The reports are in. The generation that reached adulthood after the turn of the century is turning away from organized religion. They reject labels and absolutes. What hope do we have to reach them?
“I’m not gay. But I have friends who are. I’m not going to marry another guy, but I support their decision. Who am I to judge that they can’t love each other? Marriage is about two people in love. I don’t understand how you can be so unloving.” I still remember when my good friend in college unloaded this on me during LGBT week on campus at Ohio State University.
We frequently had conversations like this on many different topics. I was often labeled narrow-minded and (that dirty word) fundamentalist. I was one of those.
It seemed out there at the time. I didn’t realize how close to home homosexuality was until I learned some people close to me were gay. I never saw it growing up, but now it’s everywhere. While I was growing up, they kept quiet. But today, they shout their presence (even in elementary schools). Times have certainly changed.
Today, my claim of being Christian evokes deep emotional reactions. It isn’t easy to evangelize someone who is shouting at you. Is there hope for civil discourse?
Despite all the hype of a hostile takeover by so-called postmodernism, our future is not as bleak as some say.
As much as I’m uncomfortable saying it, I’m a Millennial (born in the two decades before the new millennium, with all its promises and fears for the future). Most people in my generation don’t like this label, or any labels for that matter. But the fact is I was born in those crucial years between 1980 and 2000, received a secular education from preschool through PhD, and wasn’t raised in a church where the Bible was the ultimate authority. Still, God’s grace reached even me.
My conversion wasn’t at an altar call, watching a televangelist, or reciting the trademark “Sinner’s Prayer.” Actually, I was alone when I recognized my sinfulness and personally accepted Jesus. I don’t fit church stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean Millennials are hopelessly lost.
Having examined the church from the outside in and after years of teaching my fellow Millennials, I am confident that biblical Christianity is as powerful as ever.
Enough about me. Most non-Millennials think of my generation as hipsters and “Nones.” Despite what our elders might think, None doesn’t mean we’re doing nothing with our lives. Nones is a polling category used for anyone distancing themselves from organized religion—even atheism and agnosticism. Nones like “god” and being spiritual, but they don’t claim to be religious. Typically (though not always), Nones are Millennials. They have shot up in number—from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014—and have become increasingly secular in their outlook, according to Pew Research.
The common thread woven in the Millennial tapestry is typically called postmodernism. But that term is misunderstood and misapplied. My generation reacts against postmodernism more than embracing it. I suggest a better word describes my generation, which has blossomed since my college days. Allow me to explain.
Scholars have uncommon ways of using common words. When scholars say “modern,” they usually refer to a time period after the Age of Reason, when people abandoned supernatural explanations of our existence and instead relied on human reason alone. Next came postmodernism in the mid to late 1900s, which largely abandoned human reason. Today, you’ll see elements of both modern and postmodern thinking because my generation has fused them together.
We all want answers that satisfy our minds, but that’s only part of the issue.
To understand these past influences, let’s examine them briefly.
Having lost confidence in the supernatural, the “modern” perspective relied on independent human thinking. Since they could not appeal to revealed truth, modernists concluded that truth and morality must be relative. Nothing is either true or false, right or wrong, without a context. What’s true for you might not be true for me (they may even think truth changes depending on the situation).
This era culminated in Darwin’s Origin of Species. The supernatural was all but dead. All we had was ourselves, progressively marching forward from our common ancestry with apes. Human morality evolved over millions of years, without absolutes, all the while supposedly improving (compared to apes).
But humanity wasn’t improving, as evidenced by two world wars that slaughtered millions. Society experienced an existential crisis in the post-war years, which unleashed postmodernism.
Postmodernists embraced everything modernism was against. (For this reason, the term antimodernism is much more descriptive and accurate, but it hasn’t made its way into everyday language.) Contrary to modernists who denied the supernatural, postmodernists retorted, “I am god; I make the rules. Forget social norms.”
They circumvented modernism’s moral relativity by making up their own. Many postmodernists believed that truth is in the eye of the beholder: trust only what you think or perceive. After all, our own experiences are the only things we know. So me, myself, and I must be right—regardless of what others think.
Postmodernists rapidly invaded universities and influenced the postwar baby boomers in the 1950s and 1960s. The boomers readily embraced their ideas, such as defying traditional marriage, accepting easy divorce, and living together outside of wedlock.
Forced to endure the negative results of postmodernism—broken homes and extreme parental selfishness—the generations after the baby boomers rejected most of its ideas and rekindled parts of modernism. What does this “neomodern” combination look like? Secular sociologists polled my generation in 2005 and saw a common thread. Its main points were summarized in Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean (2010):
It sounds almost Christian, but they’re all half-truths. Fifty years ago, Time magazine proclaimed the death of God. Today, Millennials are comfortable with deity, but not organized religion. They recognize that asking questions about personal biases and assumptions can be helpful, but they run amiss in questioning everything—specifically, God’s revealed truth.
Since everything is questionable, they’re left with contradictory standards. Christian commentator Os Guinness describes this as “absolutist relativism.” Millennials believe that most morals and truths are relative and yet each individual should “be [absolutely] happy and [always] feel good.”
Since society has “progressed,” how does the church make real progress in reaching this brave new generation? We are at a historic crossroads. We can abandon the Bible, as our society has, or we can stand firm on its authority (1 Corinthians 16:13).
Human philosophies constantly make corrections like a swinging pendulum, abandoning the Bible’s authority and replacing old error with new error. In contrast, Scripture corrects error with truth (Ephesians 4:14).
As Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. C. S. Lewis recognized this societal trend, saying, “Ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real theologians tried centuries ago and rejected” (Mere Christianity). While today’s questions seem new, they’re the same basic questions with the same basic answers.
To reach Millennials, our starting point is God’s unchanging truth. But we need to apply Scripture to ourselves first. Millennials (or anyone else) won’t want what we have to offer unless there is a tangible change in our life (Matthew 7:3). Then, as we share God’s Word, we can trust its power and remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit works in advance to prepare hearts to receive His truth (1 Corinthians 3:6–8). Scripture alone can completely change the mind and heart (Hebrews 4:12).
Everyone already has his or her own ideas about living right, but needs guidance. Our God-given conscience guides us, whether we admit it or not (Romans 1:18–19). The problem is that modern, postmodern, and neomodern consciences have only partial truths. They don’t have the Oracles of God to light their paths. But the conscience offers us a bridge to introduce the gospel. It’s a reminder that we all have a sense of right and wrong—even if we try to deny absolute truth.
The Holy Spirit uses Scripture in each person’s conscience to show (1) their reasoning is flawed, (2) God’s Word is flawless, and (3) God’s Word offers something better. Since the Bible is true, it is powerful enough to correct error. That’s why God’s children are responsible to share the truth in love. We must carefully explain how His Word fully exposes half-truths (1 Peter 3:15). And we must meet people where they are.
People’s conscience can guide them some ways, but it has serious limits. For example, people need to know that their Creator holds them responsible for their actions and that judgment is coming. But we cannot know these truths apart from God’s special revelation (Hebrews 9:27). We should explain that such truths make sense based on concepts everyone already accepts, such as that we reap what we sow. Using examples like this shows unbelievers how much Scripture they accept already without realizing it (Galatians 6:7–8).
Simultaneously, we all need to admit we’re not perfect (John 8:7). Such honesty is disarming and demonstrates our universal need for a God who is greater than we are—the Creator God revealed in the Bible. Millennials want someone who is honest about personal struggles and will acknowledge that we all struggle to make sense of our own experiences.
People claim that truth can’t be known, or they claim that they can succeed on their own (without God). It is sobering to hear that the Son of God, who created and knows us, states otherwise (John 8:32). The good news is that the Creator of the universe is not distant from our everyday lives. He dwelt among us and put on flesh. He understands and empathizes with us. While He is fully man, He also is fully God; we can neither sugarcoat His justice nor overlook His mercy. He is full of both grace and truth, not one or the other.
We all want answers that satisfy our minds, but that’s only part of the issue. People today are talking about heart needs, not just intellectual needs. How should we respond to claims that everyone has a right to feel good? What’s wrong with feeling good?
Nothing’s wrong with feeling good! It is part of God’s design for life (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13). God created everything, including emotions, and pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But we’re now living in a cursed cosmos. We cannot feel the right way unless we acknowledge the effect of sin. Our message must include the consequences of the Curse as well as the redemption of the Cross, as revealed in Scripture. Otherwise, we’re wasting everybody’s time with our own ideas and warm fuzzies (1 Corinthians 15:1–4). If we don’t emphasize that the gospel is rooted in biblical authority, then we open the door to repeating errors of the past (and we’re back at square one).
Neomoderns won’t care what we know if all we care about is telling them they’re wrong. They emphasize feelings and community. While salvation isn’t feelings-based, we cannot ignore feelings and relationships. God has answers for both. The gospel changes not just the minds of Christ’s disciples, but also their hearts. They’re known for their “love for one another” (John 13:35). The fruits of the Spirit include emotions, such as joy and peace.
In my experience, Millennials are familiar with feeling hurt and alone. But they don’t often know what it feels like for someone to empathize with their hurt. We have the privilege to hurt alongside people and then address their intellectual vacuum. Once they know we care, though, are we ready to tell them anything substantial?
As culture’s pendulum continues swinging, God’s people must continue to stand firm on Scripture from the first verse (Galatians 5:1). This certainly doesn’t mean we ignore people’s questions and prescribe a hollow message like “just trust in Jesus.” You could just as easily say “just trust in ________ [anything besides Jesus]” using the same logic. That’s a really lame reason to consider Jesus as Sovereign Lord of the universe. Our God-given minds deserve more than anemic spirituality. Bone up, church.
We need to be poised to give real answers, with real hope and humility. Unless parents and leaders understand the Bible’s history in Genesis, seeing how Adam’s sin marred God’s good creation, their children won’t see why we need to return to our Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
Christians need to teach the Bible’s perspective, as they always have: we live in a fallen world that needs redemption. Without this perspective, Jesus turns into a cosmic killjoy who doesn’t want us to have any fun. Who wants a cosmic killjoy? People today need the plain teaching of Scripture. Salvation offers the abundant life here on earth now (despite the real pain) and for all eternity in a new heaven and earth (when God takes away all pain).
That’s the message that makes it worth sacrificing immediate feelings for the infinite gain of Christ. It’s no small thing to ask someone to give up any habitual sin—promiscuity and the LGBT lifestyles are no different. But that’s the same call from God’s Word to all generations, and we must recognize His power.
When I share God’s Word with my fellow Millennials, I remind myself of the stronghold that sin had in my own life—the intellectual pride and the strong emotions that I had to give up. Was it worth it? No doubt. Has it been easy? No. I try to remind myself of the grip that sin had on me so I can empathize with the lost.
Instead of clucking about Millennials’ sorry moral state and bankrupt philosophy, let’s show how Jesus Christ gives true joy. He satisfies every need of our mind and heart. Jesus’ disciples should be known by their love (for both God and others). Sharing God’s love along with His unchanging truths is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to all generations—even neomoderns!