Benjamin Windle

I am still trying to understand who I am. Born in 1982, I sit on the boundary between Generation X and the Millennials. While I don’t completely fit in either generation, my age gives me a unique insight into both.

My childhood involved riding my Huffy BMX bike unsupervised through the leafy Western suburbs of Brisbane, where for 20 cents I could play arcade video games at the local fish and chip shop. My only rule—come home when the sun sets. Atari. Hyper-color t-shirts. The Wonder Years. Michael Jackson. The 80s was a cool decade to grow up in!

I am also an early settler of the digital era. I’m not a true native, but I was young enough when the digital revolution hit to catch the first wave and adopt technology early. I was streaming movies before Blockbuster went bankrupt. I was blogging at 18. I traveled the world in my early twenties, seeking experiences over structure.

 

I rejected the hierarchical church structures I was raised in, and went in search of more fluid, relational models.

 

I embraced technology instinctively as a norm in almost every area of my life. 

I have experienced life in both analog and digital. My childhood and early teens were not just another era; they were another way of living that has long passed. True Millennials and Generation Z have only ever known a digital world. Their worldview starts at a very different place than all other generations.

The sound of dial-up Internet is still familiar to me. I can remember searching for the VHS tape behind the cover in Blockbuster video stores, and I even carried a Walkman on the way to school to play cassette tapes. I grew up in an analog environment, but during my teenage years, I also experienced the genesis of the digital age. 

I am still trying to understand who I am. Born in 1982, I sit on the boundary between Generation X and the Millennials. While I don’t completely fit in either generation, my age gives me a unique insight into both.

My childhood involved riding my Huffy BMX bike unsupervised through the leafy Western suburbs of Brisbane, where for 20 cents I could play arcade video games at the local fish and chip shop. My only rule—come home when the sun sets. Atari. Hyper-color t-shirts. The Wonder Years. Michael Jackson. The 80s was a cool decade to grow up in!

I am also an early settler of the digital era. I’m not a true native, but I was young enough when the digital revolution hit to catch the first wave and adopt technology early. I was streaming movies before Blockbuster went bankrupt. I was blogging at 18. I traveled the world in my early twenties, seeking experiences over structure. I rejected the hierarchical church structures I was raised in, and went in search of more fluid, relational models. I embraced technology instinctively as a norm in almost every area of my life. 

I have experienced life in both analog and digital. My childhood and early teens were not just another era; they were another way of living that has long passed. True Millennials and Generation Z have only ever known a digital world. Their worldview starts at a very different place than all other generations.

The sound of dial-up Internet is still familiar to me. I can remember searching for the VHS tape behind the cover in Blockbuster video stores, and I even carried a Walkman on the way to school to play cassette tapes. I grew up in an analog environment, but during my teenage years, I also experienced the genesis of the digital age. 

I speak from the paradigm of living in both worlds.

Gen Y, also known as Millennials because they came of age as they crossed from the 20th to 21st centuries, witnessed the advent of new technologies. Computers became personal, and the Internet became a reality. Gen Z, on the other hand, has only ever known social media, Uber, cellular devices, wearable technology, and the like. 

As a pastor, I can straddle the cultural mindset of multiple eras, especially Generations Y and Z. The true Gen Y, and especially Gen Z, are digital natives in today’s world, whereas the rest of us are digital immigrants. 

To be candid, I almost left the church for good.

 

It had nothing to do with God, and nothing to do with the people—it had everything to do with culture and methodology. I was reacting to something I couldn’t articulate at the time: a set of unseen cultural expressions that iceberged into something large and obstructive beneath the water. Culturally, the hull had collided, and water was gushing in. I wanted to jump ship. I was raised in the church. My father was a pastor. 

At the age of 17, I came to a fork in the road. Was this only the religion of my parents, or was I going to stay? Ultimately, I made a crucial decision to be a church builder instead of a church critic. I didn’t leave the church. I stayed because the local church is central to the Christian faith in the New Testament. I stayed because if you want to change something, you have to first love it and embrace it. I stayed because, despite some imperfections, my life was changed through the local church. 

So, at 17, I graduated high school, started a small group in my local church, and made a touchstone commitment in my heart to Jesus that has guided my path for 20 years: I will stay and be a part of building what you are building—the church. From that point on, my passion has been the local church. 

It doesn’t surprise me when I read almost universal statistics of Millennials abandoning church. Church, unlike many other industries, has not had its prevailing model disrupted by generational change or technology to the extent that it has been forced to undergo a complete rebuild.

 

Think Kodak film vs. digital cameras. Airbnb vs. the hotel industry. Uber vs. taxis. If church history teaches us anything about ourselves, it is this: we (the church) have a remarkable ability to insulate against mega-changes in society and maintain our status quo. 

This protectionist approach, often wrapped in theological dogmas and cliché statements like “Truth never changes,” means we stay… the… same. And the world changes. Let me say emphatically, I am an orthodox, Bible-believing follower of Jesus. All the core tenants of theology that conservative Christians have believed for many generations—yep, I believe them.

 

With that out of the way, I can push my point that maintaining a timeless biblical theology does not absolve us of the necessity of reinventing our methodologies to cater to a new world. In fact, a good doctrinal conversation could be had around God as a creator, innovator, and surpriser—often doing things in new and unexpected ways!

The prevailing model of church will be disrupted to a much greater degree than what we are presently seeing. A protectionist mindset will neither delay nor prevent the loss of Millennials from the church. This is the most exciting time to be alive. And it is time to unleash a new wave of innovation, progress, and dare I say, experimentation with our ministry models. We have to try new things. 

But before we try to DO new things, we have to BE something new. New programs, new events, new marketing—Millennials have seen it all, and they can spot it a mile away. We need something deeper, something that dwells less in programs and more in philosophy. 

Surface level changes that don’t dive deep into why we do what we do, and that don’t address the core generational issues, will only band-aid the issue. It is these same surface level changes that I see many churches making (young people want cooler services, better lights and sound, modern music, better social media) that makes me think we can’t just change a few stylistic elements while keeping the same underlying model of how we think as leaders and churches. 

It is Blockbuster in the early 2000s, making a half-hearted attempt at hedging off Netflix by offering downloadable movies, but still pushing those customers to their physical stores. Why? Their executives believed people would still come to stores to buy popcorn and confectionary. So, yes, they changed and added an online option. But it was a thinly veiled attempt to appear to be relevant to a changing world, without changing their core structure and model. The executives did not change their mindset until it was too late. They couldn’t compete against companies like Netflix, who not only offered more intuitive online options, but philosophically speaking were, culturally, a different species of organization altogether.

The few mega-successful Millennial churches do not make up for what is an overwhelming generational trend away from the church. 

Experimentation should be embraced. Trying different things should be celebrated. In fact, experimentation is an expression of humility—inherent in an experiment is the idea that we don’t know for sure—and it is the humility that people are drawn to, even if the experiment fails.

We need to study and reach Millennials like a mission field. Change or decline. Change or die. 

I write this systematic analysis and set of solutions to pastoring Millennials not just as a practitioner and pastor, but as one of them. I write as a Millennial.

Yes, I am saying we must first understand before being understood.

Yes, I believe we can reach Millennials and Gen Z at an unprecedented rate, and the opportunity is great.

Yes, I am advocating new thinking for a new world.

Yes, I believe Jesus is building His church, and that the greatest days are yet to come!

Churches age naturally. It takes intentionality, social design, and foresight for leaders to keep reaching each successive generation. 

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever. 

Ecclesiastes 1:4 (NKJV) 

Generations are passing away. Will your church pass away with them? 

Our present culture is like a shifting shadow in the afternoon sun of culture. Will the church be left behind, or will we understand “the times and seasons” and harness the endless opportunities this new generation brings?

Millennials are optimists, talented, creative, and collaborators. They are also driven by a thirst for significance. They are relational, and have an inbuilt desire for authenticity. They will serve when challenged, and have ideas that are already revolutionizing the world. In fact, when you look at these characteristics another way, it reveals Millennials carry the traits of exceptional leadership. Don’t buy into the negativity against Millennials; they are remarkable. They are world-changers and hard workers. 

In other words, this is a generation to love and be inspired by. It is a generation that clearly carries the fingerprint of God. And as church leaders, we will pivot. We will adjust. God will give us creative ideas to reach a new generation like He always has. New models will arise. Your most exciting and rewarding days may be ahead of you as you see this generation shine and innovate. 

My thesis is clear and bold: Millennials can grow your church and change the world.

 

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 © 2020 Benjamin Windle