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How the Unchurched Can be the Savior of the Churched

The New York Jets despise the New England Patriots. It’s a visceral rivalry.

The New Copernicans, the forthcoming book on millennials by David John Seel, Jr., claims that the survival of the church is dependent on the church’s response to millennials.

It’s a claim like the New England Patriots survival is dependent on the New York Jets. One might immediately conclude that if this is the case, the game is over. For with “friends” like this who needs enemies.

This is an audacious claim. It’s a notion that might even strike one as humorous. For in general, millennials don’t like the church or as they might describe it, “organized religion.” They particularly don’t like the evangelical church and its complicity with the Trump administration. They are the demographic champions of the “spiritual but not religious,” those sociologists call “religious nones.”

So what do you mean when you claim that the survival of the church is dependent on millennials?

There is a superficial demographic argument that suggests that the church will not flourish if it ignores the most dominant demographic cohort since the baby boomers. Youth participation in church will continue to decline. With this decline, average church membership will age and the institution will eventually implode. We’ve seen this in many mainline Protestant churches. Evangelical churches are next in line.

This same fear is facing many organizations and corporations today regarding millennials. The Republican Party, the U.S. Olympics, and the Applebee’s restaurant chain are all struggling to figure out ways to attract young people. Millennials have become the most valued brand audience in the commercial marketplace. Churches are naive to think that these forces do not also bear on their eventual survival.

But to think of the analysis of this book in merely demographic terms is to largely miss the point. Churches will think that adding special programs geared to young people or adding a youth ministers to the staff can solve the millennial problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem will necessarily impact one’s entire approach to ministry. Therein lies the difficulty facing the church. Few will be open to making the frame shift required.

There is a more substantive reason why millennials are important to the church. It is not simply because of their number, but because of the way they think. Millennials think different. And it is this difference that makes all the difference. Not only will millennials bypass the church if it doesn’t respond to their changing point of view, the church itself will lose one of its most important teachable moments if it doesn’t listen to them. For it is my contention that millennials not only think different, they think better. That is, to follow the New Copernican ethos is to become ironically more like Jesus.

Some might see this entire project as an exercise in cultural accommodation. Theological conservatives will claim that this is exactly what led mainline churches from their liberalism to irrelevance.

This critique assumes that the evangelical church has not already accommodated to culture and the millennial rejection of them is as much a rejection of this accommodation as to the church itself. The evangelical church has accommodated itself to the left-brain cognitive framework of the Enlightenment. This includes its over emphasis on propositions, doctrine, either/or binaries, Gnostic intellectualism, and generalized disenchanted rationalism (i.e., evidence that demands a verdict and God is not dead).

New Copernicans, while not monolithically the same, are generally the first demographic cohort to be post-Enlightenment and post-secular. They have adopted a totally new frame through which to perceive relationships and reality. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that emerged in the 18th century—around the time of the American and French Revolutions. It was largely a rejection of the medieval synthesis and gave rise to a celebration of science, reason, and technology. The Protestant Reformation further contributed to the breakup of the medieval synthesis and fueled the acceptance of the Enlightenment frame.

Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin writes, “During the worldwide explosion of European political, commercial, and military power following the Enlightenment, Christian missions shared in this expansion. Christian missions were, in fact, among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment into other continents.... The churches of Europe and their cultural offshoots in the Americas had largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.” This means that the millennial abandonment of the Enlightenment will heavily impact contemporary evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment share many common characteristics; one cannot reject one without doing significant damage to the other. So the hidden blessing of New Copernicans, for those willing to listen, is its exposure of the church's cultural accommodations. New Copernicans are unconscious carriers of the postmodern critique of modernity, churches cannot continue to ignore this critique, double down on modernity, and expect to have anything meaningful to say. New Copernicans are the virulent carriers of a fundamental cognitive disruption.

They are also post-secular in the Enlightenment sense of the word secular. They disregard the assumptions of the secularization thesis that suggested that advanced societies as they become more urbanized, pluralized, and commercialized would inevitably and increasingly abandon interest in God. New Copernicans are proof that this is not the case. While they adopt an immanent frame—a perspective in no way dependent on the transcendent—as their default social imaginary, they continue to be haunted by the possibility of something more, of a transcendent reality just beyond their grasp that potentially brings meaning into their fragile lives.

The New Copernican outlines the parameters of this frame shift and suggests new opportunities for meaningful engagement with New Copernicans. For their critique of the church points the way to new opportunities.

There is no love lost between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. They carry the NFL version of the baseball rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees. But if playing the Jets exposed a fixable problem on the New England team, this exposure could only be received as a gift. New Copernicans represent the same to the evangelical church.

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