On Christian Millennials—From a Millennial
I recently received an article through several of my social media “orifices,” an article which caused a dual reaction in my heart. The article is “Things that Discourage Millennial Christian Leaders” by Brother Cary Schmidt at Encouraging Words. In summary, the article is basically a summary of Brother Schmidt’s take on the millennial generation (the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000). As I read, I found myself both commending and challenging some of his major and minor points. I would like to submit my take on the millennial generation.
I am a millennial. I was born in 1981. I have almost every type of social media account and use them regularly. I have a smart phone. To my knowledge, except in jest, I have never used terms such as “movie house,” “honky-tonk,” “bull-fightin’ britches,” or other terms of a previous era. I say this tongue-and-cheek only to point out that my family and I are not outsiders. We are insiders. Many of my closest friends on earth are of this generation. I love this generation and believe it has great potential. It must, for it is the generation that will make up God’s servants in the first part of the 21st century. Yet in all honesty, what I see of my own Christian millennial generation is often discouraging.
It’s not all bad, though. I like the Christian millennial’s willingness to challenge others to prove their views from the Scripture. I like the millennial’s willingness and eagerness to try new things and be innovative. I like the millennial’s aversion for camps, clubs, cliques, schools and the often slavish loyalty to institutions that have long-since departed from the loyalist’s own beliefs. Like the millennials, the generation before us has many reasons for commendation, and some reasons for critique. There were and are some in the previous generation that had what I would consider (remember, I am a millennial) undeserved loyalties to schools or groups. There are some in the previous generation that practice shoot-from-the-hip dogma with little proof or explanation of their positions outside of tradition. Millennial Christian leaders are adept at pointing these things out and using them as grounds to ride the pendulum the other direction, while not noticing the religious whoppers that they themselves have swallowed without the same cynicism that they gave to the previous generation (think “God doesn’t care what kind of music I listen to,” or “It only matters what’s in my heart”).
I have also found in Christian millennials, and yes, even church leaders, some nasty little foxes that are now serving a catalysts to bring about changes that are not positive. And these foxes are actually serving to allow the changes to go virtually unchallenged, because of a lack of self-cynicism. So, here is a view of Christian millennials and the leaders among us from a millennial.
1. Christian millennials fear rejection and ostracizing by the culture in which they live. They seem to be terrified of being labeled “irrelevant,” “out-dated,” odd or “Pharisaical,” whether is it merited or not. Let’s be clear: the culture in which we now live is wicked. It is becoming more and more wicked each year that passes. We should not be worried what our “culture” thinks of the way we follow God’s Word and will. I can understand making the Gospel and Bible teaching as applicable to the audience as possible. However, the fear of rejection by “the culture” in the heart of a Christian leader is debilitating and will often lead to decisions that are not in accordance with the Scripture or to decisions in which God’s Word was not seriously consulted at all. That, I’m afraid is the root of this problem. I am persuaded that fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) clouds the objectivity of the millennial and taints his judgment. I have seen this first hand in my own family members who are not Christians, how a lack of uprightness and “differentness” of a Christian (with a pure doctrinal statement) led to a dismissal of the Gospel by my family members. This is a serious problem with serious repercussions. We must accept that faithfulness to God will mean ostracizing and mockery by “the culture” (2 Timothy 3:12).
2. Christian millennials are averse to playing it safe in matters that are unclear. With the rights-culture permeating the West, millennials feel that their mere question of a matter is grounds for action or change. They are keen on pointing out matters in ministry that are gray. But, rather than play it safe in the gray area (that is, an area that they themselves say is unclear) they take the ambiguity as a kind of license to do it, then defend their actions in this gray area vigorously from all attacks of the “traditionalists.” “This is a gray area. It doesn’t have anything to do with doctrine,” is often the refrain. If it is a gray area indeed, then shouldn’t Romans 14, verses 15-16 be as closely and prayerfully regarded as verses 5 and 10 are? Faithfulness to the Scripture demands that clear Scripture be contended for; Christian charity demands that ambiguity be ruled by love for your brother. It works both ways.
At this point I want to challenge an assertion that is often presented when gray areas are brought up. To put it briefly, many millennials (and non-millennials) define a gray area as a “non-doctrinal issue.” They also often narrowly define “doctrine” as a list of beliefs that are enumerated on a doctrinal statement. In this way, almost all contentious matters can be relegated to one’s preference in style, as if the Scripture never addresses the practice of our obedience. Once doctrine is defined thus, in practice almost everything outside of the doctrinal statement can be purely preferential. Therefore, any argument or criticism can always be labeled as judgmental. I know it sounds like I am just speaking in generalities, but I have heard this very idea in use many, many times. This narrow understanding of doctrine is unknown to Scripture. “Doctrine” in the Bible merely refers to the body of what a person teaches. It is most certainly not simply theology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. Consider Matthew 16:12:
Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
A cursory reading of the context reveals that Christ was warning, not of the doctrinal statement of the Pharisees, but of what they taught and practiced. This verse is one illustrative example of the use of the word doctrine in the Bible. Because of the broad definition of doctrine in Scripture, it is impossible to draw a line at the place where “doctrine” ends and preferences begin. Any line drawn must be arbitrary and subject to the individual’s estimation of what is worth contending for. And thus, because “doctrine” is boxed away neatly, many practical teachings of the Scripture seem to be disregarded, like Romans 12:2 (worldliness), 1 Timothy 2:9 (modesty), Psalm 101:3 (entertainment), Psalm 26:5 (separation), Romans 13:8 (debt), etc. Detractors from my point will say that the Christian millennial leaders do live by these verses. Why, then, do I see so many violations of these Scriptural teachings? I would expect to see at least some basic practice of these Scriptures. It has nothing to do with “behaviorism,” but everything to do with being a Christian who loves his God with all of his heart who wants to please and honor Him in every thought, word and deed (1 Corinthians 10:31). I would not dare make some sort of rule list by which to judge all my brothers and sisters in Christ and hold them to my own standard. But, seriously, where are the Christian millennial leaders that are being self-critical and testing their own preferences by the Scripture?
Lest any misunderstand or misinterpret my point, let me be clear. Just because one cannot draw a line between doctrine and preference in the Scripture does not mean that all minute details of practice should be argued (1 Corinthians 11:6). However, it does mean that we cannot simply narrowly redefine “doctrine” to exclude the things that we think are not of the highest importance, then accuse others on our right who disagree of being Pharisaical or judgmental. We must believe in the diety of Christ our Lord and salvation by grace, as well as avoid watching adultery played out on television. Both are in the Bible. Both should be obeyed. What’s more, begin to involve my children and what influences them and the criteria for what is worth contending for change even more.
3. Christian millennials are often unwilling to honestly and bravely examine their own preferences by the Scripture. This is where the rubber meets the road, in my opinion. In general, millennials do not like criticism, as is probably true with everyone to some degree. However, it is the responsibility of Christian millennial leaders to examine themselves and their beliefs and ministries by all of God’s Word with brutal honesty. We should be willing to objectively scrutinize our own viewpoints by the rule of God’s Word, even non-“doctrinal” issues. With all honesty I say this: I don’t see this happening. On the contrary, I see many millennials using gray areas as a license to press the limits. I see millennials’ apparent disregard for clearly defined standards of practical righteousness as set forth in Scripture. I am not referring to how-long, how-short, how-beaty kind of arguments. I am referring to even basic adherence. I rack my brain, sometimes, wondering, “How in the world could they say that’s at all modest or unspotted from the world? How could they say that glorifies God at all?” To many, this is simply judgmental. Yet, God commands me to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Where are the Christian millennials that will bravely look at their family’s wardrobe and say, “Is this dress modest and appropriate for a Christian?” Where are they that stick the neck out and ask, “Is this song a clone of the world?” Where are they that ask themselves, “Should I be watching this show with this evil in it?” This is not behaviorism. This is being a Christian wanting to abstain from all appearance of evil for His Lord’s sake. This is being a Christian millennial that is trying to apply all of God’s Word to his life in his era.
Lastly, let me say this. It is not true that you must equate tradition with doctrine or either worry only about “doctrinal” integrity. There is a middle ground. The middle ground is not one that uses the length of your hair or skirt or sound of your music to judge the spirituality of your brother. The middle ground is honestly looking at the Word of God—all of it—and conforming to it in every way that you know how. For sure, we will not always agree on the final conclusions of those examinations. However, defense of one’s actions and excuses to simply test limits among Christian millennials must stop. We cannot continue to be the judges of the previous generation’s faults while we are willfully ignoring our own reluctance to examine what we believe and practice. I love this most applicable quote from Brother Paul Chappell:
It’s okay to challenge the preferences or convictions of the last generation, but show us how you are going to conform to His image and not to the world in your generation. (emphasis mine)So, I’ll part with four exhortations to Christian Millennial leaders:
- Brutally and honestly try yourselves and your beliefs by God’s Word in every matter.
- Be the Christian that loves and seriously considers the reproofs of the generation before, even if those reproofs come with an undesirable attitude or disposition.
- Tenaciously build your life and ministry on faithful adherence to all of God’s Word, no matter how “the culture” views it or whether or not it is a “doctrinal” issue.
- Truly love and pray for those to the right and left of you.