The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Bandy is an internationally recognized author, consultant, and leadership coach for churches and Christian organizations and faith-based non-profits. He is the director of www.ThrivingChurch.com and has authored many planning tools that interface with the demographic research engine of www.MissionInsite.com.
How do we reach the lifestyle segment called Digital Dependents?
Thank you for your question … and especially for the specificity of your question. Churches tend to lump all Millennials together. In fact, the lifestyle segments that include many Millennials are very diverse. Church strategies to bless different kinds of Millennial needs and expectations must be similarly varied to be effective. This is because Millennials are highly influenced by subtle nuances in churches and society in general.
The specific lifestyle segment coded O51 Digital Dependents is part of a larger family group called Singles and Starters, but they are notable because they are everywhere. Their proportionate representation may be larger in urbanizing areas than strictly rural areas, but O51 is a significant group in even in small towns.
For example, in a recent study I did for a small town in Missouri, about 8,000 households included large numbers of seniors, and another 3,500 included aging Baby Boomers, but there were also 1,500 households of O51 Digital Dependents (almost 6% of the population). The church had managed to include only 2 households of Digital Dependents. Who are they?
Experian describes Digital Dependents as a “mix of Gen Y and X singles who live digital-driven, urban lifestyles”. It is because they are “digitally-driven” that they can survive and even thrive in rural small towns. The internet has made them feel like citizens of the world. They want the best things in life but cannot afford it yet. Eventually, they probably will “follow the money” are gravitate toward urban jobs, but relational loyalties may hold them back for now.
We often assume that Digital Dependents have progressive and liberal attitudes because they are into the latest technologies, fashions, and micro-brews. I have discovered, however, that Digital Dependents adapt to their environments. They are strongly influenced by peers and contexts. Like chameleons, they take on the political, ideological, and spiritual “colors” largely represented in whichever part of the cultural forest they currently inhabit. The paradox of their lives is that they see themselves are radical individualists, but their behavior is remarkably conformist. They can be conservative in conservative environments and liberal in liberal environments.
The anxieties that shape their spiritualities are related to experiences of abuse, exclusion, judgment, and a chronic sense of shame.
All too many have been abused physically, sexually, economically, racially, and other ways. Exaggerated egos often cover up low self-esteem. They are extraordinarily suspicious of hypocrisy, which makes them generally anti-institutional and alienated from churches. Their disillusionment is one reason they spend more time in the virtual world than in the real world.
Nevertheless, they hunger for authentic relationships and search for trustworthy mentors. It’s a daunting task because they see so little of that in society, and even less in the church. I sometimes summarize their behavior in the real world as an endless cycle of dating, mating, and mentoring. They crave absolute acceptance and perfect relationships and follow heroes that risk all to defend truth, justice, and entrepreneurship.
Digital Dependents frustrate church leaders because they do not respond well to traditional church growth techniques. It does not matter how contemporary you make you worship style – they will still be bored. Additionally, it does not matter how friendly your hospitality team behaves – they won’t believe it. It does not matter how trendy the pastor is, or how relevant the educational options are. They might talk to a minister in a coffee shop, and they might come to a special event to hear a notable speaker or listen to new music, but they won’t stick to the “stickiest” churches.
There are two ways that Christians can impact their lives and influence their futures:
- High-intensity outreach projects
- These people are sprinters, not long-distance runners. When their passions are aroused, they will throw themselves into mission at any cost. These projects are almost always “glocal” in nature. That is, they involve hands-on work in the local context, but are related to (and often in sync with) global movements for social change. Although they can be radically sacrificial, there must be something in it for them. Outreach must offer opportunities to seek or deepen intimate relationships and build up personal self-esteem.
- Mentoring relationships
- Digital Dependents value 1:1 coaching that builds character, interprets ambiguities, and equips them for success. These relationships may be hard to find small towns and rural areas where the median age is high and stability and social harmony are core values. Yet even in small towns, those relationships may be present.
In that small town in Missouri, for example, there are 635 households (about 3% of the population) of an eccentric boomer lifestyle segment called K40 Bohemian Groove. These people are often into art and music, lead non-profits and social crusades, and have educational backgrounds in the liberal arts rather than business or agriculture. Bohemian Groove tend to be aging boomers who find the small town quaint and affordable, but who readily visit the big city. Digital Dependents often connect with Bohemian Groove. Unfortunately for the church in Missouri, there are no Bohemian Groove members.
Digital Dependents eventually gravitate toward urban or urbanizing areas.
They will adapt or conform to the attitudes of the new set of peers they find, but their anxieties will remain and so also the skepticism of the church. Once again, they will seek mentoring relationships. However, here they often connect with successful boomers like C13 Silver Sophisticates. This can often have rich possibilities. Simply stated, Digital Dependents aspire to the economic success and political influence of Silver Sophisticates; and Silver Sophisticates often welcome younger proteges the can be groomed for successful careers.
The one thing that always impresses me about Digital Dependents is that they are so impressionable. They mold their lives around role models. They listen to wounded warriors and follow heroes of faith. Their virtual world has often brought them personal healing and given them with hope for the real world. They are like butterflies emerging from the cocoon, ready to flex their wings and fly away.
Church leaders need to understand that Digital Dependents may never join the church. Their goal should be to build their awareness of the Holy Spirit. Wherever they go, whatever they do, they need the confidence that comes from knowing that God is with them and will never let them down.
I welcome any and all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.