I ’m what comedian Iliza Shlesinger calls an elder millennial. Born in 1982, I fall just within the framework to be considered a millennial, but I can remember what life was like before we had personal computers in our home. Some call my age bracket a micro-generation or the Xennials. I prefer another monicker: The Oregon Trail generation. (After all, I did die of dysentery many times as a young person.) My point is this: while I don’t fully embody every quality of the stereotypical millennial, I certainly have many of the core instincts attributed to millennials by extensive research. That being said, here’s the number one myth I’d like to address about my generation: Millennials aren’t generous.
Statistics and studies
Millennials are coming of age, and we now make up the largest generation of Americans, spanning ages 23–39, to date. Almost every baby born today is born to a millennial parent. Millennials will make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce in the next two years and will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2030. Why all the stats? Millennials have been anecdotally accused of not being as generous as previous generations. The reality, though, is that millennials are just entering the age of life where they have the money to be generous like the generations who have come before them.
If you’re reading from the perspective of a church treasurer, maybe you just breathed a sigh of relief: The sky is not falling after all! Not so fast. The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving says that “The sky is not falling, but the ground is shifting.” Millennials are generous and are growing in their capacity to be generous. However, an obligatory sense of giving to the church is not a value for most millennials.
One of the clearest findings from a ten-year study called the “Millennial Impact Report” is this: Millennials prioritize issues and people over institutions. The days of people being generous to a church because “it’s what you’re supposed to do” are fading in the rearview mirror. This generation is skeptical of institutions, and any institution lucky enough to receive their gift will need to be transparent, focused on a compelling mission, and able to engage the donor beyond their financial gift.
What this means for the church
To be honest, I actually think this is great for the church. Have you ever noticed how Jesus never mentions tithing? When we talk about generosity in Christian circles, that word tithing is used all the time. But Jesus never advocates for it. What we see Jesus do time and time again in Scripture is move people past the laws and structures that served them well in their first formation of faith, and then move them beyond so that their hearts are changed. Generosity can never fall into rigid categories or rules, such as a ten percent rule. Jesus likely hoped our generosity would grow far beyond ten percent.
Generosity must come from the deepest passion and compassion in our hearts. In this regard, millennials might just be pushing the church back to its rootedness in Christ. When a church must clarify its mission and tell the story well, when it engages the giver not only with their money but with their heart, time, and talent, the church just might remember what it was always supposed to be.
In a nutshell, millennials are quite generous, and the amount millennials give is growing as they continue to become a greater percentage of the workforce. But research also shows that millennials give impulsively, rather than strategically. What if the church could relearn from millennials the heart and excitement of generosity? And what if millennials (even us elder millennials) could learn the power and impact of regular and strategic giving to impact the world? That result sounds strikingly similar to the generosity that Jesus is pointing us toward.
Billy Norden serves as retirement and financial education coordinator for the Reformed Church in America’s Board of Benefits Services. You can connect with Billy at firstname.lastname@example.org.