Millennials, in my experience, frequently rise above the critiques they are receiving in the media and in pessimistic interpretations of their values (see, for example, Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults). They are often viewed as morally relativistic, unwilling to make commitments, and socially disconnected. While these critiques have some validity, they represent a one dimensional stereotype that needs to be examined further. These young people, born between 1980 and 1999,* have much to teach older generations. What can they teach us? My response to this question is admittedly limited. This is a blog, not a dissertation. I offer the following reflections on this question out of my experience working with college students and as an observer of the contemporary religious landscape. Let’s look at two broad areas, moral relativism and social engagement.
Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman with little formal education who became one of the great American philosophers of the 20th century. In his most famous book, The True Believer (1951), he argued that the basic distinction between genuine commitment and fanaticism is uncertainty. Fanatics are certain. They know all the right answers. Certainty is dangerous.
Millennials, generally speaking, seem to be reacting against the dangerous certainty of previous generations, especially in religion and politics. For example, in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell note that young people are increasingly rejecting religious affiliation BECAUSE of the perception that being Christian means identifying with the Republican party. Some are now claiming that the religious right won the battle and lost a generation. This generation’s rejection of religion is not a rejection of God or spirituality. Overall, they are spiritual (i.e. in surveys they are willing to describe themselves as “spiritual” and affirm belief in God, but shy away from the term “religious”). But, they reject the dogma of connecting religion with specific political issues, or any dogmatic certainty for that matter. They tend, for instance, to be “conservative” on abortion and “liberal” on sexual orientation. They recognize the importance of discernment and reject easy answers.
Their questioning and discerning process may appear to be moral relativism due to an unwillingness to give quick answers to complex questions combined, in some cases, with not-yet-developed critical thinking skills. My observation is that this stance is not pure relativism; rather, it is an authentic developmental process of seeking honest answers rather than parroting a previous generation’s certainties. This “thoughtful relativism” tends to mature over time and eventually includes some absolute values such as love, justice, and a divine grounding for life.
What can my generation learn? We can understand that an unwillingness to parrot certainty is not the same as moral relativism and is often morally preferable. Face it, the moral certainty of the 1950’s, combined with soaring church attendance, often included racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and manifest-destiny-nationalism among the people packing the pews. Pew-packing and Christ-following are not necessarily equivalent.
If an older generation wants young people to express their spirituality in the context of institutional religion, then we are going to have to let go of dogma, easy answers, and political polarization while embracing diversity, discernment, dialogue, and uncertainty. Discerning and following the Spirit’s leadership will have to trump institutional maintenance. Millennials, I believe, can support strong, growing congregations, but they will do so for the sake of mission, not institutional maintenance. If our focus is institutional maintenance, then we will lose the very institutions we want to maintain.
In a helpful article entitled, “Millennials are the New Evangelicals,” Duke Divinity School student Erin Lane writes,
If institutional leaders are waiting for us to grow-up, have children and offer our static allegiance, they will miss out on the feverish energy we’re offering now to those who will take us seriously.
The takeaway here is if you give us your attention -- which requires that you really listen to, learn from and lead us -- then we will give you our commitment.
Lane’s perspective reminds me of Diana Butler Bass’s insight that the paradigm of church membership has shifted from “believing, behaving, belonging” to “belonging, behaving, believing.” She describes this reversal in her most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. I can’t do justice to her book in one paragraph, but here is an essential insight. The old paradigm for religious affiliation was to believe the “right” things, behave in the “right” way, and then belong. Of course we know, sociologically, that believing and behaving are largely constructed in a social context, in belonging. One could argue that believing, behaving, and belonging are really circular rather than linear. Nevertheless, her point is well taken. The old-school institutional expectation follows the believe, behave, belong pattern.
This approach completely misses Millennials. Bass’s argument, consistent with Lane’s quote mentioned above, is that engaging this generation begins with community, with belonging. Then, in community, we can engage Christian tradition along with the contemporary situation to form, reform, and revise beliefs and behaviors. (In fairness to Bass, note that the emphasis on revisionist theology is mine, not necessarily hers.)
What can my generation learn? The problem is not that Millennials are unwilling to be engaged socially, politically, or religiously. The problem is that our institutions are set up with a believe, behave, belong expectation that is ill-equipped to reach young people whose essential approach to life is the reverse, belong, behave, believe. We have to invite Millennials first to belong, to be part of community, to have a role in creating community and becoming stake-holders in beliefs and behaviors. This approach is in contrast to expecting them to accept beliefs and behaviors because we said so, the tired line of tired parents who know nothing better to say.
This post is long enough. I’m interested in your feedback. I’m going to work with a colleague to develop a more academic, research grounded version of some of the ideas here. I do not claim to have covered all the bases, just offered some ideas for dialogue. Please share your thoughts.
*The parameters of the Millennial generation vary in the literature. Generally, Millennials are those born between 1980 and 1999.