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Ministry with Millennials: The Power of Relationships
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By A. Allan Martin

 
“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” –Brian Tracy
 
Peer relationships have been assumed to be the gold standard of youth ministries.  But what keeps them in the church after youth group?  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
 
 
Several themes emerged that point the way for local congregations to create a positive environment for their youth and young adults . . . The first key is intergenerational relationships. For so many of our respondents, their relationship with the church was determined by their relationship with older members. These were even more important than peer relationships in many cases (especially as members transition from teenagers to young adults)
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Story after story would affirm the poignancy of relationships between the generations and the impression it made on Adventist Millennials. Notably, local churches don’t need to figure out how to make intergenerational relationships happen: They are already happening. However, it is important to note that these intergenerational relationships can work both ways — both negatively and positively.
Theme Two: Intergenerational Relationships
Among the prominent themes that emerged from the qualitative research was the desire among Millennials to have constructive, positive relationships with adults in the church; Adults other than their parents or the youth pastor.  It bears repeating that these interactions with adults are already occurring, however the key to longitudinal engagement of Millennials lies in the nature of these encounters.
 
The final theme from the qualitative research gives instrumental insights as to these vital relationships, and is summarized well in Ministry Magazine2:
Nothing drives teenagers and young adults from the church faster than being rejected, and nothing draws them in faster than being accepted. Both are currently happening in spades in Adventist churches around North America.
 
It seems that older adults tend to look at specific struggles and assign a judgment of the young person’s heart or intentions. But the young people often told us that God was using these struggles to draw them closer to Him . . . a process the older adults couldn’t see.
 
Tracy shared her story of where her poor decision left her feeling judged by the church as opposed to feeling comforted  —  unfortunately she then felt defined by a single instance of sin. “In one of my past relationships I let my boyfriend take me too far . . . and I really can’t forgive myself. I am praying God helps me forgive myself. It is tough to overcome something that has gone against your beliefs and I was stupid enough to let it happen. Each day I pray I can overcome this.”
 
The stories and the surveys suggest what is needed is the patience to form solid relationships which exude forgiveness and acceptance — trusting God to make the necessary changes, and recognizing change also needs time. Never discard someone in the midst of a personal struggle, for it may be just what God is using to make them into who He needs in the church.
Theme Three: Forgiveness & Acceptance
It’s not uncommon for relationships between adults and next generations to center on the themes of standards, behavior, and judgment.  And clearly the Bible articulates God’s sentiments on these important topics, including His administrative, transformative, and judicial roles.  Without negating Scriptural wisdom, the research endorses the role of church members as “ministers of reconciliation3,” especially in adult relationships with next generations.
 
Although in parental roles, it might have become habitual to relate with one’s children, leading off with rules, consequences, and discipline; Church adults are encouraged to lead with forgiveness and acceptance as they engage next generations, allowing rapport, trust, and respect to develop.
 
Just as important, the research also points to forgiveness and acceptance of church adults by Millennials.  The opportunity for mutually beneficial relationships to grow requires vulnerability and humility on the part of all generations.
 
I imagine many of us have stories from childhood, teen years, and young adulthood where adult members of the church loved and embraced us.  We may recall the profound impact forgiveness and acceptance had on young and older alike4.
 
As a church leader/pastor/member, what might you and your team do to intentionally foster intergenerational relationships undergirded by a culture of forgiveness and acceptance?
 
In our final episode, we’ll give attention to the final phase of the step-by-step young adult ministry development matrix, LOST2LIFE5.
 
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 [USA].  He and his wife, Deirdre, are proud parents of their own Millennial, Alexandria, a college student at Southern Adventist University.
 
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
 
32Corinthians 5:11-21
 
4Provocative 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

5Let 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