A recent conference in Calgary has me dreaming of the kind of church that will thrive in the next generation. James Penner was the guest speaker at the Western Canada Leadership Summit and he challenged us to think about the characteristics of the Millennial Generation (variously defined, but for the purposes of these talks, defined as “young people born in the 80s and 90s and coming into their adult years now, in this new millennium.”1). The talks were based on his own research published in a report entitled “Hemorrhaging Faith“. The research consisted of 250 hours of literature review, 72 coast to coast interviews, and 2,049 Angus Reid survey responses.

Some of the conclusions of this study are sobering. The surveys and interviews confirmed what some have been saying in the literature: “Many college students take their religious beliefs and practices and put them safely on hold – in an inner ‘lockbox’ – to be reengaged later in life.”2 Penner cites three factors which have the greatest influence on whether or not Millennials engage faith:

* whether or not their parents regularly read the Bible,
* whether or not the Millennials believed their parents prayed outside of table grace,
* whether or not their parents attended religious services.

He also suggested that there are five toxins which Millennials are adept at detecting:

* Hypocrisy (saying one thing and doing another)
* Condemnation (judgementalism as opposed to judgement)
* Exclusivity (this is a club in which I don’t belong)
* Failure (lack of grace for those who fail)
* No opportunity (people standing in the way of others taking leadership)

This is not to say that Boomers or Gen Xers like these toxins; but, rather that Millennials have a lower tolerance of them and greater detectors for them. “If these exist in the church, they are not just a little dust in a corner, they are a hairball in the soup!”

The most often quoted statement of the seminar was that of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann who said, “Worldview hangs on the thin thread of conversation.”3 That is, we don’t change worldviews through argument but through listening to others and sharing our own perspective. This statement is even more true now than when it was first stated in 1966.

James Penner further suggested that young people have seen the pursuit of perfect bodies but they seldom see anyone pursuing a perfect soul. He believes that they are looking for a church that empties itself in the same way that Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-8): “A self-emptying Christ requires a self-emptying church.”4 I think I am beginning to see what this future church might look like.

1 http://larche.ca/a_human_future/ahf_learning_from_millenia_youth_James_Penner.pdf
2 (Clydesdale 2007)
3 (Berger and Luckmann 1966)
4 Adapted from various authors and the concept of kenosis.

Works cited:
Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 1966.
Clydesdale, T. (2007). Abandoned, pursued, or safely stowed? Brooklyn, NY: Social Science
Research Council. Retrieved from http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Clydesdale.pdf

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