They’re not narcissists.
They’re not shallow.
They’re not fundamentally broken.
They’re not different from us, the Xers and Boomers who fill most of the leadership positions in Christian churches.
The Millennials are the vanguard of our new, digitally-driven culture.
As an Xer who has embraced digital culture more readily and more fully than most people my age, I inhabit a front row seat from which I view the present cultural shift, and I understand why some Christians are afraid. Sometimes, the life of millennials seems weird, incompatible with our traditions of togetherness, with the investments we have made in buildings, property, tables, and chairs: spaces and tools with which we gather, face-to-face, in a tradition broadly similar to that of the people of the early church. Culture is changing and that is never not scary.
On the other hand, on some Sunday mornings, church doesn’t seem as relevant to me as Meet the Press or Melissa Harris-Perry. Church-world doesn’t always feel like it touches my everyday world, in spite of the fact that I am now a 40-something in leadership. I wonder, how will we keep doing church if we don’t feel connected the way we used to, or the way we hope to?
But consider that the church has survived;
- The Enlightenment
- The rise of cities
- The Middle Ages
- Westward expansion
- The Protestant Reformation
- The Civil Rights Movement
…and so much more. Christianity has survived all the things that have happened in the past 2,000ish years, and Christianity will survive digital culture and the Millennials. Someone, somewhere is always declaring the death of Christianity, and every generation wails about the incapacity of the next.
That’s OK. Good, even, except that it too often reflects an attitude that is closed-minded due to fear. What I want to shout from the (virtual) rooftops is, no matter how wild this gets, God is doing God’s thing. We’re going to struggle and argue. Some of us might throw chairs and get very, very upset, and we’re going to say things we regret, and we’re also going to be brilliant and ultimately (probably often, if we are paying attention), we will see the face of God.
Is this going to hurt? Yes. It’s going to hurt because as God is baptizing individual people, God is also baptizing our communities, our families, and our very traditions.
People, baptism hurts. This is the refiner’s fire. We have volunteered to be transformed, and God does not take that lightly. The old has passed away.
We are often confused about what it means to be transformed because we humans can’t do it. We understand reformation because we are (in some limited way) capable of reformation, but transformation is not even tangentially related to reformation.
Let’s say I have a table. It’s a broken down, sad, ugly old thing. It wobbles, and one of the legs has come off. The top has a crack in it, the apron is all gouged up, and the whole thing has water damage. I decide to fix up my table so I can bring it into my house. I go out to my garage and I glue the crack and clamp it. I add new hardware to secure all the legs, replace the apron, and get busy sanding it until it’s smooth. Finally, I stain that table until it’s so shiny is nearly glows in the dark. I take my table to the dining room and my whole family stands around and admires it. It is gorgeous. I have reformed my table, and it is the handsomest specimen of table you could ever hope to see.
But it’s still a table.
God has a table, too, and it’s just as ugly and sad as my table was, and maybe God wants it to be a beautiful, gleaming table, but God is not limited to the perceivable possibilities the way I am. Perhaps God will turn the table into a bird, or a droplet of water, or a universe.
Ouch, right? We think we’re tables, and mighty fine ones, at that! Who are these youngsters, these twenty-something millennials, to question our table-ness?
Knock knock, maybe they are the voice of God? And maybe not. I don’t claim to know. God doesn’t deal in certainty (much as we yearn for God to do just that). God deals in mystery, faith, and what C.S. Lewis called the Deep Magic. God shows up in the desert, where there are no landmarks and we have no idea where we might find our next water.
The incredible wringing of hands that has happened in the blogosphere (launched by Rachel Held Evans at CNN’s Belief Blog) is exactly what we must do, though some people may wish to take a breath and two steps back (If your God can’t withstand a culture shift, get a bigger God).
Church exists in culture and is populated by fallible humans and God is not up in heaven, expecting us to know stuff we haven’t yet learned. Just like you wouldn’t give your hungry child a stone, you wouldn’t expect your kindergartner to do calculus.
God knows we are bound by the traditions of our faith. We need them because they provide us with a sense of belonging and continuity, but they are for us. God doesn’t need to see us all line up in the sanctuary to share bread and juice. God knows God’s place in the universe and our reminders don’t make God more secure or more content. God is not in the ritual, nor does participating in such ceremonies give us special access to the presence of the divine. God is God, God is love, and God is everywhere. The rituals of worship, communion, foot washing, baptism, and all the rest exist because we have wild monkey minds. We need gestures of the body and practices of the mind to help us show up for our relationships with God and each other.
God is not the rituals. God is God, and God won’t change.
But everything else might change. God might make into us something entirely new. God does not need our protection and God is not afraid. God is doing what God has always done: pursuing us. How do we keep Millennials (and others) in the church? Simple. We follow Jesus. We do not attract new people; Jesus does that. We are not transforming ourselves; Jesus is doing that. We are not creating church; we are the church that Jesus built and is continually rebuilding.
So we follow. We pray. We practice togetherness (talk, argue, shout, share, cry, lament, laugh, sing, teach, learn, and kiss the wee babes) in ways old and new. We experiment. We unclench our fists (my church, my traditions, my faith) and look around. We invite and we include, and when we screw up we say so. When church disappoints us we speak out, and when we see the church disappoint others we sit up and take notice, and we go to that place and search for Jesus and share the love that God has lavished upon us. We revisit Micah 6:8 until it is engraved upon us.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
So simple, but we resist. I will be the shiniest table! Make of me a beautiful table, Oh God! Hush and follow, says God. I will make of you. I will do with you. I promise.
We meditate upon Galations 5:1, which says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We have not been set free in Christ to build institutions or to “win souls for Christ” or to do anything. We have not been set free to follow rules, and we most certainly have not been set free so that we might hit people in the head with our bibles in the name of Christ.
Glorious, wild, extravagant freedom, a gift, given freely. God does not seek our slavish devotion to rules, but our exuberant devotion to the person of God and the way of Jesus. We walk together, with God, and with one another, and the walking is the thing we are doing, and God is unrolling history as we walk.
God does not need our protection and God is not afraid. God is doing what God has always done: pursuing us, God’s own, God’s beloved.
Let’s let God catch us.
All Bible verses are from the New Revised Standard Version.