For most of my career in stewardship ministry, the most popular topic people have asked me to write or speak about is Millennials and Stewardship. Often their question is framed this way: “How do we get Millennials to give to the church?” Uff-da! Even as I write this, I still bristle at this question. It was tough not to be scared away from the opportunity solely by the framing of this question. However, I came to realize that the best way for me to help people change their approach to stewardship ministry is to meet them where they are and help them shift the questions they are asking.
Around the same time I was first introduced to stewardship ministry, I was also first introduced to Design Thinking. If you aren’t familiar with Design Thinking, the Interaction Design Foundation defines it as “a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.” While Design Thinking was made popular by the design firm, IDEO, and the Stanford d.school, it has been used across a wide variety of industries including education, entrepreneurship, businesses, non-profits, and even congregations. For most people Design Thinking brings to mind a process of prototyping and experimentation—and that certainly is a piece of the process. For me, what sets Design Thinking apart is its focus from the very beginning and throughout the process on the needs of the users.
The first step in the Design Thinking process is to “Empathize.” Design Thinking encourages you to set aside any assumptions you have so you can better understand the needs and emotions of the people for whom you are designing. For this first step to be successful people have to name the assumptions they are bringing to the table. Returning to the earlier question: “How do we get Millennials to give to the church?” We can begin to see some of the assumptions laiden in this question:
- Millennials aren’t generous
- Millennials don’t give to the church
- The church must force Millenials to give, they won’t do it on their own
- The church needs money from Millennials to survive
In my presentations I leave time for people to share the assumptions they have about Millennials. Getting these assumptions out in the open often clears mental space to begin to see this group in new ways. I also give groups time to consider the assumptions placed upon them because of their own age, gender, sexual orientation, race, vocation, etc. This helped them to see why setting aside assumptions is important. Suspending assumptions (positive or negative) creates space for genuine curiosity.
Then, together, we learn about Millennials. I share demographic research as well as some of my own research from focus group conversations I had convened with Millennials and GenXers about their experience with generosity both in the church and in their own financial lives. As we listen to the data and stories some insights and questions emerged:
- Most Millennials are burdened with unprecedented levels of student loan debt. How might that burden impact their capacity to be generous?
- A high percentage of Millennials give to charity each year, but the church is not one of their top priorities. Why might that be?
- Most Millennials don’t carry cash or a checkbook. They prefer to give online or via a crowdfunding platform. Does the church offer opportunities for this type of giving?
- Many Millennials and GenXers are looking for a space to talk about money and generosity where there isn’t an ask involved. Is that something that happens at our church?
- Many Millennials and GenXers wonder how much is appropriate to give to the church. How might our church help them navigate that question?
- Givers of all ages, but particularly Millennials, want to see the impact of their giving. Can our church illustrate why their giving matters?
As they learn more and get more curious, their question shifts from “How do we get Millennials to give to the church?” to “How might we engage Millennials as they live into their call as stewards?” The focus is no longer on the church and its need to survive and instead on the Millennials: their challenges, their joys, their needs, and most importantly God’s call on their lives.
Just as we were completing the first step in the Design Thinking process (empathizing with the user) and moving into the second step of defining the challenge, people in the audience would rush me to the punch line: “Alright, that’s all well and good, but tell us what we should do.” I was being pushed for a technical solution to an adaptive problem. I was being asked for my “top ten best practices to engage the Millennials in their congregation” when I knew the best approach would be for these leaders to take what they learned in this presentation and build on it by talking to the Millennials in their own contexts, learning from their unique experiences, and designing experiments targeted at meeting their unique needs. Just because most Millennials prefer to give online, doesn’t mean that starting an online giving program in your congregation will be successful. Just because some Millennials want the church to talk about the plight of student loan and credit card debt, doesn’t mean that this is an issue the Millennials in your church want you to discuss.
Instead of looking for specific ideas to try, I hoped my presentation would inspire what was often an insular, Baby-Boomer dominated stewardship committee into deeper conversation and collaboration with the Millennials in their church and community. They would grow in relationship with one another, define the challenge in a new way, and even begin to experiment together.
Sometimes I hear back from people who tried this approach and am amazed at the creative ideas they tried, both the ideas that failed miserably and the ideas that ultimately stuck. What was most powerful though was the way this method of Design Thinking created relationships across chasms – forming community in unlikely and lasting ways. An interesting side effect was the internal transformation that occurred for the leaders who followed this process. Those who had shown up to the event with a negative outlook—griping about Millennials and fearing for their church’s survival—came to the table for conversation about stewardship with a more positive outlook—engaged in relationship with the Millennials in their community and eager to help them live into their call to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to their care. Often when these stewardship leaders took their eye off the church’s bottom line and focused on the people God had entrusted to their care, that was when their church’s finances began to turn around.
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