Last week as I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I came across a post from Dr. Timothy Keller, one of the founding members of The Gospel Coalition who has been known for his very intellectual and reasonable perspective on a variety of issues that his other conservative colleagues have not been so balanced on. However, as of late, it seems that Keller has jumped on the boat with many other Conservative Evangelical leaders in bashing the millennial generation. Earlier this week, I responded to a post on CNN by another Reformed Evangelical, Daniel Darling, who spoke of how millennials were basically a bunch of heretics who have no values but rather submit to cultural pressures to conform on issues of morality and theology. My response to Darling and other older Evangelicals was simple: they have fundamentally misunderstood the Millennial generation. Instead of truly examining who we are, a number of caricatures are being propagated to make us sound like a generation of spineless, selfish, and scared hipsters. Dr. Tim Keller’s post served to further propagate this false image of my generation:
I immediately was taken aback when I came across this post. As a millennial who has been actively involved in the conversation surrounding what faith, life, and church will look like for my generation, it is abundantly clear that the image Keller paints has little to no grounding in reality. In fact, I would argue that one of the biggest desires of millennials is that we would be involved in deeply intimate communities that allow us to express ourselves openly, ask the questions that arise in our minds without fear of judgment, and give us a tribe of people that will walk with us through the ups and downs of life. In fact, this desire for intimate community is a direct response to the lack of community that we have grown up with, especially in the evangelical world with our sterile mega-churches like the one Keller himself pastors, that make true community nearly impossible.
For far too long, millennials have been criticized because of our excessive use of social media, preferring isolated interactions with others through screens and devices instead of face to face conversations and interactions. But it should be noted that though millennials are the most social-media driven generation (because we are the first generation to grow up in a world where such technologies existed!) this does not mean that we do not desire interactions with real people in real communities. While millennials may engage one another through social media often, this does not mean we engage in person-to-person relationships any less often, per se. Millennials have, in fact, figured out how to cultivate true relationships through social media, but most of the time, the social media serves simply as the platform we connect through in order that we might form real communities that exist in our real worlds.
But Keller isn’t necessarily even addressing this aspect of millennials social lives directly. Instead, he asserts that we are a generation that is afraid of commitment and being nailed down by joining a community, and therefore, we chose to live as isolated, selfish beings. But as a millennial, this idea that we’re afraid of being committed to a community is absolutely foreign to me. It is certainly true that we are a generation that defies most labels; because we have near unlimited access to a database of global information, we are a generation that doesn’t easily buy into a singular system of thought because we have the possibility of exploring and discovering new and fresh ways of thinking. We are a generation that is able to pick and choose the best ideas and aspects from many different groups and systems and embrace them in our own lives and thinking. And this has never been a possibility for any other generation in the history of humankind. This does make us a generally skeptical generation. We don’t just drink the Kool Aid. That doesn’t mean we lack commitment to a community, but it does mean millennial communities will look radically different than those of previous generations.
Our communities will not be defined by a set of boundaries that mark who’s in or who’s out. Instead, we’re united around common causes and principles, bringing different perspectives, beliefs, and ideas to our communities and sharing them. Even if others disagree we remain united around our common cause. For church communities, this will look like culturally, generationally, and theologically diverse gatherings of people united around the common cause of worshipping and following Jesus. Millennials will be radically committed to him and to each other but will not be committed to one system, perspective, or belief structure that traditionally has defined Christian communities. This type of community seems impossible to many in the old-guard of Evangelicalism. They cannot fathom a coherent community being formed without a shared commitment to theological, political, and worldview systems. How would you control that? You can’t. But our communities aren’t modeled after Fortune 500 Companies. They’re designed to be organic, authentic, living and breathing organisms and not organizations. It is possible and it is being done by dozens of groups around the country. (Check out The Practice and The Orchard communities for examples of how this practically looks)
This doesn’t mean millennials are against structure, but rather against structures that dictate how one must think. Or as my friend Andrew Henry noted, “Real community is just about the only thing keeping Millennials in the church these days. We are more fearful of overbearing dogma prescribing how we should function in our communities.” We’re not against authority, only against structures that uplift one group of people or ideas above all others and forcing people to conform in order to belong. That’s not what first century discipleship looked like and it’s not how we want to function either. We’re not just a bunch of relativists either; we are realists and we know that no group, category, or system has ever succeeded in capturing God or Truth. And because of that, we are a generation of seekers, explorers, questioners, and drifters. Not because of fear of commitment, as Keller suggests, but because of the freedom that comes from existing within a community of authenticity and Love. Fear, I would argue, is what keeps many squarely in the box of “Gospel Coalition-Evangelicalism”. Fear that any divergence from what the magisterium of Evangelical leaders teach is akin to heresy and would lead to rejection and excommunication (which we have seen dozens of cases of over the years). Fear forces conformity, but it’s only Love that can create common-unity (community) among diverse perspectives. And that’s what most of us in the Millennial generation are yearning for.
It is truly unfortunate to see so many leaders whom we have learned from and are highly esteemed turning and beating an entire generation down because we see the world differently. I believe these irrational moves by some in the upper-echelons of Evangelicalism are last ditch efforts to try to retain power and influence over the Church by scaring millennials into submission. But fear isn’t a successful motivator for a generation that fundamentally understands that the world is bigger than the leader makes it out to be. We know there are more ways than our own to see things. We know there is a wide spectrum of difference within every religious, social, and political system, and we aren’t going to be forced into any box or category easily. Millennials are a well informed, well connected generation. We see through the smoke and mirrors and are coming to understand that our world is so much bigger than what we were once told. And that excites us. It inspires us. It provokes us to spend our lives searching, discovering, innovating. And not in isolation. No, we’re doing it together. In community. It’s an essential part of our generational make-up. And while our communities will look significantly different that they have over the past millennium, they will be more communal, organic, and diverse than ever before. And that’s something to be celebrated, not scorned.
I hope that the elder leaders of Evangelicalism will cease being cynical and critical towards my generation and instead serve as the wise and humble mentors they are called to be. Because we need them. I believe we are willing to listen and to learn from them. We are keenly aware we don’t have all the answers and would love direction and advice. But their actions make it increasingly difficult for many of us to be open, to receive what they have to say. Instead of a wise and caring voice, we hear a voice of offense and criticism. And that voice will never be well received, but will only contribute to the continued millennial flight from, instead of reformation and renewal of, the Church. That would be a tragedy for us all.
It’s my prayer that the elder generation would abandon fear and power tactics and entrust my generation to the hands of God that he might use us in a mighty way to expand his Kingdom and renew his Church in new and exciting ways. And it’s also my prayer that my generation would have healthy leaders whom we can look to and learn from as we step into positions of leadership in the community of Jesus. Because we need them.
Are you with me?