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Mobilizing the Next Generation by David Kinnaman

Christian Leadership Alliance

By David Kinnaman

Every organization has a worldview. In part, such worldviews consist of assumptions that are self-?evidently true to those working for the enterprise. They are ?so much a part of us that we don’t have to think about them; ?in fact, we don’t think about them, which is why we call ?them assumptions!

The worldview shared within a church, faith-based nonprofit or para church ministry is expressed outwardly in leaders’ decisions: in choices about where to invest resources; in the design of ministries, facilities and leadership structures. Most of the time, to most people in the organization, the assumptions that drive these choices aren’t noticeable. They don’t think about them because they share the worldview within which these assumptions exist.

But what happens when a person or group of people comes along who doesn’t share that worldview, those for whom those assumptions are not self-evidently true?

Enter Millennials.

Born between 1984 and 2002, Millennials, while part of our broader North American culture, also share within their generational cohort a unique set of values, assumptions and allegiances that are different from and, in many ways, profoundly disruptive to existing worldviews.

This has had — and will continue to have — significant effects on almost all of our institutions: from entertainment to ministry to workplaces to education. Understanding and integrating Millennials is critical to the success of any organization — including yours. Yet doing so can be frustrating and maddening: after all, some of our most basic assumptions are being challenged! Sometimes it might even feel a bit like trying to communicate with aliens.

Fortunately, these aliens have much to offer. And we have more in common than we have differences. Embracing those commonalities while learning to appreciate and engage the differences is key to successful inter-generational relationships at work, at home and at church.

In Barna Group’s sizable body of work on Millennials — we’ve conducted more than 30,000 interviews in over 200 studies with Millennials during the last decade — we’ve discovered four keys to empowering and mobilizing these young adults in your organization or church. Here are two of them.

Embrace Modularity

Jimmy Stewart once gave an interview in which he described working in the movie industry during the era of the “studio system.” He would go to the studio every weekday. If they were shooting a picture and he was in it, he would film. If they didn’t have a shoot scheduled, he practiced his singing, dancing or elocution, or made public appearances or gave interviews — whatever the studio had planned. At the end of the day, he went home.

Movie actors have a very different experience today. Instead of being under long-term contract to a studio, they jump in and out of projects, each with a contract of its own. They go where the work is and if they want professional training or media exposure, they arrange it themselves or hire a manager to make it happen.
We call this modularity, and it is the new way our lives — from work to education to relationships — is organized. In a modular world, everything can be taken apart and reassembled in a new pattern.

Consider faith. In our modular world, we can get great Bible teaching from a John Piper or Beth Moore podcast, fellowship on Facebook or Skype, an opportunity to serve at the local crisis pregnancy center and worship on the I Heart Radio app. We could even “attend” a mega church across the country in our pajamas, by streaming the Sunday worship service on our Web browser. Modular pieces — everyone’s faith expressions assembled in unique and personal ways.

For Millennials, modularity is not an unfamiliar, unfortunate side effect of globalization and hyper-connectivity, but just the way things are. Most faith-based organizations, however — especially ministries with a storied history and unique culture — function like the studio system: expecting Millennials to be all in and fully engaged.

But it is important to understand that Millennials’ lives are made up of pieces, and your organization is but one. This requires an increasing need for flexibility and adaptability. For many organizations this may mean implementing flex hours, offering cross-departmental roles with a variety of responsibilities, developing customized incentive plans, promoting and supporting employees’ hobbies, and encouraging employees to engage in career development opportunities outside of work.

Consider intentionally reorganizing Millennials’ roles within your organization at regular intervals to keep them challenged and learning new things. Most Millennials don’t plan to stay at a job more than two or three years anyway, so getting creative — and modular — can enable bright, talented young leaders to stick around longer and contribute more meaningfully.

Emphasize the “Why” Behind the “What”

Even though Millennials are living modular, flexible lives, most want the various components of their lives to come together into a cohesive, meaningful purpose. In his Barna FRAME, 20 and Something, author David H. Kim tells the story of a twentysomething he mentored. Stephanie, a recent college graduate, was offered a coveted job opportunity at Google, which she ultimately turned down to work instead at a small nonprofit for barely more than minimum wage. For many, the mere idea of turning down job security, a great salary and the opportunity to work for an industry-leading company would be incomprehensible. But after careful deliberation, Stephanie did just that. Despite her parents’ best efforts to convince her otherwise, she stuck to her convictions and spent the next few years serving the small nonprofit with whom she felt a strong connection.

Barna research shows that Millennials want passion for their job (42 percent) even more than a job that helps them become financially secure (34 percent) or that provides enough money to enjoy life (24 percent). According to a 2012 Net Impact Study, graduating university students say they would take a 15 percent pay cut for a job that makes a social or environment impact (45 percent) or to work for an organization with similar values to their own (58 percent). In the same survey, 72 percent said having a job where they can make an impact is essential — compared to 53 percent of all Americans.

Understanding this factor is critical to work (or minister) effectively with Millennials. As a generation, they have developed a reputation for a lack of loyalty. But as a rule, that’s just not accurate. Millennials do not often demonstrate loyalty to organizations or institutions, but they tend to be loyal to causes and to people.

What does this mean for your organization and the Millennials you lead? The good news is that you likely have a very meaningful cause to rally Millennials around! The difficulty comes in regularly unburying and highlighting the cause for people to see. Right-sizing the mission — stressing the transformation of lives and not just the building of the organization — motivates all kinds of people, not just Millennials!

Furthermore, an important shift when it comes to young leaders is to embrace them as co-conspirators in telling your organization’s story. Millennials love to discover the back story, the “why” behind the “what” and the “how.” As Millennials assume leadership roles, they can help us to translate the connection between organizational practicalities and missional significance for those whom they lead.

While working to implement these strategies will go a long way in mobilizing the young adults in your organization, one of the most critical aspects of true success is how you choose to perceive Millennials.


David Kinnaman is the president and principal owner of Barna Group — an incredible team of researchers and writers. He is the author of You Lost Me (2011) and Churchless (2014).  Today’s post is an excerpt from the 2014 Winter edition of Outcomes Magazine.

Kinnaman will be a keynote speaker at The Outcomes Conference: CLA Dallas 2015, April 14–16, 2015. ?Be sure to register for the Academic Experience so you don’t miss him as he kicks off the CLA Intensive Training Institute on April 14.

Christian Leadership Alliance: The Outcomes Conference


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Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

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