Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

What’s in the hearts of millennials? You may be surprised.

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As longtime readers of Sightings will know, a quotation from José Ortega y Gasset about “decisive historical changes” has been decisive for my own work as an historian. I’ll cite it today both as an introduction to this week’s “sighting” of millennials and as a comment on how I, for one, choose a topic for Sightings: “Decisive historical changes do not come from great wars, terrible cataclysms, or ingenious inventions: it is enough that the heart of man incline its sensitive crown to one side or the other of the horizon, toward optimism or toward pessimism, toward heroism or toward utility, toward combat or toward peace.” Sighting movements in the heart of the human person calls one from the need to be moved to comment only on the Big News of the Week. I admire commentators who do “Big” commenting, learn from them and depend on them for much. But my scouting and sighting lead in somewhat different directions.

Thus: in treating “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” the focus of our work, it is hard to avoid featuring ideological conflicts in polarized America, or to overlook (apparently) the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and their doings. But our specialty is to look underneath “great wars,” “terrible cataclysms,” and “ingenious inventions,” and to concentrate on “inclinations” of the “sensitive crown” of the human heart. I repeat myself, but … you get the point. My eyes were drawn this week to the crowns of the hearts of the much-observed people called “millennials.” Hard news about this cohort is on the front page of newspapers and gets prime time coverage in other media. Rightfully so. But less trumpeted are revealing comments which should not be neglected.

This week when I was reading Living Lutheran, a denominational magazine that reaches our house, a headline caught my eye: “The Millennial Mystery: A generation distanced from the church, yet longing for community.” Now, most of us citizens can keep up on Broadway, Hollywood, Wall Street, the Olympics, and the media, and not worry about a question which author Erin Strybis reports was asked of a young Montana pastor by older parishioners, “Why aren’t people your age coming to church?” Their question inspired Pastor Seth Nelson to research and write and, of course and of necessity, to self-publish a book, The Church Unknown.

Who would look to under-attended, off-the-beaten-path small churches or other religious gathering places for signs and signals about the larger issues in our culture? There are some “who’s” who do: poll-takers, social historians, ethnographers, and other observers who attend “close up” to the human heart as it is inclined toward faith or unfaith, community or isolation, etc. Not being able to squeeze even one of their findings into this short column, I thought I’d sample their interests through the research tool called Google. Try it or its analogues. I typed in not just “millennials and religion” but up-close approaches, especially “ministering to millennials.” Dozens if not hundreds of stories, reports, and commentaries deal with this, from all sides, pro and con.

From such entries one learns much about affirmation and rejection of religion, or (my focus) “indifference to religion” and to many other things which demand attention, commitment, sacrifice, and entertaining the possibility of hope. Following up on links to such topics led me back to Ortega’s guiding theme and specialty—and why not ours?—those movements in the heart of the person. People, including millenials, who might be heeded and admired in such a search can be hospice nurses, inner-city pastors, alert volunteers in causes where they are needed, sitters-in rising from the pews, and other often-overlooked stewards of generosity and purpose far from the headlines.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • It speaks to core values which in the Lutheran (ELCA) have suffered. Also a lack of vision. Today’s millennials from small neighborhood churches, many of them in urban areas grew up watching their parents work as hard as pastors (when the pastor is on the caretaker track, harder) only to be disrespected by the hierarchy with arguments of gloom. In reality, there is no plan for small church development because pastors don’t want these calls—even when they have money in addition to potential. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but this underlies the placement of short-time, retired pastors sitting in positions that require energy, innovation and a strong sense of servant leadership. Apparently, the gospel is only for the suburbs. Our property and endowments—that’s for them, too. Our congregation often had more children in attendance than adults, but they were locked out along with everyone else when our synod claimed our land in 2009. As for our locked-out kids—now college and post college—they enjoy getting together at holiday reunions and are only now understanding what their parents went through at the hands of church. Can’t blame them for not joining church. Sadly, urban neighborhoods are where millennials want to be today! And Lutherans aren’t there for them.

  • What is stopping millennial? Satan.
    Churches no longer stand together on the day’s issues. Divorce, homosexuality, marriage – satan’s tools – have all crept in the back door and tried to make themselves more important than the One who died and returned in the flesh so that we can spend eternity with Him.
    Assemblies, have renounced Christ’s word on issues – others haven’t as much. There is no perfect church and never was, but children are looking at all of this and saying why bother with the fuss? They cannot get along with each other, and many mistake the church for actually being God.
    Satan crept in the back door and is working very hard to overcome the church. We know the end of the book though, and he doesn’t succeed.
    Don’t want to attend a church? Read a Bible and find out what it is all about. That is God’s revelation of Himself.

  • Millennials find community in various ways, including certain kinds of churches. Let’s start with music. Where I live music concerts create a community for milllennials. This community-building includes house music performances. In these houses a number of millennials live as if still in a college dorm. They throw parties. They have kareoke hook-ups to bi screen TVs. The ride bikes, They like what they are doing. Many have low paying jobs and no future pensions or even much, if any, Social Security. I lived that way until I was 40, and then got a job with a Social Security benefit. I now live mostly on Social Security, and my life is OK since I have a decent cheap apt in a very convenient location near to the cheap cultural events I like. No car, thank God. Five bus lines are convenient to my place. Maybe things will work our for millennials too. Maybe not. I don’t attend church. i know a lot about church and Islamic history and doctrine, in an anthropological curiosity kind of way. Really ,some denominations should hire anthropologists to do observations, give them reports on how people actually life and the symbols/events that give them meaning, elp them get with it, and give them guidance. Not someone like me, I ‘m a strict amateur with no serious credentials. Just observations, opinions.

    Concert style churches that do not preach about being gay or against abortion (even if these are their official positions) and emphasize these three things attract hip millennials where I live. 1. Music Concert type services, most often managed by the young. 2, Stories, often videoed, about someone being “rescued” from a bad life (not necessarily poverty) through this church. 3. Affinity group/crews/posses where people get together in private homes for evening church and socializing. A distant fourth are two things: simple homily type talks using the Bible and real life.; and use of technology. I know a church where the entire youth leadership group at a Catholic parish bolted to a concert oriented Evangelical church. They miss Communion and the, as they describe the, deeper style of prayer. but hey, they ain’t going back.

    Traditional, liturgical churches are not good at these three things, and not so good at the extra two. But liturgical, Eucharist oriented churches can flourish as “family churches:” where young married professionals with children can form community, and where the services are children’s events are “classy.” This happens mostly in prosperous urban neighborhoods.

    In brief, traditional churches are boring. Hip churches have pastors who studied communications more than theology and know how to entertain.

    Hints of sneering, stupid contempt and mean spiritedness will drive millennials away. Examples: dumb Adam and Steve “jokes”; claims that God intervened to get Trump elected and fill the courts with anti-abortion judges.

    Just my experience and observation. I’m in my late 70’s and when I choose to socialize I mainly do so with millennials in my neighborhood. I prefer solitude but do need to socialize sometimes. Some millennials like to talk to me about religion because I know a lot. Some of what I have to say steers them away from toxic religious beliefs to more benign forms and churches. I hate to see them suffer from the choice of a wrong headed pastor who has no understanding of the gifts of Holy Spirit (not narcissistic speaking in tongues). As you might guess I am a secular humanist.

  • Some ECLA churches in New York City are flourishing. They are a bit on the high church side and appeal to prosperous young families. The red doors seem to be a draw too.