This week I happened upon Fors Clavigera, the blog of James K. A. Smith, and read a suggestive little post on the millennial generation (for those of you who haven’t heard the term, it refers to people born from 1981 to 2000, or thereabouts). In this post, Smith opines that it’s possible that millennials are just wrong about some things. He links to a very well-written piece on the debates over homosexual marriage by millennial author Rachel Held Evans, which presumably articulates some of the attitudes he feels millennials may be wrong about.
In reading Ms. Evans’ article, one phrase leapt off the page at me. “You’re losing us.”
It struck me for two reasons. The first one is that it’s rather obviously true. Millennials are, in fact, greatly put off by the culture wars, by continuing political battles over abortion, and certainly by the battles over homosexual marriage. These battles are largely being waged by older generations, and millennials (taken as a group) want no part of it. Millennials are famously one of the least-churched generations in American history, but Ms. Evans is speaking from the standpoint of Christian millennials who think of themselves as part of the church, but can’t stand the political battles. Hence the message to the church: “You’re losing us.”
Which brings me to the second reason that phrase struck me so forcefully: “You’re losing us” is the language of consumerism, the complaint of a dissatisfied customer who is being kind enough to clue the business owner in on why his other customers are disappearing. That is a really odd way to address the church, which a wise man once described as the pillar and ground of the truth. The church is the New Jerusalem, and she is the mother of us all. Like the man said, “Forsake not the law of your mother.”
We have a duty to cling to her — including the past generations that are part of her. The younger generation may well see the older generation’s follies for what they are, but “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” If the younger generation takes the older generation’s mistakes as excuses not to walk with the wise and learn what its elders have to teach, well…fools hate wisdom and instruction. Solomon knew as well as anybody that the older generations were composed of sinners, but he wrote what he wrote for a reason.
Which is to say that I want to take a step further than Prof. Smith. It isn’t just that millennials are wrong about some issues. It’s that millennials have a fundamentally skewed orientation toward church. They need to stop thinking of the church losing them, and start being concerned that they are losing the church. The church is a lifeboat, and it’s a wide, deep, shark-infested ocean out there. Striking out on your own is a bit naive at best. You might complain that there’s a centipede crawling around the bottom of the lifeboat, but you don’t jump overboard because of it.
Some of what millennials are reacting to — the teaching that homosexual behavior is sin, for example — is just black-letter Bible, and they need to make their peace with it. Yes, it’s hurtful to your LGBT friends. Mine too. Yes, that strains the relationship and causes you distress. Loving your (sinful) neighbor and your God is tough that way; welcome to the trials of the Christian life. “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” Can’t handle that? Can’t see how it all works out for anybody’s good? “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Pray more. Sounds simplistic, I know. It’s not. Pray more.
But let’s be honest. The responsibility for the situation is not all on the millennials. Just because they have a duty to remain in the lifeboat doesn’t justify someone stocking the boat with centipedes. Some of what millennials are reacting to is just plain sin. For example, the outright hatred that many in the older generations heap upon the LGBT population. Other things are perhaps not sin, but certainly a bit foolish. For example, a commendable desire to defend the institution of marriage that inexplicably expresses itself as a ferocious dedication to setting up legal bans against gay marriage, but not a single word about re-criminalizing adultery. Really, guys? Which destroys more marriages in your experience, old-fashioned adultery or a couple of gay guys getting hitched? If the goal was really to bring the weight of the legal system to bear in order to protect the institution of marriage, which one would go further, do ya think? (Which brings us back to the hatred issue, doesn’t it? Try getting a law passed that re-criminalizes adultery. Can’t be done, and we all know it. Why? That’s “protecting marriage” too. But of course you know why — the gay marriage bans aren’t getting passed because people want to protect marriage; they’re getting passed because a sizable chunk of the population hates gays.)
There’s work to do on all sides here. In the past year it has been my very great privilege to work with a group of millennials that cares very much about clinging to the church, about building bridges to the older generations. It’s been wonderful to see. I’m hoping to see the older generations respond by embracing the younger cohort and hearing the very real concerns their different generational vantage point allows them to see. It’s a big Body; we need all the parts working together.