Are Millennials The New Copernicans?

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“If the church is to survive, we must . . .”

The set-up and answer to that question is a common formula among books published each year about the future of the church and how to reach the next generation. Few of these books however have as many endorsements as David John Seel’s The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church, including one from James K. A. Smith.

A pastor friend recommended this book to me because it leans on Charles Taylor’s excellent work on secularism and religiosity. Intrigued by the premise, I picked it up over the holidays, hoping to gain some insight. Unfortunately, the book disappointed me, but for reasons that helped crystallize some of my concerns with common suggestions for reaching millennials.

In This Is Our Time, I urge Christians to consider the overarching narratives (“myths”) in our society today and to examine these cultural stories so that we are able to see both longings and lies. The gospel exposes the lies of our cultural narratives while answering the deeper longings that lead people to embrace those narratives in the first place.

  • Christians who ignore the longings and only point out lies become “lie detectors” who have trouble connecting people’s longings to the gospel.
  • Christians who ignore the lies and celebrate people’s longings become “complimentary Christians” who affirm the world as it is and urge the church to get on board.

The New Copernicans, even though it contains some good cultural analysis, is a prime example of the “complimentary Christian” posture. It celebrates longings without exposing lies and thus fails to bring the fullness of the gospel’s challenge to our generation.

Today, I want to give a brief summary of The New Copernicans and lay out Seel’s vision for how the church needs to change in order to survive. Tomorrow, I’ll describe the positive and negative aspects of Seel’s proposal.

FRAME SHIFT 

The cultural shift we feel in North America today is real. Among younger generations, we can see a shifting frame of apprehending reality. The frame is vitally important if we are to communicate in a way that can be received. “There is a looming cultural frame shift, largely carried by millennials, which if ignored is poised to threaten the evangelical church,” Seel writes (xxii), offering an explanation of the book’s title:

“Those who adopt this new way of apprehending reality are the New Copernicans—the contemporary explorers of a new way of appropriating human society. What follows is a description of this New Copernican frame—what it is, what it means, and what difference it will make for the church.” (xxiii)

Seel’s insight into this changing frame comes from Charles Taylor’s description of a social imaginary, a vision that shapes our assumptions about the nature of the good life. Whenever societies undergo a shift in frame, there are limits to the usefulness of reason and rational argument. “Piling on facts when they don’t fit the frame will change nothing,” Seel writes. “Instead one needs a new story” (6). In this sense, imagination matters more than knowledge.

THE CHURCH’S PROBLEM

The problem for the church, Seel says, is that evangelicals rely too much on rational, left-brained thinking that stems from a previous frame (inherited primarily from the Enlightenment). Because we are beholden to the Enlightenment frame, we are biased against the imagination, and we are imprisoned in a “hall of mirrors, trapped in abstractions of our own making, unable to comprehend or connect with actual embodied reality” (18). The old frame shows up typical systematic theologies, in our analytical approaches to the Bible, and in the worldview way of doing apologetics.

In order to reach millennials today, the church needs to emphasize lived experience, not dogmas and doctrines. “Reality is more complex than can be put into words, propositions, and principles,” Seel writes. “You can’t get at reality through left-brained abstractions” (56). What’s more, when we hold tightly to propositional argumentation, we unwittingly turn our children into skeptics. The church is losing the next generation because we are captive to a previous generation’s framing of reality.

THE SEEL SOLUTION

What can be done? Seel urges a transformation of how we understand the Christian life, beginning with a full embrace of the millennial critique of Enlightenment rationalism, so that we open the door and experience a more well-rounded faith. Older Christians must adopt a posture of learning from the next generation. The church must shift its self-perception so that we see ourselves less like travel guides who know everything about our destination and more like hitchhikers on the open road (47).

This transformation begins with the acceptance of open-minded humility and the rejection of closed-minded arrogance. Seel believes that any system closed off to transcendence (whether it be the strident secularism of the new atheists or the dogmatic insistence of Christian fundamentalists) will fail to impress the next generation. We should be seekers, instead of dwellers.

“A fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist atheist have more in common than a progressive Christian and a fundamentalist Christian. The fundamentalists hold to their convictions with a closed fist, confident that they have a corner on the truth. On the other hand, the open Christian or atheist holds their convictions with an open hand, always willing to learn more and acutely aware that even at the points of their strongest convictions they might actually be wrong and that there is more to know than they currently comprehend. . . . Dwelling and seeking is the difference between arrogance and humility.” (48)

Christians who resonate with millennials will adopt the posture of a “humble pilgrim” or “courageous explorer,” not the “arrogant teacher” or “know-it-all theologian” (49). To be clear, Seel is no fan of relativism; he is pushing for a type of humility that opposes the arrogance that comes with certainty. It’s time we embraced a “both/and” imaginative view of the world instead of an “either/or” rationalistic approach. He quotes Richard Rohr:

“Mature people are not either-or thinkers, but they bathe in the ocean of both-and.”

Thus, Frank Schaeffer can be “an atheist who believes in God,” Seel says, which seems contradictory for those in the old Enlightenment frame, but perfectly sensible if you are one of the new Copernicans.

“If faith is living, a closed fist will kill it,” Seel warns. The solution for the church, then, is to hold the faith with an open hand.

But is this the right approach for the church to survive? Or will this way of thinking lead the church to become something else altogether? Tomorrow, I will lay out what I see as the major problems with Seel’s proposal.

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