Ancestor worship, honour and shame, varying views on timekeeping: these are just a few of the many areas of cultural difference to which Friends International staff and volunteers, and others involved in international student ministry (ISM), are sensitive. We deal with them well, with the view that cultural difference is just that – different, but not necessarily always wrong or right. We have learnt to recognise our cultural bias and do our best to view other cultures neutrally, working to build healthy cross-cultural friendships.

By now, many of us will have encountered the culture that leads us to say: “Getting young people to commit to helping at café is impossible. They say they’ll turn up, but then at the last minute change their mind.” Or, “They turn up and just want to change everything we’ve ever done. There’s no respect for the decades of work we’ve put in.”

Does this sound familiar to you? Perhaps you’ve said those very words yourself? Or perhaps you long for some younger staff and volunteers! If your team does include younger people, the issues above may be just the ones that you are regularly encountering.

If so, who are the “they”? The chances are that they are the generation described as ‘Millennials’, a highly discussed and researched group who are now in their early twenties to late thirties. Known often as “Generation Snowflake”, they have often been portrayed in the media as easily offended and unwilling to commit to anything.


This article isn’t an apologetic for millennials but seeks to offer an insight into what makes them tick. There are plenty of things that millennials do (as all humans do) that are unhelpful and wrong, and there is no intention to excuse that at all. Like all believers, millennials should strive to be like Christ, rather than finding their identity and morality in themselves or the world around them. Whatever our feelings about millennials, the fact is that they are both the future, and the present, of our ministry. They are not just the people to whom we minister, but also those who are our co-workers and the ministry leaders of today and tomorrow.

‘Millennial’ is a generational term describing those born between 1981 and 1996[1]. Some researchers use slightly different dates, but these generally span the early 80s to mid-90s. Millennials are those who remember life before smart phones and the internet being at the centre of daily life, yet are at home in the digital world. This is unlike Gen Z, the majority of current undergraduates, who have never known life without being able to Google something!

Millennials have also been the target of marketing like no generation before, due to the increased research into them. The marketing industry has managed to tap into the heart of millennials, selling them holidays to crockery, cars to electronics and everything in between, in a way which resonates with who they feel that they are. There is even a colour known as ‘millennial pink’ which seems to guarantee sales!

At a recent conference for international student workers, plenaries focused on millennials and faith. Although the research presented was from a UK context, globalisation has enabled us to see that those who are the privileged elite from across the globe display similar experiences and traits. Whilst this doesn’t mean that every millennial will be the same no matter where they’re from, it does suggest that we can identify some general trends. But just below the surface, those from non-UK cultures will still retain their own cultural heritage, meaning that some of the traits of millennials will have different outworkings. For example, one characteristic of millennials is that they are tolerant of people and their beliefs. That doesn’t mean that we should expect the same response to same-sex marriage from millennials as from, say, the USA and Saudi Arabia. Many other factors also apply, and no two millennials – no matter how similar their backgrounds – will ever be identical.

But millennials aren’t just the students with whom we work. Many of the postgraduate students we meet in our work will be millennials, but so will many of those wanting to volunteer and work with us.


Any organisation with 25 – 40 years of experience are an ‘organisational millennial’. We need to ensure that we adapt, change and grow so that the work will continue to change and grow – by the Lord’s grace – for the next 25 – 40 years and beyond. That will include having a diverse staff and volunteer team.

As those used to working with people from all over the world, from what can often seem like every tribe and nation and culture, we are then best placed in many ways to work across the generational culture gap.

Cultural adaptation features in the events we run, how we run them, where we run them and even if we run them! Even so, many ISMs have run successfully for many years. When young adults come expecting a voice and ability to change things, it can be difficult. We might feel that their suggestions are “just not how things are done”! Whilst I am not advocating that millennials should be allowed to come in and change everything with little or no reference to anyone else, non-millennials in leadership roles do need to be willing to listen. If we’re serious about being cross-cultural, this will involve working well across the generational culture divide as well.

Research into millennials hasn’t been restricted to the secular world. There is also increasing research from the angle of faith. One of the most comprehensive studies on Christian millennials and leadership was conducted by Forge[2]. Their report indicates key aspects which Christian millennials value, including:

  • Integrity
  • Authenticity
  • Relationship
  • Developing others
  • Having a clear purpose
  • Tolerance
  • Collaborative participation[3]

What is striking is how similar these are to the values we hold in ISM. We want to interact with students as people of integrity, building authentic relationships, with a clear purpose to welcome the foreigner no matter where they have come from, and do it in collaboration with local churches. This model of ministry should attract millennials in their droves. And yet, it doesn’t always. How can we effectively bridge the gap?


Part of the answer will be to do with how we talk about the ministry. As with all things, communication is about what we say and how that engages the hearer. We’re used to contextualising the gospel message to students from across the globe. If we want to draw millennials into our work, we will need to contextualise our vision and mission in a way that resonates with their values. Such an approach won’t be new to any of us, or unique to communication with millennials. We do it in the way we talk about our café with local church leaders, compared with the University chancellor. We don’t change what we’re about or hide any parts of our work, but we naturally highlight the aspects that we know that they will value.

In terms of recruitment, it’s true that being involved in ISM in the UK isn’t the exotic cross-cultural mission to which so many millennials are attracted. Holidays that cater to millennials, for example, seem so often to be all about the experience – something that will look good on their Instagram feed, and be different from life in the UK. But millennials are not as shallow as can often be portrayed. As the list produced by FORGE shows, they value authenticity as well as having a clear purpose. So, it’s not just going to be the experience that convinces them to be committed to something, but also knowing the genuine purpose behind it.

“Would you be willing to spend 3 hours every Monday evening meeting international students?” An invitation to join our café team which leads with the time commitment involved isn’t likely to excite and motivate a millennial. Instead, we need to focus on the real opportunity to build meaningful relationships with those from across the globe in order to share the gospel with them, to show the clear purpose and authenticity that we possess. In so many cases, encouraging millennials to join with us won’t mean changing what we’re doing, but highlighting the heart behind why we do what we do each week. This doesn’t mean that millennials will suddenly be committed to the café as volunteers, but if they are convinced by the vision of reaching international students and the genuine aim, then the hope is that they will join as part of the mission.

Of course, for millennials who then become staff, their job description will often include being part of a café team and may include leading it. However, as increasing number of millennials join FI, we may find that if they aren’t committed to the vision, then they won’t necessarily stay within the ministry long-term. Whilst having an influx of new people can refresh the work, lots of turnover isn’t the ideal. Another characteristic of millennials is that they can tend to change job within two years[4]; this isn’t linked to money but motive, because they “want to work for a business that improves society”[5]. What better way to do that than welcoming the stranger and working to tell them of the eternal true hope in Christ?


This might be a challenge to those of us already involved in the work – have we forgotten why we do what we do? Has the reality of rotas and things that need to get done blinded us to just what an opportunity we have? And if it has, it may make sense that we don’t portray ISM as “exciting and world-changing” to those looking in.

Hopefully those of us involved in the ministry are committed to the vision, including what we’re about and what we’re seeking to do. Nonetheless, the strong desire of many millennials is to collaborate, which means that they are likely to bring new ideas, be willing to be involved, and want to have a voice, as much as any staff or volunteer. Giving millennials leadership roles within the ministry will help them to know that they have room to make their voice heard and opportunities to develop the ministry, as well as themselves and others. But that also requires a willingness from those who have been around longer to see things change, perhaps drastically.

We might not want everything to change, but we certainly need an openness to consider change as an option, to see how things may develop, in order to revitalise and grow the ministry. If we’re observing consistent low numbers to our cafes, then perhaps there is a need to consider a new model, and our millennial staff and volunteers might just be the ones who are able to suggest and implement new ideas. And even where a café model is successful, the current percentage of international students engaged in ISM indicates that there is plenty of opportunity for development of new ideas and models of ministry. Are we open to listen to their suggestions and developing them as leaders – not just for our benefit but for the settings they will one day move on to?

In many ways, millennials are no different from the generations that have gone before them. They want to be involved in things where they can make a difference, where they can change the world – just look at the campaign on plastic and using reusable cups in coffee shops – but they want it to be real and authentic, and to be able to see that from those leading the ministries as well as those involved day to day. Since they are, by nature, keen to learn from older generations, especially in a mentoring setting, this means that there are opportunities for those with decades of experience to pass that on to younger leaders coming in, training and equipping them for future ministry.

But one millennial is not the same as another millennial. We can’t take these traits and assume every millennial will react in certain ways.  Like all humans, they are complex, with multiple needs and motivations. As with all ministry, any success will be down to good, genuine relationships, remembering that their culture may mean that they think and understand things a little differently to us! And that applies as much for millennials as for any other generation.

In his mentoring role with Timothy, the apostle Paul famously said, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Tim 4:12). Let’s pray that we might encourage and nurture the millennials amongst us as they grow in leadership, bringing their unique blend of passion, authenticity and innovation to international student outreach.


[2] Report can be downloaded here for a small fee –

[3] Taken from the Executive Summary of the Forge report


[5] Independent article

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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Sarah Dawkins

Sarah Dawkins

Regional Development Director at Friends International
Sarah is the Regional Development Director for Friends International across Southern England and Wales. Before this she worked with UCCF, helping to equip millennial student leaders to reach their campuses.
Sarah Dawkins

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