For years in my teens and 20s I was struggling with big questions, doubts and fears about, well, everything. Faith, identity, purpose and my place in this world – nothing was off limits as I asked the looming “what now and what next?” of the rest of my life.
As the questions and journey intensified that I write candidly about in my new book “All Groan Up: Searching For Self, Faith, and a Freaking Job!,” the last place I felt I could bring these questions to was church. I grew up in church my whole life, yet as I struggled through the intense ambiguity of trying to become “all groan up,” I felt strangely out of place where I used to feel at home.
Honestly, a big part of it was I didn’t connect with those who I was supposed to be following.
As you look at engaging and leading this generation, whether as a parent, pastor or friend, here are three tips for reaching Millennials that they may never tell you.
1. Relationship first. Everything else second.
Before you ask for a volunteer, a sign up or a commitment: Build. A. Relationship.
Ask questions. Listen to our doubts, fears, and insecurities that we want to talk about, but are afraid to because we don’t want to look foolish or faithless. Spend time getting to know our story before you try to lead us.
If you make a Millennial feel like they’re in a foreign country, they will continue to travel.
If you make a Millennial feel more isolated, they will be looking for the quickest way to escape.
Understand the struggle before you try and speak into it. Show that you care by continually showing up in our lives. If we know you care, we will let you in.
Make us feel at home by allowing a space where questions and doubts have a place at the table.
2. Share your story (flaws and mistakes definitely included)
To build a relationship, you’ll also need to share your story. And not necessarily the successful parts.
Millennials want to hear how you screwed up. How you don’t have it all figured out. How you’ve questioned, feared and failed. They want to know what you’re currently wrestling with and the strategies you are using to overcome.
The age of the super-human leader with no flaws is dead. Millennials don’t want leaders who are super-humans, they want leaders who are super-human.
Authenticity is not a marketing plan. Authenticity is not contrived or coached. Authenticity is simply letting people take a look at the dark and dusty corners in your life that you’re still trying to clean.
Have heart. And learn to speak from it.
Students want leaders who can admit their mistakes, ask for forgiveness and confess weaknesses. They want to follow real people with real chinks in their armor who are still really moving forward. They want someone they can trust and it’s your mistakes openly shared that become that great connecting point.
Vulnerability will beget vulnerability. Create a safe space for your students to open up about their numerous fears by sharing a few of your own. If you can’t honestly talk about your own struggle, then students, honestly, won’t listen to your solution.
As Fredrick Buechner wrote years ago (that rings even more true today), “As much as it is our hope, it is our hopelessness that brings us to church on a Sunday, and any preacher who, whatever else he speaks, does not speak to that hopelessness might as well save his breath.”
3. Paint the bigger picture (and give us a brush to paint with you)
This generation wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. So paint the bigger picture of where your home or church is headed, and then give Millennials a brush and a place to paint with you.
If Millennials feel like they’re a part of something important, they will commit to it.
Tell the story of where your church is headed and then give them goals and responsibilities placed within the context of the bigger vision. Let them see the purpose, impact and importance of the work, and you’ll be surprised at the passion and purpose they will bring to it.
Paul Angone is a voice to, and for, the Millennial Generation. He is the author of “All Groan Up: Searching For Self, Faith, and a Freaking Job!” and “101 Secrets For Your Twenties, and the creator of allgroanup.com. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulAngone.