I’m a Millennial, and my generation has a weeds problem.
In Jesus’s parable of the sower, no fewer than three soils turn out fruitless. There’s the soil so hard that seeds bounce off just to be snatched up by birds. There’s the soil so thin that plants never take root.
And then there’s the soil that does sustain life but, so to speak, there’s no room at the inn.
Those reflecting on the rise of the “nones” have noted that the growth of this “no religious affiliation” demographic doesn’t necessarily mean steely eyed atheists. Yes, young people are leaving organized religion, but as a recent Pew study shows, spiritual pursuits are growing even among atheists. The young unaffiliated seek transcendence, prayer, and hope at least as much as our forebears. The enthusiasm frothing in “Generation TED” reveals that Millenials are pretty rich soil for something.
Cacophony of Voices
Our problem isn’t that we take in too little “spirituality” or “wisdom,” but that we take in too much. Our culture’s conscious teachings and subconscious liturgies—on sex, on joy, on meaning—take root beside our Bible’s teaching. Without realizing it, we become humanists on flourishing, materialists on mental illness, and a patchwork of other things—all while sincerely thinking of ourselves as Christians.
For example, my pastoral team recently preached on living through suffering. We addressed unbiblical approaches to facing suffering, such as the humanistic one: that we find strength inside ourselves to carry on against whatever storms we’re facing (e.g., the film version of Unbroken versus the actual story). Though humanism’s “inner strength” may seem like the Christian approach to finding strength through prayer, the sources of strength couldn’t be more different.
In discussions afterward we heard multiple people say they’d never considered that difference before. Men and women—Christians in a healthy relationship with God—unknowingly carried around a view of perseverance more reflective of Eat, Pray, Love than 2 Corinthians.
Overrun with Weeds
Why does my generation have such a weeds problem? One reason is the radical democratization of authority epitomized by, for example, Wikipedia. We’ve imbibed the idea that authority must be decentralized, so we find “authority” in the voices loudest and closest to us. Instead of submitting all “truth” to God’s Word, we shop. A little here, a little there.
Another reason is that, more than any other generation, we position ourselves to receive “wisdom” without reflection. Our smartphones buzz, commanding us to look at whatever we’ve signed up for. Our social media feeds plaster our screens with messages filtered only by what is loud and urgent. We’re encouraged to read, to “like,” to love whatever comes our way without reflection or digestion.
Perhaps more than anything else, my generation needs help with the ideological and spiritual weeds in our hearts. We need to put deep roots into the risen Jesus, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit—but we first have to clear the soil so they can grow. The Western church must learn to help Millennials here if God’s kingdom is to grow well in this next generation. Tim Keller sums it up nicely in his recent book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism [20 quotes | interview | review]:
It is a mistake to think that faithful believers in our time are not profoundly shaped by the narratives of modernity. We certainly are, and so when you unveil these narratives and interact with them in the ordinary course of preaching the Word, you help them see where they themselves may be more influenced by their society than by the Scripture, and you give them important ways of communicating their faith to others. (118)
Killing the Roots
So how can we as church leaders help Millennials identify and root out the weeds in our lives?
1. Beef up the “diagnostic” component of our preaching.
Preaching to weed-ridden congregations means we must identify cultural patterns and prejudices so that our people can see them clearly. The humanistic approach to fulfillment; the prosperity-gospel take on suffering; majority-culture blind spots that hinder racial reconciliation—just as Paul exposed the pagan Greek approach to sexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 before rebutting it, so we should help our people identify the unseen weeds in their lives as weeds.
Two quick caveats:
First, most churches do a good job at diagnosing one set of “blind spots”—whether cultural or political—but tend to sweep others under the rug. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Men do not differ much on what things they will call evils, but they differ enormously on what evils they will call excusable.” Our churches must be willing to identify and critique errors on both sides of our natural fences: Millennials and Boomers, right and left, traditionalists and progressives.
Second, we should take care to polemicize against ideas, not people. We can quote those who epitomize the ideas we’re discussing, of course, but we mustn’t turn polemics into ad hominem rants. Again, Keller puts it well:
Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light, the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle. (156)
2. Build reflection and application into our Bible study times.
Like Thomas Chalmers observed in his classic sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” the surest way to remove one heart affection is to replace it with another. We need to encourage our people to study the Word, to memorize it, to learn it.
That said, the late-modern mind tends to drop truths in the playpen without considering whether they can actually play together. So in our “Bible study” rhythms—Sunday school, small groups, and so on—we need to help people reflect on how truth affects their lives. Ask questions like, How would this change how you think/value/act if it were made real in your life? What cultural voices does this Scripture passage contradict or challenge? Providing space for unhurried reflection will help our people identify the weeds in their own lives.
3. Encourage spiritual disciplines, especially reflective ones.
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a compelling case that the cultural “liturgies” we participate in—the practices we habitually live out—can shape our hearts at least as much as do our thoughts. In other words, the spiritual disciplines are habits that submit our wills to God’s authority and position our hearts to be changed by his Spirit.
As important as teaching is, churches should also help their people practice the disciplines well. The habits of studying the Word, praying, fasting, and so on will help young people think more deliberately on truth. Likewise, reflective disciplines like journaling and fasting can help Christians look into their own hearts and, with God’s help, “see if there be any grievous way” within (Ps. 139:24).
4. Hold the beauty of Christ beside the emptiness of worldly powers.
Finally, we should pick fights. As we help people grasp what’s growing in their hearts, we must also show how Jesus offers a life that’s far more beautiful and worthwhile than anything else on the market. Secular humanism would have me build a castle on the quicksand of my own will; Jesus will drain the marsh and lay a firm foundation. The therapeutic world would have me love my own foul heart; Jesus will forgive me and muck out the stables. Materialism tells me I suffer, I die, the end; Christ offers me resurrection by his grace.
The more we can elevate the beauty of God over everything else in the world, the more we’ll see people’s hearts look less like a box of weeds and more like the garden of God.
Editors’ note: For more on Christians, the church, and cultural renewal, check out Collin Hansen’s book Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church (Crossway, 2015) [review].