The best book about Millennials and the church

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In writing book reviews I almost always avoid superlatives like you see in the title above: how can I know that something is the “best” in its category unless I’ve read every single book in that category?

But in this case I actually have exhausted the literature, because in researching and writing The Next Mormons, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about Millennials and the changing profile of Christianity in America.

A number of those books are excellent and helpful, but The New Copernicans is a cut above: it’s quite simply the best book available for a general audience about Millennials and the Christian church, with one major caveat I’ll get to at the end.

I don’t know anything about author David John Seel except what’s on the back cover: he is a “cultural-renewal entrepreneur” (so that’s a thing now?) and “social-impact consultant” (also a thing?). He’s an evangelical Christian whose grown kids are Millennials. Having them out of the house clearly gives him ample time to read, because the book is a wonderful rabbit trail of references to other books and authors whose thinking he has absorbed.

Seel says this book is a “pan-pan alert.” If you’re not a sailor (which he’s not, unless that’s what a cultural-renewal entrepreneur actually is?), that’s a midlevel warning issued at sea.

It’s not mayday yet for evangelical Protestants in America, but it’s time to issue a pan-pan. The current course is going to result in disaster, but there’s still time for a course correction. The book’s basic message is that the iceberg is right ahead, Christians. Lots of young people are abandoning ship. So you’d better move your ass.

Too many books about Millennials resort to gimmicks: Here’s how to style your pastor’s hair so it will be cool enough to lure These Kids Today back to church! Here’s the surefire playlist of what to say and do so they will settle for becoming your Mini-Me!

Seel says that is almost laughably not the point. Millennials don’t want to be like you. They want to be better—and in many ways, they already are. The greatest gift of Seel’s book is how often he takes a hard look at the rising generation’s concerns about religion and is able to say, “You know, they’re actually right about that.”

Millennials, he says, are “resident crap detectors.” In their quest for authenticity and their allergy to anything that feels manipulative, Millennials show us how inauthentic and transactional our approach to Christianity often is.

Baby Boomers and older Christians, he says, have relied on “left-brained thinking” (modernism, rational paradigms, propositional truth) rather than imagination or beauty in trying to reach this generation, which is myopic. Millennials “always prioritize lived experience over abstract reflection,” which Seel says is a hugely important “corrective to three hundred years of distorted thinking” since the Enlightenment.

In making church relevant, window dressing won’t help. What’s required is a thoroughgoing reconception of how truth is measured.

For me, the most helpful portion of the book is its central chapters, which thoughtfully identify seven characteristics of Millennials. While Millennials hate being reduced to a list, there are some important truths here.

  1. They are secular. Millennial secularity is not about the “death of God” or anything dramatic that’s fueled by anger; it’s more that the church has made itself irrelevant. Because it has not privileged experience or mysticism or an engagement with the natural world, modern Christianity doesn’t speak to Millennials, who are simultaneously “functional atheists and potential spiritual mystics.”
  2. They’re explorers, not dwellers. Robert Wuthnow first charted this shift years ago from dwelling (where people remain within the bosom of one religion for a lifetime) to seeking (where they find truth in many places, and believe the journey itself is most important). Millennials are taking that shift to its logical conclusion. As a Mormon, this was a thought-provoking chapter for me, because my church exists in a thoroughly modern paradigm in which there is one acceptable destination—which, who’d have thunk it, happens to be our church!—and the journey is only valid if and when you arrive at our doorstep and seal the deal. Millennials think differently.
  3. They are “cross-pressured” from living in a hyperpluralized world. Millennials have doubts, real ones, and they need a way in church to voice those doubts or they are outta here. They can’t understand how older people hold theological beliefs with such apparent certainty. Rather than finding that certainty an attractive feature, it makes older people less trustworthy. Elders who won’t admit to their own doubts or the contingent nature of their convictions just don’t seem three-dimensional.
  4. They want to keep things small. This, more than anything, is the chapter I wish every single Mormon leader would read. In the last half century the LDS Church has made the corporatization of religion a cardinal virtue, in which the fact that the same lesson is taught on the same Sunday everywhere has been regarded as a strength. That approach is a major obstacle to what American Millennials want, to say nothing of the cultural imperialism it imposes on Mormons in the rest of the world. Millennials want local; they want farm-to-table; they want relationships. Consider an example from the fitness industry. The segment that has grown by triple digits recently is made up of the tiny specialty studios that are niched to one kind of exercise, like bootcamps or “soul cycling.” This generation has less interest in joining Gold’s Gym, shopping at big-box stores, or getting co-opted into a large religious institution. Again, though, what’s needed is not a merely cosmetic change. You can’t do to your church what some Targets and Meijers have tried, where they divide up the exteriors of their ginormous buildings with facades that make it appear as though they’re just a series of small, intimate shops. The famed Millennial crap detector is going to sniff that one out immediately. Rather, we need to stop embracing the whole modernist paradigm that says bigger is better and sameness is desirable.
  5. They prioritize relationships. This stems out of the previous characteristic: they like to keep things small because genuine relationships are more valued. Millennials are sensitive to anyone perceiving them as a project, which is bad news for churches that don’t yet understand what it means to walk alongside someone just for the pleasure of their company rather than from the agenda of getting them to join a church or commit to a program. No script, no agenda. “The church does not need ‘friendship evangelism,’” Seel quips. “Rather, it needs ‘friendship friendship.’”
  6. They are prophets who need a voice at the table. Millennials insist on authenticity, and there is no substitute for it. So churches that disneyfy the truth and paper over reality – and, even worse, get defensive when young adults call them out on it – are in trouble. Churches that solicit Millennials’ voices especially when those voices are critical will emerge the better for it.
  7. They are haunted by beauty and idealism. Millennials feel things deeply, and long for a better world. As often as not, they reject church because they see what church could and should be if it were authentically living out the call of Jesus, and are dissatisfied by the superficial counterfeits that many older Christians seem to settle for.

OK, so what did I not like about this book?

Like I said, the author is wonderfully well-read, and there’s a high caliber of author/thinker he relies upon in getting these points across – Charles Taylor, James A. K. Smith, Charles Templeton, C. S. Lewis.

Notice anything about that list? Well, here it is depicted visually:

(And yeah, I did go through the entire book page by page and make notations about every woman and every man that was quoted or whose professional work was referenced. The full list is at the bottom of the post as a PDF. I never said I had a social life.)

The thing is that in a 200-page book, the first woman is not quoted until page 66, a third of the way through. As though it’s an afterthought that female scholars and thinkers may have something to contribute to the conversation.

That is unacceptable. In an otherwise outstanding book that is about reaching the younger generation, one way to practice what the book preaches is to take women’s ideas seriously.

I’m not just saying that because it’s politically correct, blah blah blah, but because the church’s continued failure to include women may be having a negative effect on its own outreach. Longitudinal data about religiosity among young adults from 1966 to 2014 has shown declines in almost every measure of religiosity, from church attendance to belief. But when you break it down by gender, unexpectedly, the sharpest drops have actually happened among girls.

Quoting six men for every one woman does not help make girls and women feel valued in the church. Opportunity lost.

Download the PDF: 2.18 Quoted in The New Copernicans