A letter to millennials

In 1979, when I was a student at Dordt College, Pope John Paul II came to Iowa. My friends and I were so invested in Reformed thinking, and so enamored of Abraham Kuyper, that we made t-shirts with Kuyper’s face and went to Des Moines to protest the Pope. We held signs that read Sola Scriptura to clarify why the Reformation had occurred.
I recall this with embarrassment. To your credit, I can’t imagine those of you in the Millennial generation (born 1980 to 2000) doing such a thing as college students today.

Teaching in the Christian university environment has changed a lot in the last 10 years. In the past it has been fairly easy for me to interest students in denominational or different Christian traditions’ approaches to politics. We’ve talked about Reformed and Catholic policy analysis and students have had some basic understanding of the differences between these groups. This is no longer true. Though my university, Whitworth, has always emphasized a reformed approach, the students coming out of Christian and public schools have changed. You seem less interested in denominations and less interested in church history. You are hardly interested in institutions at all except to be critical of them. This can be frustrating.

At the same time, though, I really enjoy working with you – this generation of Christian university students. You are committed to making a difference in a broken world. You do not emphasize catechism or theology, but you know what Jesus commanded you to do. You care about the environment, discrimination, poverty and relationships. When I compare you to my own peers at that age I find that today’s students have to work harder in the classroom; you must hold jobs in college, and you contribute to your communities more than my friends and I did 30 years ago. You want a world that is more just and your attention is focused in that direction.

Held too tightly
My generation has much to learn from you, but first we have to get to know you. We have to respect you for who you are rather than criticizing you for not being like us. Your heroes are not Abraham Kuyper or John Calvin. Instead you are drawn to Christians like Bryan Stevenson with his focus on racial justice in the legal system, or Gary Haugen, who drew our attention to human trafficking. And I agree with you that these issues are important.

I think that about 30 years ago, a number of people heading Christian institutions made a mistake. Life expectancy had increased and a forced retirement age fell out of favour with legislators and the courts. So, at exactly the time when race and gender issues were stirring the community, Christian leaders held on to their positions without bringing along another generation to replace them. People in charge believed so strongly in their own perspective that they held on tightly to what they controlled. The problem is that the generations that came behind them saw no role for themselves in the institutions, and so you dropped out at alarming rates. In my own discipline, for example, many Christian political science professors left faith-based organizations that were not responsive to racial and gender concerns. Because these faculty were not heavily involved in Christian institutions, they did not get their students involved. Now you, generations removed from the leaders of faith-based institutions, have no context in which to think of yourself as torch-bearers of denominational non-profits or other faith-based organizations.

But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. The interest and commitment of your generation can be regenerated by focusing on the one thing that predicts institutional commitment: involvement.

My advice to every person heading up a faith-based institution is to immediately structure a system that involves the millennial generation in partnered decision making. Instead of lamenting the fact that university-aged students are not embedded in our denominational framework we should acknowledge that you are our future and demonstrate that we want to learn from you.

This is hard to do. It takes imagination and humility; it takes discipline. It also assumes that those of us in charge of things now are going to be willing to see our institutions change. But we have to do this or we risk losing our institutions altogether. Partnering with you is the only way to increase our investment in institutions, and it’s the only way to ensure that the institutions themselves will outlive the rest of us.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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