Ministering to Millennials in a Secular Age

Most analysis of millennials likes to focus on what makes them distinct. But a key point to keep in mind is that, in many respects, they’re just like everyone else—but more so. In other words, they reject major trends of the last couple of generations, simply a bit farther down the line of historical and logical progression. Like everybody else, they live in the epistemological and moral atmosphere Charles Taylor dubs the “Nova Effect” (A Secular Age, 299–321).

As Taylor explains, 500 years ago belief in God was the default; fulfilled, humane atheism was akin to belief in unicorns today. With “modernity” and the Enlightenment came the rise of “exclusive humanism” (humanistic atheism) as a viable alternative to Christian faith. The ensuing explosion of polemics between skeptics, Deists, believers, and Romantics triggered a chain reaction resulting in a constantly multiplying diversity of spiritual options. The Nova Effect has become “a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane” (300).

What is the Nova Effect?

Practically, this Nova Effect means several things. First, we’re all cross-pressured by dozens of options, leaving everybody’s beliefs “fragilized” and destabilized. If you’re a theist, you still feel the draw of immanence—as you sit in your room, watching the latest Netfix documentary about the cosmos, belief in a godless universe is imaginable at an intellectual and existential level. But if you’re a skeptic, transcendence beckons. Every hike you take on the local trail, God keeps haunting you with blades of sunlight filtering through the trees.

Put another way, we all know sane, rational people, living much the same as we do yet believing radically different things. Your Sikh neighbors, your Buddhist gym buddy, and your atheist co-worker buy groceries at the same niche food shop, catch the Marvel franchise of superhero flicks, and love their families. But none of them goes to your church on Sunday. There are no more singular, monolithic, obvious takes on the world. Belief has become less of an on/off switch, and more of a series of dials you can set in various degrees (post-secular, humanist, Romantic, libertarian, eco-feminist, and on and on).

There are no more singular, monolithic, obvious takes on the world. Belief has become less of an on/off switch, and more of a series of dials you can set in various degrees (post-secular, humanist, Romantic, libertarian, eco-feminist, and on and on).

So how do we set the dials today? In the Age of Authenticity (think life post-1960s), the drive is to make sure—whatever else may affect our decision—that we are “true to ourselves.” This is how “expressive individualism” plays a role in belief formation.  Some of us may still choose traditional faiths like Roman Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, or one of the other major world religions. But nobody simply inherits packages of beliefs anymore; we choose to believe (and even construct) the packages for ourselves, often as part of our self-actualization project.

The resulting blends vary. One has a little bit of Christianity here, some therapeutic psychology there, and a dash of social justice progressivism to top it off. Another may choose a Buddhist base, some Western rationalism, and a commitment to exercise. The root of this “heretical imperative” is a sense that spiritual beliefs aid the quest of finding our unique way of being human. We have become a nation of heretics,  or rather, syncretists.

Super-nova on Google

Turning to what distinguishes millennials, it is important 
to note they vary even from one another. Still, one of the most significant markers distinguishing millennials from other generations is having grown up in the Internet Age. “Googling” as a verb was recognized by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary only 10 years ago, which means it has been in use even longer. For millennials that’s anywhere between a third to half of our lifetime.

If we already lived in a religious Super-nova, the internet has only metastasized the problem. Skimming your Facebook newsfeeds, you’re constantly bombarded by multiplying perspectives on politics, race, gender, and spirituality.  Never mind if you’re curious and actually looking for different options.

A few things follow from this effect. First, Christianity has lost (a significant amount of) its home-court advantage. It is now one of a wide array of competitors on the market, some of which have the benefit of being significantly more malleable to the sexual and economic ethics of the late-modern West. Though Christianity still claims the highest market share of American millennials, this generation identifies as religiously unaffiliated at higher rates than any other generation (34 percent religious unaffiliated, 46 percent Christian). That’s not to say they’re atheists, but they’re not as prone to claim a specific religious tradition.

Second, the nature of authority in religion has shifted. Modernity has always had an inherently anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional, anti-clerical ethos. But the internet enables an even more radically individualistic and practical epistemology. Communities struggle in their traditional role as protective, authoritative sources of religious truth.

For example, being a religious professional means a lot less than it used to. Millennials don’t feel the need to wait for a pastor to tell them the best reading of a verse. What does a seminary degree count for when you can just Google anything yourself? What’s more, if you don’t like what your pastor says, you can look up alternatives in the middle of the sermon on your phone—which you probably know how to use better than he does. Indeed, millennials’ greater aptitude for technology has also helped shift the locus of authority from age to youth—kids teach their grandparents to use gear they navigate as second-nature. The older need the younger more than the younger believe they need the older. And they don’t see any irony about publishing memoirs in their 20s.

Millennials don’t feel the need to wait for a pastor to tell them the best reading of a verse. What does a seminary degree count for when you can just Google anything yourself?

Heroic Doubt and the Post-Evangelical Appeal

Not unlike previous generations, the millennial maturation story sets them against their elders. One of Taylor’s most important apologetic moves explains how conversion to atheism or exclusive humanism is motivated by a particular moral narrative. It isn’t simply a matter of being faced with “the science,” following a syllogism to its logical conclusion, and deciding God doesn’t add up. Instead, deconversion is more of a decision to follow a particular story about belief and doubt.

In this story, doubt is the movement of a heroic individual stepping into intellectual adulthood and maturity, no matter the cost. Moving to an exclusive humanism away from their earlier, childish faith requires virtues “such as disengaged reason, the courage to let go of comforting illusions, the reliance on one’s own reason against authority” (A Secular Age, 566). Though not easy, doubt is brave, strong, and daring.

Consider, then, the recent wave of post-evangelical memoirs centered on the spiritual journeys of young writers—and their appeal for millennials. While diverse, such memoirs tend to bear some commonalities. These first-person narratives of faith-discovery as self-discovery do not resemble the typical faith-hero stories of the past. Rather, they tend to valorize doubt and uncertainty. And this fits with the broader cultural scripts of broken faith on offer in present media culture.

The particular struggles and doubts differ from title to title. Some wrestle with issues of belief, anti-intellectualism, and science in search of something better than pat answers to hard questions. Others flee the legalistic, exhausting, abusive spirituality of their fundamentalist and evangelical communities. Still more focus on the challenge of reconsidering church stances on sex and/or gay marriage.

Whatever the issue, though, the existential and cognitive dissonance in the face of these cross-pressured and fragilizing conditions becomes too much for their former faith. The protagonists emerge into a new phase of faith—maybe broken and bruised, a bit uncertain, but more authentic, risky, and in possession of a faith truly their own. Baptized in the fires of doubt, they have left behind the simpler, naive beliefs of their shallow, therapeutic youth group (and their parents). They have dared to know.

My point isn’t so much to critique these stories—some raise valid critiques that ought to be heard—but simply to note their connection to the ethics of belief under the Nova Effect. The ethic of heroic-doubt-as-maturity explains at least some of their appeal. Some memoir writers are quick to admit they’re offering one “take” on the world, with the apparent humility to know it is not the only plausible one on offer. Others relieve the tension by simply restructuring beliefs to fit the different pressures (even if that involves rewriting 2,000 years of received teaching). More importantly, though, they recognize the need for breathing space as ordinary believers feel disoriented, undecided, full of questions, and burned out.

Thus these narratives generate an alternative form of spiritual and moral authority—the authority of authenticity. In the Age of Authenticity, a testimony of suffering, struggle, and doubt earns you the right to be heard. And not only heard, but even followed as a model—not of infallible truth, but of an empathetic, authentic, fellow doubter who won’t be quick to pass judgment on our weaknesses; one who reveals to us the strength we can find in the midst of those weaknesses.

In the Age of Authenticity, a testimony of suffering, struggle, and doubt earns you the right to be heard.

Ministry in the Super-nova

With these factors in mind, how then, shall we minister to millennials in the Super-nova?

1. Shun Despair and Nostalgia

First, we need to refuse the temptation to despair, or to engage in a morose, crippling nostalgia for some mythical, lost Golden Age of Faith. As Taylor points out, earlier ages may not have suffered from the struggles of pluralism, fragilization, and cross-pressures. But surely in Christendom there was a greater temptation to spiritual authoritarianism, hypocrisy, and the shallow “belief ” of social conformity.

Indeed, Kierkegaard wrote a dozen books under half as many pseudonyms trying to explain to Christendom that New Testament Christianity wasn’t simply a matter of “having a baptismal certificate lying in the drawer and producing it when one is to be a student or wants to have a wedding” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume 1, 367).

Fed up and unheard, at the end of his life he launched his blistering, all-out “attack on Christendom” that should give us all pause before waxing too nostalgic for a ministry in the cultural Christianity of yesteryear. If our context presses us to preach a sincere faith to our millennial hearers, why not receive this as a charge from the Lord?

2. Preach Apologetically

We must also maximize what advantages this age affords us. Materialism and exclusive humanism don’t have the automatic upper hand in the Age of Authenticity. While in earlier decades Christianity may have been considered the default religion in the West, materialism and atheism held sway in elite circles as the more obviously intellectual option. But since the Super-nova doesn’t translate into atheism outright, more intellectual breathing room has been created for “spiritual” conversation. Christians still have an opportunity to present the gospel as a beautiful alternative to the cramped ideologies of immanence that dominate our landscape.

Christians still have an opportunity to present the gospel as a beautiful alternative to the cramped ideologies of immanence that dominate our landscape.

We’ve reached the point where everybody has to preach apologetically, even if your congregation isn’t mostly millennial. To be clear, I don’t think such preaching is simply a matter of incorporating in every sermon arguments for the resurrection, or the existence of God, and so forth (though some of that might help). Instead, we need to actively answer objections to the gospel from inside the mindset of our cross-pressured culture on a regular basis as a part of our scriptural exposition. We need to show the consistency, coherence, and comeliness of the gospel to this generation.

But it is not enough to simply defend the gospel. Present the way it interrogates the dominant, unquestioned narratives of our hearers—on meaning, money, sex, power, politics, gender, and so forth—and actually makes better sense of the world than any other view on offer.

Taylor’s A Secular Age is something of a model here, since the entire work destabilizes the stories secularists tell themselves about how they came by their unbelief. He doesn’t so much “prove them wrong” as level the playing the field, poking holes in their accounts. If you’re curious what this looks like, read Tim Keller.

There are at least a couple of payoffs when we preach apologetically. First, we make clear that the gospel claims to be truth. That focus helps keep Christianity from being adopted as just another self-expressive spirituality, chosen because “it works for me.” Second, it begins to address the actual questions and struggles of many millennials. Even if we can’t answer every question, we can begin to show them there is a robust, intellectual tradition of Christian reflection on these issues beyond the half-remembered lessons they received in Sunday school. The right kind of apologetic preaching acknowledges pressure on belief even as it works to present Christianity from within that pressurized environment.

3. Make Space for Thomas

Here I think of the story of Thomas—our quintessential doubter. When he heard the other disciples’ testimony, he did not believe (John 20:25). He had not seen the risen Christ, and refused to believe until he did. A couple of points stand out for our purposes.

For the next week, Thomas remained with them—an unbeliever in the midst of disciples filled with resurrection hope (John 20:26). It is as if they knew the scandalous absurdity of what had been revealed to them, so they patiently made space for him until the Lord visited.

Likewise churches interested in reaching millennials need to become skilled in that sort of patience that graciously makes space for the questioner, the cross-pressured unbeliever. The church must not be a place prone to overreaction, or quick to provide conversation-stopping clichés (which inadvertently produce reactive questioners). Questions and dialogue must be welcome.

This approach actually calls for a more robust ecclesiology and community, rather than a thin one. Churches with strong practices of membership and discipline actually have the stability required to include someone without destabilizing the community or undermining its confession.

Making space for Thomas also requires a certain amount of humble confidence that trusts in the Lord to eventually vindicate our faith. Non-defensive assurance in the truth of the gospel attracts many younger millennials. Not everybody needs to go through a faith crisis to earn the requisite amount of authenticity points to minister to millennials. While we “cannot imagine that any certainty that is not tinged with doubt,” we shouldn’t concede that someone is “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt.” Indeed, we may leverage the Age of Authenticity to our advantage by pushing back on the notion that authentic faith requires a crisis. Making space for Thomas shouldn’t require becoming just like him.

We may leverage the Age of Authenticity to our advantage by pushing back on the notion that authentic faith requires a crisis. Making space for Thomas shouldn’t require becoming just like him.

More than the disciples, Jesus himself is our model for dealing with Thomas. He comes to him, graciously accepting him, unworried and unperturbed by his questions. He meets Thomas on his own terms in order to invite him to faith—“A bruised reed he shall not break” (Isa. 42:3).

Ultimately, though, churches must depend on Jesus’s words to Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). There is blessing for those who walk by faith and not by sight. Jesus has prayed for them, and the Father has heard him (John 17:20). This promise is for us and for the cross-pressured millennials we seek to serve for the sake of the gospel. Christ has gone to the cross for them, and he will not lose any of them given to him by his Father—not even in a Secular Age.

Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from TGC’s newly released book, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback) and WTS Books. Other excerpts:

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