Originally published on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog.
Millennials are the worst generation ever, a recent study by the Pew Research Center confirmed. The other generations already knew that, of course, but the study has given them new insights into what characterizes me and my fellow Millennials beyond “They freaking love Starbucks” and “They refuse to move out of my basement.”
The study’s revelations include that we’re not making all that much money, we have tons of debt, we’re racially diverse and we use the Internet a lot (curiously absent was the fact that 97 percent of us do not like being broadly defined or labeled or otherwise demographed). We also tend to shun institutions, including religious ones, at rates far surpassing our parents and grandparents.
This last little detail has not escaped the notice of conservative media outlets, whose reactions have ranged from cautious reserved judgment to something bordering on full-blown alarm.
Like a true Millennial, I don’t think things are all that bad (heck, I wouldn’t know where the panic button is even if I wanted to press it). Actually, as a Christian, I think there is a lot to be excited about in the generation that’s poised to inherit the world…after we move out of our parents’ houses, that is.
1. We are less religious. Wait a minute. What am I talking about? This one is one of the bad things about us, isn’t it?
Not necessarily. While it’s true that roughly three in 10 Millennials (29 percent) claim no religious affiliation, 86 percent still profess belief in God, which doesn’t exactly sound like an atheists’ society to me.
What’s more exciting, for me anyway, is that the arc of history bends toward spiritual renewal. Our country’s greatest revival of the past 100 years — arguably, the restorationist “Jesus movement” — rose out of the hippie subculture of the 1960s. Which, as you may recall, was characterized in no small part by an overwhelming rejection of mainstream religion.
In fact, many revivals — see “Second Great Awakening” — appear to have been immediately preceded by periods of increased apostasy and reduced church attendance. So, be alarmist if you must, but don’t be surprised if we Millennials wind up embracing pure, unadulterated faith at rates that put our parents to shame.
2. We are more individualistic. According to Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times, individualism is the one denominator that underlies all of our great generational trends. It’s the reason we’re optimistic about our personal futures but distrust society as whole; it’s the reason we’re fleeing congregations Exodus-style while still maintaining private beliefs in high numbers; it’s the reason we’re addicted to selfies and sharing our latest exploits on Facebook.
And I think individualism can be a great virtue, even in a Christian context. Because though scripture does describe the church in explicitly corporate terms — as “a body” — the metaphor collapses without some measure of individualism. A homogenous army of clones is not a body, after all, it’s a gelatinous blob. A body requires many different parts, fulfilling many different roles.
We are a unique generation, the most diverse this country has ever seen. And if the church God has in mind is not a blank wall, but rather a glorious, messy mosaic of colorful awesomeness, then we just may fit the bill quite nicely.
3. We are more autonomous. Well, financially speaking, maybe not so much. But intellectually, oh yes. This is clear from our wide birth of institutions, especially political parties (we are 50 percent independent).
Even on specific issues, we often show vast departures from the positions of older generations, on topics ranging from patriotism to gay rights to the environment. We’re not afraid to question things, to radically dissect any issue and squish around in the guts until we get to the heart of the matter, and see if we like how it beats.
And this trend is not lost on Millennial Christians. Now, maybe, when we’ve reached our own conclusions on a given issue, we find ourselves back at the traditional position. Or maybe we don’t. But in either case, we’re taking ownership over our faith, while leaving open the possibility that God may be doing something different with this generation than he did with the last one. (Imagine that.)
This comfort with questioning long-held traditions — and, sometimes, jettisoning them unhesitatingly — may be what terrifies non-Millennials more than anything else. And yet, I’d argue it’s one of our most Christ-like qualities. Jesus torpedoed just about every one of the conventions cherished by his religious contemporaries, once illustrating the point by saying you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins.
With us, I don’t think that will be much of an issue. Pour away.
4. We speak tech. OK, time for me to offend some people (if I haven’t already). For years, we Millennial Christians have watched the prior generation hesitantly embrace new technology with a tepid, awkward side hug. We’ve tried not to grimace as they stumbled and staggered their ways through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and so on.
Now, it’s our turn. Pew calls us “digital natives” — the first generation that has not had to adapt to the digital revolution. Like Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” we were “born in it, molded by it.” This is our turf, and we are oh so ready to reclaim it.
When Jesus became man, he was very much a man of his day. He talked like the people around him, not just in terms of his language, but in the way he spoke. He discussed local news items and political figures and shared simple stories couched in the terms of instantly relatable, everyday experiences.
To engage with one’s audience, you have to speak their language. In 2014 and beyond, the language of our culture is increasingly becoming digitized and…Internet-ed. And we are fluent.
5. We are hard-core skeptics. According to Pew, we Millennials tend to be radically skeptical of other people. Less than 20 percent of those in the study agreed with the statement that “most people can be trusted,” compared with 31 percent of Generation Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers.
Why? Good question. The Pew study cited research that has indicated higher levels of mistrust in minorities and low-income adults, perhaps because they’re in less of a position to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.
Whatever the reason, I don’t see this as a bad thing. There are bad people in this world, and the only thing they need to win is for good people to follow them unquestioningly. And the Bible does not repudiate skepticism. Indeed, Jesus instructed his followers as “shrewd as serpents” among the wolves of this world, and Paul wrote to “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.”
6. We’re flaming liberals. Or, at least, that’s how it appears at first glance. As I’ve already said, we’re more independent than anything else, but when we vote, we tend to vote Democratic. And on certain issues like same-sex marriage and immigration policy, we’re overwhelmingly blue.
What does this trend have to do with Christianity? No, I don’t think God is a Democrat. But for Millennial Christians, in those cases where we see that the heart of God seems to align more closely with the liberal view than its conservative counterpart, we’re not afraid to break rank.
As Brandan Robertson, founder of The Revangelical Movement, said, “Millennial Evangelicals aren’t simply switching from conservative to liberal. What’s actually going on is we’re re-examining the words of Jesus, we’re re-examining the principals that we claim to live our lives by from a religious perspective, and that’s causing us to change our views on things like poverty and immigration reform.”
7. We are relentless optimists. Interestingly, despite our social mistrust, our bleak financial situations, our lack of patriotism and all the other mind-numbingly depressing data that apparently characterize our existence, we Millennials tend to pretty upbeat about the future — both our own and that of our country.
While only 32 percent of us said we’re now earning as much as we need (far lower than the other generations), 53 percent said we will earn enough to meet our financial needs in the future (which was far higher).
You can chalk this all up to wishful thinking if you want to, but here’s what I think: Optimists and pessimists look at the same world, and both see exactly what they want and expect to. And they help bring about the same.
I believe God can use anyone, but I don’t know that he would want to use those who don’t believe things can get any better, or who even believe it’s part of our calling to speed the earth along the path to destruction.
I don’t think things can get better; I believe they will. Because I’m going to do everything I can to make sure of it, in whatever small way I can.
And I know my fellow Millennials will, too.
Originally published on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog.