, Mark. And thank you, Jay. We’re glad you could join us. And we thank you for joining us here at The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. We look forward to you coming back on our next podcast.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Jay L. Sedwick
Dr. Sedwick has over thirty years of youth ministry experience and serves on the board of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators and currently serves as president of the board for the Society of Professors in Christian Education. He has four children, guaranteeing a youth laboratory in his house for many years to come. An ordained minister who teaches youth at a large Dallas-area church, Dr. Sedwick is also a popular conference and seminar speaker. His research and teaching interests include youth development, youth culture, biblical education for youth, curriculum design, and legal and financial issues in ministry.
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