Millennials and the Church:
Reasons for Concern, Reason for Hope
By Rev. Clement Yung Wen
It is difficult to write about the Millennial generation for at least two reasons. First, we are never quite sure where we might be over-generalizing and creating a caricature of them. Second, it is often difficult to distinguish whether what we are observing is unique to Millennials or simply part of the broader paradigm shift that is taking place within our globalized culture as we continue to transition deeper into what some have identified as “the late modern world.”1 Even so, as cliché as this has come to sound within Christian circles that converse about the Millennial generation’s and, to a greater extent, late modernism’s relationship with the church, the biblical metaphor that continues to best capture our current place in the journey is one that is quoted in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, responding to a question about fasting where he intentionally illustrates how religious traditions cannot hold the new work that God is doing (which is by way of Jesus), says: “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mat. 9:17; cf. Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38).
Certainly, reading about all of the statistics regarding the younger generation leaving their churches and the faith can make us wonder if, moving forward, “the skins are bursting with wine running out of them, and the wineskins will be ruined.”2 The many ways in which our local churches do not seem to fit the cultural sensibilities of the emerging generation can make us wonder if we need “new wineskins” (i.e., new expressions of church fitted to the new culture) to hold the “Wine” (Jesus Christ and his Gospel) so that “both are preserved.” Yet, as much as reasons for concern are embedded in this passage, so also is an even greater reason for hope when it comes to the Millennial generation and their relationship with the church. This article will briefly explore both while humbly suggesting seeds of thought for consideration as churches—particularly those of evangelical persuasion—continue to navigate the waters of this transitional era.
Reasons for Concern
Are we in need of “new wineskins” for a new generation of Christians? All signs point to Yes. “The church changes in order to stay the same” is an Eastern Orthodox saying highlighting the church’s need to adapt in order to maintain its influence—but not so much that it loses its essence. Much has already been written about the uniqueness of the Millennial generation and why the church needs to change in order to more effectively reach them.3 In three words, David Kinnaman helpfully summarizes how Millennials have grown up in a world “discontinuously different” than the three living generations immediately preceding them: access, alienation, and authority.4 For our purposes, Kinnaman’s categories (but not necessarily his exact argument, though there will inevitably be some overlap as his work is nothing short of excellent) will allow us to quickly summarize some of the reasons for why we should legitimately be concerned about Millennials and their relationship with the church, not to mention their relationship with the Christian faith. Along the way, some outmoded and/or inherently flawed features of our “old wineskins” will be assessed while some “new wineskins” will also be explored.
Access. It has often been noted that Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century was the technological innovation that eventually brought about a paradigm shift from an oral culture to a literary culture. Through it, a democratization of access to the Scriptures occurred that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation and the corresponding diminishment of Papal authority over the masses. Through it also was much of the modern world built, where new authorities were eventually set in place as the curators and gatekeepers of knowledge, information and privilege. In a literary culture, for example, the university became a primary symbol for where the highest levels of knowledge were to be found. Today, this symbol is struggling to stay relevant, not to mention funded. The beginning of its decline perhaps ought to be marked by the communications revolution that has been gradually happening over the last sixty years. From the invention of the television to the personal computer to the Internet to other forms of new media, the technological innovations—especially of the last twenty years—have been shifting our culture from literary to digital. While people of all generations who have been living through this shift have been influenced by it to varying degrees and have accepted or rejected aspects of it to different extents, the Millennial generation has grown up as the first generation that can be considered “natives” of the new digital world.5
In this new digital world, a recent study carried out by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, NJ, found that North American Millennials were “some of the world’s least skilled people.”6 And though we lament such a finding, it makes perfect sense. Why study the inner workings of a difficult math problem if an advanced calculator or software program can do the work for you? Why learn how to navigate with a compass and a map if you can rely on GPS? Why be eager to retain and internalize knowledge and information when Google and Wikipedia can provide you with 24/7 access to anything you might need or want to know when you actually need or want to know it? In fact, this is the reason Kinnaman chooses the word access to begin with. Just as the printing press democratized knowledge in its day and age, the Internet has done so to an even greater extent in ours—not just with content, but with connections as well (e.g., social media), not just with the passive receiving of information, but also with the opportunity and privilege to participate in its creation and dissemination (e.g., Wikipedia, WordPress, YouTube). The marketplace has been democratized (e.g., Craigslist, Amazon), as has the ability to advocate for causes (e.g., crowdfunding). For better or worse, the technological innovations of the last twenty years and the unprecedented rate at which they continue to be advanced has brought about the undoing of the modern literary world.
When it comes to the transferring of Christian faith, this undoing becomes a concern because the “old wineskins” that we have become accustomed to and continue to perpetuate in many of our church circles came to fruition in the literary age. As adapted from the late Robert Webber, whereas the literary world prioritized “reading, writing, intelligence, analysis, clarity, explanation, logic and linear sequence,” the digital culture that the Millennials grew up in prioritizes “the primacy of experience, knowledge through immersed participation, the impact of the visual such as atmosphere, environment and space, the rediscovery of imagination and intuition, and a sensitivity to spiritual realities.”7 Webber then continues: “In modernity, evangelical Christians have been committed to the use of verbal and analytic forms of communication to reach their generation. Faith has been explained as a system of thought characterized by inner coherence and logic. The Bible has been analyzed, theology systematized, and spirituality legalized.”8 Will such an approach work with Millennials and those who come after them? Or is such an approach destined to pass away along with the literary age that is currently in the process of passing? If Christian faith is inextricably tied to a modern literary wineskin, will Millennials be able to relate?
Alienation. Some ironies of the Millennial generation are as follows:9 they are very connected with others through social media, yet they sit alone in their bedrooms staring at a technological device in order to connect.10 They are highly relational and generous yet also narcissistic.11 They have many superficial acquaintances, but few close friends.12 They have great confidence in themselves and want to do great things and even change the world, yet they rarely make the long-term commitments necessary to accomplish greatness or to see such desired changes through—which often translates into less vocational stability as they hop from one job or career to the next.13 Having grown up or seen others grow up in non-traditional families (Kinnaman points out that “today’s kids are eight times more likely to have come into the world without married parents than were Boomers”14 ), the desire for a stronger connection to older generations exists, yet seldom are such connections forged. Meanwhile, confident of themselves but skeptical of institutions, “young people are among the least likely to vote, volunteer and join community groups.”15 One other societal phenomenon that is taking place, which is multi-causal and multi-maintained, is the trend among Millennials to delay marriage and childbearing.16 Many are in fact living a prolonged adolescence instead.17 All of this points to what Kinnaman has called alienation.
With our “old wineskins” celebrating the traditional nuclear family unit, young adults and adults who are single, divorced, widowed, or who have no children often feel “left out” when it comes to a church’s teaching and culture. Yet, Joseph Hellerman has pointed out that in the ancient New Testament world, sibling relationships took priority even over marriage relationships, thus giving context to the priority of the church family by way of the brothers-sisters metaphor.18 Put another way, what Hellerman is asserting is that the New Testament prioritized one’s church family over one’s natural family, which is quite different from how most of contemporary evangelicalism has typically framed things.19 For Millennials, such a corrective “new wineskin” may bring about new possibilities for those of non-traditional family structures and those young adults—who, increasingly, are not yet settled in life—to feel more at “home” with “family” in their churches so as to counter their sense of alienation and provide a formative context for a more incarnational relationality.
Authority.20 Put simply, the digital age has fostered something of an egalitarian environment where Millennials, though young, are accustomed to having a voice and regularly use it in participatory ways to give input. The problem is that our “old wineskins” churches are often hierarchical in organizational structure and Millennials, being young, often are not given a place at the table. A “new wineskins” move from a hierarchical closed leadership structure toward a more participatory open leadership model would foster the sense of ownership a congregation needs in order to engage fully in the mission and ministry of the church.21 Without this, many Millennials will continually feel disempowered, thus discouraging them from wanting to be involved with their churches in meaningful and significant ways.
Reason for Hope
Though the concerns outlined above are legitimate reasons for which we ought to be concerned when it comes to the Millennial generation and their relationship with the church, we need to remind ourselves that we need not be too anxious. On the one hand, while the “new wineskins” metaphor might be an appropriate one for application when it comes to how cultural shifts warrant shifts in the way we practice our faith and church life, Darrell Johnson provides a different read of the metaphor in his suggestion that new wineskins are needed in every season of church life and in every age of church history, not necessarily because our surrounding culture changes in ways that force us to keep up with it, but because the Wine himself (Jesus Christ) is so potent that no expression of faith or of church can hold him for long without wearing out.22 The Wine himself is so “full” that no wineskin can fully contain him, and thus wineskins cannot help but need replacing when leaks begin to spring. As applied to the up and coming generation, the Wine himself is our reason for hope. With him as Lord of all, we need not be anxious since he himself is the one who is building his Church—“and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mat. 16:18).
Rather than be anxious, then, we need simply be faithful in actively pursuing the following two questions: (1) What is Jesus doing in this time and in this place?23 (2) How can I participate in what he is doing in this time and in this place? As we do this, we trust that Jesus will be at work in and through us to bring about his purposes—including, of course, his purposes that are related to the Millennial generation. As Jesus himself put it in one of his parables about what the Kingdom of God is like: “A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (cf. Mark 4:26-28, emphasis mine). If we are the man who is faithfully scattering seed, Jesus is the one who is making everything grow in an “all by itself” way (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-7). Jesus is the one who is continuing to transform our faithful pouring of water into the most premium of wines (cf. John 2:1-11). We need not be too anxious about the Millennial generation because Jesus is ultimately the one who is continuing to create, redeem, and sustain his world, and as such, he is ultimately the one who is in the process of drawing a new generation to himself, even if some of what that looks like (e.g., grassroots, organic movements) might seem foreign to us who have only known church dressed in the trappings of an old wineskin—one that is beginning to leak.24
Above all, we are called to be faithful in maintaining Jesus Christ and his message as our one and only foundation (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-11). The danger of allowing cultural shifts or concerns about the current or future generations to overly shape us is that such shaping can lead to cultural accommodations which, in effect, become more foundational than our actual foundation. Eventually, such “work” will be shown for what it is (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Yes, “new wineskins” are needed in our day to hold the Wine because the “old wineskins” cannot and were never meant to last forever. Yet, the source and impetus of such newness is more about faithfulness to the person and message of Jesus Christ than it is about our fears, anxieties, and concerns regarding a new generation. Jesus Christ, “the Wine,” is our reason for hope. As the church remains true to him and to his message and to his word, “all by itself,” the Millennial generation will be saved.25 Their “new wineskins” will hold the Wine until his fullness and potency results in leaks for the sake of what he wants to do next. In the meantime, we are simply called to join him in whatever he is doing.
1See for example: James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), who uses the label of “late modern world” rather than “postmodern world.”
2See for example: Drew Dyck, “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church,” Christianity Today 54, no. 11 (November 2010): pp.40-44.
3See for example: Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: MI: Baker, 2011); Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002).
4Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 37-57.
5Cf. Ibid., 38, 42.
6Andy Campbell, “American Millennials Are Some Of The World’s Least Skilled People, Study Finds,” The Huffington Post (March 12, 2015), available full-text: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/12/american-millennials-least-skilled-study_n_6852650.html; Daniel Tencer, “Canada’s Millennials Among Most Educated, Not Among Most Skilled: Study,” The Huffington Post Canada (March 14, 2015), available full-text: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/03/14/millennials-skills-canada_n_6865478.html.
7Cf. Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 24. I’ve removed a lot of Webber’s original quotation marks here in order to make this sentence more readable.
9Most of what follows in this paragraph is a mix of observations from myself, from Kinnaman, You Lost Me, and from Tim Elmore, Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future (Atlanta: Poet Gardener Publishing, 2010). Where I remember the direct inspiration for a thought, I’ve footnoted it.
10 Cf. Elmore, 38-39.
11 Cf. Elmore, 37-38; see also Mark Bauerline, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future *Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30 (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008).
12 Cf. Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 48.
13 Cf. Elmore, 41-42; Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 47-50.
14 Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 46.
15 Ibid., 48.
16 Ibid., 46.
17 Elmore, 53-71.
18 Cf. Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009).
20 I’ll be taking this in a different direction here than Kinnaman does in his chapter, though he makes similar points later in his book.
21Cf. Charles Ringma, Catch the Wind: A Precursor to the Emergent Church (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1994), 50; Charlene Li, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
22 Cf. Charles Ringma and Darrell Johnson, “Empowering the Church for First World Re-Evangelization: Theological & Missional Themes” (Winter 2004), available: http://www.regentaudio.com/collections/charles-ringma/products/empowering-the-church-for-first-world-re-evangelization-theological-missional-themes.
23 Cf. M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids, MD: Eerdmans, 2009), 59-62.
24 Cf. I’ve been very much inspired by the alternative church expressions depicted by Ringma, Catch the Wind; Neil Cole, Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005); and C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).
25 Cf. Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 58.