Listen to Millennials, please

Posted Oct 05, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Nadia Bolz-Weber, guest blogger


This past weekend I taught a class at Iliff School of Theology on Emerging Church in the US and the UK. Predictably the issue of social media came up as did some expressed discomfort with things like text messaging and Facebook interactions replacing “real community.” A couple of folks cringed when I said that I do a lot of pastoral care via text messaging, which brought up the issues of Millennial culture and authority.

I encouraged folks (as I usually do) to look at Pew Research Center’s work on Millennials and what characterizes Millennial culture. There even is an on-line How Millennial Are You? quiz one can take to see where you rank generationally and culturally. My goal in having people look at this research is to help them see the ways in which mainline Protestant churches are, for the most part, not located culturally in a Millennial context, and yet Millennial culture will only be taking up increasingly more space in the American landscape, not less.

The conversations I hear in the church about young people seem to be people over 50 trying to figure out how we can stop the church from dying—how can we “target” populations (please don’t ever, for any reason, use this term) who aren’t in church, how can we be more “relevant” (same goes here), how can we get young adults to be involved. I realize that these conversations, which happen all over the country, are in large part coming from a place of loving the church and wanting it to be around for the next generations, but I think these conversations are not really helping us. It’s like asking, “How can we make horse and buggies appealing to Baby Boomers?” Just because they may not be in any way interested in a horse and buggy doesn’t mean they don’t care about transportation.

Another way of looking at it is that you can try to market land-lines to teenagers till the cows come home. You can do as much market research as you’d like and lament the fact that kids just don’t care about phones anymore because none of them have land-lines. Or you can get some kids to tell you about cell phones and the ways in which they love to communicate with those they love even though their ways look different than your ways. What I mean is this: If younger generations are not coming to church, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about the gospel. It just means that their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is culturally different from what they see in most mainline churches. This is not to say that mainline churches are not a faithful expression of the gospel, only that it is no longer a normative expression of the gospel.

Conversations about how to save the church should maybe shift in this way: We should find all the people we can who rank high on the Millennial scale (they can be any age, trust me!) and who answered “very” to that one question “how important is it to you personally to lead a deeply religious life?” and then ask them “what does it look like to be the church?” Since they are native to the cultural shift in which we find ourselves, they have an authority to speak to a burgeoning ecclesiology that we may not yet be able to envision.

Here’s what I like about the New Media Project: They seem to recognize that while one side of the church is criticizing the use of new media as a sign of the downfall of the traditional church, the other side sees it as the “answer” which, if adopted quickly, can prevent the downfall of the traditional church. Neither approach is useful they seem to understand. So my hope is that the New Media Project will instead continue to ask those for whom new media is not “new” at all (those who are native to it) and who love the gospel what it means to them, and how they see it as part of being the body of Christ. They are the ones who can tell us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, one of the case studies of the New Media Project. She holds an M.Div. from Illiff School of Theology and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? She blogs regularly on Sarcastic Lutheran.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

9 Comments

  1. 1 naninarizona 31 Jan
    Readers might learn from taking a look at the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life - a virtual community that is this year struggling with whether the original massive beautiful virtual cathedral is the best expression of the community's needs for the future. A simpler platform has now been built and viewers are invited to visit and comment on it's design as space for worship and prayer going forward into the future.
  2. 2 Ann 31 Jan
    As someone about to be 70, I don't like being cast as the enemy of millennial culture. Written on my iPad! Give us a break - we are on a steep learning curve.
  3. 3 reveliza 31 Jan
    love the way paul subverted and transformed the roman road super highway into a way of liberation by taking the gospel to the ends of those roads... the emerging church is doing the same with the www.
  4. 4 reveliza 31 Jan
    see also www.missionstclare.com
  5. 5 Anonymous 31 Jan
    reveliza's mention of Paul is helpful--he was extremely innovative in using every element of Empire and culture he could bend to the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Yet he didn't ask the Corinthians what they thought church should look like--he called them to its central tenets in spite of what they knew about being "religious" in their cultural milieu. Even this post's plea to "listen" is based on one side listening to the other. History suggests that it's in both sides listening, entering the dynamic and creative tension that would change both sides, that the Spirit moves to draw the church--in all its ossified, relevant, dynamic, static, wonderful, awful, all-too-human glory--closer to the Kingdom.
  6. 6 Melissa Wiginton 31 Jan
    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I found it very helpful.
  7. 7 Ana 31 Jan
    Thanks, Nadia. Do we really have to have this same discussion every time something new shows up on the radar, just because we didn't invent it? What if we were to acknowledge that there really is no "normative" expression of the Gospel; that each and every one of us is gifted with an integral piece of the godly pie? What if we learned (and taught) how to manage our internal weather and bring our best selves to serve the larger community. That could start a revolution.
  8. 8 Pat Pope 31 Jan
    Well said. In fact, why don't we learn to listen to all people? We just might learn something from each other rather than casting off what we don't understand.
  9. 9 Charles Ragland 31 Jan
    Thanks to Nadia for this and also for her candid and helpful illustrated words at the Phillips Theological Seminary in January 2012. If I may respond to a point from "Anonymous" above on 10-6-11: Paul's letters to the Corinthians did employ Greek rhetorical devices to convey the Gospel and he did communicate the Gospel in Greek, not the Aramaic of the "old church" in Jerusalem. He used these cultural tools familiar to the Corinthians to teach them the "central tenets" as you label them. We can think of these central tenets as the basic "grammar" of the Christian faith, the distinctive content of the Christian faith and how that content is intended to shape human life. In a real sense, then, Paul had been preparing to "listen to" the Corinthians so he could effectively and faithfully convey the Gospel--the "grammar of the Christian faith"--while he had been growing up and was being educated in the cosmopolitan city of Antioch, yes?

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