Jon Acuff, Millennials, and the Unicorn Factor


Football season is underway, and now that we’ve kicked off the action we will be sure to hear plenty of clichés from the teams that defy expectations. Athletes will declare “No one believed in us outside of this locker room,” when their team unites, excels, and succeeds beyond where they were picked in the standings. “Us against the world” will become their rallying cry. Bottom feeders that unexpectedly surge to the top almost always invoke this narrative, but strangely even the best teams cite the doubters, naysayers, and the haters as motivation when pursuing a championship.

Sometimes these narratives are true. Teams do surprise us, which is one of the reasons we tune in and pay attention to sport. It can be more enjoyable to see a bad team clear a very low bar than a championship caliber club collect one more trophy. The journey itself can be more exhilarating than the destination, while both equally merit their own form of enjoyment.

Jon Acuff, that author of Finish, Do Over, and Stuff Christians Like recently explored this dynamic with regard to millennials. There is an established narrative. The idea is simple: Millennials are entitled, lazy, and narcissistic. Acuff also observes that certain assumptions are made about Boomers: they aren’t adept with technology. He challenges both, saying that neither are true. But the perception itself, whatever the established narrative, creates a unique opportunity to stand out.

Acuff notes that whenever there is a belief that things are one way, acting in a manner that breaks with conventional wisdom is remarkable. When people believe Millennials are lazy, entitled, and self-absorbed--and then encounter a Millennial who is hard-working, diligent, committed, and service oriented--Acuff says it is like encountering a unicorn. When you do not believe something exists, and then you find it, wonder overwhelms. Amazement ratchets up because expectations were defied.

If your church is seeking to reach out to Millennials, it is important to understand the prevailing expectations that exist in the pews and in your office. Generational suspicions are not new. Though Millennials may be regarded one way by your church leadership and your congregants, that does not necessarily mean this belief accurately applies to all Millennials in your congregation. You may need to challenge the existing narrative, not only by speaking to Millennials about their opportunities to stand out, but also by carefully dismantling generational prejudices that reinforce division in the body of Christ.

One way of accomplishing this objective is to follow Acuff’s lead: tell Millennials that they have an incredible opportunity to defy expectations. The bar is low, so it is easy to clear. With pastoral sensitivity, tell Millennials to prove everyone wrong, or to dispel the illusion. God is at work among the Millennial generation, calling leaders and providing insight that the church needs for gospel witness and service. Tell Millennials they can shine.

But there is a second element to success: make room for Millennials to grow and excel by challenging the prejudices of other generations. Millennials need to be viewed with an open mind by the rest of the congregation. The congregation needs to be willing to be surprised. The Bible contains countless stories of prophetic voices calling the people of God to new possibilities and new beginnings. God also has been known to introduce unexpected twists and turns in history.

Name the narrative. Make invitations. Challenge the naysayers. And be open to God doing a new thing.