How to Save the Millennial Faith?
The future of Christianity in the U.S. is looking bleak, if current Pew polls and trends are accurate. As Rod Dreher referenced in a recent blog post, millennials are more likely to reject religious labels or affiliations than any other generational cohort—and even those who call themselves Christians are, in Dreher’s words, “shockingly illiterate, both in terms of what the Bible says and more generally regarding what Christianity teaches.” He quotes the late blogger Michael Spencer, who argued the following in 2009:
We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
Is Christian faith simply doomed to dissipate and die among America’s young people, or is there something we can do to reverse this trend?
As a millennial myself, this is something I’m putting a lot of thought and consideration into. And while—considering I can never speak for the entire millennial cohort—the following prescriptions are neither comprehensive nor foolproof, I think they might be useful in fighting … perhaps even reversing … the trends we are seeing today. I offer them up for the consideration of my peers, and for the consideration of those who work in religious ministries and/or outreach.
1. Appeal to the Past
In his excellent new book You Are What You Love (full review coming soon!), author and Comment editor James K.A. Smith describes the stereotypical youth group one is likely to encounter in most churches throughout the U.S.:
You walk into a kind of loft space that combines various elements of an arcade, a coffee shop, a dance club, and a family rec room. The room is dripping with energy, an unrelenting sense of scripted happiness that is synonymous with being ‘upbeat’—even while trying to communicate that this is a place where young people can ‘chill.’ … A raucous band takes center stage, a routine widely familiar from concerts and music clubs. The band leads the group through a rousing set of triumphant praise songs and then into a quiet set of introspective, heartfelt, eyes-closed, hands-raised meditations.
… Having been fed a vaguely biblical message, though in a more palatable package—kind of like choking down medicine hidden inside a piece of candy—the young people are dismissed with promises of more fun next week.
You wouldn’t know it, but the entire ‘program’ we’ve just witnessed is designed by fear—not for fear, by fear. It is the creation of a generation of parents and adults who are terrified that their children—the proverbial next generation—will leave the church and leave the faith. … But we need to face a sobering reality: keeping young people entertained in our church buildings is not at all synonymous with forming them as dynamic members of the body of Christ.
Smith is right. In this “chill” yet “upbeat” space, young people sense they’re being catered and acquiesced to. They sense that the adults are trying to make the Bible more palatable and interesting to them—which implies that it isn’t all that palatable and interesting on its own. Meanwhile, the youth group’s layout and ethos reinforce pop-cultural messages about the self, community, and consumerism. It’s reminding kids that the real purpose of life (at least life when you’re young) is to have fun, enjoy your friends, and not take things too seriously. Thus, by extension, it suggests to them that they shouldn’t take God all that seriously, either.
In practice, this sort of messaging distances youth from the church, rather than drawing them to it. It reinforces secular messages rather than fighting them.
This is why, Smith argues, we should look backwards to the historic rhythms and rituals of the Christian faith, and work to break down the progressive and anti-traditional messages of the modern youth ministry. “In my experience, many young people are intensely ritual animals without realizing it,” he writes. “And when they are introduced to the habit-forming practices of Christian faith, invited into ways of following Jesus that are ancient and tested, their faith is given a second life.” In order to fight the addictive trappings and messages of our secular world, we need to “re-enchant” the church in the minds and hearts of millennials.
The idea of enchantment is quite common in the history of Christian thought (read G.K. Chesterton and you’ll see the wonder and beauty of it). But I’ve especially appreciated Richard Beck’s recent blog posts (over at his blog Experimental Theology) on the subject, as they break down the disenchanted world we currently live in, and suggest a myriad of ways in which we can “re-enchant” our faith, and thus our world.
In yesterday’s post on the subject, Beck suggests the following: “Life demands … a hallowing that pulls us out of the entertainments and consumptions of capitalistic culture. We want more from life than fun. We want life to be holy. We want life to be sacred. And it is this demand for holiness that makes us human.”
In this series, Beck has suggested that “We are disenchanted with living in a disenchanted world.” And it is this disenchantment I’ve recognized among many of my peers. When I wrote “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy” in February 2014, Lee Nelson, co-chair of the Catechesis Taskforce of the Anglican Church of North America, told me he believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of many millennials. “We are highly wired to be experiential,” he said. In the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”
“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” a Greek Orthodox convert told me. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”
As an evangelical reader told Rod Dreher in 2013,
I believe that Millennials are looking for someone to tell them the hard truths that they have long suspected were there. So if it looks like young people are flocking to ancient faith, it’s probably because they are searching for a faith that has foundation. I believe that nondenominational churches tend to disappear because they are just islands in history. When you are disconnected from the historical Church, you are pretty much guaranteeing your own demise. Churches with no past are churches with no future and if evangelicalism is going to survive, it desperately needs to learn the story of the Church. It needs to reconnect itself to history, to the traditions of thousands of years of prayer and worship and teaching and music.
In order to keep millennials in the church—or invite them back into it—we must re-enchant our faith. We must not offer them a copycat, religious replica of pop culture rituals, but rather an ancient, deeply meaningful faith that rescues them from the meaninglessness and disenchantment they sense all around them.
2. Appeal to Their Hungers
Another important argument in Smith’s book is that faith isn’t caught or kept through head knowledge (at least not by itself). Faith is transmitted and bolstered through daily, tangible habits that form our desires. We are, after all, physical beings—and a church that falls prey to gnosticism will find itself ill-suited to counter our culture’s potent consumerist ideology. Thus, we must not just appeal to millennials’ heads: we must appeal to their “gut” as well, to the hungers and desires that form and guide their hearts.
This is done in the church, through the cadences of worship, prayer, communion. But it can also be transmitted, powerfully, through the outreach and fellowship we offer.
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken speaks of a ritual he and his wife began when he was a professor: they would invite his students to come over in the evenings to discuss religion and philosophy—around food, drink, and the comforts of home. The students gravitated to the Vanauken’s home as a tangible place of refuge. They craved comfort, human fellowship, good food. In the Vanauken’s home, these embodied, physical trappings lent winsomeness to the message of Christian faith.
In order to reach young people we need to resurrect the art of hospitality, and understand the importance of breaking bread with others in order to show them the truth of the gospel. This is one way we “re-enchant” the world; it’s also a vital way in which we assuage the “sacramental hunger” of millennials.
Orthodox convert Jesse Cone told me in 2014 that, while reading through the book of John with friends, he began to notice the “conversational and sacramental” way Jesus related to people. “There’s a lot of bread, and wine, and water,” he says. From Jesus’s first miracle—turning water into wine—to telling his disciples “I am the True Vine,” the mundane, communal ways in which in which Jesus connected with people “confirmed in me a sense of sacramentalism—that everyday aspects of life are important, in a way the modern mindset doesn’t share,” Cone says. “I started looking at the world with more sacramental eyes.”
The Christian message does not fixate on the metaphysical and spiritual to the detriment of physical, embodied hungers. In fact, it redeems the body and its desires. From the giving of manna to the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, Scripture is resplendent with the potent imagery of food and drink, hospitality and fellowship. The gospel needn’t be reserved to pulpits on Sunday mornings. It can—and must—be shared over big bowls of stew and crusty bread on dark wintry nights, or alongside a large mug of steaming coffee and fresh cookies, or in the laughter and joy of a late-night movie and bowls of buttery popcorn. This is how we show people the joy and love that bubbles up from a faith that is incarnate, tangible, embodied, and “enchanted.”
3. Appeal to Their Minds
All that said: millennials need to understand how the Christian faith responds to their fears, doubts, and questions. We live, after all, in an exceedingly uncertain and troubled world. We’re surrounding by faiths that result in decay, death, and despair. Fundamentalist creeds and cults have ravaged and torn apart human community, sowing seeds of death and anger. We need thoughtful Christians—the G.K. Chestertons and C.S. Lewises of modern Christianity—to reach and reason, to share their perspectives on how and why Christianity offers a balm and alternative to hate and horror, as well as to relativism and moral confusion.
We need to show millennials why moral absolutes exist and cannot be ignored. We need to offer them a faith that illuminates good and evil, truth and falsehood—without the totalitarian, hateful tendencies of other religions they may be familiar with. Many “nones” in the millennial generation associate Christianity with a distasteful relative, friend, or acquaintance with whom they associate a degree of backwardness or vice. Perhaps they have an uncle who stocks his basement with canned goods and assault weapons, spewing angry, condemnatory statements about the government, the culture, and anyone who disagrees with their version of life and faith.
As a church friend once told me, the life of a seed depends entirely on its soil. And if the soil millennials are immersed in only serves to castigate and condemn Christianity, any words offered regarding the faith will choke. This can be true of a young adult immersed in a vehemently atheist family, social group, or institution; it can also be true of a young adult who finds herself in the noxious and repellent soil of fundamentalist or rancorous Christians (or other religious faiths). She is likely to transplant herself as far away from that soil and its influences as she possibly can—and unfortunately, is likely to associate any religious faith she encounters with the radicalized, bellicose messages of her youth.
Thus, the words and arguments we share for Christianity 1) must be rooted in good “soil,” as mentioned above, and 2) must be well thought out, reasonable, winsome—offering answers to the manifold doubts and frustrations young people have today. For the questions we cannot answer well, it’s good to have a solid repertoire of reading material on hand. You may not be able to answer a young person’s question about evil—but perhaps G.K. Chesterton or Henri Nouwen or Timothy Keller can.
4. Appeal by Example
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Many young people have grown up outside a two-parent family, grappling with the effect that divorce or single parenthood might have had on their conceptions of stability and security.
But the church, throughout Scripture, is referred to as “the bride of Christ.” Marriage is meant to be a reflection of “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” It’s also meant to remind us of the communion at the very center of the gospel: the relationship between the members of the Trinity, the love offered to us in Christ, the eternal community we’re offered through his death and resurrection. Thus, this shift in our understanding of marriage, the family, and community impacts youths’ ability to build a proper relationship with the church: they view church, and God, through the same eyes with which they view secular marriages and families.
But our world is increasingly chaotic and polarized. Whether it’s haunting violence and shootings in our cities and towns, the graphic horrors of global terrorism, or families falling apart and fraying at the edges, millennials are seeing whatever was once concrete and simple in their lives fall apart. In this world, messages of narcissistic consumerism and independence will begin to lose their sheen.
As a result, we need to offer millennials the security and comfort of homes, family, community. The world cannot offer these things. But we—members of the church, no matter our denomination or creed—can. By God’s grace, we can offer stable marriages, happy homes, strong families, rituals of togetherness and hope. We can invite disillusioned young people into these communities, and let them know there is always a place for them in our homes and at our tables. By example and inclusiveness, we can give them rest, nourishment, and hope.
5. Appeal With Joy
We live in a time fraught with insecurity, tragedy, and loss. And yet, at the same time, most millennials I know are obsessed with the search for beauty. Their aesthetic sense is strong, and they are always seeking the silver lining in life. It’s why, I think, they’re drawn to games such as Pokémon Go; why they watch reruns of their favorite childhood shows; why they love to travel to new and beautiful places; why they so carefully stage and filter their Instagram photos.
They are seeking re-enchantment. They are seeking the materialization of a longing that they just can’t quite put their finger on. They want their dreams, their fairy tales, their favorite pieces of nostalgia to find embodiment; they want to recapture the incandescent wonder of their childhoods.
This desire reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s classic consideration of “joy” in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. He describes the first moment it hit him—”a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? … before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
This “desire”—a yearning that fades almost as soon as it is felt—kept popping up along the narrative of Lewis’s life. He kept wondering where it came from, and how to find it again, how to fulfill that deep, blissful yearning. But no matter how he pursued this “joy,” it would reply, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?” These moments, Lewis says, are like signs along a road, “pointer[s] to something outer and outer.”
Finally, after he became a Christian, Lewis found the answer: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
When I read this as a teenager, I felt my heart say, “YES. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you. This makes sense of all the longings of your heart.”
Perhaps I was lucky to read this when I did—it probably helped me hold onto my faith, helped me associate the yearnings of my body and spirit with deeper religious truths that gave it meaning, history, and context.
But other millennials need this. They need to understand that a hipster love of vintage items, bohemian zest for travel, nature, and aesthetic beauty, youthful desire for peace, love, tolerance, kindness, and joy—all these things make sense when you view the world as enchanted, and view our lives as a quest for “joy” and its actualization. It means that every material desire that goes unfulfilled is a hint, a taste, even a portkey of sorts offering to usher us into a more enchanted, divinely inhabited reality.