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March 2015

Living Trust


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Engaging Millennials

By Neil Gilliland


For the past several years, shortly after the national convention meets, I head north to the Canadian province of Ontario for a week of fishing with a group of men I grew up with in southern Ohio.

It is a long 800-mile trip. I have to admit, at the end of a long and busy summer, it is a relief to spend a week with no cell phones, Internet, and few people other than our group of old friends from the hills of Appalachia.

We fish eight to ten hours a day, enjoy the beauty of God’s handiwork etched on Canadian topography, watch bald eagles soar overhead, and listen to the haunting call of loons. For someone who loves the outdoors, it is Eden.

This year, I listened intently to the conversations in the cabin. Most of them consisted of stories from our childhood. You know, all those back-in-the-day stories. Stories that anyone who is not a vested member of the group finds so boring they could gnaw the furniture into a pile of sawdust. As I listened, I thought, “Do you know what they talked about in the good old days? Yeah, you’re right. They talked about the good old days.” I wanted to stop the conversation and say, “Hey, do you realize our children and grandchildren’s good old days are right now?”

One reason I love young adults and teens is that their focus is on the future, not the past. I often tell people I am counseling, “There is no future in the past.” I don’t want to dismiss the past, but I prefer to look forward. I can’t change my past, but I can change my future. And, I can change the future by engaging this generation. I want to engage them for the sake of the Kingdom. I want to engage them so they can engage the Savior on a deeper and more intimate level and, subsequently, impact the world.

The millennial generation is different than my generation (although I see some similarities to the 1960s). I expect them to be different and to celebrate it. How do we engage this generation? While I make no claim to be an expert in engaging millennials, I do have a couple of suggestions. Let’s start with the negative, that is, a couple of things not to do if you want to engage millennials.

Don’t try to be one of them. My favorite African proverb says, “A log can lie in a river all its life, but it will never become a crocodile.” Don’t dress like them or cut your hair to try to look 20-something. There are no skinny jeans in my closet. Don’t try to speak their lingo. I might throw a “tru dat” out there every now and then so they will know I noticed, but they don’t expect me—or want me—to be like them. We both know, as much as I might want to be one of them, I never will be.

Don’t be judgmental or give advice without investing in their lives. A common example of a point of conflict is the music of millennials. In reality, the music of every generation has been criticized by the previous generation. Even Bach was criticized for his music in the church where he played organ. Their music may not be my preferred genre, but if they invited me to go to a concert, I would go. Investing in them takes time.



What should you do if you want to engage millennials?

Develop relationships with them. Most millennials I talk with say they actually want to engage the previous generations as much as we want to engage them. There are so many options and complexity in their lives, having a “gray hair” help them make sense of it all is a valuable gift. However, they are not looking for us to stand in front of a group and deliver an oratorical masterpiece. They would rather sit over a cup of coffee chatting about life. It takes time…everything worthwhile takes time. Ask questions and listen, really listen, when they respond.

As elementary as it may sound, care about them and love them. Ask about their lives and follow up. Communicate with them. You may have to learn to text, Facebook, Instagram, or some other technological medium. It is the way they do community. When I teach a college class and ask the students the best way to contact them, they always respond, “Text me.” Keep it short and to the point. The more visual, the better. If they share a concern, follow up. If I have ever had success in engaging this generation, it is because I genuinely love and care about them. Recently, in a Sunday morning life group, we were asked what gives us the most joy. My response, apart from my family, was hanging out with high school and college students. I love them!

Be genuine and real. When I listen to millennials describe people I often hear them say, “They are the real deal” or “They are so genuine.” Being genuine and real is difficult. It requires a measure of uncomfortable vulnerability. If we are honest, none of us have it all together. At times, we want to give the appearance, especially to a younger generation, that we have the answers and have it together. Lay the masks aside and just be you. A few months ago, I drove past a gas station with a marquee that read, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.” I typically don’t look for philosophical truth at gas stations, but that is good advice if I want to connect to millennials.

Is engaging this generation important? I think it is more than important; it is critical. Deuteronomy 6 makes the importance clear. The 1960s were a great transformational time in our nation and world. The cry was “Freedom.” They wanted freedom from “the man,” the culture that dictated life, freedom from the layers of baggage laid on by society. This is also a time of cultural change in our nation and the world.

The cry of today’s generation is “Significance.” They want to engage in something significant. What has greater significance than reaching the world for Christ? Give them a cause, and they will go. If they think it will make a difference in our world, they will line up to sign up.


About the Writer: Neil Gilliland’s gift for understanding and communicating with diverse age groups is demonstrated by his demand as a speaker for everything from teen events to senior retreats. In addition to serving as member care consultant for International Missions, he teaches at Welch College and Liberty University. Each summer he dedicates almost two months of his time to
E-TEAM (International Missions) and Truth and Peace (National Youth Conference) students.





©2015 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists