A Few More Thoughts on Millennials and the Church

Today’s normally the day that I post a bunch of links, but since many of them had to do with the Rachel Held Evans’ piece on Millennials leaving Christianity anyway (critiqued here on Thursday), and since she just followed up on that with a post on why Millennials need the Church, I’ll put off “That Was The Week That Was” until tomorrow and share a few more thoughts on everyone’s favorite generation — mostly thoughts belonging to other people, and a few of my own.

• We’ll start with the follow-up that RHE just posted at CNN’s Belief Blog. She follows a Protestantized version of the seven sacraments, with Extreme Unction becoming healing (“At their best, local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless”), Holy Orders leadership, and Marriage “union with Christ.” Given the criticism sent the way of the initial post, a few sentences are especially significant:

  • River baptism ca. 1900
    River baptism at the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina – Wikimedia

    On baptism… “In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.”

  • On confession… “…like all people, millennials need reminding now and then that the hate and violence we observe in the world is also present within ourselves….. The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride.”
  • On leadership… “We can learn a lot from the faithful who have gone before us, and the church is where we find them.”
  • On union with Christ… “As much as I may struggle to fit in sometimes, as much as I doubt, question and fight for reforms, I am a part of this church, through good times and bad, for better or worse.”

I strongly doubt that this will attract anything remotely like the attention given the first post, and what I’d really wish for is a book exploring each of these in much more depth than the bullet-point treatment given here (perhaps putting each in conversation with one or more of the “We want” statements from the first post). But I like what she’s sketching, and rejoice that someone who could easily place themselves in the “spiritual, but not religious” category is finding her place in the Body of Christ.

• I’m also grateful to RHE for herself recommending a critique from self-professed “flaming liberal feminist” Meghan Florian (who blogs at Femmonite). Two key points from that essay, both of which seem to have influenced or prompted points in RHE’s post this morning:

Meghan Florian…if we’re looking for Jesus, one place we are supposed to find him is in the gathered body of believers, and while I am the first to say I have not always seen him there, it is too easy to point to one simple issue and to ignore deeper problems. We’re not only supposed to be looking for Jesus, but being his presence for one another….

When we leave church we are not doing anything new. We are reenacting the story of modernity, the one where “man” is an island, where the individual is paramount, where free choice is an end in itself and self-sufficiency is God. When we say we don’t need institutions our actions imply we also believe we do not need each other. We’re not looking for Jesus, we’re looking for our own personal God. “We” in this instance isn’t “millennials”; it is, arguably, the human condition. Or, at the very least, a typical ideal among people in the United States today.

Earlier this week I edited the last of ten films for the online Western Civ/church history course I’ve been co-teaching this summer. When we interviewed Bethel faculty from a variety of disciplines for the series, we not only asked about historical events, movements, themes, etc., but what they thought was a contemporary American value that Christians ought to affirm, and one that Christians ought to reject or at least approach cautiously. Overwhelmingly, the most popular reject/caution response was individualism, with my colleagues repeatedly echoing Florian’s critique. I’d agree entirely: modernity takes one of the most important anthropological claims of Christianity — that humans are distinct individuals, each bearing the image of God — and strips it of one of others — that humans are created for community (God being a community Himself).

• I’m not especially sure that online community satisfies that imperative all that well, but… As I said in my own response, something else that I appreciate about RHE is that she engages her blog readers as conversation partners. That’s not something I’m particularly good at, so to have had over a dozen comments on the post was both remarkable (by the standards of this blog) and speaks to the fact that Evans struck a nerve.

I especially appreciate the back-and-forth between Laura (who offered her own response at rocksandsand) and Kate. Check out the whole conversation, but a few highlights that particularly struck me:

What fundamentally bothered me about the article is the consumer attitude that looms behind it-” change or we’re out of here.” The problem, I think, stems from talking about The Church like we talk about The Government, like some faceless institution that is out there. When we (I include myself) remove ourselves from the equation, whether we are speaking of a specific church, a denomination, or “the Church” at large, it then becomes far too tempting to take a critical stance. The Church should… or The Church should not… But when we see ourselves as all members of one body, each with our own passions, our own skills, and our own specific spheres of influence, more energy can be poured into being used by God in the very specific way He wants to use us. (Laura)

I think what gets to me and why I tend to stand back and criticize that which I am a part of is that I have many, many friends who are not Christians, and over and over I see a lot of pain and disgust in their critiques of Christians, and I can’t always blame them…. People feel hated by us, not loved, and they want to keep us a million miles away. It saddens me deeply, and I do think that perhaps we are in need of some radical movement of reform as periodically occurs in the Church. Maybe as more and more people reject us, however, and as we become separated from mainstream society, that will be just what we need. (Kate)

• But to the problem of how Christians are perceived, as implied in RHE’s “We want” litany and developed much more helpfully by Kate in her comments… Whether it’s true or not, is part of the “Millennial problem” for the church that Christians are viewed by younger adults as being too political, homophobic, overly focused on sexual holiness, etc.?

Kinnaman and Lyons, unChristianI’m sure it’s true to a point. From my own experience as a college student frustrated by all those things (yet never leaving the church), from conversations with people inside and outside of the church, from surveys like the Barna research that prompted unChristian (which our church’s leadership team read a couple of years ago)… Kate is no doubt right that, to a degree, “People feel hated by us, not loved, and they want to keep us a million miles away.”

But even as I know that we of the Church must not close our ears and eyes to that hurt, and should instead repent of our role in causing it and pray for the Spirit to correct and renew us… The church that I know, though imperfect, is not the hateful church of some Millennials’ experience or perception, and there’s a limit to my ability to change people’s opinions of it. Let me quote Laura again:

If people know us, and we are able to be winsome witnesses, we do not need to apologize for The Church. We can be the parts of The Church that we feel called to be. And I honestly believe there are those who will find every reason to dismiss Christians and Christianity, and you could talk until you are blue in the face- if they do not have ears to hear, they will not… I’m not going to fight those windmills.

And if I might be so foolish as to advance a very tentative hypothesis supported by that unstable mix of sweeping generalizations and personal experience that made RHE’s post problematic…

I wonder if we won’t find a very different generational story being told in 10-20 years, as some of the truly significant changes in evangelicalism that have already started to take place in recent years have an effect on perceptions held by whatever generation follows the Millennials (“Gen Z“?). (And here I’ll stop talking about Christianity in the abstract and get to the particular movement that I think RHE and most of her respondents are really talking about. Not that the other alternatives are innately more attractive to Millennials.)

I thought about this reading a recent interview with NPR host Krista Tibbett, in Christianity Today. She spoke of being a journalist in divinity school in the early Nineties:

At that point, you had Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speaking not just for evangelical Christianity or Christianity; they were the voices of religion in America. They made for great sound bites; they were exciting in that way.

That was a big piece of the motivation for me: This [religious] part of life is so much bigger and more diverse than that. Evangelical Christianity is more diverse than that. That was my starting point.

Now, there’s no cookie-cutter voice. The story I’m trying to tell is that evangelical Christians have a whole range of issues they care about—poverty and the environment and sex trafficking. That’s the story of what’s happened in the past decade, this broadening, expansive application of core values and virtues.

For most Millennials, I wonder how much their opinion of evangelical Christianity was settled 15-25 years ago — through personal experience, observation filtered through media (who, then or now, struggle to understand evangelicalism — read Tibbett on this as well), and everything along that spectrum of proximity. Whereas if you came of age after the year 2000, you would have encountered an evangelicalism that’s considerably more complicated than the stereotype epitomized by Falwell and Robertson…

Yes, there are evangelicals who continue to engage in reprehensible behavior (e.g., demonizing gay people, immigrants, Muslims, the President of the United States, among others) that will alienate a new generation. But we’ve also seen dramatic shifts in evangelicalism — particularly in the realm of social justice. Evangelicals certainly don’t offer a perfect witness there (in the jargon of my denomination, we’re probably still more comfortable with Compassion and Mercy than Justice), but I don’t think I could have a serious conversation with someone who, in spite of enormous evidence to the contrary, persisted in the opinion that evangelicals simply don’t care about social justice. I suspect instead that the generation now growing up and being born will encounter evangelical churches and parachurch groups that devote enormous energy engaging with the challenges of AIDS/HIV (compare that to where evangelicalism was in the Falwell/Robertson years), sex trafficking and contemporary slavery (see the International Justice Mission video below), homelessness and poverty, illiteracy, access to health care, and perhaps even immigration reform and creation care. They might even find evangelicals to be increasingly nuanced in their response to human sexuality — as this local gay mainline pastor discovered.

• Finally, I still sense too little awareness that conversations about how Millennials relate to Christianity are predominantly being carried out by privileged, prosperous Americans about other privileged, prosperous Americans. It’s still not looking globally — where people leaving the church is hardly the problem — but I think Meghan Florian again gets at an important problem: “…we’re talking about a bunch of privileged white folks who expect that church, like everything else, is something they consume, rather than something they are called to create together.” She linked back to a response from Tyler Tully, who noted that “we are really talking about white, middle class, southern evangelical Christian millennials–not all Christian millennials… those millennials that are leaving evangelical churches who identify as members of the non-Hispanic white majority are either joining even wealthier and whiter Mainline Protestant churches or flocking to Young Reformed Restless congregations with the same demographic.”

3 thoughts on “A Few More Thoughts on Millennials and the Church

  1. This is admittedly a rabbit trail, and a bit personal, (and quite possibly may be seen as reactionary), but something I feel compelled to say. It is important to remember that there are highly intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people, some well known,and some not, who hold to what many see as socially conservative convictions. Figures like John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas come to my mind as great thinkers who are able to articulate quite well what I often find myself stammering about in these type of conversations. I just think we need to be careful in these conversations to not label any group- for instance, I believe in traditional marriage as the ideal and God’s intent, but I do not obsess about it, hate anyone, or consider myself homophobic. i also believe that there is a trend toward eugenics creeping into our country as more parents opt to abort babies who have markers for downs syndrome and other “defects.” I honestly see this as a human rights issue and I am appalled that those who speak the loudest for social justice had little or nothing to say about the house of horrors that was Gosnell’s clinic (which by the way, “served” poor and minority women). I have given much thought to these issues and feel strongly about them, but that does not mean I do not also care about modern slavery, creation care, greed, and other issues that are often seen as more liberal concerns.

    I am sure you can feel the emotion behind these words. I really want to say that most of all I think these have been great posts and conversation and I certainly have been challenged in my thinking.

    i also appreciate you pointing out that much of this is rooted in a very narrow few of the church and does not represent global diversity (or even diversity within our country). I actually think we could learn a lot if we listened to churches in, say, parts of Africa. From my understanding, some have considered sending missionaries here (!)

    p.s thanks for including my previous comments- I really do appreciate this and I say again, I have been so challenged intellectually and spiritually by your words and the ensuing discussions.

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