By Neal Michell
We hear it all over the church: “We need to reach the Millennials.” When I came to my most recent parish six years ago, I knew that we would need to attract young adults. As a result, we have had a modicum of success in drawing in Millennials (a modicum and not a huge success). Let me share with you an exercise our vestry did recently that was a lot of fun, built community, and informed vestry members at a deeper level of the task before them.
Wired to Care — The Importance of Building Empathy in our Church
Let me begin by highlighting Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik, a book that every pastoral leader should read. The author says that empathy will help companies be better innovators, serve their customers more effectively, and make their companies more successful.
Comedian George Burns once said that if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. That’s not what Pataik is talking about. He’s talking about stepping outside of ourselves and into the shoes of someone else.
St. Paul tells us this very thing: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Similarly, Henri Nouwen says in The Wounded Healer that compassion must be at the core of our authority. We become compassionate by entering into the suffering and pain of others. Nouwen says that a powerful preacher inspires a listener to say, “You know what I know; you feel what I feel. Yes, you can speak into my life.”
There are plenty of books and research on Millennials. One can learn all about Millennials from those books, but all that research doesn’t hold a candle to hearing people’s stories and learning what makes them tick from their stories. For example, one thing that our vestry learned is that most Millennials don’t want to be called Millennials and are generally disdainful of being so characterized — as opposed to Boomers who love being Boomers.
A story that Patnaik wrote about Wired to Care inspired our approach. The Mercedes-Benz board of directors wanted to target their vehicles to Millennials. Pataik, as a marketer, determined that none of the members of the board knew any Millennials well enough to know their values, hopes, and dreams. He led the directors through an exercise; I adapted it for our vestry’s purposes. (I’m not telling you Patnaik’s exercise in hopes that you’ll buy the book and read it for yourself.)
I divided our 12-person vestry into pairs and gave them $100 each. What was the $100 for? Stay tuned. I then invited six Millennials to our vestry meeting and assigned each Millennial to a pair of vestry members. The vestry members interviewed their Millennial for 30 minutes and then for the next 30 days the two vestry members were to go and buy their Millennial a present or presents with their $100, based on what they learned in the interviews. We then invited the six Millennials to the next vestry meeting and had each pair give their present and explain why they bought it. In addition, I paid each Millennial $50 for each of the two vestry meetings.
Before the first vestry meeting, as our (Millennial) guests were present and waiting for the meeting to start, everyone was politely quiet or speaking in hushed tones. Then, after the initial interview and people were gathering to continue with the meeting, the room was a hubbub of conversation. Our vestry members and our guests had all moved into the mode of easy conversation. Before the second vestry meeting, it was like a gathering of old friends who were simply catching up on what had happened in their life in the past month.
Then, at the beginning of the meeting, each pair of vestry members introduced their young adult to the group, presented their guests with their presents, and explained to the rest of the vestry why they had bought that particular present based on what they had learned from their millennial guest. The room was electric with relationships and burgeoning friendships.
Paying $1,200 for a home-grown focus group was money well spent.
Unpacking the Exercise
What made the exercise so meaningful? Several points:
Our guests were not members of our church. They brought no presuppositions to the table. The various vestry members learned that none of the people particularly liked organ music. Rather than dismissing them as “not our kind of people,” they had come to like their Millennial and could listen without prejudice. These young adults had little association with any Episcopal church. They brought fresh eyes and ideas about what was possible and meaningful to our vestry members.
Our vestry learned that relationship comes first. People come to faith as adults often because of or through a relationship with a friend. Theologically we would say that the person came to faith because of seeing the Christian faith incarnated in a friend or family member.
It’s easy to study the characteristics of Millennials from researchers. And when we do that, the information usually goes in one ear and out the other. Our vestry members now knew stories of how our new Millennial friends are wired: cross-ethnic relationships are the norm; they don’t like our music; parents want to keep their kids with them in church; they want mentoring relationships, not just mentors; and so on. These preferences of our young adult guests were based not on polling by experts: they were incarnated in the personal stories and manners of our new friends.
The Cursillo movement has a motto: “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.” The Alpha Course is built on this premise as well: relationships are primary in an adult coming to faith in Christ. The Alpha Course is designed for people to be in a small group, develop friends within that group, begin to trust their new friends in that group. As they begin to trust their life and share their life with their friends, they are enabled to trust and surrender their life to Jesus Christ.
This was not the first time the vestry had heard about the need to reach Millennials. I had been preaching and teaching about this for the previous five years. We had had an influx of young adults in that time, three of whom were now serving on our vestry. Our congregation was happily open to drawing young adults into leadership. Our vestry spends the first 20 to 30 minutes of each vestry on some sort of biblical or mission-focused topic. In other words, as the leader of the vestry I had prepared them for this moment. (Let me give a shameless plug for my book Beyond Business as Usual. This book provides great resources for helping to form your vestry into a missionally focused vestry.)