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The ‘I Love Jesus, Dammit’ Christians

What do twentysomethings who go to church want?
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I've been at a pastors' conference this week. A young pastor from a Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) parish and I were just talking. (LCMS are the conservative Lutherans.) He said that they have had in his parish an influx of people in their twenties who are noticeably different from older Christians. "They are -- I can't think of a better way to put this -- like, 'I love Jesus, dammit.'"

As we talked, his point is that they want something substantive and countercultural. I told him that in my old Orthodox parish in Baton Rouge, we saw the same thing: young Evangelicals coming in, saying they wanted something more solid and countercultural than what they had been given.

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I told the pastor and his wife that this has been my experience in Europe, addressing Christian audiences. Small-o orthodox Christians in their twenties and early thirties are not the least bit interested in the compromises and conformity of the older generations. They want the real thing. They understand better than the older generations that there really isn't a way to reconcile true Christianity with whatever degenerate crap our Babylon-on-the-half-shell culture comes up with.

Let me ask you all: are you seeing similar things in your parish? Or not? Please write me and tell me: rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com

I would love for you to be able to post it, but since TAC screwed up the redesign and basically killed the comments section here, that's not possible. (Yeah, I'm bitter; I miss the community so much.) So email me your answers, and I'll publish the best of them. Important: I get tons of email daily, so put CHURCH in the subject line to make sure I see it!

UPDATE: The first letter:

Thanks for asking for this response. I’m a Catholic convert, raised with no religion whatsoever, and was plagued by a hole in my life throughout my early twenties. Christ found me and brought me to him despite my reticence and fear through a series of encounters, messages, and witnesses to whom I’m eternally grateful. I was received into the Church at 26, six years ago, and though I was unaware of the Latin Mass when I converted, I found one early on in my life as a Christian, and haven’t looked back since I started attending. I am very fortunate to have access to the community that surrounds me, despite being from a small, largely secular state, and I have some experience with both Novus Ordo communities in my area as well as my TLM community.

I have absolutely noticed the trend you’ve observed, for whatever anecdotal evidence it’s worth. While the churches in my area are by no means dying, I would put the average age of parishioners in most regular masses in the 50s-60s range, and very few are in their 20s or 30s. By contrast, the Latin Mass I attend is stuffed full of young people and their large families—more than 25% of our regular attendees are under 15, and the median age is probably mid thirties. Our priest is very serious, intellectual, and critical of the status quo of the world around us (at times perhaps excessively so, but this is a minor point against him!).

You can feel the gravity in the young people of our church every Sunday. They are all obviously seeking Truth, and unwilling to partake in the perceived compromises of the Church leadership at large. I think there is a strong sense that a counterculture is needed amongst my peers—for one thing, I don’t believe any children at my mass own a cell phone; their parents seem to have gotten the memo. Furthermore, there is a palpable sense of desire for the real Jesus, the Eucharistic Jesus, who asks much, and gives much. When I started attending this Mass, we had perhaps 40 people in the pews every week, and in the last four or so years, we’ve grown to probably 150 each Sunday, despite many people needing to drive an hour or more. I know these numbers aren’t huge, but again, we’re in a small, liberal part of the country, and it’s astonishing how blessed we are to find so many brothers and sisters in Christ.

The people here want the real stuff. They feel that Christ calls us to act differently, and that our ancestors have tremendously more to teach us than is commonly supposed. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture—of course like all communities we have our issues—but all I can feel is gratitude every time I enter my church, and hear the wailing of babies being brought up in something solid and beautiful.

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Another one:

I serve a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod campus ministry at the University of North Dakota. My experience with 18-25 year-olds has been quite similar to what you wrote about in your article. Nearly half of the students who participate in our college ministry did not grow up in liturgical, orthodox congregations, but in some stripe of mainstream liberalism or they did not grow up in the church at all. Yet they seem to be intrigued by the intersection of two things: 1) our corporate life at prayer, using the historic liturgy, vestments, reverence, chanting, etc., that connects them to something more substantive and historical than much of the surface-level alternatives on campus; and 2) our confession of faith that holds Christ and Scripture in high regard and provides them a firm foundation upon which to build their lives. This is no small thing, considering that the vast majority of university students are incredibly aimless in much of what they do. Our students seem to appreciate that our confession is not dictated by the whims of the age; that we practice according to what we say we confess; and that what we confess has actual bearing in their daily lives.

That’s been my experience in our little corner of the earth, anyway.

UPDATE.2: More letters.

I'm a little different than many of the emails you might receive in that I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We don't terribly like to be called "Mormons" (takes the focus off Christ), but we are easily identified by that name. I don't know if you identify us as Christians; we are nevertheless a conservative religious community with our own traditional practice. I observe a lot of what you've said from Brigham Young University, where I'm doing undergraduate studies. The public events and the tone of campus is trending progressive, to be sure - that's universities for ya. But it surprises me how easy it is to find young people who are alive in the spirit and resistant to the spirit of the age. We look to our coreligionists in certain parts of Africa who are persecuted along with other Christians, and we see that God's call for us to bear a cross is not beyond our ability to follow. The zeitgeist may militate against us, but there is enough energy in the young that we will not die. 

You might be interested to know, if you haven't already, that one of our Apostles quoted you over the pulpit at our recent General Conference (a semi-annual worldwide broadcast where the senior leaders of the church address the entire church). Elder D. Todd Christofferson quoted from a piece you wrote for the Deseret News last year, "A Christian Survival Guide for a Secular Age." I was rather heartened by the reference. He wasn't calling for a church-wide Benedict Option movement, but I think it means we're hearing you. Thank you for everything you've done. I often find myself dismayed at the end of your articles, but it is a necessary dismay and I am grateful to know what we face. Yet I also see stirrings of hope; hope of reenchantment, hope of revival, and the knowledge that our era will bring forth titans in the Spirit. We will yet break bread with saints. 

From Germany:

I am in a different culture than many of your readers. I am in the leadership of a small "Freikirche" (evangelical church) in Germany. I have definitely noticed that God is moving in our town of about 70,000, and He is moving primarily among the young people. I am noticing this most in my two sons, 16 and 18. I and my wife raised them Christian and have made sure that they attend church and have plenty of opportunities for fellowship with other Christian young people. I never pressured them for a decision to follow Jesus (the critical piece in the evangelical Christian culture), and over the last few years I had the feeling that I talked more to them about American conservatism than about the deeper truths of Christianity. But earlier this year they both got baptized on a retreat we had sent them on and have since taken their faith very seriously. My older son has moved his computer to the attic because he realized he was spending too much time playing video games. He has shaved his head and intends to keep it shaved for the next few months because he felt he was too vain (I am assuming his motives here -- I have not specifically asked him why he did it). The youth group to which he belongs meets for a Bible study every week -- entirely without adult supervision or prompting. This week he started a Bible study at his school. He is much more disciplined about reading his Bible than I am.

Something else striking that I do not think I had ever seen before is that in his youth group there is a young man who comes from an unchurched family (such families are not at all unusual in Germany, not even in Bavaria, where we live). We were waiting to either pick the kids up or say goodbye to them after dropping them off for a Christian retreat, and my wife got to talking to his mother. She had not encouraged her son at all to go to church. He had decided on his own that he wanted to find out about God and had chosen, of all things, a Freikirche (when I first came to Germany in the '90s, the strength of the Lutheran and Catholic state-supported churches meant that evangelical churches were treated much like cults, and some of that stigma persists).

I could say more about what I am observing in our young people -- again, much of it entirely unsolicited by any adult as far as I can see. Nor can I see any explicit societal catalyst, although it is reasonable to think that uncertainty due to COVID followed by the Ukraine war and the general mood of constant crisis over the last few years might be playing some role.

Another:

I’m actually one of these 20-somethings who is coming into Orthodoxy. Our small parish is having an influx of people 30 and under coming in, and most of us are coming in after growing tired of our evangelical background that had little meaning or fulfillment for us. We have all started to see falsehoods and compromises from the churches we were in.

We are tired of it, and we are tired of feeling lost with an older generation of Christians who can teach only hollow, cold doctrine and use musical tricks to emotionally manipulate us. Not only that, but they seem to have no way to defend against the encroachment of modernity of American Christianity.

But I can tell you this change was for the best. It’s revitalized my wife and my own faith. It’s also given us a church we can definitely call home.

Thank you for noticing us!

Yes. It's a church for life, I have found.

A reader who calls himself "The Bicycling Friar" writes:

For over 5 years, more than 40,000 miles, have I been bicycling around U.S. A. For those youth/young adults up to age 30, they hunger, they crave, for real meaning in a world that is cynical and phony. They know this. The conservative houses give meaning and discipline, mystery and spiritual challenge -- exactly opposite of what so many main stream (and dying) churches don't as they increasingly turn ever more Woke. Here where I am now,  in Fredericksburg Virginia, the historic Presbyterian church has just hired a new pastor.  A lesbian, living in a lesbian relationship. This has caused emotional problems and stress in several members; as one would expect.

I told several of the members recently that "Every church that has gone down this route, eventually dies. The kids, especially those with infants, don't want any part of liberal/leftist, fluctuating theology and empty spirituality that just follows popular trends". Fredericksburg  Presbyterian is a historic church of significant history (Clara Barton started her work here, later forming the Red Cross) and those elders who chose a lesbian to lead them, have essentially mocked Christ and God. The youth know this. In Jackson Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona ... those churches who were conservative, had standing room only services.  Even in Woke D.C. area --- -about 85% Democrat, fully onboard with  the whole Woke Agenda is that town, that area of 'Inside the Beltway' mentality - -the only churches that were thriving were those rare few conservative churches, whether Latin Catholic or Traditional Baptist,or Lutheran Missouri Synod. Young couples with infants fill these churches. While the Episcopalian, "Progressive Baptist", Liberal Lutheran . . . all had few people and all were old with very few children, if at all. 

There is this tendency in the Main Stream churches to "be kind". People afraid to take a stand. And this "kindness" comes at a cost. To carry Christ's cross means to stand directly against evil: be it the Woke nonsense or Transgenderism. But the liberals are too timid to take the stand and think evil will just go away if they just are kindly: "KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING" is what their placards on their properties proclaim. But, kindness won't stop evil. It doesn't, it won't unless genuine Christian moral principles are defended and lived out. 

I should clarify something. I don't believe that conservative churches are converting the young per se -- meaning, I don't think that all an unchurched young person needs to do is to be confronted with a conservative church, and boom, they'll convert. I think that the overall movement now among the young is away from, and out of, church. That said, the churches that will hold on to the young who want to be authentically Christian are those that are orthodox in their theology and traditional in their worship. This is why I say that churches today should be FINDER-FRIENDLY, not seeker-friendly. That is, they should stop minimizing the experience of church and Christian life to appeal to most people, and instead make demands on their congregants.

The reader who posted in the old, much-missed comments section as Manualman writes:

My input is decades old, but I think still valid to your point.  I did youth ministry retreats in Catholic parishes across the country for a year at the junior high and high school ages.  What I consistently found (after a bit of digging to get them talking) is that young people are FAR smarter about religious thought than adults give them credit for and they see right through the self-deceptions that afflict their elders.  Where kids live among adults who functionally create their own god and their own religion, but try to claim that it’s Catholic (or whatever), the kids want no part of it.  They (rightly) see no point in belonging to a church if it means nothing and you create your own values anyway, but claim God’s inspiration for them.  It strikes them as grotesque because it is!

But when kids have adults in their lives who live their life in a manner where faith directs their decisions and costs them things and they do hard stuff because it is the right thing to do, the kids sit up straight and want to know what it’s about.  And when they discover that you’ve encountered God as a real presence in your life they’re fascinated.  It really is that simple.

We’ve had McCarrick/Weakland/Cupich types in charge of institutional Catholicism for so long that whole generations have never known anything but golden-calf paganism calling itself Catholic and nobody ever really calls them on it.  I think that’s the real appeal of the Latin mass communities.  The unsullied liturgy is a good thing, but the critical mass of genuine believers in community is what really gives the fire heat.

An Orthodox priest:

I am the Priest of Holy Cross/Ss. Constantine & Helen GOC in Huntsville, Alabama. I have within the last year and a half enrolled some 30 Catechumens and baptized and/or chrismated about 20 of them so far. All young people (20-35), mainly men. All of them are from Evangelical backgrounds who complain about the "rock music worship" and the shallow spirituality taught. They want something ancient, biblical, historical and challenging. And yes, they "Love Jesus, dammit!"

UPDATE.3: More letters came in, including this one:

What you describe in your article, "The 'I love Jesus, Dammit' Christians," has been my EXACT experience with young people. In fact, I had this conversation just last night as I sat around a fire with a group of twenty-something men (I am 43). My family recently started attending Tenth Presbyterian Church, a fairly high-church PCA congregation in Center City Philadelphia which uses a very traditional liturgy (hymns, Psalms, ancient creeds, etc.). As I talked with this ethnically diverse group of young men, they each had a similar story: they left non-denominational evangelical churches with a modern, "rock show" type atmosphere in search of something with substance, rooted in tradition, and aimed at the Transcendent. 

For a time, I was an elder at my former church, also a conservative Presbyterian denomination. At one session meeting, I recall several elders of the older generation discussing the need to spice-up or reinvigorate our worship services. Their ideas, of course, were the same old tired, lame things that have been kicking around for years: guitars, drums, modern songs, etc. I pushed back hard and asked them, "Is that what you think people are looking for these days?" I told them that people - ESPECIALLY young people - are sick of being pandered to. If they wanted entertainment, they would go somewhere else because the entertainment is WAY better out in the world. Sincere people come to church not to be entertained, but to worship. They are looking for the things I described above: substance, tradition, and transcendence, as well as true fellowship with other believers, loving relationships rooted in a shared faith. I described to my fellow elders the few experiences I had at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Conshohocken, PA. It is a non-geographical, Latin mass parish started some years ago by former Archbishop Chaput. The few times I went there the place was packed to overflowing with young families and college students. I also know many friends who have left Protestantism for Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in search of something more sincere and substantial. As a Presbyterian, I wish that they had found those things in a solid Reformed church, but the point is: I get it.  

As our culture moves further down the post-Christian path, I think we will increasingly see a winnowing taking place. If someone chooses to call himself a "Christian," he better count the cost because hostility against the faith is increasing daily. As I look around at the apostasy and compromise of our religious institutions, I am reminded often of Jesus' warning in Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" I praise God that Jesus intercedes for his church even now and that he will keep his people faithful until the end.

Another one:

I wanted to reach out about your question of growth. I should start with myself. I am mid 30’s, married, with three children and we are catechumens in the local Orthodox Parish. We come from a broad Protestant background with an Evangelical bend. I have a masters in Biblical Theology from a prominent Protestant Seminary. We left our previous church, not because they were a “woke” or liberal congregation, quite the opposite, they were very conservative. But, they didn’t understand the importance of gathering together, traditional worship and kept changing how they did things to make it “hip.”  My wife and I decided that we wanted to raise our children in a church that had stronger roots and had at least community memory of persecution so that the catechism of our children would be taken more seriously.

In terms of our parish, it is profoundly diverse. Our average age of congregant is approximately 35 with a very strong 20-something group of men and women. We currently have on our books, 30 catechumens and have over the past three years christmated around 30 or so. Our parish is about 65% converts from Protestantism. Of the cradle Orthodox, we have many different ethnic groups: Palestinian, Arabic, Serbian, Georgian, Rus, Romanian, Ukranian, Polish, and Greek. At any one time we are speaking the Lord’s Prayer in three to four languages every Divine Liturgy. Each family comes to our parish and remains because they see that the priest does not push ethnocentrism and embraces traditions from all of these  Orthodox expressions in order to help strengthen the growth of the rest of the congregation.

In our parish, there are no left vs right politics, only Orthodox beliefs vs Un-Orthodox beliefs and the Un-Orthodox beliefs are not allowed.

Our growth has been amazing, even in the almost two years I have been a catechumen. Our priest is kind yet firm on doctrine. We are somewhat “Pan-orthodox” in traditions, but not ecumenical to alien doctrines. I think that this has been our strength. When a Serbian Orthodox couple sees me, a Protestant Catechumen, bringing oak leaves for the congregation at Christmas (a Serbian Tradition) there is an affinity that grows because of the strengthening of tradition against the tide of modernity.

This one is really something:

My husband and I are poster children for what you're talking about, with young Christians getting deadly serious. We are in a deathmatch with the zeitgeist for our souls, and those of our children, and our culture gives no quarter, and spares no one. It is not enough to have strong convictions and be brave, although that helps. We must be in a community that is the realest of reals--where receiving the Eucharist is the most real thing we touch and see all week, and everything else flows from there. Our children must be reminded of their baptisms; that we are a covenant family, and Christianity is their birthright. Our faith is not something our children will merely intellectually assent to as they age, but it is the prism through which all ideas must pass; the language of faith and our Christian imagination will form their minds and their spirits as they move through the world. Our faith is the groove of our life together. Our faith-a gift, given to us by Christ our Lord- is what we will literally die for if needed, to pass on to our children. What else is there to give them but this?

We are 29, and about to have our fourth baby. We are highly educated with fancy private school college and graduate degrees, and everything is a huge joke. We realized that shortly after living and working in NYC post graduation. We now live in a mid-sized town in North Carolina, where faith is not always a liability, yet. 

From PCA and UMC backgrounds, we've become Anglican, and even taken our parents with us. We won't go back to any form of lukewarm, low-church evangelicalism, untied to church history or tradition. With scripture before us, and the rich historical liturgy of the church behind us and guiding us, we will only go forward, come what may. 

UPDATE.4: A last one:

I continue to be convinced that my generation (young millennials) and those following us are pining for beauty, for incarnate faith and practice and community, for a vision of a beautiful God. While some of the church in America has been fighting over truth (and has been losing), it seems as though the entire Western Church capitulated on beauty and goodness a while ago. What truth it has retained is often ethereal, a set of beliefs in need of affirmation. Jesus is the Truth more as an idea than as an incarnate God-Man. Ask Christians you know whether Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Then ask them whether he still has a body right now. Interesting results in my experience.

There's an entire generation of young families and singles in my parish who came to Anglicanism as refugees from evangelicalism. They're thankful for the prayer book, the sacraments, and what liturgy they can get. And yet, they're standing around in ugly buildings (often repurposed multipurpose spaces lacking windows) adorned with ugly modern graphic banners, television screens or projectors, oppressive fluorescent lighting, modern pop Christian worship music, banal preaching, and sing-and-dance happy-clappy children's programs, asking themselves, "Is this it? Is this what God wants from and for us?"

There was a time when I was surprised by how many folks in my Anglican parish really believe beauty is relative but I'm not surprised anymore. The evidence is all around me. The Church has lost its vision for incarnate faith, that what we believe about an incarnate God ought to make a difference in art, literature, prayer, liturgy, music, and clothing. Clothing.

Sometimes traditionally minded Roman Catholics describe how the music chosen for the Mass clothes the sacred liturgy. Vatican II uses this as a justification for the centrality of Gregorian chant in worship. I find this a very helpful way of thinking about our faith in general. I'm sure as an Orthodox Christian this makes some sense to you. The way we adorn our liturgy, our prayer, our ministers, our children, and ourselves for Church mattersMatter matters. It communicates something about what we're doing. Dress for the occasion. Dress our worship according to the beauty and majesty of our God. 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness' the psalmist commands us (Psalm 96.9). That means worship from the heart. That means worshiping the only living God. But it also means dress, act, sing, and behave strangely in worship. Be peculiar. Be holy. Be countercultural.
Most people in my parish are not just ignorant of these things, they see them as problematic. At best, these 'extra' things create barriers for the unchurched, they argue. At worst, they are the patrimony of racist and oppressive cultures. "I can wear what I want to church because God's looking at my heart, not my clothes." But they refuse to see that they have embraced the utilitarian aesthetic and that it's ugly. This is how they treat politics, jobs - everything.
Younger people are breaking free of the mindset of older generations and the revolutions which rocked the Church of the 20th century. As you've written recently about returning to a pre-WWI society: none of us want to go back to all that was there. But younger people are tired of the oppression of the modern mind, the modern world, and modern faith.
So sure, I love Jesus, damnit. I don't love banality, manipulation, silliness, irreverence, cultural schizophrenia, radical individualism, the cult of self-expression, emotionalism, skinny jeans, woke politics, gender confusion, pop music in worship, and spineless pastors. I just don't love ugliness.
I love Jesus. He's true, and good, and beautiful.

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Lloyd Conway
Lloyd Conway
We need more pastors. That's true across all denominations, including ones like LCMS (mine). The young aren't signing up at a fast enough rate. That is a worrisome trend. More need to fill the pews and the pulpits if we are to carry out our work here on Earth.
Conversely, our school does have a number of large families, and I have always seen the willingness to have children at above-replacement levels as a good indicator of of faith in action.
schedule 2 years ago
JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
The place to which I moved this summer (the Delaware beach resort area) tends to be a retirement area, and the congregation at the Orthodox church I attend skews decidedly older. We have a few young families, enough that we have a Sunday school, and I'm very pleasantly surprised that our attendance is holding up very well now that tourist season is over. But we don't have any people in the age range Rod mentions so I can't comment on that particular trend. It doesn't surprise me though-- young people are generally militant and unnuanced. Hence the obnoxiousness of wokery too.
schedule 2 years ago
Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
"TAC screwed up the redesign and basically killed the comments section"

Yes, but there's an easy solution. TAC supreme leaders should order their minions to simply remove the "Reply" button to other people's comments.

Because of their flawed redesign (thank you, computer dorks and busily bumbling scientists, the year is 2022 and I'm becoming a Luddite because of you, plus, voting for Trump again if he runs), directly replying to comments creates the absurdly narrow columns, and makes reading itself an extremely annoying task.

The Nerds took the fun out of commenting at TAC. Thank you. I was right from the very first moment I hated computer programing. I was right back then, and I'm still right. You guys are making things worse, not better.

Please pay attention, computer geniuses laboring behind the scenes in your caves: if you can't bring yourself to actually fix the problem, at least remove the "Reply" button from other people's comments. We shouldn't be able to respond to comments directly.

Then, things will go back to how they were before Disqus. Everyone will just respond to each other in separate posts, the way we used to, just like this:

Re: Alierakieron, Hector St Claire and everyone else in the Diaspora

Hello!

We miss you guys!
schedule 2 years ago
    Chris Karr
    Chris Karr
    Lesser Computer Dorks ruined the comments. More Masterful Nerds would have left the damn comments alone and be working on some kind of TAC-branded NFT thingie.
    schedule 2 years ago
    Bogdán Emil
    Bogdán Emil
    Re: Chris Karr

    The other way to avoid the idiotic narrow columns is by replying to the original post, like I'm doing now.
    schedule 2 years ago
JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
What's up with the iconography photo? It's looks like some sort paganized Christ from "Triumph of the Will". Even a little gay. Give me the good old Byzantine Pantocrator any day.
schedule 2 years ago