This article is Part 3 of a discussion on Why Emerging Generations Are Leaving the Church.
Written by reKindle Contributor, Rob Chartrand.
Playing it safe is a lousy way to reach and disciple Millennials.
I'm okay with danger. As a contrarian in a culture that's hyper-focused on safety, I freely let my kids climb trees, skin their knees, eat dirt, and play with sharp objects. Both of my daughters survived into adulthood with all limbs and digits intact.
(A quick sidebar: The term Millennial can be confusing. I won't take the time to define this term, but I will point you toward a recent blog post I wrote that sheds light on this subject.)
By playing it safe, I refer to our culture's gravitational pull toward physical and emotional safety. This eagerness to shelter and affirm the next generation may have unforeseen consequences for discipleship.
A contributing factor has been the past few decades' self-esteem movement, which implored us to stop dousing our children with criticism. It carried the assumption that if we correct kids' mistakes, it will diminish their feelings of worth, resulting in poorer performance. The better alternative has been to help them feel good about themselves, for no particular reason, in a positive environment where the word "fail" is boycotted.
But how effective is this self-esteem strategy? Jean M. Twenge tackles this question head-on in her book Generation Me. She argues that while there is a slight correlation between positive self-esteem and good grades, the vast majority of the research demonstrates that self-esteem is a byproduct of success rather than the primary generator of success. "Self-esteem is an outcome, not a cause. It doesn't do much good to encourage a child to feel good about himself just to feel good; this doesn't mean anything. Children develop true self-esteem from behaving well and accomplishing things" (88). The bottom line is that if you want your kids to gain self-esteem, help them to accomplish goals (start with baby steps) and allow them to learn from failure. To be clear, Millennials didn't create the self-esteem movement - it's a consequence of the therapeutic movement that the Boomers constructed, with its assumptions and values then being implanted into the Millennial social imaginary.
In our present day, this avoidance of criticism hasn't slowed after high school. Some emerging adults exist in a bubble-wrapped cocoon and continue to be coddled by their overprotective, hovering parents who make their lunches, complete their college applications and join them for job interviews. While this isn't true of every family, it's astounding how pervasive over-parenting has become. The result is that today's emerging adults have lost the ability to develop resiliency, which only grows when one is exposed to failure and suffering.
In this milieu, it's not surprising that our college and university campuses have become establishments where free speech is stifled under the guise of rescuing the vulnerable from harmful or oppressive ideas. When safety continues to be our greatest concern, some have begun to forcibly silence those who challenge their ideologies. Greg Lukianoff calls this "the rise of safetyism" which has broadened the definition of safety to include emotional safety, which then governs the use of speech (especially on post-secondary campuses). This hyper-avoidance of danger has apparent drawbacks. "A culture that allows the concept of "safety" to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy" (The Coddling of the American Mind). If you’re looking for a funny embellishment of this cultural climate, I refer you to the Simpsons.
Such is the world that Millennials have inherited and now inhabit. I propose that the issue on the table is whether we perpetuate or expunge this cultural climate as we seek to disciple the next generation. Some assume that the best way to reach Millennials is to soft-peddle the gospel, to offer a more palatable message that demands little and won't make a raucous. They then play it safe and avoid talking about issues that might trigger offense. As it turns out, most of the evidence demonstrates that what Millennials need - and actually want - is more challenge and less coddling.
The problem is that this knee-jerk avoidance of danger doesn't work. Against widespread intuition, a watered-down or syncretized gospel repels more than it attracts. Consider the problem of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It was Christian Smith who first identified the prevalence of this belief system in a study that he spearheaded in the early 2000s. MTD is an Oprah-like version of the gospel with three key components. First, be good, nice, and fair to people. Second, what matters most in life is to feel happy and secure, which are byproducts of the first component. Finally, God demands little from us and will seldom interfere with our lives until we really need him.
MTD is safe, and like beige carpet, it seldom generates hostility. Instead, it produces apathy and ambivalence because it replaces the true gospel with one co-opted by the culture. The result is that young people are abandoning the church, not because we have faithfully preached and lived out the gospel, but because we bear every resemblance to the world in which they live. Why then do they need the church? We have lost our relevance.
Perhaps a better way forward is to preach a challenging gospel that doesn't shy away from difficult topics. My own dissertation research affirms this and reveals that Millennials want challenging teaching that includes controversial topics. One participant in the study said, "If I could phrase it in one word...one change, it would be to 'up the ante'...a bigger challenge. A higher calling of what Christ calls us to do, a bigger sacrifice." Another said, "I think for me the most important thing is...pushing us forward to go deeper and challenging us in a relationship with Christ." As Kinnaman and Matlock state in their recent book: "One of the most hopeful findings in our research is this: young exemplar Christians are more willing to be challenged than the church is willing to challenge them" (Faith for Exiles, 73). I could point to numerous other studies that support this way forward but will abstain for the sake of brevity.
So, what if instead of coddling the next generation, we courageously challenge them? What if we present them with a robust and compelling gospel that bids them to come and die rather than offering a bargain-basement opportunity? What would it look like to wade waist-deep into today's quagmire of controversial cultural issues and humbly present answers that are both thoughtful and biblical?
Rob Chartrand lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is a disciple of Christ, husband, father, pastor, and friend. He also serves as the Lead Pastor of Crosspoint Church (thecrosspointchurch.ca).
Rob is a culture-shaping influencer with over twenty-five years of experience working in churches of various sizes and complexities. As a consultant, he has worked with churches, non-profits, businesses, and denominations to position them for continued strategic success.
He received his Doctor of Ministry in Preaching and Leadership from Asbury Theological Seminary. He holds a MA in Organizational Leadership and Management, as well as a MA in Religion. His undergraduate work includes both theology and philosophy.
Rob is an incessant learner, missional practitioner, team mobilizer, disciple-maker, and organizational developer. He is particularly concerned about the future generation of leaders and disciples. This has compelled him to be a student of Millennials and postmodern culture.
For more thoughts on culture, leadership, mission and millennials, check out Rob's blog.