I’ve written this week about church decline in America. The numbers are obvious, the reasons are less so. What pastors and leaders are doing about this varies and the hope for real change is not clear yet. But what about the youngest adults, the millennial generation (born from 1982 on)?
Many of you know that I spend a significant amount of time among millennial adults, both Christians and non-Christians. My millennial fiends include liberals, conservatives, singles, gays, married with and without children, and both Democrats and Republicans. I have never been able to segment any group and write them off. I have always welcomed dialogue, disagreement, and the potential for growth and learning from one another in real relationships. I do not reject my friends because they change their views, or practice, in some area where I disagree with them.
My generation was very different. When I began my pilgrimage toward what I now call missional-ecumenism many of my peers rejected me, both openly and privately. They would not support someone who worked with Christians who were more liberal, Catholic or non-evangelical. (Many even limited the scope of what they would support to their very narrow world of super-confessional Reformed ["true"] Christianity!)
But as I have journeyed down the road marked ecumenical and missional I have met many millennials and through them discovered a new sense of my own call – I was to major on making disciples from this generation. Why? Well, one reason is quite obvious. This is the future of the church in America and this future will be very, very different from our distant and recent past. The church, and most of these millennials, are not well-equipped for this future, at least from what I’ve seen. My generation wants to say, in effect, “Sit down while we teach you what to believe and how to live.” The millennials say, “We will listen to you if you love us and respect us as valuable human beings who are not just a segment, or group, of younger adults but real adults with real ideas who desire real relationships across all generations.”
I got a wonderful snapshot of this in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I sat transfixed in the balcony of an older historic downtown church on a Tuesday night and watched one of the finest millennial leaders in America speak to some 700-800 young adults, many of whom are not yet Christians. My friend did not preach. He utilized a large volunteer staff to create visuals, sounds and ancient ambiance. This all said very clearly: “Ancient-Present-Future Faith.” But the speaking part of the evening is what blew me away. Jeff Gokee, the director of PhoenixONE, interviewed Dr. Channing Johnson and his wife Joyce. Channing is a brilliant scientist with many advanced degrees and an amazing life-story. He is also suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and terminal cancer. Jeff began to build a deep friendship with Channing and Joyce a few years ago. (I got to engage with Channing and Joyce and came to know and love them as well, through my friendship with Jeff.) Channing is a student of “generational” church shifts, having been an orthodox Episcopal priest during the ministry years of his life. He believes the future of Christianity in America is one in which we will more likely transcend “generationally-defined” church expressions and denominational differences. Simply put, he is a massively bright and gifted missional-ecumenist.
When Channing and Joyce spoke at PhoenixONE Jeff chose to do this as an interview, staged as if they were enjoying another one of their great meals at the Olive Garden. While they sat in a large, dark church sanctuary, with the stage lights only shining on their small table, Jeff asked Channing about prayer and spiritual formation. He spoke with a great deal of insight and emotion. The content of what he said was actually quite unremarkable. (He is, mind you, brilliant but he does not show off!) The power of this interview was in the person of Channing and Joyce Johnson. They were incredibly real and very powerfully showed their deep love for God and for all these young adults. They connected well and they did so palpably. (I sat in the balcony so I could witness this from a bigger perspective physically.)
When the meeting was over Channing and Joyce were just beginning their long evening. Scores of young adults flocked to them. They talked, wept, prayed, shared and were healed. Channing was marking one person after another with the sign of the cross and Joyce was embracing and sharing with a lot of young women. It was an amazing sight. I realized that age was not the issue at all, in fact age was an obvious plus not a minus. These young adults were responding to love, not age segmentation. They want parents and grandparents that they never had. They want wholeness, which begins with love and acceptance. Channing and Joyce were sharing that with them in spades. I was blown away and energized.
The two days following I spoke to members of the faculty at Arizona Christian University. In several small groups, one with student leaders and another with faculty leaders, the whole dialogue about millennials and faith came up again and again. As I listened to these conservative Christian students I heard the same things that I hear from their more liberal, and non-Christian, peers. This generation longs for love and inclusion. In a small group of teachers one of the faculty asked me, “What book can we read or seminar can we take to better understand and relate to our students?” I said that there was a lot of great materials out there but the most important thing I could say was this: “If you want your students to be shaped and influenced by what you are teaching then you must build real relationships of love and respect with them outside of the classroom. This will cost you and it will likely keep you from reading as much and writing for academic publication.” Another faculty member responded with hearty agreement. I later learned that this teacher is deeply loved and respected by scores of students, which was not a surprise to me. If you want to reach young adults you must give yourself to them and listen, love and learn. You must serve out of your own weakness and sacrifice yourself and your time so that they know you really care about them.