A Beacon of Hope
The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church by David John Seel Jr.
MY MOTHER WAS ONLY 19 years older than I was. Although she died when I was in my early 20’s and didn’t have to navigate parenting adult children for very long, many of my transitions into adulthood were not all that dissimilar to ones that she had experienced when she was young. We could easily talk about dating, faith, friendships, loneliness, expectations and loss. This is not always the case with my own two twenty-something daughters. Their young adult world is so vastly different from the one grew up in that I feel I need a copy of What to Expect When Your Millennials are Adulting book on my shelf. And yes, adulting has become a word. People are actually teaching classes on how to become an adult because the parenting ethos for my generation of parents was often one filled with anxiety about not doing enough for our children so that now these over-parented children find it difficult to take care of themselves.
In the recent Canadian study released by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada entitled Renegotiating Faith: The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What it Means for the Church, authors Rick Hiemstra, Lorianne Deuck and Matthew Blackaby paint a picture of young adults who seem to be in a holding pattern, unable to land on fully orbed identity as an adult. One result of deferred transitional markers into adulthood is that young adults are left with very few ways to differentiate themselves from their parents as adults in their own right. One of the few ways left where emerging can demonstrate that they are unique from their parents is in their religious identity, leaving them to choose religious worldviews other than Christianity or no faith life at all.
Like many of my peers, I often feel at a loss as to how to speak into a world that plays out on screens and in texts and soundbites. Like many of my peers, I grieve that my daughters have yet to find a faith community where they feel nurtured and free to explore their questions and theological ponderings. Compound that loss, frustration, and fear with the incredible burden I share with congregations across North America as we watch our Millennials, Gen X’s and Z’s walk out our doors, and it is hard not to feel despondent.
Enter David John Seel Jr and his New Copernicans – a book that delivers both a searing critique of an Evangelicalism that has become overly proud, as well as a beacon of hope for those who lean heavily into the idea of Persevering Saints and a God who never gives up on his covenant promises. Seel’s book is written for parents and preachers, educators and youth workers and all who want to better understand the context for the Millennial ethos and exodus as well as those who want to create strategies for engaging the next generations in their current context.
There are many take-aways from Seel’s book, but here are a few that I believe make it a must read for anyone who has emerging adults in their lives.
While we definitely need books like Growing Young (Powell, Mulder, and Griffin) which include strategies to help congregations create cultures that make room and retain our young people, Seel reminds us that not all Millennials are interested in coming back to a Church that has disappointed them or doesn’t seem relevant to them. We need to go to them with an openness that helps us re-envision what being Church could be for those living in a new post-Christian world.
Not all who wander are lost. Seel reminds us to lean into hope and grace. Wandering and exploring one’s possible identity has always been a part of the maturing process. What has changed is that the wandering is taking longer and what once were the fixed milestones that grounded young people into adulthood and lead them back to an engaged Christian faith life and community: marriage, children, career, etc., have shifted. Further, the paths into adulthood are more diverse and longer. Those of us who are watching wandering loved ones need to be patient, available and not so quick to judge. Exploring another world view does not immediately entail abandoning the life of faith.
Seel calls the Church to become humble and encourages all of us to have teachable hearts that are willing to explore alongside the young adults who have questions about Christianity and the Church. For far too long Christians have exuded this attitude that we have God all figured out, and that there is no room for doubt or questions. That’s led many a millennial to view Christians as blindly self righteous and, ironically, unable to trust that God through his Spirit will reveal himself when the world around them seems murky and gray. Seel is not promoting relativism, but rather, a willingness to admit that we still see through a glass dimly.
This book reminds us to allow our young adults to serve as guides to a new imaginary and framework which will serve to help us engage a post-Christian world that still needs Jesus. Like Copernicus himself, Seel’s New Copernicans understand this new universe and can actually help congregations be more effective in translating the Good News of God’s love through Christ in language that can be understood.
The challenge is not to lead with hurt and blame when we engage this generation and the ones that follow. For many of us who love Jesus and his Bride, the Church, it is hard for us to imagine anyone wanting to leave. If our children are leaving what does this say about us, our faith, and the institution we have dedicated our lives to? Instead of asking what is wrong with us, or more likely what is wrong with them, Seel encourages us to move past blame into conversation and a willingness to repent of what has often been perceived as an intolerant smugness on the part of Christians.
CALL TO ACTION
Heed the “pan-pan” warning. Seel uses this nautical term that signals that we are in an urgent situation needing immediate attention and action to remind us that we cannot address this cultural shift in the typical slow to change approach most churches are known for. We must be willing to re-think our present “if we build it, they will come” approach to engaging the world around us and be willing to go out into the community around us, now more than ever. Perhaps the motivator will be the realization that numbered among “those who are far off” are our children.