David Burstein, just under twenty-five, is a writer, political-action organizer, filmmaker, and passionate believer in the Millennial generation. In his 2013 book, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World, Burstein illustrates how his generation is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by a fast-paced and fast-changing world. Now I wish someone like David would write a book about how the Millennial generation is shaping and being shaped by Christian belief.
According to population estimates released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation; and the Millennial generation continues to grow, as young immigrants expand its ranks.
The U.S. Millennial population is projected to peak in 2036 at 81.1 million. Millennials are expected to live longer than any previous generation; and new research suggests that old age may actually begin for them at age 74. Before the Millennials, the Baby Boomers had always had an outsized presence compared with other generations. They were the largest generation and peaked at 78.8 million in 1999. There were an estimated 74.9 million Boomers in 2015. By midcentury, the Boomer population will dwindle to 16.6 million.
Born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials have grown up in a time of rapid change, giving them a set of priorities and expectations sharply different from previous generations. Pearl Harbor or the assassinations of President Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King are historic events that they cannot relate to. They were greatly touched by 9/11. That was their big event. They have also learned to live with terrorism and the thought that they could be shot at school, as they learned early that the world is not a safe place. For Roman Catholic Millennials, the 1960s Second Vatican Council is as important for their lives as the sixteenth century Council of Trent. And they are not interested in either of them. Their big Catholic turn-offs have been the ongoing sex abuse scandal and the church’s opposition to women priests and gay marriage.
More than a few people in my peer group consider the Millennials entitled, lazy, unmotivated, and technology addicted. From what I have read and from what I have experienced teaching and working with Millennials at my university, I have to disagree with such a negative stereotype. There are extremes in every social grouping. I find Millennials generally compassionate, socially concerned, inquisitive, and creative. They have a lot of understandable anxiety about their own lives and their future; but they also have a lot of care for the larger world and life’s big questions. For them a lot of church rhetoric sounds hollow or is anchored in fighting human sexuality issues that for them were resolved long ago.
Millennials belong to a generation eager to make its own mark on the world. And they will make their own mark on the church, one way or another. For many that mark may very well be to simply ignore it as antiquated and irrelevant.
With each generation since WWII, U.S. Church attendance has been decreasing. The Millennial generation illustrates and strengthens that trend. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) rarely or never attend religious services. About one-fourth (24 percent) are active in church (meaning they attend at least once a week). A number of Millennials who do attend church do so as seekers.
For Millennials knowledge is not so much what is passed down from authorities as what is derived from personal experience and shared group discovery. They neither need nor respect a church leader who hands them a package of beliefs to be accepted. They would rather sit down with church members and church leaders and explore the meaning of Christian belief for people today. Mutual respect, shared decision-making, grounded in the realization that no single person, and no single institution has all the answers. For a quick check on factual data they turn to the Internet more than to the local library. They are current events focused and concerned about tomorrow. In no way do they see Jesus as an institution man; and their perception is correct of course. Jesus was concerned about people.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Millennials’ feelings toward present-day Christianity are rather ambivalent. Church is ok if it is helping people to be happy and to have meaningful life experiences. Church hypocrisy, misogyny, and self-defensive authoritarianism leave them cold. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of today’s say that “anti-gay” somewhat or very well describes present-day Christianity for them. More than 6-in-10 (62%) also believe that present-day Christianity is “judgmental” and much too involved in politics. In their social and political views, Millennials are clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality and a broad range of gender and sexuality issues. They are scientifically oriented, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation for human life; and they consider all sacred scriptures as human attempts to express deeply felt human spiritual experiences. In that respect, Jesus makes sense to them — often much more so than the churches that claim to embody his spirit and emulate him.
In the Prophet Joel and in Acts of the Apostles, we read: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young will see visions, your old will dream dreams.”
I often day-dream about the Millennials: about what their lives will be like…. the bridges they will have to cross…. the struggles that will mark their lives. I hope their visions will help them confront climate change with dramatic sea-level changes and environmental changes impacting water supplies and food supplies. I hope their visions will enable them to confront employment and unemployment problems we can only imagine as more production and maintenance tasks are taken over by robots and technology. With their visions they will have to learn what it means to live long lives in cultures that are multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual, etc.
I would hope that the Millennials will also shape and be shaped by new forms and patterns of Christian life and ministry. Perhaps any meaningful church for the Millennials will have to be a humble human-service organization, pointing to deeper spiritual realities and experiences, anchored in an open and welcoming spiritual wisdom, while still very much a shared traveler and a shared discoverer and a shared truth-seeker on the human journey. I think Jesus would like that: truth-seekers on a contemporary road to Emmaus.