Seriously. Let’s quit. No more “millennial talk.”
Now that everyone has either written about what Millennials “want” or responded to what someone else wrote about what Millennials want, it might be time to deal with the elephant in the room: We care about what Millennials want because it saves us all the long, hard, difficult, but life-transforming work of spiritual formation.
I’ll be honest. I’m sick of hearing about the “Millennials” and what they want from church. Isn’t it about time that we called Millennials what they are: Self-Centered? Just like GenXers and Baby Boomers before them. It’s not totally their fault, though. Millennials have been marketed to from birth, got trophies for showing up, and both the culture and the church immersed them in a hyper-individualized-your-way-right-away, you’re “unique” in the world mindset. We kinda did it to you.
Nevertheless, you should know there is nothing new, cool, avant-garde, or even thoughtful about wanting what you want and wanting it now; nothing particularly hip in thinking everybody else should change and bend and bow. My first grader pulls that off just fine. And, yes, every previous generation thought they were the first to “really get Jesus” too.
But maybe – just maybe – those of us ahead of our Millennial friends on the journey might serve Millennials better through seeking the Kingdom better. How about disallowing Millennials from echoing their Baby-Boomer and GenX forerunners who still – to this day – show up in churches believing church and Christian life is about what they want? Every generation complains and has complained about what the church is and isn’t. Sometimes we’re right to do so. But other times, we’ve simply missed the whole point of why God called us into community with other people with differences of thought, style, and perspective.
The truth is we’re all just too selfish.
Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
After all, Millennials didn’t get their buffet line approach to faith from nowhere. They didn’t start the fire. The church’s concerns about Millennials are borne out of our spiritual failures from the past. Because most of us deeply suspect that life is primarily about us. Therefore church should be about us. Worship should be about us. Theology should be about us. As a matter of fact, the current hand-wringing about Millennials isn’t even really about Millennials; it’s about using Millennials to keep our institutions from dying.
The problem is not that we haven’t passed on our faith to Millennials, the problem is that we have. Millennials worship the same God their Boomer and Xer predecessors taught them to worship – themselves. The absence of Millennials in churches is merely the fruit of the poisonous tree Western individualism and microwave worship planted.
But maybe the best thing the church can do for Millennials (and the rest of us, for that matter) is serve up a daily injection of get-the-freak-over-yourself. Because 2,000 years after Jesus emptied Himself on the cross, those claiming life in His name can’t seem to harness the gratitude to worship someone besides ourselves for one-hour a week.
There is an insidious notion among Christians that our individual and generational preferences should dictate ecclesial practice. Underlying that lie is the subtle idea that we’ll become more spiritual or Christ-like if worship and church life reflects who we already are. In short, we think if it’s more of what we want, we’ll be made better by it.
But there’s no fact, history, or reason to believe so.
No one says it out loud, but there is a well-believed fiction that we cannot or will not be spiritually formed by tolerance of practices that don’t speak to us or ideas with which we disagree. I suspect this would come as a great surprise to Jesus, Paul, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Mother Teresa, and countless other dedicated practitioners of spiritual disciplines who formed within themselves a default mode of self-giving. And to my knowledge, no great spiritual practitioner opted out because everything wasn’t to their liking. In fact, the witness of both scripture and history testify that those who walked closest with God either elected or were forced to live lives of intentional denial. You know “not my will…” and “consider others better…” and all that.
To be clear, I’m not speaking of injustices, crimes, or abuses in the church. Those should never be tolerated.
But Jesus made a statement that should turn our lives (and church life expectations) upside down: “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.” We sing a lot of songs about “following,” even if we don’t always do it that well. But I know of no church anywhere, including my own, that boasts its mission statement as “Teaching People to Deny Themselves Daily.”
Can you imagine a Millennial, GenXer, or Baby-Boomer reared in a church committed to the discipline of denial? What might happen to our generational conflicts? What would become of our worship battles? How might we respond to outsiders, the LGBT community, those on the other side of the political aisle or countless other people traditionally held at bay by churches? What would happen, if through denial, older generations rushed to listen to and usher in younger ones? What testimony would the world see and hear if old men really did dream dreams, and our sons and daughters were set loose to prophesy (Acts 2:17) ? And what might happen if, in embrace of denial, younger generations simply refused to let go until God blessed them?
What would happen if we opened up just a little room to explore the idea that not getting our way may actually be ‘The Way?’
Might we discover the church we all say that we want? Might we unearth a church where God is seated at the center and Jesus is exalted over all our particular views of Jesus?
I don’t know if we can all ever get there. But I know we can’t get there by attempting to give everyone want they want.