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For the generation gap, look closer to home

Saturday, 23 December 2017  | Arthur Davis and Nathan Campbell

Naïve, too optimistic, too emotional: these are some of the descriptors we millennials (or Gen Ys) might receive from exasperated Gen Xers when we don’t see eye to eye on political and social issues. There might be disdain, too, because we’re seen as having everything handed to us - including participation trophies - by our boomer parents and teachers, making us fragile and flighty. These characterisations might be unfair – not least the way that supposedly freeriding millennials are locked out of the property market – but look behind them and we reckon some of our assets might be seen.

Gen X is at the helm of most church congregations and ministries - they’re our ‘senior management’. It’s not that we simply want to steer the ship ourselves, but we get frustrated when others position themselves to manage the church for us, even sometimes telling us what we want and need. We’re interested in collaboration and inclusion, and not because we’re wishy-washy, but because we care deeply about the shape of Christian witness. Take this as a pitch for a potential joint venture - but there are three obstacles we’ve experienced along the way.

A disconnect about ministry and witness

As millennial Christians, we’re seeking an encounter as whole people. We’re interested in embodiment and the arts, in multi-sensory experiences that appeal to more than just our minds. You can see us accessing a plurality of experiences in the professional realm, in ‘authentic’ holidays, in entertainment fueled by stories. It’s why tech companies use ‘magic’ to sell devices and connectivity to us. We’d like to be in thick community, which we expect will be simpler and maybe less efficient than what has become conventional church life. Some of us still have distant childhood memories of a church community like that, the freewheeling morning teas and church lunches that went on for hours, back when ‘multi-generational church’ was just what happened rather than a strategy.

We millennials are mistrustful of an authoritative One Way of doing things, and we get impatient when older generations try to put things in order for us. This means we may also have questions about today’s church-planting ventures, some of which represent a continuation of the program-oriented status quo. The emphasis on the preaching, the podium, the brand and the platform - these sort of attempts to re-energise things can seem like topping up a pre-existing form, whereas we’re interested in reevaluating the received form: to what extent do we need to re-conceive of our practices and frameworks? We don’t want self-preservation for the sake of it.

While millennials in general are leading the demographic shift towards ‘religious nones’, as Christian millennials our questions are driving us deeper into the streams of living water found across multiple Christian traditions. We have become intensely curious about formation and its communal aspects. We see a treasure trove of spiritual disciplines of which we could avail ourselves. We don’t just want to ‘make disciples’; we want to see what a disciple is made of. We long for more than a repetition of the evangelical conversion narrative; more than a Platonic enrichment of the soul via rigorous study; more than an endless focus on biblical literacy. Formation has to do with the cultivation of Christlike character through imitation and practice, the shaping of the imagination and desires apart from church programs and Sunday services.

We also care deeply about the systemic and collective side of things, especially to do with justice and human flourishing. Gen X may be inclined to see this as a failure of theology - a lack of priority on the gospel - but this frustrates us, for we have not rejected orthodoxy, but see faithfulness to the gospel as a whole-of-life thing. It’s because we believe the gospel, and not because of a liberal agenda, that we care about these things. The call of Christ is expansive; it turns us towards the world and sends us into the world to bear witness to Him in myriad ways. We want to flex our imaginations rather than setting limits on the work of the Christian community.

The postmodernism cut-off zone

We sense a sort of ‘postmodernism cut-off zone’ around the age of 35-40. Christianity has long been the majority religion in Australia and closely allied with the social status quo. We millennials are less accustomed to this historic status and, as a result, see the world as inherently plural. We are therefore less likely to be social conservatives by default. We also find the appeal to logic and rationality by older Christians redundant, a way of prioritising abstract patterns of communication over relational interaction. Often it seems like Gen X is busy thinking up its next response when we believe the situation calls for a more imaginative step. Facts are fine, but they come in a context.

The ‘postmodernism cut-off zone’ can be seen in disagreements over how and what we think Christians should communicate on social issues such as the postal survey or Scripture in schools. We hear Gen X repeatedly calling for civil discussion, in the belief that we are already extending ample grace and love to others — and that we can therefore happily continue to put our views forward (as long as we can keep things polite and casual). As millennials, this seems out of touch and tone-deaf. Our intentions don’t count as much as others’ perceptions, so we want our communication to account for this. By failing to do so, we end up polarising rather than peacemaking. We see Gen X continually perplexed by the backlash when their good intentions are not recognised, and their explanation is typically to blame ‘the culture’. This angst doesn’t really resonate with us, either, because we’ve grown up with flux and difference as a given.

However, this is no guarantee that millennials are good at living with difference. We have played our own part in polarisation. Writing from Canada, Sarah Niedoba made an important realisation about this. The problem, she said, is not that uni students are cotton-wooled and spoon-fed. Today’s campuses are ‘Not, as some might suggest, full of hypersensitive students unable to deal with difficult or upsetting concepts’, but are ‘made up of disparate groups who, instead of engaging each other in conversation, exist in opposition to one another’ (‘Hypersensivity isn’t the only problem with today’s campuses’, The Globe and Mail, 18th September 2015). Just as social media makes us simultaneously more and less connected than ever, our embrace of difference does not always translate into friendships across difference. What’s needed here is not a heightening of theological safeguards or a healthy suspicion of others, but the kind of vision that can redeem our relational instincts.

Hope versus cynicism

As millennials we are activistic and optimistic, believing that the world can change, and not only for the worse. This also helps explain our burgeoning interest in simplicity and all things ‘ethical’. In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre suggests that ethics must be characterised as the pursuit of virtue - that is, ethics is about character - and this is the product of a community animated by a narrative, as opposed to the pursuit of ‘utility’ in a bureaucratic machine. As we are swept up in God’s redemptive narrative, a counter-cultural community will go against the grain of not only the world around us, but also potentially the church status quo.

When Gen X exhibits a results-driven, pragmatic approach to ministry, it looks to us like cynicism — not just cynicism about the ‘ethical aspect’ of gospel ministry, but also cynicism born from an emphasis on results that are just not coming, especially in ministry to millennials. This cynicism becomes habitual and formative, ultimately creating a character or posture of cynicism. Perhaps MacIntyre is right: character formation always follows some kind of narrative.

Cynicism, in this age, turns one quickly to despair, or fear and loathing. Though we millennials read the same things, watch the same news and experience the same tensions - the same gravitational pull of Babylon in all areas of our lives (not just sexuality) - we would rather participate in this world such that we create our own hope-filled gravitational pull. We need a way to keep one another out of the clutches of the beastly empire and, in partnership with God’s mission, to pull others towards Him.

A lack of cynicism shouldn’t be replaced with naivety or self-belief; instead, we hope to land in a position of epistemic humility, seeking answers from voices removed from ours by geography or history. If, in our curiosity about those voices, we seem contemptuous of thinkers from our own context, it’s coming from our sense that, rather than playing its part in a global world, the church is as much in danger of tribalism as ever (in part reverting to the ‘known’ in the face of external threats). Attuning ourselves to those ancient and global voices will help us to chart a way forward in this shared world. We’re hopeful that this sort of pursuit will change us, and might even change others, by being something compellingly good, true and beautiful.

We don’t want a participation trophy for being part of the church, but we do want to participate. In a world that is profoundly fragmented and turned in on itself, and all too often burned by Christianity, we reckon the hopeful openness of millennials could do wonders for the church’s witness.

Arthur Davis
, originally from Adelaide, lives in Dar es Salaam working as a staff coach for Tanzania Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He is a mission partner with CMS Australia and writes at meetjesusatuni.com.

Nathan Campbell is a Presbyterian minister at Creek Road in Brisbane where he works in a team with some great Gen Xers and a bunch of hopeful millennials. He pastors the South Bank campus, which is also mostly millennials.


Tom Henderson-Brooks
January 2, 2018, 10:05AM
Thanks for this article... Arthur + Nathan, I'd love you to follow this article up with one about what your churches/ministries look like, that is different from us Gen Xers. At some point I am keen to start/support a congregation/church for/by millennials at CQ Uni in Rockhampton. Thanks
Arthur Davis
January 4, 2018, 7:16PM
Hi Tom. Have a look at my recent posts on campus missiology at https://meetjesusatuni.com/tag/missiology/.

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