Category: Young Evangelicals

The Story of Power and the Power of Story (Director’s Cut)

[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.

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90s (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn’t want to limit the childrens’ sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source. It appears to be apocryphal but is regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

trafalgar

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but it’s in the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. This picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows the sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community is such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

weakties

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, i was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millennials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.

The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

There_is_no_SpoonI felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.

First Step: This Time It’s Different

Putnam

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.

Stop the Millennial Bashing!

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.

never_spanked_as_kids

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.

IdeaFarm

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?

One More Time: It’s Not ABOUT Millennials!

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.

stats

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.

Singing Canaries: Why the Church Needs Millennials

Canaries

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.

SavedThe 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.

Millennial Canaries

Canary

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.