The Millennial Traits of Jesus
What Jesus has in common with this generation.
Google the term “Millennials” and you’re almost certain to immediately find several articles about the negative traits of this generation.
It’s easy to hate on Millennials. With all the tweets, pins, instagrams, selfies and Facebook posts, there’s no shortage of material for criticism.
Just like I’m a middle child in my family and have all the stuff (read: syndromes) associated with being one, I’m also a middle child of generations. Born during the Carter administration, in what Doree Shafir called “Generation Catalano” in Slate a couple of years back, I’m not Gen X and I’m not a Millennial. But I have worked intensively and deeply with both for generations for years.
In general, it’s good to think of your generational identity as a prototype, a double edged sword and a moving target. Not everyone conforms to the identity prototype: There are deviations within each generation. For every great strength of every generation, it’s likely there’s an unintended-yet-negative consequence. And your generation isn’t static—it will change over time. Remember, today’s famous 1 percent is mostly from the generation that used to be hippies who lit up and shot up at Woodstock.
It can be easy to point out the weaknesses of a generation while overlooking the strengths. But, as William Strauss and Neil Howe pointed out in their book Millennials Go to College, Gen Y has many positive characteristics. And just like any individual or generation, there are aspects of Millennial’s generational stereotypes that, in a small part, reflect characteristics of Jesus. Here are four reasons I think Jesus would be proud to roll with Millennials.
Millennials are Radically Inclusive.
The classic Gen X film, The Breakfast Club, was a manifesto that Gen X used to declare that inclusivity is possible. Millennials have taken inclusivity to a whole other level as the most diverse generation in American History, and in all of their Glee-ness, cross boundaries of ethnicity, gender and sexuality in order to create a more inclusive community.
Jesus’ ministry is strikingly inclusive. His table fellowship was scandalous in its diversity, both in that he had women as his disciples and that it’s likely the men had every imaginable argument on race, politics and religion as they walked together.
In John 4, Jesus went through Samaria, and not just because this was the road less traveled. Jesus went to meet a woman of ill-repute, and proceeded to break all the social conventions of gender, ethnicity, religion and status in order to commission her as the first missionary. The social norms that didn’t reflect the Kingdom of God were simply irrelevant to Jesus.
The striking difference that has set Millennials apart from previous generations is that they expect diversity. Their ability to thrive in diverse communities without the baggage from other generations can be a huge gift to the Church and lead us to the picture in Revelation 7 of every tribe, tongue and nation worshipping together.
Millennials are Confident in the face of evil.
Six years ago, I led a team of students from Northwestern University to live for a summer among the poorest of the world’s poor in a village of garbage collectors in Cairo, Egypt. We were exposed to systemic sin that caused us to weep.
However, this team of students moved in with the intention of considering a two-year commitment to serving the poor. As I’ve watched them and others make vocational decisions over the years, it’s amazing to see their continued persistence in the presence of evil.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him who was to blame for a man born blind in John 9, Jesus essentially says, “Wrong question, fellas. It’s not whose fault, but what’s going to come from this?” Jesus intended to display God’s glory in the face of evil.
Millennials consistently amaze me with their resiliency that is beyond youthful naivete. Since Millennials are generally optimistic, positive and ready to take on the problems of the planet, they view the evil as opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.
Millennials are Team-Oriented.
Perhaps outside of WWII GI’s, Millennials are the most team-oriented generation in American history. Technology has both helped and hindered this; it has helped by creating constant lines of communication, but stunted intimacy through widening the gap between what’s real and what’s perceived by comparing our messy internal world with others’ polished and pretty external world.
“Discipleship” throughout last 40 years or so for most boomers and Gen Xers conjured an image of meeting one-on-one and talking about life and faith. But Millennials are recapturing that Jesus taught his disciples in teams. In Luke 9, after debriefing their short term mission trip, Jesus rebuked individuals and the group as a whole when they were out of line.
LIke a rock tumbler that uses movement and collisions to rub off the coarse edges and polish stones into gems, Jesus used teams through mission to develop his disciples. Millennials are inclined towards this more than any generation thus far.
Millennials are Self-aware, pursuing mental health.
Millennials are both the most self-aware and stressed generation in history (maybe because they take so many selfies). Thus, they have become familiar with therapy and counseling. Older generations often look at this as narcissism. But research continues to show that true strength and emotional health is most present among those who are able to be vulnerable.
Jesus’ most powerful work came among those who were vulnerable enough to admit their need for him. In Mark 9, a man is desperate to have his child healed. But he knows he lacks faith. In a moment of clarity, he cries out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
Jesus himself, God incarnate, wept deeply and uncontrollably over the loss of his friend Lazarus. The all-powerful Messiah exposed his vulnerability with Lazarus that was a foreshadowing of the greatest strength by exposing himself on behalf of all humanity through the cross.
As Millennials read the polarizing opinions about themselves all over the internet (including this one), perhaps it’s best to remember Jesus’ response to the crowd surrounding the man mentioned earlier in Mark 9, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”
Whether you are navel gazing or flag waving for your generation, strengths quickly become sins when left unchecked; shame that is unspoken becomes too heavy for any individual to carry alone. We become far easier to bear when we lighten our loads by checking them at the gate and we freely admit our need for one another.