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I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.
As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).
As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.
So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).
I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.
Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.
1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.
2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.
3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.
4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.
In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.
I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.
He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.
Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.
If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).
Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.
First, having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.
Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.
Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.
I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.
To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.
Sometimes the internet takes me interesting places. I’m just sitting here, trying to think of how to structure this piece that’s important to me. As I try to find graphics to illustrate my thinking, I happen across one of the serendipitous moments that brings together everything I was thinking.
Honestly, I just wanted a picture that communicated fearlessness. But the picture at the left led me to the website of the Case Foundation (chaired by Steve and Jean Case, formerly of AOL Time-Warner) and their Fearless initiative. Looking deeper, I discover that they had just given $100,000 to Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. But that led me to a new story about the creation of The Beeck Institute for Social Impact and Innovation and its new director, Sonal Shah. Two twitter friends had happily posted of Shah’s appointment but the import was lost on me when I read it this afternoon.
I’m happy for Georgetown. I really am. But the instruction to be fearless, take risks, be bold, fail forward are things Christian Universities can and should take seriously. Consider this quote from Jean Case from the Washington Post story linked above:
“When the millennials look at the world, they see daunting challenges that have dogged us for a long time,” she said. “This generation says, ‘wow, these are big problems, what’s the best way to find new solutions?’ And they don’t think in the old-style ways.”
She’s right, of course. This generation is looking to engage the broader culture in ways that are markedly different from prior generations. As I’ve written before, it is incumbent on Christian Universities to take bold steps, to risk conflict and criticism in order to free up our students to address the key questions that lie before the evangelical church.
One of the challenges of Christian Higher Education is that the academic sphere can often take a back seat to other elements of university life. Its not anti-intellectualism per se. It has more to do with the historic difficulty of competing with our research peers. We had fewer PhDs, hardly any research support, too many classes, few graduate programs, and so on. So the positioning of the university often seemed to involve life-long friendships, possible mates, rousing chapel services, and floor Bible studies. Yes we have classes too but we didn’t know how to talk about those.
Not surprisingly, that has made us overly defensive about tuition costs and student loans. We’ve tried to avoid the fact that the kind of transformation that Jean Case is calling for requires risk. There are those who claim the risk isn’t worth it, that degrees are overhyped, or that college degrees are interchangeable. That’s why a recent study sponsored by the American Association of Schools and Colleges was so important. They found that over the long run, liberal arts graduates outperformed their more technically oriented colleagues in both earnings and positional authority. Any gaps that existed in the short term were overcome due to the stronger critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills of the liberal arts grads.
Last week was Marx week in my sociological theory class. We were talking about alienation as the separation of work from meaning. Naturally, I turned the conversation to student learning and explored the ways in which the structure of higher education isolates student creativity (because the means of production favor mastery). Moving from that to a liberated approach to learning (as in liberal arts) requires upsetting the powers-that-be.
In another class this week, we spent a little time debriefing the Ham-on-Nye debate. It provided a sharp contrast to how G.K. Chesterton engaged those atheist friends like H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw who disagreed with him on faith matters. He maintained friendship but was willing to banter on important issues. I think the class got the point — they generally saw the Creation Museum debate as a sideshow that didn’t lead anywhere.
A conversation with another group of students illustrated the need for fearlessness. The topic was a perennial one I’ve heard since I started teaching three decades ago: open hours. The students weren’t asking new questions, but they were asking with new insights. Who were the donors or trustees that were afraid of dealing with issues of romantic relationships? What generation were they from? There was a political tone (in terms of leveraging positive change) that was eye-opening.
Read the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Education and you come across the same arguments over and over. We need to move to competency-based education. The future is in non-traditional students. Three year degrees will be the rage. More vocational-technical training is called for. Lower costs and forgive debts. More adjunct instructors. Fewer administrators.
In my judgment, none of these take us very far because they ignore the central questions. How have we prepared students to engage the issues they’ve inherited from us? What factors contribute to their growth? How have they learned to deal with complex issues that are politically fraught?
Last week, Kent Barnds, an administrator at Augustana College in Illinois wrote this intriguing piece in Inside Higher Ed. Frankly, I think his prescription could have gone much farther but his diagnosis is in line with my search for fearlessness. He asks some good questions:
We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.
For my money, he makes too much of the inside-outside distinction of the classroom. The real issue, as I see it, is to empower the students themselves to ask the right kinds of questions and for the institution to be brave, to risk failure, and to engage messiness just to see where that takes us. I think that’s what the Case Foundation means by failing forward.
I’m still working this out, but I think I can begin a list of questions students would engage if we’d let them. I hope my readers will add to my list.
1. How do we engage questions of sexuality in this complex world? More pledges and platitudes are not sufficient for a generation that has sexuality permeating the culture. “Just wait” will be an increasing challenge for these students who, if they follow trends, won’t marry for another 5 years after graduation.
2. How do we have conversations about alcohol? Can we dispense with slippery slope arguments and acknowledge the normality of alcohol in the evangelical world? What steps can we take so that students uncover the space between teetotaling and binge drinking?
3. How do we engage complex political questions? What can our students teach us about how they view issues of poverty and human trafficking? Why are they so much more engaged and passionate about the topic?
4. How do we reconcile a vibrant faith with scientific literacy? What’s the role of technology? Is everything progress?
5. What does a simple lifestyle look like? Why are my students attracted to intentional community and what does that suggest about a consumerist society they engage?
In each of these questions and many others we could suggest, the key will be for us to have the courage to let them explore their answers. If we’re bold enough, they just might lead us to where we all wanted to go in the first place.
Something curious has been happening in my social media feeds. Some of the young evangelical writers I follow are frustrated. Many are tired of the constant combativeness when they try to express concerns about past positions. Others simply find it too hard to be part of a church that focuses on Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A, Paula Dean, Mark Driscoll, Ken Hamm, and so on. They are naturally reacting to name-calling, vitriol, and trash-talking on behalf of “bible-believing Christians”.
I’ve seen a confluence of writers put together pieces about new year’s resolutions to avoid getting sucked in to the back and forth. Even those get attacked for being wishy-washy. I fear that this weariness of combativeness and the focus on the wrong issues (like calling Pope Francis a communist), will simply encourage young-ish leaders to give up on the evangelical movement.
Last night, I saw a series of tweets on why these leaders are giving up on evangelicalism. The Duck Dynasty controversy (I still think it was contrived) brought out folks who were willing to support “biblical values” while tolerating racially insensitive (at best) speech and implausible and inelegant connections between homosexuality and bestiality. And those leaders I’m thinking about said, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I’m out”.
I’ve written before about the evangelicals focus on boundary maintenance that will bridge no quarter when it comes to defending favorite positions. It’s easy to see. Rhetoric falls back to simply “Defending the Bible”. I was part of a thread today on how young people respond to evolution and was troubled that some folks weren’t even willing to engage the discussion without saying that the young people were at fault for not holding to “the foolishness of God” against “the wisdom of the world”. Such talk simply adds to the tendency for young people to leave the evangelical fold (and I fear, faith altogether). But my purpose tonight isn’t to address those evangelicals manning the barricades. I want to speak to those who are feeling pushed outside the walls.
My message is in the title: Don’t Go…We Need You.
It is your discomfort with the status quo that will promote change. It is your asking questions and making clear that you won’t put up with this past behavior that is a prophetic voice.
I’m not saying you have to attend the church with the worship band and the fog machine and listen to the sermon-series-soon-to-be-a-book (when the staff finishes it). Feel free to go to the mainline church for awhile if you want some structure without all the name-calling.
But don’t give up on the evangelical movement. You’re too important. The future of evangelicalism depends upon those who are able to testify to faith in Christ in the midst of a complex, postmodern, pluralistic world. We’ll need people who are articulate about their concerns, who can see multiple sides of an issue, who are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, and can help craft answers that are scripturally sound (in the grand arc of scripture) and contextually appropriate.
I’ve been reading Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. I’m a little late to the game as a number of other bloggers have done a wonderful job of responding to the book. I’m only a third of the way in, but I find it right on target in terms of evangelical institutionalization. In the part that I’ve read, two things stand out in stark relief.
First, the convergence of a biblicism and Americanism have roots in the very foundations of the evangelical infrastructure as it formed 50 years ago. I had always known that Harold Lindzell had written a book on the biblical defense of the free enterprise system, but I hadn’t know how much anti-communism and economics were a part of the early story. As N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and many others, have pointed out such a focus on power is an expression of Empire when Christ set about to build a New Kingdom.
You young evangelicals who were not raised during the cold war can speak to the worldview assumptions that framed the development of evangelicalism. It’s not part of the Gospel. It’s what my former pastor called “Jesus with condiments” – take some Jesus and add whatever you like. We need voices that will say, “Wait a minute here! We’re not celebrating the Kingdom; we’re celebrating the American middle class values of the 1960s!” (which is why I’ve been returning to Bellah’s civil religion in the last month).
A second takeaway from the first third of Worthen’s book: alternative voices were always present during evangelical institutionalization. Certainly too many of them may have been too focused on their own denominational issues. But there was NEVER “one way to be an evangelical”. Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Restorationists, Pentecostals, and others have always been trying to express a less-combative style. It would have been better if they had been included in the initial organizational circles and it’s true that they may have rightly felt pushed out of the conversation. But there is not a monolithic voice of evangelicalism with a “take it or leave it” response required.
I want my evangelical colleagues who are wavering to recognize that there are many others who have been trying to reframe evangelicalism in ways that allow us to address today’s pressing issues (pretty much Kinnaman’s list of millennial concern: science, same-sex marriage, dialogue, doubt, tone, and patriarchy). We need your voices to stay engaged because it is your work that will help shape the coming generation.
I shared this image in October. It is an graphic showing Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It shows that what looked like a dominant paradigm is regularly challenged by new ways of thinking. The establishment is not nice to those making the challenge. But over time, as new evidence emerges, it becomes clear that the new paradigm is more elegant, more correct, more reflective of reality than the previous framework. It becomes the new paradigm and things start over.
You, my Facebook and Twitter friends, are the voices that have challenged the dominant paradigm. It’s hard for them to put up with your criticisms and concerns. (Unfortunately, the people who have written that they are going to try and be kinder are NOT from the dominant paradigm).
But you must continue to work out what it means to be evangelical in these complex times. If you don’t, all we’ve got is the combativeness and insensitivity that we’ve had for too long. Then the witness of the church as the Body of Christ is at risk.
If you leave because of your concerns about the dominant paradigm , you run the same risk that faced the dominant group with concerns over public schools. If public schools were secular and people of faith left, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hang in there. We need your voices in the mix.
One final thought. All of us closer to my age have a responsibility to run interference for these younger voices. We must find ways of legitimizing their questions and calling out those trolls and leaders who make sport of demonizing them. For those around sixty who’ve been part of the evangelical movement for years, we need you too.
Together we can find the new paradigm while maintaining faith commitments in ways that are responsive to contemporary society. And celebrate the Kingdom of God in the process.
[My final contribution to the Respectful Conversation project in which we each have to stake our own positions on "The Future of Evangelicalism". I had to cut things out and leave things unsaid to fit the 1200 word limit. Following a trend from DVD's where the director puts back scenes cut for time, here's an expanded version. Additions are in red.]
Being part of this Respectful Conversation over the past seven months has been invigorating. It’s required me to look for themes in the writings of my collaborators and commenters, to uncover where the defining questions lie, and to apply my sociological imagination toward making sense of contemporary American Evangelicalism. The process has required me to reflect on my own argument as I imagined others reading it and to be far more attentive to major shifts in contemporary religious discourse. Knowing that I had to stake my personal claim in December hopefully sharpened my thinking.
1. What is your vision for the future of American Evangelicalism?
My June post made reference to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he contrasts differing views of connections between evangelicals and the broader society. After reviewing “Purity From”, “Relevant To”, and “Defensive Against” (which was my reference), he ends by calling for “Faithful Presence”. This simple notion is profound in its implications. He says that Faithful Presence “is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
While there are a variety of voices competing for dominance in American Evangelicalism (and religion more broadly), I believe that the next decade will see an outbreak of Faithful Presence over more combative views of faith and culture. Some of this stems from changes we’re seeing in the faith of millennials. Even those who haven’t left the church are seeing the faith-culture relationship in very different ways than their parents and grandparents. They are far more aware of their identity as strangers in a foreign land who are trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
These shifts are not limited to the young. There is a parallel shift happening in the lives of many senior citizens. Looking back on the harshness of their culture war rhetoric and legalism, they now wonder if it was worth it. You won’t find such reflection in those whose living depends upon being firm and dogmatic, but you will find them in nearly every congregation.
It’s entirely possible that the short term will see more combative language from many quarters. To quote former Vice President Cheney (though he was overly optimistic), “we’re seeing the last throes of the insurgency”. If the past four decades of American Evangelicalism has been defined by the power dynamics of culture wars, it’s going to be hard for major players (and their intellectual heirs) to simply give up the fight.
Over the long run, however, the posturing and argumentation of the former style will prove no match for the honesty and humility of Faithful Presence. This is because the Defensive Against posture must rely on overstatement, generalization, and politicization while Faithful Presence depends on old-fashioned testimony. To tell one’s story of faith in the midst of complexity yields an authenticity that is beyond reproach. In an age suspicious of posturing and hungry for relationship, one’s story has a power very different from the kind we’ve been chasing in the past. The power of story speaks out of experience in the midst of complexity and uncertainty. It says, “I believe even though it’s not always easy”.
Such storytelling has the potential for building community because I don’t stop with simply telling my story. I listen to yours as well. And together we listen to a third. Along the way, we become aware of our own uniqueness but that it is set against the backdrop of the Larger Narrative that includes us all.
2. What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities we face?
There are two major challenges to my vision of an evangelical future: one external and one internal. The external challenge is the legacy of Christendom and Constantinianism. A belief that somehow America and Christianity were co-mingled often has led us to believing that our task was to promote a particular form of society. These attempts created a perception of Christianity as pursuing a religiously oriented vision of a moral society gained through the influence of political power. The attempts to control outcomes become trigger events for pushback from secular audiences with accusations of superstition and desire for theocracy that cut across the ethos of a pluralistic culture. These issues become part of the larger drama of charges and countercharges between evangelical public figures on the one hand and neo-atheists on the other. In fact, both groups thrive on such charges. That’s why we make news from the isolated school principal who bans Christmas Carols. It’s why we fight zoning decisions on the proper citing of mosques. It’s why we fight over civil decisions regarding conditions for marriage.
Somehow, we need to gain a better sense of perspective. At the very least, we need to pick battles more carefully. Every request for a Facebook “like” don’t need to be liked. Every e-mail claiming outrage isn’t of the same weight. We need to let stuff go to break the hold of Christendom — because it’s had far more impact on evangelicals themselves than it has had on the broader society.
This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. In fact, too much of evangelicalism’s history has been a struggle to define itself as “not those other people.” This cognitive strategy is a never-ending effort at managing the boundaries that I wrote about in my last post. There’s always another group. to contrast. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. Christian higher education has been particularly susceptible to such definitions of other. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain. Hunter had argued that modernity presented a quandary for evangelicals as we deal with diversity and become educated and successful. I’d go even farther. Our very success as power-brokers and cultural-influencers has changed our cognitive identity from being misunderstood or marginalized to believing we know best.
These two conditions are especially threatened by the dynamics of social change. The political vision is expressed in concerns over loss of control (even if control had never really been in reach). The worldview vision sees every shift in attitude or new interpretation as the beginning of the slippery slope toward worldliness. Both of these get caught up in concerns about secularization, the idea that we are seeing religion removed from the public sphere. This view was popular in sociology 50 years ago, thinking that religion would fall away (there’s some leftover Comte in that). But research in the sociology of religion over the last half century shows the secularization thesis generally unsupported.
But much has changed in the last two decades. The younger generation seems more willing to maintain diverse views due to their connection to social media. They have not left their past friends behind in pursuit of Christian enclaves. They’ve wrestled with diverse positions their who lives. Some expressions of postmodernism allow a focus on dialogue arising from one’s clear values without arguing that values are social constructions. Increased concern for those who are powerless (the poor, the trafficked, the innocent) prioritizes compassion over being right and separate. There is a sense of pragmatism that persists. Heightened levels of education within evangelicalism have allowed a more complex view of engagement with those outside the subculture.
All of these shifts present an opportunity to rethink cultural engagement that allows faithful Christian testimony while avoiding the political name-calling of the Christendom argument or the isolation of the worldview argument. Rather than adopting the incorrect assumptions of secularization, it actually creates a tremendous opening for Faithful Presence.
3. What steps should American evangelical Christians take to respond to these challenges and opportunities?
One key changes necessary is to learn to be honest about our real situation. In recent months, Missio Alliance has posted a series of blogs about “The Scandal of Evangelical Memory”. These point out the ways in which we’ve told ourselves a history that isn’t complete. Two related points of argument come from careful histories, which separate our imaginings from what really happened. Consider two examples of how telling the real story frees us up to engage in new ways. Edward Larsen’s Summer for the Gods (1997) documents how the Scopes trial unfolded in ways very different from how we’ve told the story. Dayton’s reply to an ACLU ad looking for a test case (with Scopes at the table) was one of the biggest surprises for me. Bryan’s views would cause trouble for young-earth creationists. To be able to tell the real, complex story keeps us from creating shibboleths that fit on bumper stickers or Facebook memes. An even timelier example is found in Robert McKenzie’s excellent new book about The First Thanksgiving, which documents both the real history of the Pilgrim settlers and the ways the fictional communal dinner was used to support later American values. It’s important to know that the Pilgrims didn’t come to America primarily for religious freedom (they had it in the Netherlands). They came as part of economic development that fit their own needs. The big dinner with the Native Americans is largely a creation of historical fiction (McKenzie observes that they didn’t have tables, or forks, or serving plates, and probably didn’t eat the fast-running wild turkeys). We layered a set of American individualistic assumptions on top of little-known historical events and used the fiction for our own ends.
A second key is found in changing the way we use scripture as a point of argument. Ken Schenck argues that there is great value in focusing on the broad common themes of the scriptural story rather than on the verses that divide. This is a very Wesleyan approach to scripture and has much to commend it against proof-texting. Schenck correctly argues that we pick contentious verses as argument-enders instead of advancing the full Gospel story. Rather than focusing on a radical message that gender and status aren’t important in the New Kingdom (a theme running throughout the New Testament), we pick out a verse about women’s roles in leadership and allow that single verse to trump all else. We need a better narrative of scripture.
A third key is related to the history piece. We must take responsibility for harm we’ve done both institutionally and individually. The evangelical church has taken stances in the past that were on the wrong side of history. In other times, we may have been right but caused harm when doing so (I’m thinking of the shaming of women at abortion clinics who were already suffering enough). Then there’s the impact of our strong-armed evangelistic tactics. I’ve been amazed over the years at the high percentage of people who’ve had an overzealous cousin confront them over eternal destiny while waiting at Grandma’s buffet table to get more stuffing. Some people carry deep scars from what the church institutionally and individually has done to them. Most are not longer in the church. Those that are still there present an under-developed faith because they never want to be mistaken for Cousin Tony. To pursue the vision I’m proposing, we have to find a way to acknowledge, repent, and atone for the harms done. It may not be as dramatic as the Reed College scene in Blue Like Jazz when Don Miller and friends apologize for the church’s actions, but it’s in the right direction.
A fourth key relates to Christian Colleges and Universities. Guarding against secularism and secularization aren’t our key reason for being. What is far more important is to stand with our students as they figure out their stories, informed by history, literature, biology, physiology, or sociology, and add those stories to the rich mix that is modern society. As I’ve written before, we have a unique ability to see faith and learning as wholes and not as enemies. We must help our students live that out if we are to have fewer of them carrying deep scars and/or leaving the church at the end of their four years of school. We can and must help them (and their parents and pastors) navigate this complex postmodern culture.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to find our way to trust the Holy Spirit to lead. This is part of the public’s interest in the recent actions and statements of Pope Francis. Hardly a day goes by that Francis doesn’t say or do something that seems to reflect a paradigmatic shift in the entire Roman Catholic establishment. If this is happening in an institution as complex and tradition-bound as the Roman Catholic Church, it can certainly happen in Evangelicalism if we’re open to it. On Weekend Edition Saturday, Father James Martin was on NPR talking about the pope. Scott Simon asked if the College of Cardinals were expecting these changes from Francis. Father Martin responded, “it shows you once again the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit wants to do.”
There is no better hope for the future of evangelicalism than that.
One reason I’ve followed the whole “millenials leaving the church” discussion is because it’s directly related to a central theme of my book. Many of the responses to the millennial debate have either focused on personality characteristics or life cycle issues. The former argue that millennials are entitled and narcissistic, so they are unhappy because the church doesn’t meet their unique needs. The latter argue that all young people are estranged from religion but tend to return once they’ve married and had children.
I believe both of these positions have missed the central question surrounding millennials — that they’ve grown up in a remarkably different culture than earlier age cohorts. The confluence of their cultural location with their questions about faith suggest the need for real changes in Christian education.
The third chapter of the book addresses the changes social scientists have documented in recent years about today’s young adults. The chapter has informed much of what I’ve written in this blog. The first entry attempted to argue why these changes are important to Christian Higher education. I won’t repeat all of the argument here: today’s young adults are marrying later, have a less traditional commitment to institutions, are affected by Moral Therapeutic Deism, and have remained connected with diverse groups of others.
The culture they grew up in is what David Kinnaman calls “Discontinuously Different”. They were eight on Septermber 11th; they heard over and over that the world had changed. They grew up not only seeing gay characters on television, but they have known gay students throughout their schooling. They see science as a significant part of modern life and don’t see it as a threat.
The most important issue is that they’ve grown up in a culture where matters of faith were things that one had to nuance. Not everyone around (except in some Christian high schools) assumed biblical authority or religious orthodoxy as a given. That’s the significance of the chart above from Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace. It shows the percentage of 18-29 year olds who are identify as evangelicals or as religious nones. In a relatively short twenty years, the relative strength of evangelicals gave way to nones. In 1995, evangelicals had a 7% advantage over nones. By 2010, nones were up by 10%.
Millennials with faith commitments are looking for ways of engaging their questions without retreating from the broader culture. This is why the Barna research centers on concerns about science, doubt, homosexuality, cultural acceptance, and power. Our students are struggling to stay engaged with their culture while maintaining their Christian voice.
If Christian universities find the means of adjusting to these students’ concerns, we will play a central role in the culture unlike anything we’ve ever dreamed. If, on the other hand, we ignore these changes we’ll wake up one day irrelevant to the broader cultural dynamics.
Maybe I’ve just become highly sensitized to concerns over Millennials. As I wrote in my last post, I’m wrapping up a book project on freshmen entering Christian universities. To do that, I’ve had to get myself into the mindset of those born in the 1990s. So when people attack this generation, I take it personally in spite of my official Boomer status.
It’s so easy to pick on the millennial generation. We’re told that they’re narcissistic, only focused on what’s in it for them while recording their every move with their ever-present smart phones. Even attempts to challenge the narcissistic claim, like this one in Slate, begins with a joke about how millennials “took a break from Googling themselves”.
Unbelievably, Jeff Bethke (source of the “why I love Jesus and hate religion” YouTube sensation), took on millennials in the Washington Post, claiming somehow that millennial Christians are the “new fundamentalists” because they supposedly raise their own interests above scripture (whatever that means). Never mind that his definition of fundamentalism is flat wrong AND that he’s a millennial himself who found “fame” through video self-expression.
Then, of course, there are the never-ending Facebook posts written by my generation about today’s young. Here’s a standard example.
I could write another whole piece on the spanking part. Where the idea that spanking built character come from is beyond me. It’s just one of those tropes thrown out like the claims you can’t have Bibles in school.
I really am focused on the “trophies for participating” line. We could throw in Lake Wobegon’s “where all the children are above average” (although Garrison Keillor has been using that line for nearly 40 years, so it can’t be about millennials). What makes me crazy about the cartoon above is that is seems to absolve previous generations as well as the broader culture for the patterns put in place for millennial children.
Our kids were born in the cusp of the millennial transition (1981 and 1985). For whatever reason, they didn’t wind up in tons of organized activities in sports or dance or gymnastics. Probably has something to do with my lack of athletic prowess. But even if they had, I really don’t think they would draw deep meaning from a participation trophy.
Participation trophies aren’t for the kids. They’re for the parents. We’ve made the affirmation of children a measure of our success as parents. If they don’t get to play on the team and get affirmation, parents are hurt.
I have seen this play out over the past ten years with regard to the Helicopter Parents of college students. They call a faculty member or an administrator and want to run interference for their child. In doing so, they deny the child the opportunity to solve problems in complex settings like universities. Why do they do this? I think it’s because they think good parents do that. (I have lots of helicopter parent stories)
The broader culture doesn’t help. The rise in Reality Television (which bears a scary resemblance to “The Family” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) feeds our narcissistic fascination. Who cares about Kardashians? Why do we watch Jersey Shore? What about almost any show featuring beauty pageants, cooking, models, or having lots of babies? All of them perpetuate a focus on individual entitlement, complete with the single-camera-shot interview where you explain what you were thinking at the time.
Don’t think we’ve glamorized narcissism? Look at the magazine covers in the grocery store check-out lane.
Millennials didn’t make reality shows popular. But they may use them as models for self-expression. If so, who did that?
Social media plays a part. We feel the need to share affirmation of what other people post. We don’t mildly agree, we “like”. And people then add LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to a post. It takes away our perspective.
The grandbaby will be here in a month, so I’ll have to eat these words before long. But not every picture posted on Facebook of the baby or the pet is the cutest thing ever. Not ever profile picture is gorgeous, hot, beautiful. Even my dog isn’t the most adorable dog ever.
Millennials, who are more tech savvy than earlier generations, have adopted these social norms. They have repeated patterns they’ve grown up with.
Millennials, however, are deeper than this. They are asking questions that deserve to be asked. They are not superficial and self-centered. They are exploring options for their place in the world.
Yesterday, I drove to the Epworth Forest Conference Center in Northern Indiana to sit in on an event called IdeaFarm. It’s a gathering of a small number of recent college grads, many from Christian universities. The participants had submitted proposals on an vision-related project they wanted to pursue. For four days, the leadership team is investing in them as individuals to help them turn their passions into action.
I got to participate in one of the small group discussion and talked to a number of the participants over lunch. Yes, these young people are tech savvy. Yes, are concerned about acceptance. But are they fundamentalists who think the world revolves around them? Absolutely not.
They see the world as complex and are trying to find their place in that world. They are decidedly NOT trying to accept the conventional, reality-tv version of life. They are looking for authenticity and impact.
I have a couple of hypotheses on what’s behind the millennial bashing. First, we are reacting (correctly) against the artificial version of reality present in the media. If those images represent today’s youth, we may say, then we’re all in trouble. Recognizing the falseness of the images portrayed can go a long way. Second, and more importantly, I think we bash millennials because older generations are unwilling to admit their complicity in the culture millennials inherited. We blame them so we won’t blame ourselves.
But if they are trying to change that culture, isn’t it the right thing to be on their side?
Here’s the problem with the blogosphere: it’s simply too easy to put your ideas out there. If there’s a hot topic under consideration, you can jump in at any point and share your two cents (or less). You don’t have to follow the thread of the previous arguments. It’s easy enough to pick out an isolated phrase from some viral post, contrast it with your own experience, and explain why “that’s just not so”.
In saying all this, I realize I’m engaged in self-incrimination. I’ve tried to stay balanced and focused on the big issues instead of the reactionary posts. Maybe my ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny any more than anyone else’s. But I’ve tried to keep unpacking an important sociological point.
I have spent the last 15 months on a book written to freshmen entering Christian universities. I’m one more major edit from submitting it to the publishers. But the book isn’t just about millennial freshmen. It’s a book about how we go about Christian higher education. The millennials simply make it clear that we can’t continue “business as usual” in a complex, postmodern, world.
When I wrote the Millennial Canaries post last week, I was thrilled to connect with a larger conversation and hopefully offer some balance. I’m grateful for those who linked it in their blogs or shared it on Facebook. I’m overwhelmed by the number of views it received. I won’t take the space here to review the range of discussion since Rachel Held Evans posted her CNN piece 12 days ago.
My point in that post, as in my book, is that we need to pay attention to Millennials not because they’re narcissistic and consumer driven and tech savvy. We pay attention because our ability to relate to them is an indicator of how we relate to a society in which Christianity is “an” option but not “the” option. In other words, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and the anti-religious creates a context in which the church can’t assume an a priori privilege of voice. We have to learn how to speak to a world that doesn’t presume our presuppositions.
Today, Christianity Today posted this on Her-meneutics. Titled “The Myth of the Perfect Millennial Church” it gives the reactions from three women on the RHE posts. The takeaway for me was 1) some people were estranged from church in their 20s but returned when they had kids (this is a standard sociology of life cycle argument), 2) some people are disillusioned with their church of origin and look for difference, either more liturgical or more evangelical, and 3) church isn’t about meeting our needs but about following God as faithful Christians.
As I was writing this, a tweet sent me to this wonderful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald. He points out that we’ve come to use personal anecdotes in the place of the Grand Stories, particularly from scripture. My mind quickly went to dozens of anecdotes shared as sermon intros (often anecdotes that happened to an entirely different person). But more often than not, the response to the anecdote is to wonder what it is about that person’s situation that we should listen to. Why is their story important? How is my situation similar to or different from theirs? Does the story hold water?
There are any number of responses that we can make to the changing context of religion in American society. Yes, we need more cross-generational conversation. Yes, we need to pray for the church as it is and not the church we wish we had. Yes, we need to be the church God calls us to be.
But sharing personal story is not what this conversation is about. What the original RHE post shared was a set of data from a variety of sources outlining some significant shifts in the religious landscape. These are things the church (or the Christian university) must deal with.
I have been arguing that we need to begin with millennials in this re-thinking because they are the cutting edge of change. They are also, as I wrote in my last post, the key to figuring out postmodern cultural engagement.
But focusing on millennials isn’t the end of the story. It’s barely the beginning. We need to stay engaged with the seniors who make up such a large segment of our congregations. We need to rethink family ministry so that we don’t idolize young couples and isolate those that don’t fit. We need youth ministries that support the complexity of the postmodern world without creating insular subcultures providing a place of escape without engagement.
It’s NOT ABOUT millennials. It’s about the Kingdom of God in contemporary society. The more we mess around with “that’s not true for me”, the less we’ll be able to respond to the sociological shifts already happening.
The “millennials and church” conversation continues. That’s a good thing. But it’s not an easy matter to work through.
If, somehow, you haven’t been aware of this discussion, ten days ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece titled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” on CNN’s Belief Blog. It summarized recent data on religious affiliations (or lack thereof) among today’s under-30 population. While what she summarized wasn’t new (this data has been around for several years), her post seemed to focus attention in new ways. I lost track of the number of people who jumped into the fray from various perspectives. I was one of those and was grateful that a number of people found last week’s post helpful. Thanks to Rachel in particular for sharing the post with her readers.
My argument was that the disaffection of millennials with organized religion will portend how the church interacts with society in the coming decades. The millennials are, I argued, the “canary in the mine” that lets miners know the air is bad and they are in danger.
This weekend, Rachel posted a follow-up on CNN’s page. This one is called “Why Millenials Need the Church” It’s a nice addition to the first piece and points to the ways in which congregational participation, particularly in celebrating the sacraments, can counter some of the angst and excess of the millennial life.
When this weekend’s piece came out, I suggested to Rachel that there was a logical third piece for her to write: Why the church needs millennials. She agreed but said that people might be tired of the topic by then. She may well be right. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I hope she writes her piece. In the meantime, here’s mine.
So my metaphor last week was about the canary in the mine. Kind of a sad story. We need to keep watch and if the canary dies, then we had all run away.
But most of the time canaries don’t live in mines. They live where birds live — in the wild or in a nice cage in someone’s house. And they can be trained to sing. If you don’t know canary song, here’s a handy YouTube video .
If I’m going to think of Millennials as canaries, I have to listen to their song. It’s just possible that what they are “singing” is something that will strengthen the church in the coming decades rather than weaken it. If we listen.
In the midst of all the “what about millennials?” dialogue this week, I got a tweet from Zack Hunt (check his stuff out at http://theamericanjesus.net/ — it’s really good). Zack was announcing that the movie Saved! was now streaming on Netflix. I had watched it years ago, but thought it would be a good time for a repeat.
The movie, made in 2004, is set at American Eagle Christian School (love the overlap with patriotism or consumerism, whichever you prefer). The students at this evangelical school are good, well-meaning Christian kids. Most of them, anyway. There’s the jewish girl who attends because she was thrown out of everywhere else and the wheelchair bound slacker who isn’t sure what he believes.
The story revolves around two girls: Hillary Fay and Mary. Hillary Faye is the top-notch girl who overChristianizes everything — it’s Mean Girls in Christian school. Mary is your average kid, part of HF’s band (literally) who gets pregnant (because she was trying to cure her gay boyfriend). The movie revolves around issues of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mistakes, forgiveness, grace. There’s is a clueless mother, over-eager principal Skip, and Skip’s son back from his missionary tour in skateboard ministries.
Here’s the surprising thing. The movie never makes fun of Christianity. It does point out Hillary Faye’s control issues (which stem from past trauma) and Skip’s temptations. But those characters are seen as evangelicals who don’t quite get it. They are sympathetic and you hope they learned from their experiences.
Mary doesn’t abandon her faith or her friends and she has a baby at the end of the movie. Everyone seems happy, mostly.
I realized that Saved! is the early version of the Millenials and church story. While the authors of the screenplay are too old, they capture the contrast between issues of a complex world and the controlled environment of AECS. The movie got me thinking more about what millennials bring to church that my generation needs to hear. (There are blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that illustrate all these points, but many are far too personal to simply link to).
1. Millennials know that family situations are complicated. I’m continually amazed at how commonplace it is to learn that one of my Christian university students is dealing with a parental divorce. Or managing the two-families that resulted from the earlier divorce. Or have dealt with some form of abuse at the hands of loved ones. As much as the church wants to “family-friendly”, we know that the broader culture isn’t. Millenials can help the church learn to deal with the complexity of family life in addition to happy couple study groups.
2. Millennials know people who struggle with tough issues in life: drugs and alcohol abuse, depression, ostracism, homelessness, poverty, suicidal thoughts. Because they are such a digital group, they remain connected to people my generation lost along the way. When we talk about abstractions like substance abuse, they know people’s stories. We need to hear those stories, as painful as they are. It helps our theology.
Because they’ve grown up in an era where all those issues are out in the open rather than talked about in hushed tones (or, like Hillary Faye, under the guise of prayer concerns) they can help us deal with the reality of the situation instead of how we might imagine things to be.
3. They’re culturally aware. I confess that I didn’t see Saved! when it first came out. I assumed it was attacking religion. But today’s generation sees beyond the reactionary elements of popular culture and finds the moral story within. The Christianity Today film reviews by folks like Alissa Wilkinson (this one is a good example) are able to sort through complex stories and find the important messages influencing modern society. Millenials will help us navigate a rapidly changing cultural landscape in which subcultural isolation is unsustainable.
4. They are politically and socially diverse. They see a range of viewpoints on many issues. Some are more narrowly defined (abortion, for example), But others reflect a breadth of perspectives. Embracing that breadth can help the church avoid assuming everyone fits in narrow categories.
5. They are searching for a theology that works. Even if that means dealing with issues we’ve been avoiding (see #1). They aren’t anti-Bible. They want the Bible to inform their lives in the midst of a complicated world. They could help churches reaching out to a religiously ambiguous society find value in God’s story without proof-texting everything to death.
6. They bring a social compassion that is unmatched. They expect to change the world. We need them doing so in our circles, helping us learn about sex trafficking, invisible children, inner-city poverty, violence and hopelessness. That’s not an addition to our Sunday worship — it’s directly connected to Kingdom thinking.
Since getting involved in the whole “what about millennials” discussion, I’ve been aware that there are those voices who say that this is simply a natural sociological trend of 20-somethings breaking from institutional religion until their families get settled. Others have observed that the losses among evangelicals are fairly low (at least so far). I can give my reasons for why I don’t think that’ the case but I won’t do so here. Maybe another day. It may take a decade to know who’s right anyway.
What I do know is that today’s generation has a great deal to offer today’s church. I’m much rather engage them in meaningful ways that simply wait to see if they come back in 2023.
If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.
The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.
Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.
Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church. But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.
What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?
We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.
Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any webpage that barely mentions religion.
The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”
The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.
We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.
The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.