Because Gen Xers grew up on that hinge of personal truth without absolute truth, they focused more on asking if Christianity works than on wondering about the intellectual conversations of the previous two generations. But intellectual questions are back.
One of the biggest challenges we have in responding is that Millennials are asking questions again. Generation Why? wants to know, “How do we know that?” Three of the six reasons Barna Group gives in their book Churchless for why Millennial Christians are leaving their churches are intellectual: Christianity is too shallow…” You don’t have to be an expert…but you do need to understand that these questions are the big ones, and you need a go-to person when you don’t know what to say. All four of my Millennial kids have wanted to talk through these questions and many more. Whether inside the church or outside, we have to be willing to listen to those questions.
When reading Shaw’s book I had a good sense he was right. In our church we’ve seen an increased number of Millennials regularly attending – not necessarily looking for someone to give them all the answers, but at least someone who is willing to engage in the hard intellectual questions plaguing them.
At the dog park today I met such a Millennial. Her name is Rachel. She is a twenty eight year old university graduate, who lives with her boyfriend and has the most adorable Husky pup. As our dogs played, we started talking first about dogs, then weather and eventually she asked what I do for a living. Rather shyly I admitted being a pastor – a response that tends to be a conversation killer. But not in this case. Rachel was fascinated. “Really?” she said. “I’m looking for a church to attend.” Completely surprised, I asked her why? She went on to share how she used to go to church with her mom every now and then but lost interest. After doing nothing “religious” while in college, she now periodically attends “Saint something or other’s” church with her boyfriend. However in her words, the church “Doesn’t really explain anything they’re doing. We just stand up and sit down several times – go through some meaningless rituals and go home. I don’t get it.” Then Rachel said, “I don’t like it. I don’t want empty ritual. I’m looking for something meaningful. I want go where someone will talk to me about life and interact with the questions I have about it – you know? I want someone to engage in meaningful discussion with topics that matter and make sense.”
Before I was able to ask Rachel a few questions another dog rudely interrupted our discussion. Before leaving, however, Rachel turned and asked where I was a pastor and took down some information. Will I ever see Rachel at church? My guess is I’ve got a better chance at the dog park but one never knows.
Here’s the lesson for me. As Hydn Shaw puts it, “Intellectual questions are back.” It seems young people today will engage with a church that is offering thoughtful answers to deep questions. Superficial pop-culture easy answer Christianity is not viewed as authentic or at all relevant. But for Millennials – a willingness to wrestle with questions on the origin of life, science, God, suffering, religion, atheism, sex, morality and justice is very appealing. They are spiritually open and intellectually inquisitive – at least that’s true of the young woman I met today and many other 20-somethings I know. Therefore I believe if we in the church prove our willingness to engage in honest discussions on meaningful topics with this bright generation, many Millennials will gladly return the church – more importantly to the God who loves them.