Hello there! My name’s Eric and I’m a Millennial (albeit an old one with adult acne).
I use the Internet quite regularly. However, statistically I do not use the web as regularly as (say) Baby Boomers complaining to one another on social media about how when they were kids, you didn’t find them playing video games (that didn’t exist) all day, because they were exploring the great outdoors with friends, and not at all worried about studying for the PSAT in 4th grade or how “building a fort” should be listed on a college application.
Rather predictably, I do like avocado toast, but do not recognize it as a major impediment to obtaining “The American Dream” (which is historically understood as a home with more bedrooms than people in your family).
Maybe less predictably, I am a Millennial who not only persists in attending church regularly, but in “going pro” at something (Christianity) the rest of my generational cohort typically ignores completely, acknowledges begrudgingly with family when they come in town for the holidays, or attends whenever they have time off from (on average) jobs that do not recognize “the Lord’s day” (as most of my peers are the most educated crop of retail workers in human history).
Early on, as an earnestly spiritual college student, a hungry grad student surviving seminary, and a cynical associate pastor eager for people to listen to my totally great ideas, I used to think that one of the major impediments to “my generation” accessing spirituality as a meaningful component of their lives was the delivery mechanism (i.e. worship, sermons, Sunday school, white columns, and aging steeples).
Speaking monolithically about an entire group of people who only have one thing in common (their birth cohort) is something I typically leave to Buzzfeed articles, and your granddad’s annual Thanksgiving soliloquy about “hard work,” but when I consider that for some folks my age, Christianity’s packaging was and is the only thing that needed tweaking for them*, I’m left wondering if something deeper is at play when it concerns the rest of us under 35 refusing to patronize Christian establishments each weekend.
As in, are folks under-35 who attend your church struggling financially, or are they fairly secure: occupationally, monetarily, relationally? Which, if you’re a megachurch, might explain the attraction of a religious system predicated on bringing people in poverty or existential crisis into proximity with something (or someone) wildly successful (even if they aren’t).
(*NOTE: Please see the “Wal-Martization” of church life in your local mid-sized Southern city as smaller, theologically and denominationally diverse communities all shudder their doors in the shadow of some (on the low end) 2,500 person church covering Hillsong United in an old CVS on the weekends).
Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, writing in his 2016 masterwork The Market as God, notes prophetically:
“Faced with intractable natural limits, the endless growth of the economy might end. And if it does, then Nietzsche’s announcement about the death of God will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.”
Millennial philosopher and armchair economist Malcolm Harris joins Cox’s chorus, albeit from an entirely different place in the music:
“No one chooses the historical circumstances of their birth. If Millennials are different in one way or another, it’s not because we’re more (or less) evolved than our parents or grandparents; it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us. And we didn’t happen by accident: Over the past 40 years we have witnessed an accelerated and historically unprecedented pace of change as capitalism emerged as the single dominant mode of organizing society. Capitalism changes lives for the same reason people breathe: It has to in order to survive. Lately, this system has started to hyperventilate: It’s desperate to find anything that hasn’t yet been reengineered to maximize profit, and then it makes those changes as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps, when researchers note that only 20 percent of Millennials possess a “basic trust” in society, our elders, and the future, it probably isn’t the $12 avocado toast we should begin calling into question (although that’s pretty steep for a generation less financially stable than their grandparents and parents despite being three times as educated, on the low end). As a family systems therapist seeing mostly adolescents and college students, one of my first questions whenever parents plop a depressed 15-year-old on the couch across from me once a week, is: “How is this child’s family perfectly engineered to produce and maintain the results they’re currently getting?”
According to several child psychologists and sociologists, when you want to study the overall health of a society, you don’t estimate the quality of life of people 50 and over; you ask if the kids are alright. And, historically speaking, America has never had more kids* in poverty, more kids without access to healthcare, more kids chronically medicated, more kids with diagnosed mental health issues, more kids on semi-pro traveling soccer teams, more kids with student debt, more kids unemployed, more kids working unpaid internships, and more kids homeless, childless, and savings-less.
(*NOTE: When I say “kids,” I mean “children, adolescents, and emerging adults up to age 35”.)
To echo Cox once again: Nietzsche may have been right about the death of God, but he got the wrong God. Meaning, that when Millennials step away from “traditional understandings of” faith en masse, they arguably aren’t expressing a sudden and inexplicable degradation in morality
— statistically Millennials consume far more “consciously” than their generational predecessors, both as it concerns human and environmental sustainability, as well as giving generously to causes they believe in —
but arguably, Millennials simply embody the symptomology of a “hyperventilating” religious-industrial complex predicated on the belief that the Judeo-Christian God blesses the faithful with monetary (and existential) security forever and ever, amen.
“Faithless Millennials” are the American church’s future and its present.
Educationally, athletically, and even in traditionally “leisure based activities” (like music, reading, volunteerism) Millennials have been some of the most ardent practitioners of our American belief in God-ordained “hard work” (if you don’t believe me, ask a 16-year-old how much they slept last night), and instead of being “blessed” by the God underwriting our existence, my generation has instead been saddled with mountains of debt, a “gig economy” uninterested in paying for retirement, hiring us full time, or providing healthcare for our maladies, as well as pumping the prevailing fear that we are fundamentally replaceable into the atmosphere of our classrooms and traveling sports team from our earliest days on this Earth.
When your God rules the world with scarcity, fear, and shame, it can be rather easy for those of us who’ve been churned up by the machinery of existence to lose a basic trust in the goodness and grace of life. Or, put more bluntly, when hell (or unemployment or both) becomes your life, a religion predicated on convincing people to be productive (“good”) or else, seems a bit far-fetched.
Economist Richard Easterlin, in a conversation with author and researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett for her brilliant book, The Sum of Small Things, poetically notes:
“I hope that the progress of knowledge will be such that we can bring under control the forces of economic growth that are misdirecting our efforts of wellbeing.”
In a recent piece I wrote for free on the Internet, I noted (somewhat glibly) that “a Christianity prizing the voices of wealthy people waxing poetic about a God who walked the Earth in poverty won’t ever be the future of our faith, it will only be its past again and again and again, until isn’t even that anymore.”
I still believe what I wrote, but I might add that a Christianity continually flabbergasted by the almost wholesale abandonment of younger people from its ranks might be better served by avoiding the voices of famous megachurch pastors desperate to franchise their brands, and instead, to seek out voices quite used to struggle, to pain, to mourning, to loss, to poverty, to oppression, and to rejection.
Odds are, those voices probably sound a whole lot more like the one Jesus spoke with, and probably make a great deal more sense to a group of maligned, stressed, hungry, unemployed, and debt-saddled doubters. Or, as pastor Dave Gibbons is famous for saying: “The future of the Church is already here, it’s just on the margins.”
A religion built on the premise that there’s a God who religiously takes days off from production, who serves without concern for notoriety or community service hours, who gathers up the poor like a non-anxious mama hen, who frees slaves living hand-to-mouth, who liberates prisoners of war, who proclaims jubilee over the working class debtors, who overthrows power-hungry empires, and restores the possessed and unwell to their families, friends, and faith communities, sounds like good news to this Millennial (and maybe even to some others I know).
Come to think of it, I pulled most of those references straight from the Bible. Maybe y’all were just burying the lede all these years.