By John Poitevent
(Used with permission of Parish Catalyst, Jan. 3, 2019)
Since our founding, Parish Catalyst has been focused on helping parishes reach emerging generations. The statistics, specifically on millennials leaving the Church, are alarming. According to John Vitek, CEO of St. Mary’s Press, if we have any hope of changing this trend, we must first seek to better understand them. “The reasons most adults think young people leave the church are not the reasons young people leave the church. There are so many assumptions made by adults that are simply inaccurate,” says Vitek. In Going, Going, Gone, a deep, qualitative study on young people’s disaffiliation, he confirms that the reasons for leaving are as varied as the human experience itself, and often surprising.
However, as with every generation, there are some unique realities that have shaped the worldview of millennials. If our hope is to reach them with the love and message of Christ, we must seek to understand before being understood. Let’s look at four common stereotypes of millennials and why they might exist.
1) They are averse to institutions.
In their brief lives, millennials have seen significant moral failures from leaders of every major power structure. Corruption and scandals have ripped through business, government, entertainment, politics, sports, and of course religion. While there have been leadership scandals since biblical times, the internet and 24/7 news make them far more exposed and available to the public than ever before.
Whether the issue is infidelity, embezzlement, doping or rape, millennials have witnessed it all. They have grown up in a “scandal culture.” Shockingly, in spite of these failures, the politicians get reelected, athletes continue to play, the priest moves to another parish, and CEOs receive a massive bonus while the company goes bankrupt. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek points out that while leaders in the animal kingdom take risks and make sacrifices in order to protect the herd, modern business, religious, and political leaders have often neglected or even sacrificed their followers in order to ensure their own success. This trend has led millennials, more than any previous generation, to believe that they can’t entrust their future to an institution.
In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek points out that while leaders in the animal kingdom take risks and make sacrifices in order to protect the herd, modern business, religious, and political leaders have often neglected or even sacrificed their followers in order to ensure their own success. This trend has led millennials, more than any previous generation, to believe that they can’t entrust their future to an institution.
2) They have commitment issues.
Whether it is delaying marriage and kids, or changing jobs every few years, millennials are often branded as commitment-phobes. While most in the silent generation were married, had kids, and owned a house by their mid-twenties, millennials are pushing these milestones back a decade. One reason for this is financial instability. The majority of millennials graduated college in 2008 with an average of $25,000 in student loan debt, in the midst of the worst global financial crisis since the great depression. How would this affect your view on starting a family?
They have also experienced a radical shift in the work environment. Many companies are dividing full-time positions and outsourcing them to multiple contractors to avoid providing benefits, while corporate mergers force restructuring and layoffs. With this constant fracturing of roles comes a highly reduced sense of job security. Simultaneously, technology is providing new opportunities for freelance work, often leading to sustainable self-employment. These factors are encouraging more and more millennials to follow nontraditional career paths. Wise millennials are pursuing multiple opportunities for income; it would be detrimental to their survival if they didn’t.
3) They are not as patriotic.
While most millennials say that they love this country, their affection for America does not equate to nationalism or supremacy. One reason is that they are more globally aware than any previous generation. The vast majority of millennials receive their news online from world news sources. They are also more globally connected. It’s not unusual for a millennial to regularly communicate with friends on several continents through social media.
With this more informed global perspective, they also understand that the United States does not even rank in the top 20 countries for healthcare (29th) or education (26th). Those are sad and sobering statistics for a country that claims to lead the free world. What many view as a lack of patriotism might actually be a more informed view of America and a greater appreciation for other countries and their people.
4) They are taking over the world. Now.
This is not just a stereotype, but a reality. Regardless of your opinion about millennials, they are not only the future, they are the present. Currently millennials make up 50 percent of the American workforce, projected to reach 75 percent by 2030. Millennials are leading Fortune 500 companies, pastoring parishes, and holding political offices. And it’s not the end of the world. Actually, it’s a new beginning. With far less concern about titles, profits, and traditions, and more interest in relationships, purpose, and authenticity, we are about to see a much-needed culture shift in the areas of power and influence. One thing is certain, millennials will not be waiting for our permission or approval to make that happen. They never have. And that might just be what bothers us the most.
John Poitevent is the Director of Facilitation for Parish Catalyst, a Catholic parish renewal organization. Through a collaborative learning process, Parish Catalyst encourages Catholic leaders to think creatively, act courageously, and renew the Church. To learn more, visit www.parishcatalyst.org.
Next week: Saint Mary’s Press Research interviews John Poitevent.