Millennials have been the topic of debate. Blogs, books, newspaper articles and religious institutions have spent time, energy, money and a great deal of worry trying to label the differences between “millennials,” “Gen-X’ers,” “boomers” and “builders.”
Experts (and others with access to a computer) debate on defining whether or not millennials will be a positive influence on the world.
Some find millennials, like me, a waste of space while others see us as game-changing agents. Some believe we are apathetic, narcissistic and cynical. Others think we hold the key to redefining happiness, simplicity and art.
Some are sure we uncaringly tear the tightly woven fabric that is the American dream while others believe we are the generation that builds bridges between racially, sexually, religiously and politically divided worlds.
It’s unfair to think that millennials hold the future salvation or destruction of the cosmos in our hands. It’s more appropriate to see that we’re the byproduct of a much larger system.
In “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle argues that paradigms shift in religion and culture every 500 years. In the first century, Jesus disrupted the status quo. About 500 years later, the persecuted Christians unionized and started persecuting.
Around 1000, the Christian church split into Western and Eastern practices. Then, circa 1500, the Renaissance, Reformation and printing press changed the way Scripture was interpreted and read.
At the beginning of the 21st century, religion and culture is part of another paradigm shift, and millennials are the conduits for, not the creators of, this change.
It’s easy to see why we’re debated as the cure or the curse for this new future, but this debate is misguided.
Instead of worrying about how well we play in the generational sandbox, we need to raise our sights to a question that is more pressing: What is emerging?
There’s only speculation, but our generational lifestyle choices and actions with regard to religious institutions offer clues:
â— Builders are leaving their inheritance to the institutions they built to pay off recurring debt.
â— Young boomers abandoned this medium for a more glamorous experience and are starting emerging churches while older boomers are creating movements like the Wild Goose Festival.
â— Gen-X’ers were pushed out of church after asking too many questions, or chose to leave when they felt their questions went unanswered.
â— Millennials are left dreaming of new ways of being.
Over the next 20 to 40 years, these trends will likely have significant impact on the trajectory of the church. Some of the results that I foresee taking place are:
â— Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of churches will close despite having the money to continue.
â— Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of church plants will start.
â— Growing churches will preach love instead of doctrine and offer experiential grace instead of dogma.
â— Wholeness will matter more than brand loyalty to a particular denomination or worship style.
â— The pursuit of social justice will be a way of being that informs everything the local church does.
The future of the church is conceptual at best, and my predictions might not all prove to be accurate. What is becoming obvious, though, is that many religious people are looking to millennials to either fix or to destroy the church.
Fortunately, millennials care about meaning, change, culture, love and hope. Unfortunately, many millennials are saddled with debt, leaving them unwilling and unable to offer substantive support to current institutions.
Instead of yelling at millennials from across the divide, it makes more sense to welcome our creative energy and use your resources to make our dreams come true. In the same way, millennials can learn from previous generations rather than standing at a distance voicing critique.
Why not? Institutions are failing and millennials are dreaming. Builders have the money to do it. Boomers have the organizational capacity to welcome it. Gen-X’ers have the harnessed cynicism required for change.
Perhaps if we stop arguing about where to place blame and choose to welcome and engage one another in meaningful dialogue, we can be ready for, and help to bring about, another great emergence.
J. Barrett Owen is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Waynesboro in Waynesboro, Virginia. He is a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.