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Ministry with Millennials: Can You Hear Me Now?
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By A. Allan Martin
 
"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." –Leo Buscaglia
 
Often we intuitively look at program attendance, church activity, and/or behaviors of our young people to give us a sense of what their trajectory of church involvement will be later in life. In this most recent study of Adventist Millennials, conducted by the Barna Group1, there were some fascinating findings. 
 

Here’s what the research revealed, as summarized in Ministry Magazine2:
 
Based on their [Adventist Millennials] responses to various questions in the survey, respondents were categorized as either “engaged” or “disengaged” from their local congregations. Engaged respondents were those who attend services at least monthly and indicated that church is relevant for them. Disengaged did not meet one or both of those criteria. Then, key differences between these two groups were extracted from the data.
 
. . . there were no significant differences between the behaviors of the engaged and disengaged young adults when they were children and teenagers. In other words, we cannot look at the level of activity among the children and teens and then predict which ones will disengage from the church as young adults. But nega­tive experiences with their childhood church (specifically with the leadership and adult members) are strong predic­tors of such disengagement.
 
 
 
If a key factor in maintaining engagement among young adults are positive experiences and relationships with older Adventist members and church leadership, the next question is, “What does that look like?” To find out, we conducted two discussion groups via an online platform. . .
 
The groups were amazingly insightful. As we listened to the stories of these young adults — hearing about the good and the bad in their upbringing and current situation, we were alternately excited and dismayed.
 
The excitement was from hearing so many stories of transformation and spiritual vibrancy, and how these experiences happened in a social context of love and acceptance. The dismay was from hearing so many stories of personal rejection and angst. Over the course of the discussions, several themes emerged that point the way for local congregations to create a positive environment for their youth and young adults.

 
Theme One: Sharing Personal Stories
Among the prominent themes that emerged from the qualitative research was the desire among Millennials to have authentic platforms for sharing personal experiences. An incredible phenomenon illustrating this occurred in the research process, as the online discussion groups were filled almost instantaneously, many more young adult respondents asked how they might participate even after the capacity was attained for the qualitative portion of the study. The findings from the online discussion groups were telling, and are summarized well in Ministry Magazine2:
 
There is a power to experiencing God’s love and strength. There is a power to sharing that experience with others. And there is a power in hearing the story of another person’s encounter with God.
 
Callie’s story is both an encouragement to her and a testimony to others. “I almost died when I was young due to an infection. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing my dad cry as he whispered prayers into my ear. . . I also remember the doctors telling my parents that they didn’t understand what happened, but I that I was healed.”
 
Thomas’s story is less sensational, but no less personally powerful. “God spoke to me in such an amazing way that night. I was standing in the sand, out of reach of the encroaching water, looking up at the stars and talking with God. I asked Him a question, and hoped that if His answer was “yes,” that I would know without a doubt. As soon as I said that, the water touched and went past my feet. That was a big moment in my life.
 
How can the Adventist faith communities make sure that its members have platforms to share with others how God has worked in their lives?
 
These experiences can be both positive and negative. Some of our respondents shared stories of healing, and others shared stories of struggle. Both types of stories were extremely encouraging to the others young adults in the discussion group. How can a church make it acceptable for members to share not only their victories, but also their struggles? Their shared testimony could be what keeps a young person engaged with the Adventist church, enriched by the relationships sharing stories affords.
Even amidst all the technology, programming wizardry, and media sophistication of our contemporary culture, it is the age old art of story-listening and story-telling that engages the next generation3.
 
I imagine we all have stories from childhood, teen years, and young adulthood where adult members of the church truly “heard” us, listening empathically to our stories. Likewise, many of us may have accounts of where we were ignored, a personal story dismissed.
 
As a church leader/pastor/member, what might you and your team do to more intently listen to the heart of next generations?
 
One model that I make mention of in the step-by-step young adult ministry development matrix, LOST2LIFE4, is the 180 Symposiums being held throughout the Oregon Conference. Find out more about how church leadership is listening intently to young adult stories at http://orgcyouth.netadvent.org/cy-180symposium
 
Next episode, we’ll give further attention to what the research reveals as young adults express themes to consider when fostering a vibrant Millennial ministry4.
 
A. Allan Martin, PhD is the teaching pastor of Younger Generation Church [www.YGchurch.com], the vibrant young adult ministry of the Arlington Seventh-day Adventist Church in Texas 
 
 
Notes
 
1Barna Group, a Christian research firm, is the world leader in understanding Christians, attitudes toward Christianity and Christian organizations, and spiritual perspectives in general. They surveyed Millennials who were (or had been) part of an Adventist congregation in order to understand their common experiences and attitudes. The survey was followed by multiple, moderated online discussions with Adventists and former Adventist young adults. Each young adult discussion group lasted for three days. One group focused on college-aged Adventist Millennials, and the other focused on post-college Millennials. All the young adults in the groups were still connected in some way to the Adventist church, but some had cut ties with their local congregation to one degree or another. For more on the Barna Group and their research with Millennials go to https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials
 
2Jenkin, C., & Martin, A. A. (2014, May). Engaging Adventist Millennials: A church that embraces relationships. Ministry, 86(5), 6-9.
Online: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2014/05/engaging-adventist-millennials
 
3Provocative parallels can be found in the emphasis on intergenerational church relationships noted in the Adventist Millennial Research and the work of Dr. Roger Dudley, professor emeritus at Andrews University, whose study of youth and young adults spanned over four decades. See https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2009/01/embracing-those-who-reject-religion
 
4Let me suggest a step-by-step matrix for developing your young adult ministry. LOST2LIFE offers steps to follow in progression as you consider starting or sharpening your ministry to Millennials. Download free https://db.tt/MRg3qRs9