This article originally was published in the November 2015 edition of The Lutheran magazine.

This is not the article I set out the write. Originally, I imagined an article that first examined the particularities of young adults today. Then, I hoped to report on dozens of congregations that have modified their approach to stewardship in response to changing young adult giving habits. To enact this plan, I even worked with The Lutheran to ask on Facebook for congregations to share their success stories. We received zero responses.

It’s safe to say, this article found me, not the other way around. Over several months, as I spoke with leaders around the church, I discovered more complexities about young adults, financial giving, and the church than I ever expected.

The first complication relates to the very concept of “young adults” in the church these days. You’ve probably heard the stereotypes about the millennial generation, those born between approximately 1980 and 2000. According to the headlines, we (I’m 32 years old) all live in our parents’ basements, have mountains of student loans, never get married, and require constant positive feedback in the workplace. Oh, and I forgot the bad news: We’re also self-centered, obsessed with technology to the point of forgoing relationships with actual people, and never go to church.

But, wait a second; these stereotypes can’t be all true, can they? I can prove it: My parents don’t even have a basement! I not only go to church, I help lead them.

Certainly times are changing, and young adults change with the times – as we all must do – but it seems unreasonable to paint with such a broad generational brush.

Many in our congregations would be offended, and rightly so, if we started a sentence with, “Old people these days …” Similarly, we in the church can do better than describe all young adults as believing, thinking or acting the same.

There are more than 70 million people in the so-called millennial generation – more than 70 million people God fearfully and wonderfully made.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consider similarities among particular groups, or what sociologists call “cohorts” of young adults. But sociologist Andrew Lindner, assistant professor at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., explained to me, “Generational theories tend to conflate cohort effects with age and time period. In many cases, traditional dividing lines like social class, race and gender explain a lot more about social patterns than generational differences do.”

When Lindner warned of dangers of speaking about “young adults” too generally, I considered the diverse financial situations of my friends and peers. I know an unmarried millennial who makes $200,000 a year, has a trust fund and drives a BMW. I know a married millennial who, with her husband, makes $35,000 a year and owns no car. I know others who show enormous generosity, giving away at least 10 percent of their income each year, and others who give away less than 1 percent. I know millennials who rent $500-a-month apartments and who own $500,000 homes. I know those with graduate degrees who have no student loans, and ones with more than $250,000 in student debt.

Instead of generalizing about all young people, I’ve opted to generalize about the church itself. I’ve done my best to limit generalizations about all young adults today. Heck, even if those headlines about all 70 million millennials were true, the much smaller cohort who are actually members of our Lutheran congregations surely have their own characteristics.

To read the five myths about young adults and giving, and suggested ways to engage in ministry with them, click on the Living Lutheran “Seeds” post today and every Wednesday during November.

Adam J. Copeland
Adam Copeland teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., where he is director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders.

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