Disgruntled Millennials and Theology of the Cross

It’s hard to talk about millennials without feeling the same confusion as Whit Stillman’s post-college […]

Will McDavid / 4.24.14

It’s hard to talk about millennials without feeling the same confusion as Whit Stillman’s post-college prep, Des McGrath, over the term “yuppie”, ht DZ:

Des McGrath: Do yuppies even exist? No one says, “I am a yuppie,” it’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.

Dan Powers: Of course yuppies exist. Most people would say you two are prime specimens.

Someone asked me the other day what the term ‘millennials’ means, and though I seem to check most of the boxes (20-something, anxious, on a misguided quest for authenticity, etc), I was at a loss for definition. Blogger Rachel Held Evans, who popularized the term with regard to religion, advocated an interesting, but vague, solution: not a change in style but a change in substance, and greater authenticity. It may just be my Gen-Y skepticism, but the authenticity thing seems a little off-base, in a world where authenticity has become another selling point for almost anything and where Christianity seems, if anything, “supersubstantial” (Lord’s Prayer).


The fact that Christianity can seem overbearing shouldn’t be news to anyone with agnostic friends, from whom complaints like “He’s just so church-y”, or “You can hardly talk to her without Jesus coming in” are regular things. And though older generations may sometimes seem “inauthentic” or “social” Christians, if we ‘millennials’ step back a bit, it becomes hard to argue we’re winning the authenticity game. There are so many different beliefs available, not to mention jobs, significant others, places to live, and tolerable food groups (“ovo-lacto pescetarianism”) that the wheels of identity creation and maintenance never stop turning. With the openness and indeterminacy of available twenty-something identities comes a certain freedom, once which we’re loath to give up. The idea that Church may be too defining is an interesting one, and something picked up by a genuinely helpful article on millennials from The Christian Post:

Millennials have more life disruptions than people of other stages of life,” Todd Pickett, dean of Spiritual Development and professor of spiritual formation at Biola, told The Christian Post. “They are moving around a lot, they are changing relational networks. The highly mobile nature of the Millennial makes it hard for them to settle down into churches, it makes it hard to settle into patterns of life anyway.

Without wanting to step on the toes of Rachel Held Evans, who issued a clarion call for churches to change substance, maybe a dimmer view of our generational priorities is in order. It’s hard to settle down precisely because, at a time when friend groups and instagram accounts and hobbies can be so closely tailored to what I, the individual, want, having to deal with a church that doesn’t always reflect my priorities can be difficult. I’m not used to sacrificing my path and my self-actualization. The Christian Post again:

Finally, [Pickett] highlighted that currently, there’s an emphasis on individual authority and individual decision-making, which makes traditional authorities like churches “peripheral and optional” for Millennials. They may say, “I don’t need an institution, I’m the one who makes decisions about my life,” according to Pickett.

“To the degree that there is a culture of individualism is to the degree that the church is going to be less appealing,” he explained.

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Churches which preach failure, i.e., theology of the cross, especially run counter to this individualism, and tend to be less popular as a result. It’s hard to disagree with Paul Zahl’s view that “the wisdom to be found in religion is for the young. But it seems they have to hit the wall first” (PZ’sPanopticon). Of course, some churches succeed by giving millennials lots of Christian substance and a glowing affirmation of their willpower – the best of both worlds. I’m reminded now of Anthony Sacramone’s home-run a few months back, where he talks about the appeal of an excessively modernized Calvinism:

Calvinism, like other evangelical movements, offers new beginnings. Under powerful preaching, even the baptized come to believe they are starting a new life in Christ. Before they may have experienced, or been subjected to, dead religion with its rituals and liturgies, but now they have living faith — a personal relationship with the Risen Christ. They often mark their lives by the day they came to faith (which had nothing to do with water baptism) and how nothing was the same after that. We love the idea of the do-over. The Lutheran teaching of continual repentance does not have the same psychological effect (nor is it intended to)…

Lutheranism is never going to be as “appealing” as Calvinism. It’s going to have to settle for being a church that former/burned-out Reformed repair to.

Maybe ‘millennials’ are looking for more substance, and articulating that substance as the opportunity for a new, better me is a sure way to grow attendance (the nearly-simultaneous explosion of Prosperity Gospel and secular Self-Help, for instance, seems less than merely coincidental). It seems like what Sacramone calls the “Lutheran teaching” would be helpful in the long run for deconstructing millennial identity, because our search for a better spiritual identity misses the point that the searcher, him or her self, and the search itself are the problems. We’re getting into the thorny terrain of self-justification, and when seemingly good news (I can be better) turns bad (I missed morning quiet time again – I’m a failure), Christianity often, metonymically, takes the fall:

rd2“Millennials are in that difficult developmental stage where they have not yet learned to handle the fact that our ideals will always run ahead of our actual lives,” he said. “There will always be a gap between who we are and who we want to be. I think they see that gap in other people and it discourages them.”

“Millennials may have very high expectations for moral and spiritual success, which is going to have to take place over a lifetime,” he continued. “That might turn them away from going to church because we’re all imperfect and that is one of the very reasons we’ve come to Christ.

“Imperfection to them is discouragement and what they don’t know is that much of our Christian growth takes place through the knowledge of our own failures, not through the knowledge of our successes.”

The two facets of this difficulty with imperfection would be judgment of others and self-recrimination, depending on our level of honesty about whether or not we’re spiritually succeeding.

Church self-help sells Christianity effectively, but in the long run, it turns people away, too. Some pastors see twenty-somethings as people too tempted by drinking or sex or facebook or careerism. Such concerns push people away or, when they don’t, draw people into that strange oscillation between self-righteousness and self-reproach – not incidentally, two of the biggest complaints non-churchgoers have about organized religion or religion in general. Maybe instead of seeing millennial problems as a series of moral crises, we could see them as an overconfidence in one’s ability to succeed and a corresponding anxiety when reality threatens that confidence.


Though Pickett’s “knowledge of our own failures” will never sell, Christianity’s power to deconstruct cultural myths of self-help and spiritual empowerment is profound, and more needed than ever. If we asked “what do millennials need?”, in many cases I’ve run across, the best answer would be “normalization and forgiveness of failure.” In social mobility, identity mobility, career mobility, or fashion mobility,  we’re anxiously looking to a higher point on the ladder. Another ladder to climb, another vector for self-improvement, will always be what we want, but not what we need. So maybe the question isn’t “how to get millennials back to church”, but rather, “what do they need from church?” And theology of the cross wouldn’t be a technique to arrest the decline of faith among Gen Y, but it would be a wonderful, genuinely countercultural balm waiting in the wings for those who’ve tumbled down the spiritual ladder or berated themselves for stagnating in the climb.

If millennials (again, a mediocre-but-unavoidable descriptor) do have a reliable touchstone for authenticity, or reality, it would be those voices warning us that the climb perhaps isn’t all it’s made out to be. To say that ambition begets disillusion isn’t pessimistic, but realistic. We instinctively make fun of people who brag about their job or their hobbies or their marriage or their faith in part because we’re envious, but in part, too, because we fear the anxiety an obsession with the climb would cause us. Those fears are valid: to quote one of fiction’s wisest characters, “Many who try to climb [the ladder] fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them” (GoT 3.6). Distrust of organized religion is merely a defense mechanism for our sanity, a way to ward off the fear of seeing others higher on the ladder than ourselves or a fear of the fall.

But Lord Baelish’s words are ultimately hopeful. As Gerhard Forde put it, “To make room for grace alone we are forced to push man down to absolutely the lowest possible position on the ladder – if not off it altogether.” The Church can do this by preaching the Law, or life can do it, given enough time for people to “hit the wall”, in Panopticon terms. Perhaps the Church’s value to millennials lies in its promise of life after the ladder, resurrection to freedom after death to the Law. Guidelines for moral self-improvement were our schoolmaster, as the KJV memorably put it. “But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”

[Content warning: sexually implicit:]