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.*
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.