Lost in Translation: What these three phrases mean to millennials


If you’re reading this article, you’re probably aware of the generational gap in so many churches. Whether you’re a baby boomer trying to work with a generation that seems challenging to understand, or a millennial trying to earn the favor of an older generation that seems set in their ways, the generational gap is a real thing. And sometimes this gap can act like a language barrier. When you say the following phrases, millennials hear something else. So without further ado:

1. “When I was your age…”

When I was in seminary, I was hired by an elderly pastor to be a part time youth minister. I was full of dreams and high energy for the ministry that could blossom in the lives of teenagers. It wasn’t a job for me—it was a calling, a lifestyle. But as a full-time grad student and half-time youth minister, I didn’t have a lot of spare time. Twenty hours a week went really quickly. And for some reason, my pastor had me sit in front of the sanctuary for four hours every Sunday. I literally just sat on stage in a robe. Some days I didn’t even have a role in worship.  So in an attempt to be an efficient leader, I asked my pastor if I could spend my Sundays doing something with, well, teenagers. Like teaching. Or sitting with them.

His answer? “When I was your age…” and he went on to tell me how he used to serve four different churches at once. He didn’t even consider the question. He just told me how hard he had it when he was my age. No discussion. No negotiation. It was his decision and it was final.

Today, when I hear the phrase “when I was your age” it immediately says to me “suck it up.” Sure, there is a time and a place for a boss to be a boss. But want to know what happened to my enthusiasm? It withered week by week because my leader never listened to what life is like at my age. Perhaps he was trying to relate to me, but what I heard was that my leader didn’t care about my thoughts.

2) “Maybe someday…”

That young adult has just “stepped up” in your church. Maybe they’ve joined a board, started volunteering on a regular basis, or even joined your staff team. But the thing about these pesky millennials is that they always make suggestions on how things could be “better.” They haven’t put in the years of work, or seen the roadblocks or complexities that have prohibited change in the past. And yet they always seem to volunteer their opinion on how things could be different. And so you respond with what you think is patience and kindness by by saying, “Yeah! Maybe someday!”

As a millennial leader, I’ve heard this at every church I’ve ever worked. It’s the Christian code word for “no.” But even worse than no, when those words float across the generational chasm, what you are saying to millennials’ ears is “I don’t trust you yet.”

While some suggestions are just critiques of your systems or leadership, many young adults truly want to help. So when that suggestion lands on your desk, perhaps what you have in front of you is an opportunity to trust someone who wants to lead! Don’t squander or reject their energy and passion.

3) “This is just the way we do it.”

Yes, it might be true. For the last 37 years, your church has literally sold Gertrude’s homemade cookies at Good Friday service. If you asked her to stop, there would literally be riots at your church council. We all know that churches have “unique” traditions, and every leader knows they can only make so much change before exhausting a congregation.

But when that millennial approaches you with a new idea (whether on Good Friday or any other part of the year) and hears you say “this is just the way we do it,” they don’t intuitively understand all of the reasons and history that led to this moment. They just heard you say “learn your place.” Sure, you didn’t mean any harm, but imagine what it feels like for that young adult. They saw an old tradition (or not so old) with fresh eyes and wanted to help.

It’s already challenging for a young adult to step into a congregation that seems geared towards an older generation. “This is just the way we do it” also means “this is how our generation does it.” It’s a statement that says “we’re not taking suggestions.”

But if you want to be a church for future generations, you need to be taking suggestions. Because Gertrude won’t be running church council forever.