[dropcap3]L[/dropcap3]ast month, I attended a training conference in Texas and was asked to fill out a general survey at its conclusion. After I finished filling out the unending circles, I leaned over and asked John*, one of my colleagues from another institution, about the survey questions. John is in his 30s and during the conference had struck me as deeply committed to providing care for the students at his institution. John and I had gotten along great throughout the conference, and I was interested in the feedback that he had given on the survey. However, what interested me more than his feedback on the keynote speaker or conference housing accommodations was one of the simpler identifications that he made regarding his religious affiliation. Essentially, in the words of the survey, he identified himself as “none,” or no religious affiliation. After noticing the question, I asked him about his theological heritage and current religious experiences (i.e., the church he attended and ministry experiences). Although claiming to have a strong belief in God, he explained he has a strong distrust of evangelicalism and of the church as an institution. As we were both preparing to leave to catch our flights, I gave him my card and asked him to follow up with me to discuss further the issues that he seemingly had with the church and evangelicalism as a whole.
As it turns out, John is not alone among Americans in regards to their distrust of the church and their disassociation with religious culture, in particular evangelicalism. Like John, one in five Americans do not identify themselves as religious when submitting surveys – typically, they identify themselves as “none” or “no affiliation.”1 Further, these “nones,” as they are popularly called, generally perceive the church and other religious institutions as “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics.”2 This group of people is not your older neighbor who has had one too many tracts left on his car window at Phillies games or that stoic physician/college professor that waves his humanistic ideologies like a flag; those most likely to be “nones” include “young people, those living in the Pacific and New England regions, political independents, and men.”3 If you fall into this demographic, don’t despair; what it does not illustrate is the fact that according to the research, most of the “nones” say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual, or both.4 This presents an interesting problem for the American evangelical church. Evangelicalism is one of the mainstream theological movements within the U.S. – so why is it that while “America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches – from the Southern Baptists to Assemblies of God and nondenominational churches – has gradually declined”?5 Further, we have also seen the influence of evangelicalism outside of the church within culture dwindle just as quickly as the populations within the pews.6 What is an evangelical Christian to do in a time when we are seeing the erosion within the ranks and an inability to perceivably influence cultural change?
[blockquote align=”left”]As it stands now, the research indicates that generally 1 in 3 “nones” surveyed were under 30. Although identifiable by their lack of religious affiliation, these “nones” can also be typified as being made up of mostly Millennials.[/blockquote]These are incredibly complex questions that seemingly have a plethora of potential answers and approaches. However, I was always taught by my mother to start from the most basic principles of a problem and then move up from that point. Consequently, I believe in order to better understand this “erosion,” evangelicals need to rethink their general approach to investing and engaging with the primary demographic of “nones.”
As it stands now, the research indicates that generally 1 in 3 “nones” surveyed were under 30.7 Although identifiable by their lack of religious affiliation, these “nones” can also be typified as being made up of mostly Millennials. Who or what are the Millennials? Essentially, they are the generation that is currently enrolled in or recently graduated from universities across the country. What characterizes these current higher education students? Millennials – the American twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood at the start of a new millennium–are generally positively characterized as incredibly intelligent, technologically savvy, confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.8 Yet, despite this optimistic description, the Millennials desperately need constructive direction and investment if they are to make a difference in our world. “A lack of patience and loyalty, in addition to a strong feeling of entitlement, are some of the perceived characteristic weaknesses of this young generation.”9 Further, we need to realize that Millennials know a lot about religion, yet they have little engagement with it and movements of spirituality due to their overt distrust of the religious “institution.” Their perception of religious experience focuses upon personal, i.e., individualized, “authentic” experiences. However, the Millennials are a generation of action and not just talk. They want to be a part of something that is making an impact in the world that they live in, and they believe that issues need to be resolved with immediacy.10 When Millennials do not see the church significantly engaging or responding to crisis around the world, they become indifferent to the institution and the missional paradigms within.
[dropcap3]S[/dropcap3]o how do we address this generation and their eroding investment in the church? Over the years of working with college-aged students, inside and outside of the church, what I have seen is that this generation is looking for strong relationships and educational insight into theology that is rich in depth and understanding. As stated earlier, Millennials are incredibly intelligent, and, when they are not informed, they know how and where to find information quickly and efficiently. Further, they “embrace philosophical and theological beliefs that reflect skepticism rather than overt antagonism toward religion.11 Given this perspective, the evangelical Church needs to illustrate that being a Christian means being thoughtful and intelligent. We need to be able to articulate what we believe and why; we need to be prepared to provide strong apologetics for our perspective. For this generation, “Sunday School” answers about Christian theology will not cut it! The church as a whole needs to be able to respond to them with real answers about their questions regarding Christianity, theology, ethics, the relationship of theology and education, professions, etc.
Obviously, working in higher education, specifically at Cairn, as a Cairn alumnus and seminary graduate, I firmly believe that a strong integrated theological education is important to be able to engage Millennials with the church. Cairn’s educational paradigm is intentionally centered upon the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word, and therefore, we are preparing students and challenging them to biblically integrate their educational experiences to model professionalism, character, and a knowledge of God’s Word. But it just doesn’t stop there: Millennials are anticipating the church to be invested and involved in their community and internationally, serving and supporting those in need, experiencing crisis, etc. Consequently, at Cairn, rather than apathetically hoping that students are investing into their local churches, we mandate that students apply the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that they have gleaned in and outside the classroom to their required ministry experiences, practicums, student teaching experiences, internships, etc. We want to see them investing into the local church with what they have learned and influencing their peers to understand that Kingdom work is more than just sharing a simple gospel or the Four Spiritual Laws. Rather, it is influencing culture and engaging their peers by providing an understanding of the depth and richness of God’s Word and modeling it in their lives. Our hope is that through our efforts and their engagement, we will not only invest into the lives of the “nones” in society at large, but will impact the very lives of these Millennials in our care for the good of the Gospel and the Kingdom.
These Millennials are looking for more than just a conversation about theology; they want a real personal investment. They’re anticipating that a conversation is more than just proselytizing, but an illustration of sincere depth of insight and investment. These qualities would likely improve all of our Kingdom-building relationships. While the core of the “nones” overlaps with these Millennials, we need to realize that there is not a single demographic group of people in the U.S. that does not include “nones.” “‘Nones’ exist among the least educated and the most educated. ‘Nones’ exist among the poor and the rich. ‘Nones’ exist among every racial and ethnic group. ‘Nones’ exist in every geographic region in the U.S.”12 Consequently, if we are to respond to this generation, we need to realize that the “nones” are a rich constituency that is primed for engagement and investment. As we see in people like my colleague John, “‘spiritual but not religious’ has become the catchphrase of our times.”+ As the evangelical church, we need to engage this ideology, and we need to ask ourselves the question of whether or not we are willing to prepare ourselves to invest into this generation’s future. The type of investment that will make an impact is not solely sharing the Four Spiritual Laws, nor is it a simple “hello” at church. Rather, we need to begin to prepare ourselves, especially our young people in the church, to embrace this generation with a new level of authenticity that goes beyond the perfunctory greeting in the welcome area of a church. Further, we need to be challenged and potentially embrace those biblical ideals that are characteristic of this generation, rejecting entitlement and other negative characteristics. We must do this so that the we as the church – especially the Millennial generation – can influence the church and culture around us for the Kingdom, focusing less on the self and more on engaging the church, society, and the world. For better or worse, this generation is the future generation of parents, citizens, church leaders, employers, etc. – We would do well to appropriately invest into them at all costs!
[framed_box]Tom Sherf is the Dean of Students at Cairn University. He graduated from Cairn in 2001 and has served on the Student Life staff since 2004. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Name changed for this article