“Where have all the young adults gone?”
If you are a regional pastor, or a resource and friend to the pastors of your classis, then you might hear about young adults who seem to be disappearing from our churches. You and your fellow pastors might share some theories about why they are disappearing, might find some encouragement in one another, but might also leave those conversations more unnerved than you were before.
In his book, "The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church,” David John Seel, Jr. actually has an encouraging word for the church about young adults, also known as “millennials.” But it is a word that comes with a strong warning as well.
Seel’s helpful insight is that the young adults of our culture, the millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), are part of a “frame shift,” a cultural transformation in which there is a widespread rejection of rationalist, either/or, and reductionist thinking and a widespread preference for paradox, mystery, and openness to many viewpoints. Seel claims and then demonstrates that the millennial generation is not causing this change but is merely carrying it. The causes of the culture change lie elsewhere—in a world in which all global viewpoints are now accessible and in which we have seen the failure of rationalism and secularism to secure a better world for everyone.
The warning for the evangelical church is that when millennials see rationalist, either/or, or reductionist thinking in the church, they tend to run. Young adults are likely to develop a religious allergic reaction, so to speak, when they observe God reduced to a theological construct, see salvation boiled down to a decision, morality defined by a list of correct behaviors, worship conducted as a bait-and-switch operation, and alternative viewpoints quickly rejected rather than thoughtfully considered.
The hope for the church, as far as Seel is concerned, lies in four longings that Seel identifies in the millennial generation: the longing for justice, for beauty, for love, and for spirit. These realities and values lie at the historic heart of the church. They were part of the church’s ethos in its earliest days but were allowed to fade after the Constantinian revolution and, later, when the values of Enlightenment rationalism were permitted to shape the church’s life. Seel claims that the millennials are calling the church to return to these ancient values and that the church will thrive again when it does.
There were several times in the book when I thought that Seel was letting Millennials off the hook and that he was being too hard on the evangelical church. He seemed simply to accept millennials’ dismissive posture towards evangelicals without noting agencies and individuals whose voices and work millennials themselves might celebrate (Fuller Seminary, the Salvation Army, Young Life, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, for example). He also seemed inclined to believe that the millennial generation is the only generation to appreciate fully things like justice, beauty, love, and spirit. It would have been good to see a greater degree of historical awareness regarding movements and organizations both in the past and in the present that pursue such things.
That leads me to this thought: I suggest that the Reformed faith comes with accents and priorities that set it up well to meet the longings attributed to the millennial generation. In the Reformed faith there is a way of understanding scripture that can lead us to seek justice and mercy, a love for Creation that can lead us to appreciate beauty and art, a covenantal perspective that can lead us to receive and offer love, and a God-centeredness that can lead us to seek the true Spirit, the Spirit of God. Such things, when they appear in the body of Christ, are not merely signs that we might get our millennials back. They are signs that the church is reorienting around ancient allegiances and finding a new way to vitality.
If you are a Regional Pastor then you will, at some point, be led into conversation with a millennial pastor. This book will help you to understand the cultural framework in which that pastor has grown and developed. It will help you translate what you are seeing and hearing. Or you might find a way to bring this material to older pastors who need help meeting the millennials in their congregations. The gap between millennials and older generations does, at times, seem to be more significant than just a generation gap, and this book will form a bridge of understanding, a bridge that could be part of a response to the question mentioned at the beginning of this review.
Finally, the four longings are worth considering whether you are a millennial or not. They are longings that arise out of something bigger than a generational impulse. They seem to arise from something planted deep within all of us, planted by One whose image we bear. And they hold immense promise for fruitful relationships across generations.