Spiritualized Volunteerism Won’t Reach Millennials

Some church leaders believe that service is a key to reaching and discipling millennials. Ryan Stigile, a member of the Unstuck Group which seeks to resource churches through coaching and consulting, makes the following claim about the future of the church, “Volunteer teams have the potential to replace small groups as the strategic cornerstone for community and discipleship.”

I kind of agree with Ryan’s perspective on the potential of groups of Christians serving their community as a way to connect and disciple millennials. Some research suggests that millennials are more motivated to serve than previous generations. The Case Foundations 2014 Impact Report finds that GenY values the following when it comes to serving:

  • Millennials engage with causes to help other people, not institutions.
  • Millennials support issues rather than organizations.
  • Millennials prefer to perform smaller actions before fully committing to a cause.
  • Millennials are influenced by the decisions and behaviors of their peers.
  • Millennials treat all their assets (time, money, network, etc.) as having equal value.

Church leaders need to be strategic in how they go about serving and inviting young people into Christian service though. What we need to avoid is the church of modernities draw towards spiritualized volunteerism. Spiritualized volunteerism isn’t want the Gospel calls us to nor is it something that millennials are interested in giving their lives to.

Spiritualized Volunteerism

Volunteerism is a plug and play solution of modernity. A person has a talent/resource. An organization has connection to a community or individual issue that could be helped by talent/resource. Thus, an organization attempts to attract the person with the talent/resource in order to use it. The person is merely a means to an end in volunteerism.

When the church spiritualizes volunteerism, we merely replicate the formula above by sprinkling it with some Jesus juice. It goes something like this, ‘We have identified a Gospel gap in our community that needs the spiritual gifts, talents and resources of God’s people and we’re calling you to meet that need.’ And the church of modernity got really good at doing this formula. Like billions of dollars and millions of human hours of work good at it.

Christian Service Millennials Want

I recently sat down with a young, millennial guy to discuss how he could use his gifts and talents to reach his generation. From the fruit of that discussion came the idea to start a community-based service group, in his words. The three vital characteristics of that group he described were the following:

  1. Relational and Local - The group would be built through relational connections and the needs of the people in the local community would be discovered and met through a relational network. He didn’t want to rely on an institution funneling leads of needs to the group. He believed that as they served others in the community people would be inspired to join them and not be dependent on an institution to sustain them.
  2. Virtuous - He wanted the group to focus on the common good of the community and intentionally follow the example of Jesus Christ. He believed that in doing this that each person could tap into the image of God that they were created in and express that with a freedom to love in the way of Jesus.
  3. Spiritually Open - He wanted the group to pray and share their experiences of God but not make it merely for Christians. He wanted the group to be open in order that those who were not followers of Jesus could feel welcomed, valued, and released to serve others in the community. 

I’m convinced that these marks of community and Christian service are what millennials want to be invited into. We surveyed 100 millennials and they have identified these three characteristics as a spirituality that they want. And I think that there are a lot of church leaders out there that are creating these types of Christian communities. So I’m hopeful that the church in the postmodern era will reach millennials through these Christian communities and will allow spiritualized volunteerism to die.