They are born after 1980. They don’t know much about Thatcher, but they do know about Bieber. They take “selfies.” Much discussed, oft-misunderstood, they are the Millennials.
A December 2013 poll of this much-fretted-over demographic offered fresh light on their political views. Harvard University’s Institute of Politics conducted the poll and found that 35 percent of Millennials approve of Democratic congressmen and just 19 percent of Republican congressmen.
This data leads to rumination both sociological and theological. How, exactly, will Millennial Christians—in a jaded generation but not of it—engage with politics, with the public square? The way Millennials answer this question will play a vital role in the public prospects of Christianity in America and the West.
A hard night’s day: Public Christianity after the Moral Majority
With apologies to the Beatles, the last thirty years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the “Moral Majority” left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and justly confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant “big gospel” movement of the last decade (like the New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority and its ilk, adopting an “apolitical” or relatively indifferent political stance.
This is a partly helpful and partly unhelpful response to their heritage. It is helpful because it means that many young church planters and pastors and thinkers will avoid reducing the faith to a policy position. They will focus on making friendships with people not like them and living a “missional” way-of-life. The church will be the listening church, a spiritual body of believers that gathers to hear the lion of the Scripture roar from His Word each week.
This response is unhelpful because young Christian leaders might forget that the church must also be the speaking church. Many Millennial leaders understand the dire need for evangelization of lost friends, but fewer grasp the importance of public square witness. Few of us Millennials will emulate the Moral Majority at its apex, but we also must recognize that, in their imperfect way, various figures of this group spoke courageously on behalf of the unborn, the natural family, and the moral fabric of their nation. There was real bravery, and real sacrifice, in this witness. It came at a real cost in a culture and society that now reads any attempt, however noble, to intervene in others’ lives as hostile and injurious.
Unlike the Moral Majority, many Millennials are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics. Let me get down and dirty here: If your only significant act of public square proclamation is a sneering disavowal of Jerry Falwell, you’re doing it wrong. A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce, and Colson cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality. Neither can it accept the velvet muzzle its opponents offer. It cannot dance like a celebrity cha-chaing his way back to the C-list when a confused church member asks for guidance on cultural questions of grave import.
It must speak. It must offer a new social witness.
Not only this, but that: four paths toward a new social witness
How, though? How can younger evangelicals who have no inclination to start a PAC or accost people on the sidewalk while holding impressively weathered clipboards engage in public square witness? Let me suggest four broad ways forward.
First, young Christians can recover a sense of social agency. I find a striking paradox in the mind of many Millennial Christians today. We love Bonhoeffer, and we thrill to Wilberforce’s daring and spectacularly successful efforts. When it comes to our own moment, though, we feel beaten down. The culture seems so big and bad and scary and foreordained, and so we toggle back to Facebook and retreat to our Bon Iver playlist. Something’s not clicking here. Millennial Christians need to recover a sense of agency in the culture. Almighty God is our benefactor, and He’s got way more power than any billionaire the New Yorker might profile in 8,000 skeptical words.
I have utterly no idea what the future of America and the West looks like. Things in general are not promising, to be sure. Much seems to be slipping away from us in our day. But I resist a narrative of our culture suffused with gloom and written in stone. In the face of some jaw-dropping defeats, we also are seeing some enlivening gains, especially in the pro-life realm. God is unstoppable, and of the reign of His kingdom there is no end. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Second, young Christians can speak up for truth on behalf of flourishing. Part of what has pushed some Millennials away from being the speaking church is that we have not always heard our leaders make the biblical connection between rightness and health, truth and flourishing. But what is true is always what is best. We need to make this elegant connection on moral matters.
Millennials have an opportunity today to speak on matters of sexuality and gender, for example, from the perspective of both rightness and health. It is wrong to change God’s super-intelligent design for the family, for example. But we also must make clear that altering the family will not lead to human flourishing. Let this message ring out from a thousand missional pulpits (or elevated coffee tables, as it were).
Third, young Christians can count their lives and reputations as nothing. Millennial believers are cursed by a desire to be popular. We want friends, virtual and actual. We don’t want to be tagged with the epithet greater than that which cannot be known: awkward.
I understand this desire. It’s no good thing to be hated for its own sake. But we must not forget the long, bloody and glorious tradition of courageous Christian public witness. It starts with Moses holding court in a pagan Egyptian throne room, extends to Daniel praying in public and thereby facing down a horde of Persian courtiers eager to see him torn limb from limb, jumps to the grisly martyrdom of John the Baptist for offering a short course in public ethics, and peaks with Christ before Caesar, sacrificial and triumphant in death (Exod. 5-11; Dan. 6; Matt. 14; 27). However nimble and winsome we young evangelicals must be, we also must shake the heavens with our prayers for courage, the courage to speak even in the face of persecution so that evil and death might lose and righteousness and neighbor-love might win.
Fourth, young Christians must play hardball when necessary. In practical terms, this means not only engaging the culture when a particularly momentous vote or decision is at hand, but in the many smaller events that lead to the historic ones. Our new social witness must be marked both by love and by an appropriate evangelical Realpolitik. Not every issue is created equal. But we must not consent to a death by a thousand cultural cuts, either.
Millennials have extensive and often-overlooked biblical precedent for this kind of action. We can cite Joseph acting shrewdly as an administrator of the state for the goodness of his people, Esther using her queenly position to advocate for the salvation of the Jews from genocide (working closely with Mordecai), and the Apostle Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship as just a few biblical examples of the kind of gracious hardball we can play in the public square (Gen. 41-47; Esth. 2-10; Acts 22-26).
Few of us can predict what the future of America will be. Whether poll numbers on social questions rise or fall among youngsters, I am not most concerned with data. I am most concerned with the church and its future. Extraordinary and altogether necessary attention has been paid to our identity as the listening church. More attention needs to be devoted to our tricky, historically problematic, but hugely important identity as the speaking church. May we do so in coming days, speaking love and truth, never giving up, never abandoning our neighbor, never falling silent.