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millennials and the survival of the church - really?

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

A review of David John Seel Jr.'s The New Copernicans.

The New Copernicans serves a pan-pan warning to the Church, drawing her attention to the cultural frame shift that is taking place in North America today. This shift in the social imaginary of the West (i.e., her values, institutions, laws, symbols), while not caused by Millennials is carried by today’s emerging adults. In other words, this shift, while clearly surveyed in Millennials, a group that constitutes an entire third of the US’ adult population, it is not simply isolated to this particular demographic or age cohort. Rather, this shift toward a “New Copernican” way of thinking, as Seel has coined it, is truly indicative of the paradigmatic permutation that is taking place right now at the very core of North American societal fabric – and is a shift we must become aware of.

So, what exactly is this frame shift, and what does it have to do with the Church?

According to Seel, this “New Copernican” shift is most clearly visible in Millennials’ collective rejection of the West’s centuries-long bias toward left-brain, abstract thinking and a renaissance toward more right-brained activities like imagination, beauty, art, narrative and lived experience. More clearly, it is a shift away from the closed and passé views of both fundamentalist religious propositions and atheistic scientific fact – both social imaginaries Seel believes are becoming increasingly culturally irrelevant – and toward a more open, explorative social imaginary, one described by words like haunted, authentic, experiential and neo-pagan. In other words yet, it is a shift away from Enlightenment to post-modernity; from religiosity to DIY spirituality; from arrival to pilgrimage, quest; from cold, scientific fact to an openness to,

and acceptance of mysticism, enchantment and the paranormal. In short, truth is no longer the on-ramp for this generation; it’s longing, relevance, meaning. And thus, this a shift the Church cannot afford to miss out on, this is a shift the Church cannot avoid or ignore, for the effectiveness of our apologetics and evangelism, our ability to disciple and retain the emerging generations, our very mission, and truly, the survival of the Church as a whole, depends on it. In the words of Seel, surely, this is the missional front line for the Church today. We must not miss this opportunity.

So, what now? Where do we go from here?

Well, simply put, we learn; we observe, we listen, we seek to empathize and to understand. And then we respond accordingly. In the words of Seel, when confronted with change – and surely, we are! – we do what crisis leadership demands of us to survive: we adapt.

So how can the Church adapt to this frame shift that is taking place? How can the Church seek to have a relevant voice and presence amongst today and tomorrow’s New Copernicans? Here are a few of Seel’s thoughts:

  • Embrace the methodological practice of Incarnation, daily seeking to visibly live in reliance on the reality of God

  • Seek to regularly create safe space for genuine self-reflection, relational and authentic human connection, and spiritual exploration

  • Develop an apologetic based on desire (think: imagination and heart), acknowledging that desire and longing are clear onramps for spiritual pilgrimage and direction toward the person of Christ

  • Develop an evangelistic model that is more concerned about joining the exploration than closing the deal

  • Develop a robust theology of creation and stewardship, proudly carrying the mantle of custodians of creation and bringers of justice, peace, reconciliation and restoration

  • Raise up, celebrate and honor beauty and the arts in the Church – and start paying the artists what they’re worth!

  • Seek to facilitate authentic experiences of following Jesus in all arenas of life, giving ample opportunity to connect your personal story with the larger narrative of God

In summary, while this looming frame shift can be seen as the greatest challenge to the Church in the twenty-first century, it can and should also be embraced as the Church’s greatest opportunity. The shift is real, and it’s coming. In fact, the shift is already here. And yet the good news is that it’s not too late to respond. It’s not too late to learn and to adapt and change for the sake of the mission, and for the sake of the Church. In fact, unless we respond, the Church faces the consequence of becoming increasingly ineffective and irrelevant to the world today.

May we embrace this inevitable shift and rise the occasion with greater cultural awareness, an aptitude for contextualization and change, and an even deeper conviction of the person, power and holistically redemptive work of Christ Jesus.

So how are you and/or your church going to adapt to this New Copernican shift?

For more on this current and coming frame shift and the Church’s response, check out: Seel, David John, Jr.. The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018.

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