Friday, May 11, 2012

My Rose Colored Glasses: A Fresh Look at Millennials

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.

Moral Relativism
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.

Social Engagement
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. 


  1. I think that the points you made hit right on the head! We are very afraid of stigma and prolly because it endangers our ability to have community. I know i dont always go under the banner of what I believe because I dont want to be misunderstood. Not to say I hide or deni my beliefs or dont always follow them. I just show my beliefs in the way I live and act than saying them. It really excites me too because I totally minister in this way of trying to make community and talk about a no stigma faith with people! I really try to bring God to people and while bringing it to friends I adopted this style and its cool that it sounds tailor made for my generation.

    I think its awesome you think so highly of my generation and I agree that we have our faults but that we are also not given enough credit. I agree that our relativism is misunderstood. As a whole we are split on every issue, we have alot of different views yes, but we are not relativist. That is an easy answer if you looked at statistical information you could generalize every easily and say we are relative, but as you said its one dimensional. Like you said we can be spiritual with out being religious but also we can have absolute beliefs but because we are not a straight ballot believer (as a individual or a generation) we are thought to be relativist. As individuals we have many stead fast beliefs, like I am a Christian I believe in Christ, and I think he is the only way, but I am also pluralist, and some would think that doesnt really fit but if you go deeper than a survey level inquiry then you can see how I believe that way. My generations beliefs dont fit into the patterns of the past, and so we are labeled as believers in nothing. Heck I dont really even have a political party, as a Liberatarian-Right, Im more of a mixture of terms for description than a belief system or political group. We arent straight ballot voters any more, we are more conscious and cautious of our choices and beliefs. As a generation we are literally split on every issue pretty well down the middle, we obviously have beliefs we just dont all agree, probably because most of us are so young right now. But my point is that the labeled we get is that (individually and generationally) as relativist is simply a because they dont know what to call us. We arnt this or that but kind of a little of both? Relativist. We dont fit into the old patterns of our parents and so we are mislabeled. We are confusing at first glace but if you give us a second look and for just a little bit longer you can see we are simply complex, not really confusingly complicated just naturally intricate.

  2. Thanks so much for your feedback, Bryan. Excellent insights and a good window into your thoughts as a Millennial.

  3. I'm cutting and pasting a conversation on Facebook about my post on Millennials. it may expand the conversation to post it here.

    McMurry grad and Duke Divinity School student, Sean Smith asked:

    Just out of curiosity what particular grouping are you using to define millennials? Honestly, I've encountered a lot of people who share with me the desperate desire to be involved in a thousand tasks all at once. They are left busy and drained with no real sense of priorities.

    Often, if they have a notion of the transcendent, it appears to lack any real definition or work to piece it together and caries with it moral certainty born of individualism.

    The problem with the ideal or idea of moral relativism seems to relate to individualism directly. What do you think? I keep having flashes of Alisdair MacIntyre coming into my head coupled perhaps inappropriately with Bruggeman's Evangelism in a Three-Storied Universe. It seems our job is to find a way to help people understand their story in a community setting. I'd like to hear your thoughts if you have time.

    Here is my response:

    In this case, I'm defining Millennials as people born between 1980 and 1999. Admittedly, the parameters are flexible and fluid.

    Regarding your other question, I agree that moral relativism and individualism are related. Morality is frequently relative to each individual's beliefs and separated from the "formal" checks and balances of community. I emphasize "formal" checks and balances because there are at least two communal or collectivist dimensions to relativism, even for the person claiming individualism. (1) Everyone is formed in a social environment; in sociological terms, everyone is "othered" in the sense that one's identity and values are formed in community even if one claims to be a complete individualist. "Individual" relativism is inevitably associated with communal norms. (2) Related to what I've just said, but viewed from a different angle, one form of moral relativism says that moral principles are relative to each culture. Values and moral norms, according to this view, are social constructs. What is "right" or "wrong" in one culture may not be viewed in the same way in another culture. In this case, moral relativism is communal rather than individual, but "siloed" in each culture. A person holding this view would tend to say, "How can I say what is right or wrong for someone from a different culture?"

    Without going into great detail here, my response is "both-and" rather than "either-or." Of course there is a sense in which moral norms are relative to culture--who could deny that--but some key ethical questions ("ethics" as in philosophical moral reasoning, not just opinions about morals) are, "Are there values that transcend culture? If so, how do we discern these values?" Part of what I mean by "both-and," therefore, is that moral decisions can and often should involve both cross-cultural and culturally-relative analysis. In addition, moral positions are, inevitably, both individual and communal. (Even the person who claims pure individualism was and continues to be formed in community. Perhaps unwittingly, this individualist lives out the norms of a culture that thinks it values individualism, until an individual breaks the norms of that particular sub-culture, lol.)

  4. I have been investigating on my own recently, this very question of what "millenials" believe and who they are. Then I came across your post today. One conclusion I've drawn doing independent research is that many church-related millenials are children of "evangelicals" who were raised to have absolute views - and I also think trained to categorize other people. What I think I've figured out is that they are both rebelling against and living from that perspective now. They don't want to be absolute as "christians" because they've received censure from "non-christians" for being so. So sometimes they've swung the other direction and now are criticizing and rejecting willy-nilly, anything that smacks of what they were told and how they were raised. At the same time as yes, sometimes (or often) really trying to understand what's true. One danger that I saw (and then found many "Danger!" websites which were extremely unhelpful in being so one-sided, screaming about"moral relativism") is that because they weren't necessarily raised to think critically, now they are accepting things without qualification that are actually against God. I don't know if they are doing well with trying to really live in community (neither did their parents and neither do many of us in the Body of Christ) and in so doing have that amazing synthesis of understanding that can happen as we grow & explore together. There are absolutes, and those do bring freedom, which we all need. It's the getting there, to be able to discuss and share, joke around and enjoy one another...