After several years serving cross-culturally and living in Bangkok, Thailand, physically remote from the rest of our team, God finally answered our prayer for more workers to come join us. But to our disappointment we got two young college interns who seemed unhappy and overwhelmed from the day they hopped off the plane to the day they left.

Convinced we just had a 'bad batch', who only came because their college required it, we signed up to take another student as well as a short-termer in her late-twenties. We did a little better with these two but it was still so hard and they still seemed so frustrated. At some point I realised that “be the leader you wished you had” wasn’t working. They didn’t jump at the opportunities we lined up for them or respond to our encouragement to lean into frustrations, to take risks and learn from failure. 

Young people greeting the sun

A defining characteristic of 20-somethings is that they have grown up expecting everything to be tailored for them, says Rebecca Oakley. PICTURE: Simon Maage/Unsplash

I figured I needed to get my head around 20-somethings. I read about Millennials and Gen Z, I poured over the Barna research on the Connected Generation, I listened to some great podcasts like Leading Tomorrow. I researched the impact of technological connection and soaring mental health issues. I pondered the affect of helicopter and snow-plough parenting philosophies or individualised education practices on people as they enter the workforce. I interviewed senior leaders of student ministry organisations. 

One of the biggest epiphanies I had was that a defining characteristic of many Western 20-somethings is that they have grown up expecting everything to be tailored specifically for them. This is the generation that didn’t just get a participation trophy, they all got an award recognising some unique achievement. They are used to targeted social media ads, personalised Spotify playlists and Netflix suggestions. They expect to have their unique preferences and talents recognised and accommodated. They also expect clarity and structure, explicit and predictable processes and clear guidelines. 

"One of the biggest epiphanies I had was that a defining characteristic of many Western 20-somethings is that they have grown up expecting everything to be tailored specifically for them...They are used to targeted social media ads, personalised Spotify playlists and Netflix suggestions. They expect to have their unique preferences and talents recognised and accommodated. They also expect clarity and structure, explicit and predictable processes and clear guidelines."

As I thought about this, I realised being more intentional about painting an individualised picture would have helped my efforts to lead and mentor all those young people. I also reflected on what one campus director had told me - that he was finding young people felt unloved if you didn't give them more structure and clearer processes. As I thought about how in practice I could have incorporated both individualisation and clarity in my leadership I couldn’t help thinking: wouldn’t we all like that?

Leah Georges’ TEDx Talk on navigating a multi-generational workplace challenges the current obsession with generational understanding, claiming that “a focus on generational cohorts has created a space where we just forgot that people are people”. Advocating instead that everyone needs an individualised approach she says: "Here’s my challenge: Pick a person, just one, and explore their 'onlyness'. Figure out what they bring to work that no one else can bring to work, because that’s what makes work richer. Then do it again, and do it again. Then some day, we’re not working with generations anymore. We’re working with people."

In a ministry context there are so many reasons why it is even more vital to paint an individualised picture. Maybe they are raising support to go overseas, serve in student ministry or undertake a traineeship. Maybe they are stepping away from all that is known and comfortable or sacrificing time and opportunities in order to serve.

Christ’s laborers in the harvest sacrifice joyfully for the sake of the Gospel but it takes such intentional commitment that we should craft processes that provide clarity and support to all people in whatever season they are. Our value and uniqueness is not in our cultural, professional or generational affiliation but our status as children and image bearers of God, in all its many and diverse expressions.

God meets us where we are, lets get curious about individuals and try to meet them where they are.

Rebecca Oakley has been serving cross-culturally since 2011. She is a 2020 Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries. Rebecca is passionate about crossing barriers and seeing the sent flourish.