They are born after 1980. They don’t know much about Thatcher, but they do know about Bieber. They take “selfies.” Much discussed, oft-misunderstood, they are the Millennials.
A December 2013 poll of this much-fretted-over demographic offered fresh light on their political views. Harvard University’s Institute of Politics conducted the poll and found that 35 percent of Millennials approve of Democratic congressmen and just 19 percent approve of Republican congressmen.
This data leads to rumination both sociological and theological. How, exactly, will Millennial Christians – in a jaded generation but not of it – engage with politics, with the public square? The way Millennials, of which I am one, answer this question will play a vital role in the public prospects of Christianity in America and the West.
The last 30 years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the “Moral Majority” left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant “big gospel” movement of the last decade (like The New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority et al, adopting an “apolitical” or relatively indifferent political stance.
This is a partly helpful and partly unhelpful response to their heritage. It is helpful because it means that many young church planters and pastors and thinkers will avoid reducing the faith to a policy position. They will focus on making friendships with people not like them and living a “missional” way of life. The church will be the listening church, a spiritual body of believers that gathers to hear the lion of the Scripture roar from His Word each week.
This response is unhelpful because young Christian leaders might forget that the church must also be the speaking church. Many Millennial leaders understand the dire need for evangelization of lost friends, but fewer grasp the importance of public square witness. Few of us Millennials will emulate the Moral Majority at its apex, but we also must recognize that, in their imperfect way, various figures of this group spoke courageously on behalf of the unborn, the natural family and the moral fabric of the nation. There was real bravery, and real sacrifice, in this witness. It came at a real cost in a culture and society that now reads any attempt, however noble, to intervene in others’ lives as hostile and injurious.
Unlike the Moral Majority, many Millennials are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics. But if your only significant act of public square proclamation is a sneering disavowal of Jerry Falwell, you’re doing it wrong. A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce and Colson, cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality. Neither can it accept the velvet muzzle its opponents offer. It cannot dance like a celebrity cha-chaing his way back to the C-list when a confused church member asks for guidance on cultural questions of grave import.
It must speak. It must offer a new social witness.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Owen Strachan is assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.)