Tag: millennials

Millennials, Post-Millennials, and New Copernicans

Yesterday the Pew Research Center declared that Millennials were old news. Maybe it’s time to move on.

They point out that we can firmly fix the beginning and ending dates of the millennial generation starting with those born in 1981 and ending with those born in 1996. The youngest of them are now leaving college and the oldest are going to PTA meetings. They explain that we’re now looking to the next generation:

Since the oldest among this rising generation are just turning 21 this year, and most are still in their teens, we think it’s too early to give them a name – though The New York Times asked readers to take a stab – and we look forward to watching as conversations among researchers, the media and the public help a name for this generation take shape. In the meantime, we will simply call them “post-Millennials” until a common nomenclature takes hold.

Events of the past two months have put this post-millennial group in the spotlight. January was dominated (especially here in Michigan) by the horrible stories of Larry Nassar and the young gymnasts he victimized. February saw the terrors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida. The activism and presence of the young people arising out of both stories suggested something new on the horizon.

Back in January, the Public Religion Research Institute released results of a survey they had conducted on 15-24 year olds (they let some millennials sneak in). The PRRI survey provides context to some of what we’re seeing play out in the media. The rising generation has little tolerance for discrimination against Muslims, LGBT populations, or other racial groups.

This is not to suggest that the post-millennials are homogeneous in their views. There are conservative pockets worried about “reverse discrimination”. Young evangelicals stand out from their peers over concerns that evangelicals face discrimination. (Last week I proposed a paper for the fall SSSR meeting exploring what that means among a group of millennial pastors.)

Regardless of their political views, these young people see social media as part of their social expression. As PRRI reports:

The gender gap in online social and political activism is generally modest among black young people, but stark among white and Hispanic young people. Forty-four percent of white young women signed an online petition within the last year, compared to 34% of white young men. Nearly six in ten (58%) Hispanic young women report having signed an online petition, while 47% of Hispanic young men say the same. Nearly half (47%) of white young women have posted on social media about a cause that matters to them; only 31% of white young men report similar activity. Close to six in ten (57%) Hispanic young women report posting on social media in the last 12 months, compared to 43% of Hispanic young men. White young women (50% vs. 35%, respectively) and Hispanic young women (58% vs. 44%, respectively) are also far more likely than white and Hispanic young men to report having liked or followed a campaign online.

The combination of a strong sense of justice and social media advocacy contributes to a desire for more rapid substantive change. I see these patterns repeated among my own students on issues raising from money and politics to LGBT treatment within Christian Universities. They are simply unwilling to wait for things to get better and they are using their social media voices to advocate (which seems to be a shortcut to appearing on CNN!).

At the same time, there’s a real sense that generations are less important that the frames people are using to engage the broader world. As I’ve written before, there is a change underway in terms of how evangelicals are engaging their broader social location. The former model focusing on institutional structures and boundaries in giving way to a new perspective based on engagement across boundaries and willingness to consider alternatives.

New CopernicansI spent last Saturday reading David John Seel’s The New Copernicans.  Seel explores the same changes I have been describing over the last four years. While not as data-driven as my explorations, it has some real resonance with my own project. One helpful clarification Seel makes is that the shift to a new way of thinking isn’t endemic to millennials but it is carried by them. In other words, there are older New Copernicans and younger ones. But millennials have perhaps “normalized” the conversation.

Next week I’m unveiling some survey data I collected back in December. The results are very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to successfully distinguish between my two frames which I label as Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. Second, the presence of Identity Evangelicals raises real questions about the next phase of evangelical thought.

Generational analysis isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it provides us some key indicators of changes underway. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was about millennial evangelicals.

I’m writing this post following the funeral of Billy Graham. His impact on American religion cannot be overstated, as a quick review of articles written over the past week will show. And yet, his passing signifies precisely the kind of generational shift in perspective that Seel and I are talking about.

Reverend Graham’s final crusade took place in 2005. The oldest millennials were 24 and the youngest were 9. Few of the post-millennials have any idea who Billy Graham was or why his style of evangelicalism was significant to so many. And the post-millennials are far more likely to know him, if they know of him at all, as the father of that Franklin guy whose tweets they respond to so readily.

Ralphie is a Millennial Evangelical: Reflections on A CHRISTMAS STORY

Sometimes I let this blog get too ponderous, theoretical, and otherwise academic. I’m trying to enjoy my Christmas break but it takes awhile to break out of normal school rhythms. Last December, I wrote on some well known Christmas classics (Charlie Brown Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street) and tried to mine them for some new insights about sociology, evangelicals, and popular culture.

I’ve been thinking all year that there was probably something to be learned from A Christmas Story (1983) — Jean Shepherd’s reflections on growing up in Hammond, Indiana in the 1940s told in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. I decided to re-watch our copy before TNT started their 24 hour marathon showing tomorrow. I noticed that it really hasn’t aged well. Too many of the vignettes are loosely connected and didn’t manage to convey the humor and pathos I remembered watching it with our kids every year. But it still tells a story that may help us understand the changes going on in the current “millennials and church” conversations.

If somehow you’ve missed the story up to now, it’s all about Ralphie. As he and his family are approaching Christmas, the primary thing on Raphie’s mind is “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle”. It has a compass in the stock and everything. It’s the kind of gift kids dream of. But absolutely everything and everyone stands in his way, constantly telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out”. He has good friends, lives in fear of neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, has a father who swears and wins Major Awards, and a mother who is doing all she can to keep the family happy.

There’s a lot more. If you’re interested, it will be on TNT 12 times between 8:00 Christmas Eve and 8:00 Christmas night. Maybe you can catch it then.

Even though the story was written in the 1960s about events in the 1940s, it struck me that Ralphie as we’ve known him is a millennial. He shows up in the early 1980s and his story is full of millennial angst. Since it’s been on cable television every year since 1988, an entire generation has grown up with Ralphie and his quest for the Red Ryder.

RalphieConsider Ralphie. He grows up in this family that thinks it’s cute for him to wear his bunny pajamas he got for Christmas. What he wants is to be the sharpshooter who saves the world from evil. He lives in fear and awe of his father, who can’t see how his frequent profanity has influenced his son to become quiet fluent in cuss words (including THAT one). His father wins A Major Award (the infamous leg lamp) that he places in the front window for all to see. He’s proud of his achievement but is the only one who doesn’t know that the lamp is an embarrassment (which is why the wife “accidentally” breaks it).

Ralphie wants one thing. The one thing that would make him cool and accepted in his own terms. But every authority figure he meets seems bent on crushing his dreams. He tells Santa that what he really wanted was a football until he gets his courage up to tell what he really wants (and then Santa tells him he’ll shoot his eye out).

The neighborhood bully represents the fear of evil. A running bit throughout the movie has Ralphie and friends running from Scut Farkas to avoid the inevitable fight. One of the friends inevitably gets cornered until he cries “Uncle” and the others watch from a distance. Until the day when Ralphie can’t take it anymore. Suddenly he attacks Scut, swearing a blue streak while landing punch after punch.

In short, Ralphie feels trapped by his neighborhood, by his family, by the gap between his expectations and dreams and the conventional expectations. He has dreams but feels like they may never come to pass without something shifting. If they all understood what he’d do to protect the family against Black Bart, they’d all be forever in his debt.

Of course, at the end of the story (spoilers ahead for the two of you who don’t know how it ends) he gets the BB gun. He takes it outside to try it out and manages to have a BB ricochet and nearly hit him in the eye. It was just as they’d all said. Except that his mother keeps his secret and cleans him up. He pursued his dream and it almost went wrong, and yet he found his own way forward. In that moment, he finds his independent voice that isn’t defined by his family, neighborhood, and social structure.

This is where today’s millennial evangelicals find themselves. They’ve gone out into the backyard to try out some approaches that the authorities said were too risky. But they’re doing so with courage and abandon. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they are willing to stretch beyond past limits. Just like Ralphie, they love their family (even when they embarrass them). But they have a commitment to Christian faith to live out and simply pray that their families and churches make room for them.

“Millennial Deniers”

NextAmerica_3d_260x260I 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.

 

Christian Higher Ed: Thoughts on a Friday Afternoon

Sometimes it’s useful to have a blog to connect the dots on things I’ve been reading or seeing all week. Late Friday afternoon seems like a good time to stop and ponder stuff.

FridayIt was encouraging to read this piece yesterday from Thomas Albert Howard, professor at Gordon College, about the unique value of religious institutions. Dr. Howard summarizes the history of faith-based institutions. He observes that our schools have had a bias toward cultural separation and were fans of in-loco-parentis (or at least the parents and trustees were fans). He contrasts the Gordon experience with Tom Wolfe’s hypothetical (and hyperbolic) I Am Charlotte Simmons.

To Howard, the real heart of institutions like Gordon depends upon the value of personal mentoring; investing in the lives of students as they make sense of their vocational call. This, he says, is not something done in large lecture halls, or MOOCs, or online chats. He concludes:

But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity.

He observes that other colleges may pursue similar goals. Sure enough, the same day that Howard’s piece appeared in Inside Higher Ed, a piece appeared in the Chronicle written by A.W. Barnes, dean of liberal arts at the Pratt Institute in New York. Barnes similarly dismisses MOOCs and large-scale efficiencies. Instead, he advocates for a form of education analogized from the farm to table movement. Eschewing mass production and genetically modified gimmicks, he wants a “farm to brain” approach to education. This would be heavily dependent upon interaction, mentoring, and joint exploration.

Barnes concludes by addressing the question of costs. While he sees the locavare approach to education as superior, he rightly worries about how accessible it would be for students of average means, the very students who most need that investment of time and personal resources. In fact, the commenters on Howard’s piece (at least one of whom has commented here) raise the question of the cost of private religious education.

The concerns about costs are real and should make us all refocus our energies on the distinctiveness of institutional mission. I was struck by this argument in the Chronicle by Henry Riggs, president emeritus at Harvey Mudd in California. Riggs suggests that our focus on competing for the best and brightest may be fueling the tuition discount wars and possible tuition escalation. Maybe we would be better to focus our energies in a triage manner — invest in those students who will be most changed by their time in a smaller, faith-based institution.

Of course, doing so runs the great risk of not being recognized by the mighty U.S. News and other college rating surveys. Since so much of their calculation goes to reward schools that are highly selective, pay large salaries, and have significant endowments refocusing our attention to real mentoring and life-shaping would seem to hurt institutional reputation. Perhaps Christian universities especially should prioritize service to others over recognition by the educational establishment.

I’ve written quite a bit on the whole millennials and faith question. But yesterday I received an update from the Barna group about their ongoing millennial project. They identify five components necessary for millennials stay connected to church. Here are the five: 1) meaningful relationships, 2) practicing cultural discernment, 3) focus on “reverse mentoring” (where the millennial is valued as a person of dignity), 4) importance of vocational discipleship, and 5) facilitate connection with Jesus. It doesn’t take much imagination to connect Barna’s five components with what Howard and Barnes are advocating about good education.

I’ve had a couple of student Facebook friends knowingly share  a cute article, “22 Signs You Went to a Small Liberal Arts College in the Middle of Nowhere“. I liked it a lot (especially #13). And yet there is something that happens in that environment that is potentially revolutionary. I’ve argued in my book that the Christian university aspires to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the last are first and were we lay down our lives for others.

It’s been a good week. Lots of good class discussions about privilege, justice, the limits of utilitarianism and measures of central tendency. A quick decision to take the justice class to watch a drama colleague do a wonderful one-woman show on Flannery O’Connor. An opportunity to hear a theologian discuss the connections between ecology and faith with a commitment to seeing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. All that surrounded by too many good conversations with students to count.

I think I’ll do this all again next week.

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.

First Step: Coming to a Christian University

"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

It’s the time of year when freshmen are packing the family car and heading off to the new adventure that is college. All the excitement of new friends, new possibilities, and new challenges runs right alongside the anxieties of fitting in socially, keeping up academically, and managing independence.

Yesterday I spent four hours with a group of colleagues who had agreed to give me feedback on the draft of my book. It’s written specifically to freshmen entering a Christian university, hopefully to be used in freshman seminar courses. It was simultaneously an exciting and scary prospect to submit two years of work to others to see if the arguments made sense to anyone besides me. It turned out to be a great experience and I am indebted to each of them for their support and their challenges.

The book reflects my attempt to articulate an approach to Christian higher education that speaks to the postmodern sensibilities of evangelical millennials. Such an approach must begin in a different place than some of the separatist stances of the past. We must find a way of engaging the complexity of the world while working through tested perspectives of faithful learning.

I’ll finish the next set of edits over the next two weeks and then send the manuscript off to my publisher so the real fun can begin.

The book is what has prompted me to react against all those who like to marginalize millennials, labeling them as narcissistic, spoiled, brats who only want their needs met regardless of the broader consequences. I’ve been trying to get into the mindset of 18 year olds ready to start college. I’ll unpack the detailed argument in coming posts.

In general, here’s what I’m trying to say to these students:

If you’re like the students I see regularly, you do see the world through your own lenses, but you know that those images are incomplete. The reason you desire community is because you need your story to fit in with others. But you aren’t willing to hide that story just to fit in. You don’t want a community that pretends to be nice. You want to belong to something. You’ve come to college not for mercenary reasons but because this is your ideal time to sort out your  questions of who you are supposed to as an adult.

Telling your story is only the first step. It’s where you discover than your own view is only a partial view, shaped by your particular experiences and environments. It is necessary to blend those unique views with those of others at college: fellow students, faculty, staff. All of those stories intersect with your story. Your story shapes all of the others — even those of your professors.

In a Christian university, you learn that we are all parts of God’s greater Kingdom. We are all working to be what we were created to be. That’s not narcissism, it’s vocation. The entire process of the college years should be about learning the deep meaning of that vocation. Your intellectual development, social engagement, athletic participation, spiritual practices are all are part of learning how you will play an active role in God’s Kingdom.

A college education, then, is not a roadmap to get to the end goal of a diploma. It’s a unique journey to explore what it means to live in responsible community that reflects Kingdom principles and leaves a changed world in its wake.

A Christian university education isn’t Christian because it requires Bible classes and chapel. It’s not Christian because it retreats from “the world”. It’s Christian because it is empowered by the Holy Spirit as all members of the university community pursue God’s unique call on their lives.

Sure, it’s a big transition from home and family. One filled with adventure, mistakes, lessons to be learned, and obstacles overcome. Like Luke Skywalker, there is a need to trust. The first step is recognizing that true adventure depends upon stepping into the unknown with confidence.

Most of all, it’s about a first step into a larger world.

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.