Millennials: A term that here means anyone born between 1977 and 1995. That’s between the appearance of the world’s first all-in-one personal computer (i.e., the Commodore PET) and the invention of the DVD, respectively.
Millennials pack a lot of buying power in today’s marketplace (over a trillion dollars’ worth) and they’re nearing the peak of their consumer years. Add that to the fact that they’re the biggest generation on record and presto—you have a group too big to ignore. Engaging them is more than an opportunity. It’s a necessity.
To do that, there are a few things you should know about them.
Full disclosure: The author of this blog post is a millennial.
1. Millennials might not exist
Have you ever wondered why no one can agree when millennials were born?
Tom DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, argues that “there was a good sociological reason for identifying the Baby Boom as a discrete generation.” The Census Bureau defines a Boomer as anyone who popped into existence between two concrete historical events: the end of World War II (1946) and the post-war advent of the nuclear family (1964). This (generally) gives Boomers specific and coherent characteristics.
Millennials do not have such clearly-defined historical brackets. Moreover, every generation since the Boomers has been less and less coherent, sharing fewer and fewer traits in common.
So what makes a millennial a millennial?
The answer is “millennial” is not really a historical term at all. It’s a marketing term used to describe recent and rising traits in consumer behavior. While these traits tend to concentrate on certain age groups, they are not tantamount to a distinct generational cohort. At least, not a historically-based one.
Ultimately, corporations are defining millennials and leading the research on them. Every corporation has its own idea of when they were born. Even Millennial Marketing, which supplied the dates at the beginning of this blog, change them for almost every study they do.
There are no precise dates for when millennial birthdays begin or end because ultimately a millennial is defined by behavior rather than birth-date.
So, to speak of millennials at all is to speak in corporate terms. This means when we discuss how to engage or reach them, we are, by definition, stuck talking like we’re trying to sell something. However, just because we start in the marketplace does not mean we need to end there. Consumer behaviors can expose the deeper cultural values of millennials, which is critical information if we want to reach them.
2. Millennial is not a dirty word
Millennials really dig that they’re millennials. At least, a lot of them do.
Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and himself a millennial, says: “Despite ‘millennial’ being a marketing term, my generation has embraced it. I see the term openly used in conversations with millennials in a way I’ve never seen from a Baby Boomer or member of Gen X.”
Enthusiastically including oneself in a generational cohort comes down to a matter of communication. People dislike labels if they feel it derogates them or opens them up to mockery—and frankly, millennials have been mocked aplenty. We’ve heard all the jokes about participation awards, selfies, internet dependability, or how we “can’t even.” Still, many millennials take pride in their millennial-hood. They see themselves as one of the most educated and promising generations to date—one which has also “faced massive amounts of adversity with a poor economy,” adds Schawbel.
Not only can you market to millennials, but you could potentially market something as millennial and get positive attention.
3. Millennials are creative consumers
Millennials prefer their consumption to double as engagement with culture.
Here’s what I mean. TOMS famously donates a pair of shoes for every pair purchased. Bombas does the same with socks. Corporations across the board are doing more than supporting a cause: They’re doubling as humanitarian organizations. This is no accident. It prompts an overwhelmingly positive response from millennials. While the merchandise may be superb, the real trick to their appeal is the charitable component. According to Millennial Marketing, millennials are more likely than any generation before to make a purchase solely because it supports a worthy cause, even if it costs a little extra.
Millennial patterns of consumption strive to correspond with something creative and socially helpful. More than the enviable quality of organic Higher Ground Roasters coffee beans, millennials thirst for the gratification that they have leveraged their purchasing power to make the world a better place. They don’t just want to drink a cup of coffee: They want to be praised for it too. The ideal brand permits millennials to take and give back in the same motion.
For churches, this means buried beneath the consumerism there is a real (if underdeveloped) desire among millennials to reach out and be a force for good in the world, beginning with what they already have. Yes, it is awash with narcissism. Still, lifestyle changes are the primary means of engaging with the culture and the world for millennials, and that’s something the church can use and celebrate.
Millennials are receptive to any church emphasis on the virtue and cultivation of habit; habit in the original sense of “the wholesome patterns of life.”
To learn more about the theology of habit, read Thomas Aquinas’s famous treatise, “On Habits.” The Book of Proverbs is also stuffed with sayings on how to live wisely, i.e., how to live in a manner that harmonizes with the just and orderly world God has created.
4. Millennials value participation over options
The millennial is bombarded with ten times the number of marketing messages as Generation X. Still, consumers aren’t tuning out. They are engaging more than ever. In fact, they want to have more options. Like Gen Xers, millennials derive more satisfaction from a purchase decision just because alternatives were available. Yet unlike Gen Xers, millennials would prefer something they helped create than something prepackaged by a manufacturer. They don’t just want goods or services. They want a quality experience.
Naturally, a quality experience corresponds to a higher quality item. Millennials are happy to put the money down rather than go for the cheaper option that would just “get the job done.” Millennials are not utilitarian. They’re not just trying to make ends. They want a purchase to translate into a fuller life.
Importantly, millennials are most satisfied with a new purchase when they sense that they contributed to its creation. This is part of the quality experience they crave. At minimum, millennials expect some personalization feature. At best, they are incorporated in the creative process.
This means churches have to stand for more than their bottom line. If you focus on drawing millennials into your church and then keeping them there, you will inevitably bore and alienate them, no matter how cutting-edge, entertaining, or tactful you may be. Churches have followed a disturbing trend for the past few decades where members are relegated to a spectator audience. Millennials don’t want to be kept on the receiving end. They want to worship and serve. Put them to work.
5. Millennials value authenticity over therapeutic positivity
Take a look at the millennial aesthetic. It’s visible everywhere, from coffee shops to stage designs. The setting is sleek, monotone, minimalist, and atmospheric—like a marriage between an Apple computer and an operating room. Clashing with this is something rustic, visceral, and colorful—such as wooden panels, dried flora, or items from a bygone era. We might call it “hipster,” but it’s gone mainstream. This is just one indicator of shifting values in the oncoming generation. They crave something grainy, real, and raw. In a word, authenticity.
This isn’t like the old days of church growth. “It’s ever-shifting and ever-changing,” says a Christian podcast. “It was a Hawaiian floral shirt a couple of years ago, now it’s tight jeans.” Even with their clothing, pastors and church leaders have moved from comfortable, colorful, and disarming to trim, trendy, and esoteric.
“All that self-help era that we were in, from what I can tell, is over,” claims Ryan Cameron, executive pastor at Champions Centre. “We’re moving past these self-help messages and really preaching Jesus. Wherever we go and see a church that is really committed to preaching the gospel and preaching Jesus, we’re seeing phenomenal results.” Christian millennials are tired of “baptized self-help books.” They decry the tradition of putting on a happy face and playing church. They want to be challenged.
Authenticity may be the millennial’s defining trait. For them, it means intimacy and vulnerability.
Anything to be acceptable must appear authentic first (and that means it must not look like it is trying to appear authentic). This is a generation that will reward you for showing your scars (or tattoos, as the case may be). They don’t want a paragon of virtue witnessing to them. They want someone struggling like they are. Millennials want leaders who are open about their weaknesses and failures.
6. Millennials value function over flashiness
Millennials are not as susceptible to flashy new tech as former generations.
Remember when churches used fog machines during services? It was new. It created drama. It gave the stage lights something interesting to bounce off. All the rock concerts were using it. It was “cool.”
For millennials, the definition of “cool” has changed.
Millennials are 2.5 times more likely to be early adopters of technology than any generation before it. They like to be first with new technology, but “new” no longer has the commercial force it used to. For millennials, useful is the new cool. Attempts to dazzle have increasingly less capital. Millennials value brands that enhance their lives, so new tech must serve a clear purpose.
For example, replacing all the hymnals in the church with eReaders may be an impressive demonstration of wealth, but to a millennial it would seem silly, if not wasteful. Similarly, using a fog machine because it’s the “latest craze” is not reasoning that enthuses millennials. Whatever it is, it has to make a substantial contribution to the service. If it’s just fireworks, prepare for yawns.
Want to learn more? Download our free ebook, “How to Engage Millennials.”