April 6, 2014

SYMPOSIUM: A Warped and Crooked Generation

This is Part 6 in an IRD Symposium on Millennials in the Church. Here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5, and Part 7.

About two weeks ago, I was reading from Philippians, when a passage jumped out at me, starting at Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”

The “warped and crooked generation” language isn’t Paul’s, but taken instead from Deuteronomy 32. There, Moses spoke angrily against the often faithless Israelites: “They are corrupt and not his children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation.Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?”

Now as it so happens, I tend to have a similarly dim view of my generation, the ‘millennials.’ My  basic assessment of millennials is perfectly summarized by a 2010 Pew survey, in which the polling firm asked respondents what made their generation unique. The most popular responses from Baby Boomers were their work ethic, their respectfulness, and their strong moral sense. The Greatest Generation mentioned their experience in the Second World War and the Great Depression, while repeating the values enshrined by Baby Boomers.

Millennials mentioned technology, pop culture, music and clothes. The important things, you know?

I have to admit that if I were put on the spot, I’d probably give a similar answer.  It’s not a sign of personal shallowness that millennials responded as they did; we’re just calling it as we see it. Ours is a generation bereft of any sort of shared ethos or cherished values, except perhaps for the belief that it’s totally lame to have a shared ethos or cherished values.

But as Moses and Paul make clear, there’s nothing unique about millennials. There was nothing socially liberal or postmodern about Jesus’ generation or the ancient Israelites, yet every generation is “warped and crooked,” and every generation carries sin and worldliness displeasing to God. Yes, millennials often have their own unique failings, but so did every other generation before them, all the way back to the Original Sin.

It’s with this understanding that I take in stride Rachel Held Evans‘ and Tony Jones‘ assertion that World Vision’s reversal of its decision to allow married gay employees will drive millennials from Evangelicalism. Christian teachings have been driving people away from the church for millennia. In Jesus’ warped and crooked generation, there was the rich man who went away from Jesus because he had great wealth he was unwilling to sacrifice. In my warped and crooked generation there are many who will approach the Gospel gladly, but recoil because of their laissez faire attitude towards sex. It’s always sad when someone rejects Christ for personal reasons, but that’s the way of the world. Or the way of the worldly, to be more exact.

But while I believe many in my generation will spurn Evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, there is a silver lining. The same Pew poll asked millennials about their religious beliefs and practices, and in general the responses confirm what everyone’s been saying. Millennials are less likely to say religion is important in their lives, they are more likely to identity as a “none,” and they attend church and pray less than their elders. However, when comparisons are made between faithful millennials and faithful people of older generations, the data get more interesting. For example:

  • Protestant millennials are more likely to say their faith is the only path to eternal life. This holds true across Evangelical, mainline, and historically black churches.
  • Millennials show no statistical difference from their elders when asked whether they believe in life after death, Heaven, angels and demons, or miracles, and are slightly more likely to believe in Hell. Religiously-affiliated millennials tend to be slightly more likely to believe in these things than their older generations, while mainline Protestant millennials are significantly more likely. For example, while only 54% of mainline Protestants older than thirty believe in Hell, 70% of mainline millennials do.
  • Millennials are more likely to believe that houses of worship should express views on social and political issues, and are more likely to agree with the statement that “Government should do more to protect morality.” The gap is even greater among religious millennials, where 50% agree compared to 41% of religious people over 30.
  • Religiously-affiliated millennials are slightly more likely to believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases than religiously-affiliated older generations.

They are some issues where religious millennials are less orthodox than their elders. Religiously-affiliated millennials are slightly more likely to say there is more than one way to interpret their religion. And needless to say, religious millennials are more accepting of homosexuality (although the wording of the question makes in uncertain whether they are affirming homosexuals as people or homosexual acts). But in general, religiously-affiliated millennials appear to be stronger in their faith in many important ways.

It isn’t hard to see why this is the case. Older generations grew up in an America where there was strong social pressure to attend and remain in a church. There are millions of religiously-affiliated Americans who are nominally Christian, but are basically apathetic to the faith. But millennials are growing up in an age where there is a strong cultural bias against organized religion and Evangelicals in particular. Those who in the past would have chosen Evangelicalism for shallow social reasons simply don’t.

I wasn’t reading Philippians 2 on a whim but during a newcomers’ dinner at my church. There was about a dozen of us, eating together, praying together, and reading Scripture together. And every single one of the newcomers to our church were millennials. In true millennial fashion, most of us were reading the verses from our smart phones.

Like millions of young people across America, we were devoted to fulfilling Paul’s command, to becoming shining examples of light in a false generation. Yes, there will always be those who reject this message for a myriad of personal reasons. But it has never been the role of Christians to compromise their values or water down the Gospel.

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