David John Seel Jr.: Millennials and the Survival of the Church
The New Copernicans
Millennials and the Survival of the Church
(Thomas Nelson, 2018)
WHO: David John Seel Jr., a cultural-renewal entrepreneur and social-impact consultant.
HE SAYS: “There is a fundamental frame shift in American society that is carried, not caused, by millennials, and this understanding of reality (or social imaginary) that they demonstrate is a direct challenge to the church.”
BIG IDEA: The church needs to strategically and culturally engage with millennials and see this challenge as an opportunity.
Part 1, “An Ignored Warning,” lays out the current state of the church’s relationship with millennials, explaining how the old paradigms won’t work.
Part 2, “Sizing Up the Impending Frame Shift,” examines the opportunities and challenges the church faces in the upcoming frame shift.
In Part 3, “Responses to the Warning,” the author encourages readers to assess the situation, recognize where they are in their own spiritual journey and prioritize their efforts.
Part 4, The Frame Shift in Focus,” looks at seven characteristics of millennial New Copernicans and what the church can do in response to each one.
Part 5, “Survival Strategies,” looks at four common groups of longings the New Copernicans have. The church should examine each one to see how they can potentially reach out.
The book concludes with “What Crisis Leadership Demands,” discusses the importance of transitioning church leadership to millennial leaders.
“This New Copernican reality is the church’s most pressing mission field.”
A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR DAVID JOHN SEEL JR.
How can pastors of multisite churches best implement some of the shifts you recommend?
First, keep the missional big picture. The New Copernicans is not a study about a generational cohort, but a cultural frame shift. Millennials are useful because many of them are carriers of this emerging mindset, but they are not the cause. What matters is this “post-Enlightenment, post-secular” frame shift, not when you were born.
To this end, pay attention to coming demographic shifts in church attendance. The Pinetop Foundation’s report, “The Great Opportunity: The American Church in 2050,” concludes, “The next 30 years will represent the largest missions opportunity in the history of America. It is the largest and fastest numerical shift in religious affiliation in the history of this country. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, Christian affiliation in the U.S. shrinks dramatically.” These “religiously unaffiliated” who carry a new Copernican mindset will be the front line of the church’s missional opportunity. So don’t get sucked into considerations of youth or young adult ministry. These are framing factors that will reshape the foundation of all areas of church ministry.
A megachurch hired a consultant to tell them how to reach millennials. His advice was to put coffee cup holders in the pew. Let’s just say that this is to miss the point.
Second, return leadership authority to those who intuitively have this new frame. Develop systems of reverse mentoring. Acknowledge that culture is changing so fast that even the most astute and sensitive boomer pastors will not be able to react fast enough. I include myself in this critique and I wrote a book on it. Even my analysis has its limits. For most of us older believers what will be required by the future is a bridge too far. Best to return leadership quickly to Christ-centered younger leadership.
Third, stop emphasizing words and books and start prioritizing action and experiences. This is not a time to talk but listen. This is not a time to strategize but act. Mistakes will be made and must be accepted as we are entering uncharted territory. But an even bigger mistake is to do nothing or to delay by more talking. Remember the Titanic!
Are there differences between strategies to reach Millennials and the next generation?
Maybe, but only in intensity. Stop thinking in terms of cohort research and cohort distinctions. Most of what has been said on the basis of this kind of research should be taken with a grain of salt. Are there differences between Millennials and Generation Z? Probably, but only in emphasis—it’s more not different, a more intense following of the same. Millennials were the bridge generation between analog and digital. Gen Z is solidly digital. Millennials expressed quiet frustration and disenchantment. Gen Z in contrast gets angry and in your face: as in the Parkland high school student Emma Gonzalez: “We call B.S.!” Think in terms of a shift in perspective not an age cohort.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen churches make in their outreach to Millennials?
Pastoral leadership gets too caught up in cohort research. Too attentive to age distinctions and thereby misses the forest for the trees. There is too little involvement by senior pastoral leadership. This should not be merely a concern for the youth pastor or the young adult pastor, but for the survival of the church as a whole. Thus senior pastoral leadership must get involved by getting out of the way.
There is too much emphasis on celebrity charismatic pastors who serve as the congregational “answer man.” Pastors are thus not allowed to be human, and the coming generation sees right through their facade.
Authenticity means having the ability to articulate conviction with humility, to fuse faith and doubt, contemplation and activism, mystery and reason, poetry and prose. This is a “both/and” generation with the expectation that reality is more complex than we know and thus we know only in part. Overly confident black and white thinking will no longer attract the younger generation. A dualistic and dogmatic perspective will not connect in a globalistic, digital society. Dualistic and dogmatic thinking lends itself to tribalism. Anything tribalistic will be seen as backward.
Finally, the church must embrace an ecumenism of longing, rather than an ecumenism of doctrine. We must learn to accept people right where they are on their pilgrimage, even as one gently encourages them on toward Christ as a fellow pilgrim. In this vein, we need to stop being hypersensitive over the “Nova Effect,” the explosion of alternative forms of spiritual searching. This cultural turn is a new openness to the spiritual even when initially couched in neo-pagan or occult terms. This is an opportunity not a crisis. We need to stop freaking out about it and embrace it. We will consequently need to rethink how we do “outreach.” The term itself is off putting to this emerging generation.