By Jennifer Johnson
A new thing for me is being one of the older people in situations where I used to be young and cool. Most recently I experienced this in my preaching class at Emmanuel Christian Seminary; when Dr. Aaron Wymer discussed the various generations currently alive in the church and surveyed our class, I sheepishly raised my hand as a Gen Xer. The millennials who made up most of the class peered at me with curiosity. (“Look, she can use a computer!”)
I realize that at not-yet-40 (you didn’t think I’d give you my real age, did you?), I am far from “old.” But I am old enough that I am no longer part of the up-and-coming generation; instead, I’m part of the group that needs to start investing in it.
This month’s stories demonstrate two very different but very effective ways leaders at two of our schools are reaching that goal. On the West Coast, Dr. Robert Shearer is having spiritual conversations with college students in between waves (see related article). Back in the Bible Belt, Dr. Richard Knopp and a team are providing answers to sincere questions about faith and equipping others to do the same (see related article).
Although the methods are different, both are needed. Wymer mentioned that one of the biggest felt needs among our 20-somethings is for older folks to invest time in them and offer wisdom. Barna research supports this idea; a September 2014 report says 3 out of 10 millennials who are active in their church had an adult mentor there, and “reverse mentoring”—giving young adults significant opportunities to lead and connect with the mission of the church—is crucial to their involvement.
At the same time, as Knopp pointed out in our conversation, many young people are leaving the church because they aren’t finding nuanced, thoughtful, and informed answers to their questions. Again, Barna has insight: many millennials think the church is antagonistic to science, they report, and “many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial,” with 36 percent saying they’re not able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” and 23 percent unable to express “significant intellectual doubts about my faith.”
Despite the stereotypes, this is not a generation without depth. If anything, they are exposing the lack of depth in some of our churches and the ineffectiveness of our legacy programs. I’m glad for the vision in Malibu and Lincoln and places in between to create new things to reach a generation that sees faith in new ways, and I’m challenged to do the same—even if I have to occasionally ask for help with my computer.