Who speaks for Millennial Evangelicals?

Jamie Smith, reflecting about the claims that millennial Christians are leaving the church because of her views on politics, evolution, and the rest of the standard litany of grievances:

And what exactly are we supposed to do with these claims?  I think the upshot is pretty clear.  Indeed, am I the only one who feels like they’re a sort of bargaining chip–a kind of emotional blackmail meant to get the church to relax its commitments in order to make the church more acceptable?

Could we entertain the possibility that millennials might be wrong?

I suppose we could, if we must.  Though it’s hard to find people who are actually within the millennial demographic who might be willing to do it.  At least among the writerly class, anyway, the size of which seems to be doubling nearly every day.

The distinction is an important one.  Many of the younger evangelical leaders have published articles and books that claim to speak for the millennial generation.  Gabe Lyons assumes the mantle in The Next Christians.  You Lost Me takes the same vantage point, which isn’t that surprising given Kinnaman’s role at Barna.  Rachel Held Evans kicked off this discussion that way, and Jonathan Merritt’s new book takes that approach.*

Together for the Gospel. There may have been a millenial or two there.

The danger, of course, is that in claiming to speak for a group it is easy to only reflect back what that group already wants to hear.  This is especially true when selling books is involved.  There’s something more at stake then, and generally folks respond better when the message is roses and sunshine and you’re being told that it’s your generation that will finally change the world.  What’s more, in my experience millennial Christians don’t seem particularly disposed to listen to critiques of ourselves, from folks our own age or anyone else.  Brett McCracken gave it his best go and, well, we know well how that went.  In one of my favorite moments of writing ever, a fellow millennial Christian suggested that I didn’t like my own generation for trying to read Hipster Christianity charitably.  Those were good times, brother.

What’s more, the paradox of speaking for a generation of evangelicals is that it exacerbates one of evangelicalism’s ongoing problems:  a monolithic understanding of itself that allows for caricatures to take root within the media, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the generalizations.  After all, those who are claiming to speak for millenial Christians have all but ignored any millennial who hangs around The Gospel Coalition or attended Together for the Gospel.  I don’t know how many of those there are, but I’m going to guess there are a few.

All that is why I have never really tried much to “speak for” millennial Christians, but to limit myself to speaking about them and–if they’d listen–to them.  I was first posed with the dilemma when invited to write what became my longest and best analysis of the millennial ethos.  I decided then that I wouldn’t strive to become a spokesman, on grounds that my innate desire and drive to “call ‘em as I see ‘em” would slowly be corroded.  Even now I can feel that pressure, as the path to influence seems to involve praise that borders on flattery.

Allow me, though, just a momentary break from that to speak for a very narrow corner of evangelicalism that is, I think, worth taking seriously.  There are a few conservative millennial evangelicals who take political cues from Russell Kirk rather than Rush Limbaugh and who would cross into Rome or Constantinople were they ever to leave “the church.”  (Webber’s Canterbury Trail has become a lot more rocky now that the accommodationist cracks of his day have turned into full blown ruptures, and I hear of fewer and fewer people who have been seriously tempted by it.)   Having rejected simplistic caricatures of the Religious Right, they’re no less thrilled about the same sort of caricatures of millennial Christians.

Like Rachel Held Evans and her readers, sexual ethics is one of their main points of contention.  But they are comprehensive in their conservatism, and ideas like handing out contraception in churches seem to them about as sensible as sin.  As one friend put it to me, the ‘”baptized” sexual mores” within the evangelical churches may be the issue that drives him to Rome.  They are done with facile sexual ethics, and that includes facile approaches to questions of homosexuality in the church and in public–but have looked at the liberal Protestant approach to Scripture and authority and found it wanting.  To close off the “speaking for” genre, I have received more emails and notes from younger evangelicals over the recent contraception dustup than I have in eight years of writing.

Those are the bulk of Mere-O’s readers, more or less.  We may not be many, but we’re around and we’re not going away.  At least not any time soon.  So while other folks go about speaking for millennial Christians, I would simply like to underscore that they do not speak for me.

*All these folks have good claim to speak for millennial evangelicals, of course.  My question is not whether they do or do not.  Rather, it is that they have self-consciously assumed that role and all the trappings that it entails.  Also, obligatory link to academic counter to the Barna narrative about the failure of the church.

 

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  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I find Smith’s statement significantly lacking. Of course the millinials may be wrong. The GenXers (like myself) were wrong, the baby boomers were wrong, everything that has come before us has been wrong about at least parts of what they thought when they were young. But dismissing concerns does nothing except dismissing the speaker.

    I find your approach of disagreeing while being respectful and engaging far more useful. I have liked Smith’s work, but everything I have read recently seems to be written with a chip on his shoulder.

    • Eric E

      “Entertaining the possibility” that they might be wrong doesn’t really seem “dismissive” to me. Indeed, he doesn’t really dismiss anything in that post. He’s a bit snarky, yes, but he seemed more concerned with the “do this or I’m leaving” attitude than anything else.

    • Will Barrett

      The issue is that – insofar as sexuality is what we’re debating – is that millenials are wrong about a specific thing. It’s not just rhetoric.

      • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

        We are talking about more than Sexuality (or at least Smith is.) He mentions politics, sexuality, social justice, creation, evolution, abortion and worship style in a very short post.

        Maybe it is just a response to some issues within his denomination. But if not, then it seems like a dismissive gesture to me because it includes a large number of items basically listed without any real discussion of the matter.

        I actually am not sure of anyone that is arguing that they are leaving the church because the church won’t support cohabitation or give them contraceptives. I am happy for someone to show me that I am wrong. I will retract the statement. But I am pretty sure he is using hyperbole to make a point. And if so then I think it proves my point that it is more about rhetoric than substance.

  • Eric E

    What’s not being said here but what I think is relevant is that Smith’s comments come on the back of a mini flare-up in his (and my) denomination about the role of confessions. Here is a good summary of what’s been happening: http://leadershipcrc.org/ya/?p=436

    Essentially the question comes down to what do church office bearers in the CRC (and professors at Calvin College) need to believe. The editor of the CRC denominational magazine wrote that in light of all the things we’ve learned in the last few centuries, we should consider the historic Reformed confessions outdated and it isn’t fair to require office bearers to say they believe the church’s confessions. Instead we should honor the confessions and have office bearers sign on to our denominations “Contemporary Testimony.” After all, the argument goes, a lot of people are crossing their fingers behind their backs when they sign on anyway. Smith responded on his blog and made called it out as a generational issue … specifically a baby-boomer issue. Then other people responded to him and said it was millennial issue, too.

    So I would read Smith’s comments in light of that. I think his key phrase that points back to this earlier discussion is “get the church to relax its commitments in order to make the church more acceptable.”

  • Scott

    Of course, before even writing _about_ them, one should first learn to spell the word correctly. Just a kind suggestion.

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston

    This is an important problem and frustration for me, being both filed under the Christian millennial category and, at the same time, finding a lot of what has come out of my generation upsetting. I’m into high church worship and not in the borrowing kind of way, but in the I attend an Episcopal service with Rite I Thees and Thous kind of way. I am a writer; I have a book under contract. But I feel no ability to speak for my generation because I don’t much feel that I even fit into in the first place. I love my iPhone, but I also love bowing toward the altar every Sunday. I feel a displaced person and, as much as I love Rachel Held Evans and chat with her openly about these things, we don’t see eye-to-eye on some of the topics “millennials” are supposed to all agree on. I am, as my millennial breather would say, burned by the church. But the church I have been burned by is their church, this new church, which I find content to make God in their image more than seeking to discern the Ineffable that is beyond all comprehension. My lament, often, is where I fit. Vagabond grace can be a lonely thing.

  • Rebecca W

    It may have been more helpful for Jamie (James K.A.) Smith to speak of the trend among millenial evangelicals (rather than the group as a whole).

    There IS a definite trend.

    PS: Jamie is … male. :)

    • Eric E

      I’m pretty sure that “her” refers to the Church.

      • rebecca w

        I read it a few times and thought that regarding “her” posssibly being the church. However, the millenials who subscribe to this view may think this is “your” view, not necessarily “her” view.

        Thanks for the clarification Eric. From what I have gathered from his writings, Matthew A is not as likely to have that view. (& neither is James K.A. Smith for that matter..)

  • Will Barrett

    Smiths nails it, frankly, because somewhere lurking underneath all of the compassionate rhetoric about birth control, gay marriage and other sexuality issues is an unwillingness to affirm – in the midst of great temptation (to which we all succumb from time to time) – what the Scripture says and what the Church universal has believed about human sexuality for almost two millenia. Doug Wilson said this more clearly and forcefully several years ago when Brian McLaren started the great kerfuffle over his “moratorium” on homosexual critcism.

  • http://www.youthmaster.blogspot.com Marv Nelson
  • Justin

    “What’s more, in my experience millennial Christians don’t seem particularly disposed to listen to critiques of ourselves, from folks our own age or anyone else.”

    Bingo. The hysterical reaction to “Hipster Christianity” is sign that maybe the book was just a little too on the nose. Someone tried to explore people who prided themselves on their uniqueness, and got just close enough.

    No one likes criticism, but I’ve learned that Gen X and millenials (and I’m somewhere between the two) have no concept of how to respond to it.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com Joseph Sunde

    You, my good sir, are on a roll.

  • Dan Jones

    I haven’t ‘come out’ and mentioned it to you directly (although) I don’t actively hide it), but I returned to the RCC, Matt. I’m a bit older than millennial but younger I think than most gen-Xers, so maybe that’s why my reasons are different than what you write here. They have little to do with civil ethics but far more to do with a robust expression of Trinity, Eucharist, the Kingdom, and the Word. Take that how you may, but my trouble with (non-denominational as well as ‘associative’) Evangelicalism was it’s lack of depth. Maybe that’s what you’re saying here. I think I’ve heard you say it before, even if I’ve also heard you say that Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople are not the answer.

    DJ|AMDG

    • Jack Grimes

      Dan, you might be interested in this: http://www.usordinariate.org/

      In Him,
      Jack
      jackgrimes2 -at- yahoo
      (former Lutheran, RCC since 2008)

  • Tyler Manners

    I worry, and it saddens me that we think the message of the church needs to change. Right and wrong didn’t change–we did. At 52, I’ve come to realize that all of my modern thinking, back in the 80s doesn’t change who I became in God’s eyes. The only one who speaks for my generation or any generation is Jesus. As I’ve said before, sin is still sin. Christ’s judgement of Satan isn’t the victory–the victory is his saving me from my sin. Part of that is shining his light on the foolishness of today and revealing that sin hasn’t changed or gone away. The world’s obsession with tolerance has crept into the church, and in an attempt to be “compassionate,” we’ve become politically correct. Soon there will be no difference between the church and corporate America. We have so lost who we really are. I sit here with my heart broken because I’ve lived half a century trying to stand righteous before my Lord, and I see the filthy rags I’ve been casting off taking a place of prominence at the pulpet.

    • Dan Jones

      I don’t think the message of the church has changed, certainly not if you’re creedal. It’s what people think the church ‘is’ and what the church should ‘do’ and who actually belongs that has changed, and changed, and changed again.

      • Tyler Manners

        I appreciate what you’re saying, but we might need to put our perspective in reverse. What the church is and does and who belongs has never changed. It’s right there in the Owner’s manual. When I was young, I was convinced God was done with the church, and it needed to grow up, but as I’ve watched the church develop into campus communities (don’t get me wrong, some of that is great), I wonder if we’ve fallen into the bigger-is-better trap. I worry that we’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

  • Eric Holloway

    If Rome, Canterbury and Constantinople aren’t the answer, what is the question?

  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson

    Mr. Anderson: If the besetting problem of “speaking for” millennial evangelicals is treating the generation as a monolith, I do not see how “speaking about” disentangles you – or anyone else – from this problem because even the posture of observation (rather than advocacy) is not free from prejudice and partiality. No observer of any generation possesses a God’s-eye-view. So much of the observations are situated, and I would much rather hear an observer honestly disclose his situatedness and not pretend to speak about – or for – everyone else in the generation.

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  • Many Horizons

    Glad you posted this again. James KA Smith, I think, is being more honest about this generation (my generation) than a lot of the louder voices. No doubt, evangelicalism is often rendered a caricature of itself, but I can’t help but feel the millennial generation is as much to ‘blame’ as the church.

    Rachel Evans points to the return of liturgical practices, but I’m in the mainline church… trust me, we aren’t keep our 20-30 somethings in our pews. In fact, we’re doing a worse job of it.
    The liturgical return, I think, is mostly for the theologically educated, but I’ve found it to be a fad. They read Milbank for a week, go to some masses, and then eventually fizzleout.

    The milieu of our generation, I think, is looking for something otherwise than religion. It’s hungry for something different, but I don’t think it’s ancient liturgies, prayers, hymns, or mysticism… I see this generation wanting to ignore its foundations, stand on its own, and give meaning to whatever it is that seems beautiful in the moment.

    Though the evangelical church needs a major revamp, culture, I feel, it equally to blame for those leaving the church.

    +Lance