Coaching the ‘Participation Trophy’ Generation

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For many millennials entering adulthood, the truth that we all compete for a prize is a shock. Painted high on the concrete wall of my elementary school gym, next to a friendly cartoon character, were the words, If you had fun, you won. It was as simple as that. We received participation trophies whether we failed or succeeded, and trying was all that mattered. Participating became the closest thing to achieving.

In their zeal to teach us affirmation and fair treatment, our well-meaning baby-boomer parents and teachers nurtured us on unfounded self-esteem, squelching our natural inclination to pursue a goal and spawning a generation that dismisses both success and failure.

Consequently, we have grown into young adults starving for something we can more than just take part in. We are hungry for purpose.

We also want to be recognized as having individual value. The result is a recognition frenzy that has turned many into collectors, rather than victors. We collect followers on social media, for example, and measure self-worth by the amount of attention we gain.

Time magazine’s Joel Stein dubs the result “the era of the quantified self.”1 Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy that life is a journey, not a destination, has transformed into “life is all about the journey.” Unfortunately, with our eyes fixed on the journey, collecting participation badges as we wander, it’s hard to recognize the goal of faith.

The church faces a tremendous opportunity as millennials seek an ultimate purpose. Many millennials approach church as if the aim of faith were relative or shifting, as everything else is made to appear in this postmodern world that rejects absolutes. But we seek purpose secured in something unchanging, something in which we can ground our faith.

What believing millennials need in a church is exactly what God has set forth: a goal. To have a prize in sight provides the conviction to run, not halfheartedly but with commitment. We are all “created for [God’s] glory” (Isa. 43:7). Running well is all about honoring the One we’re running for. The goal of our faith is to glorify God, and the ultimate prize for running well is authentic relationship—personal, everlasting unity with the Person of Jesus Christ, who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He never changes.

A close relationship with God is both the race and the reward.

God’s unconditional, unfailing love is hard for millennials to grasp. Yet our generation is desperate to test it and find God’s love to be true.

Though eager to be loved, we need biblical models of love. Our idea of unconditional love is unconditional validation. We need to know what godly love looks like throughout the disciplined, specific pursuit of growing ever nearer to our Savior, our prize.

The church faces a tremendous opportunity as millennials seek an ultimate purpose.
Unconditional love contains three principles I believe we need to see at work in the church to untangle the confusion of the “me generation.”

1. Unconditional love esteems. Regarding others more highly than ourselves (Phil. 2:3) simply because they are God’s creation is  a foreign concept to many of us. Through the buzzword self-esteem, we learned that esteeming others is still all about us.

We received awards simply for doing what we ought to do. The incentive to be kind was not love for one another but, rather, the  desire to collect yet another badge of goodness. Eventually, however, selfish incentives leave us feeling empty.

Godly love does not focus on utilitarian qualities, like performance or participation. Nor is it motivated by a useful return on  relational investment. God’s love is undeserved and unconditional and expects nothing in return.

It seems to me the church needs to humbly demonstrate God’s sacrificial love to everyone and shift the focus of ministry from self-fulfillment to fulfilling God’s call for all who believe.

2. Unconditional love values truth. Millennials have grown up confused about the difference between tolerance and  acceptance. The world values sameness. God values the uniqueness of all His creatures. Each one of us has been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). The Bible teaches us to conduct ourselves respectfully, but truthfully.

Part of authentic love involves speaking truth in a godly way. If the church wants to reach millennials, it must emphasize and train people to speak and receive the truth with humility, gentleness, self-control, and kindness. We need practical examples and advice about esteeming others while maintaining our biblical convictions.

3. Unconditional love invests. Millennials tend to church-hop due to a lack of investment in relationships and a lack of being invested in by others. With so many church programs being offered, we are often invited into leadership and service. Yet we are without personal, lasting connections within the body.

Many of us never witnessed genuine commitment growing up. Although we’re often considered needy, the truth is our generation struggles to believe relationships can be stable and enduring. Sometimes that perspective hinders the relational basis of faith.

When other believers commit to us personally, we see love within the body of Christ. That love makes a tangible difference to people who are largely lost among the many programs compartmentalizing the church.

What millennials need most from the church is to be directed to, grounded in, and lavished with the unconditional love of God. I believe that love will open a door the Holy Spirit will use to mature millennial believers and use us to do great things for Him.

Show us how to run with our eyes on the prize. The confusing, dismissive life-coaching our generation received isn’t working on the course set before us. We need to be retrained. Our coaches must teach us how to run purposefully and effectively.

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The undertaking involves setting an example of perseverance, commitment, and godly living. It means training by example, as the apostle Paul did. Through biblical teaching and personal relationships, we learn to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus,” whose glory is our goal (Heb. 12:1–2).

Millennials are filled with potential. We need godly coaching so we can become Christians who say, “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly” (1 Cor. 9:26, NIV). For many in my generation, that’s a prize in itself.


1 Joel Stein, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time, May 20, 2013 <>.

Bethany McIlrath is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.


  1. Pingback: What The Millennial Generation Needs to Know About the Goal of Faith - First and Second Blog

  2. Bethany, this is an eye-opening post. As a Gen X’er, your post helps me better understand the struggle of Millenials, as well as how we as a culture got to the place of affirmation at the cost of valuing the individual and the effort AND the relationship. Thank you for sharing your insights here. You’ve got me thinking!

  3. You know, I understand the participation trophy idea. Working daycare and having birthday parties, children did not understand not getting a present, but were happy with a coloring book or treat bag. But children and Christians both should grow in grace and love. Interesting topic, parents should be concerned if their children are being turned into immature and entitled adults.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Rebecca! I still love when everyone gets a treat bag : ) It’s entitlement and lack of recognizing success or failure in a healthy, realistic manner that I tend to find concerning. Amen that we should all be growing in grace and love!

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