Yesterday morning I came across a blog post in my Facebook feed with the above title. Since I read almost anything pertaining to generational cohorts, particularly articles on cohorts and faith, I clicked it. Progressing through the article, my blood began to boil. Instead of facts, it was filled with generalities. Instead of trends, it was ripe with stereotypes. It was the sort of thing that anyone who is uninformed about millennials and faith would assume to be true and it made me angry.
I don’t know much about John Wesley Reid and I doubt he knows much about me. He lists Matt Walsh as one of his favorite authors, which tells me that he likes to make his points loudly with some substance– think of Walsh as the Stephen A. Smith of Christian writers. He lists politics as an interest in his bio and is up-front about his very conservative leanings on a myriad of issues.
None of that tells me on what he bases his conclusions, except that it is his personal take on millennials that he has observed that he has now applied to an entire generation. Not exactly the best methodology.
Let’s take a stroll through his points and count the ways in which he is mistaken.
He misunderstands tolerance. Ultra-conservative folks, especially ones who make it a point to emphasize the need to proclaim truth above all else, often misunderstand this concept because they begin so far on the right that anything that actually falls in the mid-ground looks left-leaning to them. Reid claims, “Many millennials have it in their minds that hating people’s sin means hating the individual.” On what is this claim based? Perhaps on his poorly exegeted claim that “Jesus was the prime example of love, but never does He display an ounce of tolerance.” I would roundly disagree, and I think Matthew, Nicodemus, Mary, the woman at the well, and the thief on the cross would side with me. You see, Jesus intentionally sought out people who the “religious people” said were far from God, affirmed them as deeply cared for by God, then allowed them to be transformed. The people who were scandalized by Jesus were the people who had it figured out. Christian millennials that I know are seeking to bring the redeeming, incarnational presence of Christ to their lost friends who are far from God. That is accomplished over time in a relationship. Ministry in this context doesn’t minimize sin. Instead, it elevates Jesus presence in peoples’ mess and doesn’t insist that they change before they are accepted by God. In short, it’s ministering like Jesus ministered.
His complaint about neglecting theology isn’t about theology. Also, it’s wrong. Reid’s bias shows itself here. In a complaint about neglecting theology, he actually again complains about his misinformed understanding of tolerance. But let’s try to deal with the supposed substance of the complaint. Once again, no data is provided. We are encouraged to agree with his conclusions that may or may not be rooted in actual interactions. Unfortunately, when you do some digging, you find that this trend is simply not true generationally. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, who actually spends his life studying these things and is considered a national authority on the subject, reaches a very different conclusion: [Christian millennials have] “a more holistic understanding that theology matters, that Scripture matters; that worship should be taken seriously, that being a Christian is a whole-life commitment, rather than something you just do on Sundays” (read more on Pew’s Religious Landscape study and Kinnaman’s response here). I have no doubt that Reid has seen some millennial Christians who neglect theology. So have I. The same is true for some members of every generation. The data tells us it is not true of millennials generationally.
His argument for separation from the world is, essentially, about not partying or listening to explicit music. Since he grants that it isn’t inherently sinful to drink (or read Harry Potter– thanks for that), Reid’s complaint is about Christian millennials who like enjoy the bar or club scene. Once again, we’re left to accept these as legitimate interactions because absolutely no data is offered to support Reid’s claim. But my complaint with Reid’s argument runs even deeper than his lack of evidentiary support. In a culture that is increasingly moving away from a Judeo-Christian worldview which makes the starting point for faith discussions more difficult for believers who actually want to engage others with their faith, for what kind of “separation” is Reid advocating? His argument comes across as that of the old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn from his rocking chair as he complains that kids these days have no respect. Yes, I agree that the club and bar scene is not the most conducive for developing holiness. Yes, I agree that there is plenty out there in culture that is absolute garbage and has no place in the life of the believer. I also understand that part of growing up and maturing in your faith is testing those boundaries. I also understand that those boundaries are oftentimes a matter of personal conviction and are difficult to apply to others. I also know that my sensibilities of what it means to be “in and not of” may be different from someone else’s. And when you start from an ultra-conservative viewpoint, your evaluation of those who are in the middle will be comparatively harsh.
He equates criticizing the church with hating the church. Growing up, I avoided confrontation. When I met my wife, I found someone with whom I was willing to argue because I loved her and I wanted problems to be solved. Arguments were not a sign that something was wrong. Instead, it was a sign that we were trying to make something that was wrong right. Apply that concept to the church. Every generation criticizes the church. My grandparents think the church today is too soft. My parents found the church to be too harsh. Members of my generation often view the church as out of touch. Yes, we should celebrate the good the church does. But we cannot simply bury our head in the sand in regard to the challenges it faces or not try to shine lights on its blind spots. Critiquing the church is not hating the church. In fact, it might be the highest form of loving the church.
Some people will leave the church for good. Some of those reasons are childish and dumb. Some are legitimate and justifiable. But the church would do well to actually listen to all of them and evaluate each on its own merits. Reid loves insisting on the truth of Scripture when it conflicts with culture. But it seems he doesn’t want to consider the truth of a criticism of the church when it conflicts with his opinion.
His concept of accountability is lacking. Reid loves labeling things as “bad” and telling others to stop doing them. If that is the concept of accountability he practices, it is no wonder he receives the reaction he does. Accountability is inherently relational. Absolutely no one responds well when a stranger or a fringe figure in their life confronts them on anything, especially something as personal as their relationship with God. But when you are a kind, caring figure, people will seek out your opinion and your guidance to deal with things that they know are problems. In the past few years, millennial believers have regularly confided in me about deep struggles ranging from a desire to leave the party scene to struggling with same-sex attraction and most things in-between. Each time I was able to speak truth into their lives, encourage them to live in it, and invited to walk with them through implementing change. But I didn’t begin removed from their situation and point down at them telling them to change.
These types of critiques are inherently unhelpful and misinformed. Christian Millennials are far from perfect, as are Christian Gen X’ers, Boomers, and Silents. And guess what? Christian Gen Z’ers will also prove to be imperfect. Perhaps it’s time to apply Reid’s advice about the church to generational cohorts: let’s focus on the positive.