I’m a Millenial, and my generation has a weeds problem.
(Yes, plural not singular. No, not the TV show).
In Jesus’ parable of the sower, three kinds of soils turn out fruitless. There’s the soil so hard the seeds just bounce off, to be snapped up by birds. There’s the soil so thin that plants never take root.
And then there’s the soil that does sustain life; but there’s no room at the inn.
People who have reflected on the “rise of the nones” have noted that the growth of people with “no religious affiliation” doesn’t necessarily mean steely-eyed atheists. Yes, young people are leaving organized religion; but, as a recent Pew study shows, spiritual pursuits are growing even among atheists. The young unaffiliated actually seek transcendence, prayer, and hope at least as much as our forebears. The enthusiasm frothing in “Generation TED” shows that Millenials are pretty rich soil for something.
Our problem isn’t that we take in too little “spirituality” or “wisdom;” it’s that we take in too much. The conscious teachings and subconscious liturgies of our culture – on sex, joy, meaning – take root beside biblical teaching. Maybe without even realizing it, we become humanists on flourishing, materialists on mental illness, and a hodgepodge of other things, all while sincerely thinking of ourselves as Christians.
We recently preached on living through suffering. In it, we addressed unbiblical approaches to facing suffering, among which was the humanistic one: that we find strength inside ourselves to carry on against whatever storms we’re facing (e.g., the film version of Unbroken versus the actual story). The “inner strength” of humanism seems superficially like the Christian approach to finding strength through prayer; but the sources of strength couldn’t be more different.
In discussion times afterwards, we heard multiple people say that they’d never considered that difference before. Men and women – Christians, in a healthy relationship with God – carried around a view of perseverance drawn more from Eat, Pray, Love than 2 Corinthians.
The roots of the problem (har har)
Why does my generation have such a weeds problem? One reason is the radical democratization of authority epitomized in, for example, Wikipedia. We’ve osmosed the idea that authority must be decentralized: so we find “authority” in the voices loudest and closest to us. Instead of submitting all “truth” to God’s Word, we shop a little here, a little there.
Another is that we more than any other generation position ourselves to receive “wisdom” without reflection. Our smartphones buzz, commanding us to look at whatever we’ve signed up for. Our social media feeds plaster our screens with messages filtered only by what is loud and what is urgent. We’re encouraged to read, to “like,” to love whatever comes our way without reflecting on it or even digesting it.
Maybe more than anything else, my generation needs help with the proliferation of ideological and spiritual weeds in our hearts. We need to put deep roots into the risen Jesus, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit; but we have to clear the soil so they can grow. The Western Church needs to learn to help Millenials address it if God’s Kingdom is going to grow well in this next generation. Tim Keller sums it up well in his recent book on preaching:
It is a mistake to think that faithful believers in our time are not profoundly shaped by the narratives of modernity. We certainly are, and so when you unveil these narratives and interact with them in the ordinary course of preaching the Word, you help them see where they themselves may be more influenced by their society than by the Scripture, and you give them important ways of communicating their faith to others. (118)
Preaching out the weeds
These things being said, how can we as church leaders help Millenials identify and root out the weeds in their lives?
- Beef up the “diagnostic” component of our preaching.
Preaching to a weed-ridden congregation requires that we identify ideas, patterns, or prejudices in our culture so that our congregants can see them clearly. The humanistic approach to fulfillment; the prosperity-gospel take on suffering; privileged-white-culture blind spots that hinder racial reconciliation: just as Paul laid out the pagan Greek approach to sexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 before rebutting it, we should help our people identify the weeds in their lives as weeds.
Two quick caveats:
First, most churches do a good job at diagnosing one set of “blind spots” – whether cultural or political – but tend to sweep other sets under the rug. As Chesterton said somewhere, “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” For churches to do this well, they need to be willing to identify and critique errors on both sides of our natural fences: Millenials and Boomers, Right and Left, traditionalists and progressives.
Second, we need to be careful about polemicizing against ideas versus against people. We can identify/quote people who epitomize the ideas we’re discussing, but we should be careful about turning polemics into ad hominem rants. Keller puts it well:
Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle. (Preaching, 156)
- Build reflection and application into our Bible-study times.
Like Chalmers writes in “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” the most certain way to get rid of one affection is to supplant it with another. We need to encourage young people (all people!) to study the Word, to memorize it, to learn it.
That being said, the modern mindset tends to drop truths in the playpen without thinking about whether they can actually play together. So in our “Bible study” rhythms – Sunday School, small groups, whatever – we need to help people reflect on truth and how it affects their lives. To ask questions like, “How would this change how you think/act/value if it were radically real in your life?” Or, “What cultural voices do you hear that this passage contradicts or challenges?” Giving space for reflection will help our people identify the weeds in their own lives.
- Encourage spiritual disciplines, especially reflective ones.
In Desiring the Kingdom, James KA Smith makes a compelling case that the cultural “liturgies” we participate in – the practices we live out habitually – can shape our hearts at least as much as our conscious thoughts. The spiritual disciplines are habits that submit our wills to God’s authority and position our hearts to be changed by his Spirit.
As important as teaching is, churches should help their people practice the disciplines well. The habits of studying the Word, praying, fasting, etc. will help young people think more deliberately on truth; and attention is the midwife of affection. Likewise, reflective disciplines like journaling and fasting can help Christians look into their own hearts and, with God’s help, “see if there be any grievous way” inside (Ps. 139:24).
- Hold the beauty of Christ beside the emptiness of worldly powers.
Finally, we should pick fights. As we help people understand what’s growing in their hearts, we must also show how Jesus offers a life that’s much more beautiful and worthwhile than anything else on the market. Secular humanism would have me build a castle on the quicksand of my own will: Jesus will drain the marsh and lay a firm foundation. The big-T Therapeutic world would have me love my own foul heart; Jesus will forgive me and muck out the stables. Materialism tells me I suffer, I die, the end; Christ offers me resurrection by his grace.
The more we can elevate the beauty of God over against everything else in the world, the more we’ll see people’s hearts look less like a box of weeds and more like God’s garden.
image: still from “The Tick vs. El Seed”