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The largest sub-segment of the American society, the Millennials (born 1980-2001) are coming of age. They will receive the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in American history (estimated 58.1 trillion dollars) according to Pew Research. Nonetheless, compared to previous generations, they are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated and less likely to believe in God.  Thus, the impact of this on how Millennials give and to whom is a growing issue for evangelical leaders. 

Millennial characteristics

According to Pew Research data,[1] 29% of Millennials surveyed identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, while 50% identify as politically independent, though on most issues they lean towards the Democratic party. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history with 43% non-white. 26% of Millennials are married, compared to Generation X (36%), Baby Boomers (48%), and the Silent Generation (65%)[2] at the same age.

Some 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 40% of Boomers, and 37% of Silents. However, they are more optimistic about the future than Xers, Boomers, and Silents.

As ‘Digital Natives’, they grew up in the virtual universe of the World Wide Web where identity and meaning are constructed and extend to others through technology. They have 300 billion dollars in direct purchasing power, 69 billion of it discretionary.[3] They pursue higher education in greater numbers, but also have accumulated record educational debt. Their social, political, and economic spheres overlap, and they seek to transcend barriers between private enterprise, government, and non-profit organizations.

Precarious financial situation?

Millennials make comparatively less than previous generations:[4]

  • The income of a 25-to-34-year-old male high school graduate averaged 31,000 dollars in 2010 versus 41,000 in 1980 (measured in 2010 dollars).
  • They carry greater levels of debt.[5]
  • Millennials are more dependent upon parental support, relying financially on their parents well into their 20s.[6]
  • They come of age in a time of financial upheaval and an uncertain global economy.
  • They face lower job security and constant pressure for new training and education to retain employability.
  • They are behind the increasing number of non-profits (1.8 million) competing for limited dollars and limited attention spans.[7]

Implications: an encouraging viewpoint

Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldmann in their book Cause for Change—The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement, note that Millennials ‘are quickly influencing how organizations communicate to all audiences . . . with an emphasis on authentic stories and visual presentations that are concise, mobile-friendly, and delivered online via social media platforms’. They highlight several characteristics of Millennials that affect their philanthropy:

  • They give impulsively.
  • They want their contribution to achieve results for a cause.
  • They prefer event and peer-based giving.

Peers are a significant influence for Millennials:

  • They prefer to learn about opportunities from peers.
  • They are willing to help raise funds for causes they care about, usually by calling on friends and family.
  • The influence of an individual on his friends is substantial.

The top four factors that spurred Millennials to engage in a cause are: feeling passionate about the issue; meeting like-minded people; enhancing their expertise; and lending their knowledge and experience, as well as time, to help a cause.

In relation to technology, they use websites and search engines for information gathering, finding volunteer opportunities, and giving money rather than mailed information and offline events. They connect and communicate online with their networks.

The authors conclude: ‘Our research reveals a generation that is energetically trying to transform the world for the better. The mandate is clear: organizations cannot afford to cater only to older donors and volunteers. Younger audiences are demanding that the causes they support change the way they engage with them. We hope these insights can help organizations work with Millennials to unleash this force for good.’

Implications: a less encouraging viewpoint

Christian Smith in his book, Lost in Transition—The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, cautions that although the Millennials are disposed to altruistic motives, they lack the reasoning tools and skills to sustain interest in long-term benevolent engagement with any given project. Thus, ministries and non-profit NGOs feel the need to engage in marketing wars to become the ‘cause of choice’.

Thus, Smith notes that Millennials often develop ‘a strong sense of fatalism . . . about the larger social and political world. So, while they are very optimistic about their own personal futures, they are hardly optimistic about the prospects of helping to make some aspect of the larger sociopolitical world a better place.’ He goes on to state: ‘If emerging adults do not begin to learn the practices of public giving and participation early enough, at least by the time they are settling down, we do not have good reasons to believe they will learn them any better later.’

According to Smith, this deficient ‘moral imagination’ has left Millennials disoriented and morally confused:

‘Engaging the public world entails working out with others the ideals that are ultimately normative and moral . . . very many emerging adults today lack the basic intellectual tools for deciding what is genuinely morally right and wrong or what is really good for individuals and society. Almost none have been taught how both to hold real moral convictions and to live peaceably in a world of moral pluralism . . . . Any notion of the shared responsibilities of a common humanity, a transcendent call to protect the life and dignity of one’s neighbor, or a moral responsibility to seek the common good—which might motivate civic involvement, political engagement, volunteering, or even financial giving—was almost entirely absent among emerging adults.’

Smith admits there are many examples of Millennials ‘doing good’, but these examples too often create a wrong perception of this generation in general that ‘young adults today are deeply committed to social justice, passionately engaged in political activism, actively volunteering in their local communities, devoting themselves to building a greener, more peaceful and just world. Almost nothing could be further from the truth, at least when it comes to 18-to-23-year-olds considered at a national level as a group.’

Who is right?

Both viewpoints offer key insights into understanding Millennials and philanthropy. Saratovsky and Feldmann help us to understand Millennials and the ‘how’ of giving, while Smith looks much deeper into the ‘why’ of Millennials and giving.

Both studies stress the primary importance of family and friend networks and the fact that emerging adults are ‘socially engaged’ far more than previous generations. The authors stress the importance of story or narrative as significant for Millennials. Both point out the importance of technology and digital connectedness. Finally, both authors caution against over-generalizing across the entire generation, and conclude that the Millennials defy any one particular label, other than perhaps ‘enigmatic’.[8]

Suggested responses for Christian leaders

Christian leaders should certainly pray and study further; Causeforchangebook.com and the Millennial Impact Report[9] are good starting points. More specifically:

  • As a Christian leader, consider teaching and mentoring Millennials on biblical, moral frameworks (moral responsibility or obligation to other people created in God’s image), but do this in the context of action.
  • As a Christian fund-raiser, anticipate (and strive for) smaller dollar amounts from a larger number of Millennial donors. The high-net worth individual giver model will likely not be effective with this population segment.
  • Acquaint yourself with some of the newer online giving platforms, such as Crowdrise, Fundly, Razoo, or Kickstarter.
  • Consider engaging Millennials around a strategy or vision of a social good (cause) and not a financial need.[10]
  • Consider a spectrum of ways for Millennials to participate in ministry, starting with small, even virtual, but not insignificant ways, leading to larger more co-creative ways.
  • Use narrative as a carrier for truth to spark moral imagination.
  • Make sure churches and ministries are open and transparent in all financial activities.
  • Since Millennials are influenced by peers and family in significant ways, encourage sharing and provide clear and accurate ways for donors to bring friends and family along in the process.

Further implications

Millennials are an important and thoughtful segment of society. The hand-off of the stewardship baton to this inquisitive and socially active group is vital in the endurance race of making Christ known:

  • Invest time and resources in understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of giving.
  • Do not focus overly on technology as if it alone defines this group. They use technology, almost seamlessly, but mostly as a means to relationship.

They value and desire authentic, trusted relationships. Millennial giving to efforts of evangelism and discipleship will involve building trust by helping Millennials see the true impact of their gifts, as well as opportunities to give beyond the financial. If a Millennial donor sees their giving as accessible, engaging, and meaningful, more than likely they will let their peer networks know. When this happens, giving becomes timeless, transcendent of generations—when a friend invites us to come along, we follow.

Finally, as Christian leaders, we must take note of Christian Smith’s admonition to develop the ‘why’ of missional giving. Smith uses the term ‘sociological or moral imagination’ to describe this framework or foundation that he sees as tragically underdeveloped in this generation. Our messages of generosity and giving, especially to Millennials, should be based on a biblical theology of church mission that develops their moral imagination (see Christopher Wright’s book The Mission of God’s People).

The time is ripe for a compelling and coherent vision of holistic mission for this Millennial generation. A vision that embraces the present realities of technology, globalization, urbanization, and racial diversity. A vision of mission grounded on biblical theology that seeks to maximize our time in the redemptive period of the biblical narrative, not simply to finish the mission and bring Christ back, but also to attract others to God to find his blessings and salvation in vast and various ways, through the generous giving of time, talent, and treasures.


  1. Pew (Social Trends), pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood.
  2. For definitions, see http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/sdt-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-05/.
  3. Pew (Millennial Impact), www.themillennialimpact.com.
  4. Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/onmarketing/2014/05/09/millennial-marketing-lessons-every-financial-services-giant-will-need/.
  5. Pew (Social Trends)
  6. Christian Smithwith Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog. Lost in Transition—The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 14.
  7. Kari Dunn Saratovsky, Derrick Feldmann, Cause for Change: The Why and How of Non-profit Millennial Engagement (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), XVI.
  8. Jeff Fromm, Celeste Lindell, Lainie Decker, ‘AMERICAN MILLENNIALS: Deciphering the Enigma Generation’. This report from Barkley is based on research conducted as part of a joint partnership with Service Management Group, The Boston Consulting Group, and Barkley.
  9. www.themillennialimpact.com
  10. See Giving Circles, Angela Eikenberry. Also see The One Percent Foundation’s website, onepercentfoundation.org.

Steve Steddom serves as the Executive Director of the Harry J Lloyd Charitable Trust. He is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. His research interest centers on the intersection of faith and philanthropy for the Millennial generation of the evangelical church in America.

Thomas Harvey is Academic Dean of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford UK. From 1997–2008 he served as Senior Lecturer of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.