Ministry with Millennials

January 12th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

“One Generation Commends Your Works to Another.”  Psalm 145:4

A young couple had recently graduated from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and had returned to speak at our mid-week worship service. They looked like students and talked like students and they also were deeply committed Christ-followers. They had so much they wanted to communicate with those dear to their hearts and near to their age.

They wanted students to consider the powerful and pervasive influence of what they take into their lives, what they absorb from the culture around them. They reeled out a half dozen words at a time and drew students to complete phrases that began popular songs. The students got all of their dozen examples. I got only one: “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The students got the point:  they absorb their culture, even passively.  And I got the point:  the students and I were clearly not listening to the same things. In fact, they lived in a world unknown to me.  Somewhere along the lines of cultural drift, I had become a stranger to what was familiar to them.

Whatever they are called – Generation Y, Mosaics, Millennials – there are more of them than ever.  And they are not like me. That is the challenging news.

The comforting news is that Jesus “gets” emerging adults. Most likely his disciples were in this age group. He invested in them and drew them to follow Him. He still knows how to do this. In the landscape of their lives, He knows where the bridges that connect with them are—or where they can be built.

I trust that God continues to put eternity in people’s hearts.  He who formed hearts knows how to fill them and bear fruit in them. He who determined the exact times and places where each of us would live (Acts 17:26) has not created a generation He cannot reach or use.

But how about me?  How can I catch up when I am so far behind this generation?  How can I reach across the growing gap between our cultures?  How can I connect with 18 – 25-year olds without messing up, freaking out or shutting down?

Here are three Rs that help me as I seek to love well cross-generationally:

Research:  Where there is the desire to learn, the teacher will appear.  Most of my Millennial “teachers” wear t-shirts and jeans and have strong preferences about how they like their coffee.  They are experts on themselves, generally unaware of the mystery they might be to others.  Fortunately, most are highly relational, and they respond well to genuine interest and respectful curiosity.

I recently developed a survey where I asked those on our leadership team about their favorite books, songs, vocal artists, games, movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and about the celebrities and events they believe influence their culture.  I asked what they think I ought to understand about college culture. And they graciously responded.  I am benefiting from the developing dialogues with them about these matters

You can do this!  Simply find a younger friend, request a bit of their time, ask good questions and listen.

Resources:  God has called and equipped some of those in His body to be cultural interpreters and consultants.  This is one of the benefits of being in the Body!  There are actually many options for exploration.  Many more than most can read.  So here is a selection of some of those that may be most helpful to you:  (And, yes, I asked a Millennial friend for her input about these books!)


·       Souls in Transition, Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (Oxford Press, 2009)

·       Shaping the Spiritual Lives of Students:  A Guide for Youth Workers, Pastors, Teachers and Campus Ministers, Richard Dunn (InterVarsityPress, 2001)

·       Generation iY, Tim Elmore (Poet Garner, 2010)

·       Tim Elmore also shares his most recent insights and materials on


Consider interviewing local church or campus student ministers.  And do not overlook the wealth we have in our Texas colleges, universities and seminaries.  Staff members in Student Life are daily on the front lines of these relationships.  Talk with them. I have recently benefitted from the writings and recommendations of Dr. Angela Reed and Dr. Amy Jacober, professors at Truett Seminary. Who is in your “‘hood?”  Look and listen.

Relationships:  Personal engagement trumps professional expertise.  Most of the emerging adults I know are genuinely available for relationships with adults who will listen to and speak into their lives.  They are often quite tolerant of my ignorance.  Love not only covers a multitude of sins (note 1 Peter 4:8, where we are encouraged to love one another deeply); it also seems to compensate for a lot of garden-variety awkwardness.

A red-headed freshman from a small town in Texas was interviewing for a leadership team in our Baptist Student Ministry.  When we asked what he hoped to see happen in his life during college, he replied, “I hope to grow in knowing and loving God and people.”  Well said.  In fact, this one sentence crystallized my own life-purpose statement.  Out of the mouths of freshmen….

“One generation commends your works to another.” (Psalm 145:4)  It doesn’t specify which generation speaks to which!  May the Lord be known and shown in our cross-generational relationships.

By Shawn Shannon, director of the Baptist Student Ministry at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor

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2 Responses

  1. Joshua Merillat says:

    This is wonderful insight! As an “older” college student as well as a youth pastor, it is certainly a constant up-hill climb trying to stay connected to this generation. Young folks, I believe, seek every opportunity to be mentored by the more “wise”. One thing to keep in mind is what you say and do is far more important than how you say or do it. It doesn’t always have to be current to connect.

  2. Jeff Heaton says:

    So I’m just beginning to build a ministry in Collin County to Millennials and come across this article by one of my mentors when I was in college, Shawn Shannon. When Shawn speaks all should listen! Thanks Shawn for your great perspective.

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