Millennials are leaving the church in droves. Can evangelical Christianity survive without them? Through a unique and brilliant synthesis of theology and sociology, David John Seel argues that millennials can show us the way forward to a more authentic faith in Christ.
In The New Copernicans, releasing January 2018 through the Leadership Network NEXT/Harper Collins Christian Publishing Book Series:
- Pastors will find resources for reframing their ministry.
- Parents will find resources for understanding their millennial child.
- Millennials will find a language to speak out with wisdom and renewed boldness.
The American church is in survival mode. Now is not a time to retreat. The New Copernicans is a timely call for strategic cultural engagement. Seel’s call to listen to the haunted spiritual longings of millennials will help us join in their intuitive, holistic way of experiencing God and sensing his spirit moving among us, and hopefully lead us all to discover a way forward
The following is an excerpt from The New Copernicans:
FUGITIVES IN THE PEW
Many evangelical parents are well aware of the challenges of transferring their faith to the next generation. Many of their children are in various forms of disengagement with the church and their parents’ beliefs. Church leaders are well aware that the future of the evangelical church in America is closely tied to reaching millennials. They are now the largest demographic cohort in America and the most influential in terms of commercial brand success. The church cannot hope to survive without grappling with reaching millennials.
Researchers refer to those who reached adulthood around 2000 as millennials. Currently, they are the largest single grouping of Americans and the most powerful consumer group with purchasing power that will exceed boomers’ this year—approximately $1.3 trillion in direct spending. At 23.4 percent of the American population, millennials are 75.4 million strong. Compounding their influence, this generation will receive a thirty trillion–dollar wealth transfer from boomers over the next twenty years. Because of this, they have been the subjects of extensive market research.
Not only are they economically significant, but culturally and religiously as well. However, there is a subset of this generation that bears special attention: the millennial children of churchgoing evangelical parents. These children feel trapped. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and bestselling author, describes them as nomads, people who have a mix of positive and negative feelings about their faith. Most are disenchanted with religion but have not cut all ties to their faith or to their church. They have one foot in and one foot out. Perhaps a better word than nomad, which suggests their freedom to drift from their faith, would be fugitives. They are trapped, stuck, imprisoned—conceptual slaves. Typically they have not been given the freedom to express their confusion and frustration out loud. Institutions that assume true faith and correct thinking are two sides of the same coin are not usually safe places to express doubt. When belief and doubt are binary rather than a fused experience—as preferred by New Copernicans—the stakes are too high to be honest about doubt. The church is not a safe place to voice confusion.
Consequently, many independent-thinking teens keep these doubts and disenchantments bottled up until college. Under these intellectual, emotional, and spiritual conditions, it is hardly surprising that close to 80 percent of children who participated in high school church youth programs abandon their faith during college. We have created conditions that leave many of these children spiritually frustrated and eventually homeless. By failing to understand this frameshift we are literally pushing them away from the church. If we would listen and understand, if we would engage on the basis of a comprehension of this frameshift, if we would respect where they are in their confused spiritual journey, if we would agree to simply walk with them, then an angry atheism or prodigal status in college is not a foregone conclusion.
As the headmaster of a Christ-centered classical college prep school, I was well aware that there were always a handful of students enrolled in my school that did not want to be there but were forced to attend by their well-meaning parents. At the outset of my tenure as headmaster, I spent two weeks speaking to every student in the school for ten to fifteen minutes, trying to ferret out these students. “Do you really want to be here?” I would ask. One student, whose dress, tattoos, and piercings clearly marked him as an outlier to the spit-and-polished image of a Christian school student, came clean: “Dr. Seel,” he said, looking at the floor, “I don’t want to be here. I feel trapped. My mom is on the school board, and this is the last place I want to attend school.”
My response startled him. “Bobby, it’s your life and your faith. You need to stop complaining about your parents and take charge of your own life. If you want to get out of here, it’s not a hard concept. Bring twenty-five dollars’ worth of marijuana to school and you are history. But you’ve got to stop playing the victim.” He was edgy and I gave him edgy back. Because I looked at him like an adult and took his grievances seriously he stayed, came around, and graduated with honors.
We have got to find a way to enter into relationships with those who feel like they are fugitives in the pew. There are more on-ramps to a more thoughtful and humane faith than they have known—social justice, nature, beauty, and loving relationships. These will be explored further later in this book. Many of these on-ramps will need to be couched in lived experiences outside the institutional church. We need to move past their religious defenses to get them to explore honestly a spiritual path, which may lead them to Jesus.
Clearly what the church is doing is not working, as there is a continual drift away from the church by the younger generation.
The answers will come in the experience of walking in pilgrimage together in a shared spiritual adventure—coparticipants in a spiritual exploration during which we learn from one another. It is particularly important for parents to think of faith as a pilgrimage rather than a light switch; a movie rather than a snapshot.
The important thing is to get our children out of this feeling of being trapped—either by not respecting their agency or by dictating narrow theological boxes for them to live in. Of course, there are risks in an open pilgrimage, but it is the only way to genuinely find an authentic relationship with Jesus.