I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Major Rob Reardon, the National Young Adult Initiative Coordinator. In his position at National Headquarters, Major Reardon works to raise awareness of The Salvation Army’s mission and ministry among the Millennial Generation, and to increase engagement with young adults both inside and outside of The SA.
I managed to get him to stop tweeting (@rreardondc), and put down his coffee long enough for us to have an honest to God adult conversation about the future of The Salvation Army.
TAUBE: So you said your position was created under former National Commander, Commissioner Israel Gaither, to address the attrition of young adults from The Salvation Army and to develop a greater emphasis on young adult ministry. Why has The SA chosen to focus on young adults in this new way?
REARDON: We all know that The Army is not unique; every church is losing their young adults. Statistics show that 7 out of 10 young adults leave the church after the age of 23. That’s a huge percentage to lose out of your church! So The Army is looking at that. I believe that we have great youth programs through Corps Cadet age. Through high school age we really do a good job of maintaining a strong relationship with our kids, until they leave for college.
Once they leave, we lose them. They fall off the radar, and we hope that they’ll get connected somewhere if they leave town for college, but we’re not intentional. We don’t really follow them and we don’t try to plug them in–we’re not intentional about trying to keep that relationship. And [in the past] we’ve relied on the hope that when they get married and have kids they’ll come back, but we can’t do that anymore. We can’t rely on that hope, we’ve got to be more intentional.
TAUBE: We hear the term Millennials thrown out a lot when talking about young adults. Could you give us a definition?
REARDON: There’s no exact start and finish to generations, so the Millennial Generation is roughly people born between the early 80’s and the early 90‘s–basically the generation that came of age around the turn of the century. Early on they were called Generation Y, and only because Y came after X, and the generation previous to them is called Gen X.
TAUBE: What do you see as the greatest challenges for the Church, and specifically The Salvation Army, in engaging with Millennials?
REARDON: I think the biggest challenge for The Salvation Army in particular in engaging this generation is the ability to let them go–to let them be themselves. We tend to identify a problem or an issue, then we have a committee or task force that comes up with a solution to that problem, and then we say, “Here’s the solution, come join us.” We’re right in identifying the issues and problems, but I think where we make our mistakes–and it’s starting to change ever so slowly, but it’s starting to change–we make our mistakes when we don’t include the Millennial Generation in the problem solving part of things. We come up with the solution and hand it to them.
We need to come up with the issues, and let Millennials come up with the solution, and then trust them enough to step back and let it happen. I always tell youth leaders and corps officers that our job is to train and equip young adults, and then release them to be used by God. So if we’ve done our job in training and equipping, there should be no problem. We should not be afraid to release them into God’s will, or you know, let God take over and not worry about the outcome. Because if we’ve been faithful to what God has called us to do, the training and equipping, then he’s going to be faithful in what he’s going to get young adults to do.
TAUBE: Do you feel that hesitancy to both include and release young people comes from a place of being more concerned with protecting The Army and The Army’s future than with investing and discipling, and like you said, equipping the next generation?
REARDON: I don’t know. I think maybe, yeah, maybe there’s a sense of protecting The Army’s future. I think, at the heart of it though, it’s that we’re afraid of the unknown. If you look at the corporate world, the way Millennials are changing the corporate world… look at the way Facebook is operated. Look at the way Google is operated; that’s an unknown factor in The Salvation Army.
So how do we protect our heritage, and still let Millennials take over? Maybe there’s fear and trust issues. Maybe there’s a fear of the older generations becoming… just being pushed aside and not being useful anymore.
To be completely honest with you, there’s a little bit of sadness in the idea that God won’t necessarily use my generation to change the world. I’m not going to be the one leading the charge. My generation’s not going to be leading the charge. I’m going to have to stand on the sidelines and be a cheerleader while you guys do it.
TAUBE: Well, then what do you think Millennials could do to speak into, or assuage some of those fears? What could Millennials do to show that we want to work together, alongside older generations? Assuming that’s how Millennials feel!
REARDON: Yeah, see, I think it’s an assumption on our–on the older generations’–part. I don’t think it has anything to do… it’s not based in any form of reality. What I know personally of the Millennials in my life, both in family and the hundreds of Millennials I’ve been really blessed to know over the years–they’re willing to cooperate. They’re eager to learn and they’re eager to make us happy and to show us that they can do it. So, I think it’s an internal thing. And I think it’s a spiritual issue that my generation needs to deal with.
I think, pure and simple, it’s a pride issue. And my generation and older [generations] need to just lay our pride down at the foot of the cross and deal with it–and let God deal with us–so that he can do what he wants to do.
TAUBE: Are there any ways that you see, perhaps, where Millennials mishandled things, or maybe could have gone about things differently? Of course, we’re speaking in huge generalizations here.
REARDON: I think there’s a certain ego that comes with Millennials.
TAUBE: With youth!
REARDON: And it is! It’s with youth! When I was a young adult, I was very confident. That confidence has carried into, you know, now my forties. Confidence isn’t a bad thing. But when confidence becomes ego, and when confidence becomes unteachable… and there are, again in general terms, there are some young adults that don’t want to be taught, don’t want to be mentored. But again, that’s the exception to the rule as far as I’m concerned.
There are more young adults that are very… they desire to mentored, they desire to be discipled. And I think, overall, I think what needs to happen is that The Salvation Army needs to get back to the way of discipleship that Christ intended. And so someone like me, I should have with me all the time four, five, six, young adult men that I’m speaking into their lives on a regular basis. And those five or six should have five or six. And I should be part of five or six! I should have someone older than me speaking into my life. I don’t know that we do that.
TAUBE: As and aside, do you think that’s… I don’t know… I mean it’s not even on the topic of what we’re talking about… I was just thinking that one thing I see in The Army is like–I understand why it might be hard for Army leadership to focus on discipleship in that way, because they’re not a part of discipleship in that way.
TAUBE: And so kind of, it almost points out this hypocrisy?
REARDON: Look, as much as I love and I think the Army has a lot of good existing models, I think they haven’t been used to their fullest capacity. Corps Cadets for instance: I have yet to see a Corps Cadet program that is a true discipleship program.
TAUBE: Right, it’s not supposed to be just a classroom thing.
REARDON: Corps Cadets get together on a Sunday afternoon and rifle through the lesson so they can turn it in to DHQ. Corps Cadets was meant to be a discipleship program for teenagers, to be prepared for leadership… prepared for adulthood. And it’s turned into an extended Sunday School class. And even School School is more sterile than it should be.
TAUBE: Meaning it’s very curriculum or classroom based?
REARDON: Meaning it’s very rigid. And I think our programs–Adventure Corps, Sunbeams, Girl Guards–their names might be old and outdated, but there’s more discipleship that happens in our troop based programs than our spiritual based programs. And the troops have a spiritual element to them, but that’s not their primary focus.
TAUBE: Well, they try to achieve sort of a balance between the two.
TAUBE: At the Central Youth Network, for the past year or so, we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about why young people leave The Salvation Army. Could you maybe share some of the big reasons that you’ve come up against in your work and your research?
REARDON: I might… this might get some push back, but I think a large reason… a big reason why young adults are leaving The Army is because they feel their voice isn’t listened to. They feel like they’re just being told what to do, how to act, and when to do it. And they’re not given a lot of freedom in how they feel God is calling them to ministry. I think that young adults–and all of us at one point in our lives or another–are searching for something… meaning… searching for God’s will.
But as far as young adults are concerned, it all kind of culminates after high school–during college, or when you’re getting your first job–and you’re entering the workforce as an adult. You’re searching for your identity. And I don’t think we allow the proper space for that searching, and we don’t [provide] the opportunity or an environment that is considered safe enough to search. If we don’t wear the uniform and play in the band we’re ostracized.
TAUBE: Well, and that’s one thing that I’ve kind of intuited in my experience in The Army. More often than not I think, we lead young people to root their identity in The SA rather than in Christ.
TAUBE: And I think that kind of goes back to that issue we were talking about of fear for the future and the desire to protect The SA, because our identity is in the SA, not necessarily in who we are in Christ. But how can we change that sort of approach or mindset?
REARDON: I think, organizationally, we have to come to the point where we believe, 100% that God has raised up The Salvation Army as a force for good in the world. And if we believe that God has raised up The Salvation Army, then we shouldn’t be afraid to find our identity in Christ, and allow The SA to evolve the way God wants it to evolve… rather than force our own change, or lack of change.
Look, I’m a band geek. I love playing in the band, but I realize that it’s not for everybody. I don’t think the uniform is a bad thing; I think we wear it for the wrong reasons and at the wrong times, but we force ourselves to believe that TSA essentials are more important than how we live in Christ. And if we allow God to dictate how we evolve, rather than the preservation of our identity… that’s where the breakdown happens.
I think God has… I think the best days of The Army are ahead of us. What is scary to a lot of people is that we don’t know what that’s going to look like. And I think it’s been paused. It really hasn’t taken hold because we haven’t allowed God to move us into that next phase of his plan. It’s as simple as looking at the way we dress, we’re stuck in the middle of the 20th century.
TAUBE: I always tell people in my life who are new to the Army, kind of sarcastically, “Hey, it was all really cool in the 1800s!”
REARDON: I think we’re in a stage where it’s starting to evolve and it’s starting… we’re in growing pains. And there are people–young people–that are just moving forward and things are happening despite all the stuff that we’re talking about. You’ve got good things happening with young adults around the The Salvation Army. I think that’s all a movement of God, but why isn’t it blazing out of control? Because we’re still pulling it back a little bit.
TAUBE: Well, what do you think are some practical things that youth leaders and officers in our corps can consider in their ministry and outreach with Millennials?
REARDON: If we were going to go overseas on missionary service… if were were going to go say, to Africa, we would spend time before we got on the plane learning about that culture. Learning their language, learning their customs, learning their rituals, learning how to best communicate with the people that we were going to serve. So the same has to be true in our outreach to Millennials. We have to know who they are–know their rituals, know their customs, know their characteristics, know their language–so that we can speak the truth of the gospel in a way that they’ll understand and in a way that they’ll accept and make their own.
TAUBE: What would you say to the officer who just says, “I can’t figure it all out!”
REARDON: You don’t have to figure it all out. And don’t misunderstand me, it’s not about an old guy trying to be hip and cool. It’s about authenticity more than anything else. Young people need their leaders to be authentic and transparent, and not pretend that they have all the answers, and that they have all their stuff together. Because nobody has all their stuff together. So don’t fake it–be yourself. And really express a genuine love and concern for their soul! And don’t just treat them as a stat! Don’t try to get young adults into your building or into your program so your stats can improve. Try to get them in your programs and in your building so that their lives can be changed and they can be reconciled to God.
TAUBE: The Central Youth Network exists to encourage and equip youth leaders and officers to make an impact for the kingdom of God in their communities. So this is your chance to just offer any encouragement or advice you want to give to the officers and youth leaders who are in the trenches every day. What would you like to say or pray or encourage them with?
REARDON: God promises us, in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament–he repeats himself–that he’s never going to leave us or forsake us. I think it’s significant that it happens in the Old Testament [Deut. 31:6] and then it’s repeated and quoted in the New Testament [Heb. 13:5].
God’s called us to go into all the world and preach the Gospel; he’s not going to abandon us when we get there. And we might feel alone, we might feel abandoned, we might feel stressed and just going nuts with everything we feel or think we have to accomplish… but at the end of the day, we’re not asked to do it in our own strength. We’re asked to do it in the strength of the king. And that’s where we need to find our energy and find our rest.
Every morning I wake up, and increasingly I don’t recognize the person I’m looking at in the mirror! It’s not the same guy I was twenty years ago, but I always ask God to just give me the energy that is needed for the tasks he has for me that day. At the end of the day I just ask for the necessary rest to do it again. And we just need to rest in his strength and in his power, and quit trying to do it on our own.