Talking About My Generation: Millennials and the Church

A few days ago, a Rachel Held Evans piece entitled ‘Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church’ was published on the CNN Belief Blog. Weighing in at little under 750 words, it nonetheless packs a considerable punch and has been linked or liked almost 170,000 times on Facebook and elsewhere.

The Voice of My GenerationThe first thing that hits one about Evans’ article is that it is a ‘voice of a generation’ piece. With bold, broad brush stroke sentences for paragraphs, it lays out an indictment of evangelical churches for their supposed failure to connect with millennials and presents the manifesto for a disengaged generation’s vision of church.

At this point, I should point out that I am decidedly leery of people who claim to speak on behalf of an entire generation. While I don’t want to accuse Evans of doing this here, claims to be the mouthpiece of such a vast demographic are all too often grandiose projections of a narcissistic and entitled subjectivity, resulting from the belief that the mere possession of a particular set of sensibilities renders one a privileged and exalted medium of the zeitgeist. Opinions that have little rational merit, scholarly or theological credibility of their own can thereby assert a significance for themselves that they have not won through careful argumentation or practical demonstration. The Voice of a Generation is an oracle, whose dispensed opinions, opinions that would be lightly dismissed if merely those of an individual, assume a quasi-divine authority, with people on all sides talking about them in serious tones. The Voice of a Generation, typically someone in their twenties or thirties, can often assume an air of entitlement, superiority, and authority, expecting those of older generations (who have long since lost any aura of destiny that they once may have enjoyed) to consult them for their wisdom, inverting the more traditional authority relationship that used to exist between distemporaries.

Let me reiterate: it is not my intention to accuse Evans of co-opting the voice of a generation (if there were such a thing in the first place) for cynical and self-serving ends. However, I do think that it is necessary to press her on the point of the exact demographic for which she is presuming to speak. I recommend that people work through her claims, statement by statement and question which demographic she is presuming to represent in each and whether she is doing so fairly. Her claims to be the mouthpiece of a generation shouldn’t be taken at face value. Even the statistics to which she links should illustrate that, although the preponderance of millennials may hold her stated opinions, there is far from a general consensus among them on many of the issues that she declares to be defining for the millennial generation.

There appears to be a lack of clarity at various points concerning the precise group that she is claiming to represent: is she claiming to represent the sensibilities of millennials in general, the subset of those who were raised as Christians, the subset of a subset who are leaving the churches within which they were raised, or just that subset of a subset of a subset, those millennials who have left American evangelical churches? Having read Evans’ writing for a number of years now, I have often been struck by her tendency to speak of the experience of a fundamentalist evangelical background as if it were the general norm, representative of the experience of Christians – at least North American Christians – in general. This tendency to generalize in a hyperbolic and undisciplined manner, projecting her personal experience, one shared with a rather limited demographic, onto a far less modest canvas, needs to be borne in mind here. Greater attention to the incredible diversity represented within a generation would caution us against attempts to homogenize their variegated experience. While there are undoubtedly generational themes, types, and widely shared underlying frameworks of cultural perception, none of us is capable of singlehandedly representing the whole unwieldy teeming mass of humanity that constitutes a generation.

A multitude of likes on Facebook, however, does suggest that her message resonates on some level or other with many. For this reason, I thought that it would be worthwhile to ask a few questions of those who do identify with what Evans is saying here.

1. What weight should we give to self-reporting?

We should not forget that all too often people’s purported rationales can be unwitting or self-serving rationalizations. The heart is deceitful above all things and we are almost invariably the primary victims of our own dishonesty about our true motives. Anyone who has been around the block a few times will know that, for instance, several of their peers who left the church ‘because of all of the hypocrisy’ or ‘because of the tension between science and faith’ had been struggling for some time with the cognitive dissonance between their fornication and their professed faith. The reasons that we give for our decisions are often chosen because they present us in the most favourable light.

The truth of ourselves is revealed in our actions. If we truly want to understand millennials, we will learn more from examining their behaviour than from listening to their self-descriptions. This is a troubling fact of life for many who harbour the strongly held belief that no one has the right to define or to describe them, seeing all such things as tyrannical impositions. The reality of our actions seldom paints as flattering a picture as our self-descriptions.

For instance, people who are genuinely grieved by hypocrisy seek to lead transparently godly lives and to support their neighbours in this calling. The more prevalent response of cynicism excuses its responsibility for its dispassionate approach to virtue upon the vice of others. In the same way, when someone says that they left the Church because of X, Y, or Z that the Church is doing wrong, we need to ask ourselves whether genuine failures of many churches are serving as excuses for people’s light abandonment of their own Christian vocation. In other words, where is the evidence that many millennials who left the Church were ever deeply and firmly committed and along for more than the ride?

Where such evidence of genuine and sacrificial commitment is lacking, adjusting to accommodate the lukewarm or the apathetic will often achieve little more than diluting the Church’s own commitment. It won’t produce commitment in those who were apathetic from the outset. While I don’t want to deny for a moment that many have been scarred by abusive churches, most millennials who have left the Church aren’t exactly the walking wounded.

Church leaders who take the ‘hipper worship bands’ route should also not be lightly dismissed. While their approach is one that I definitely do not advocate, the actual behaviour of millennials (as opposed to their stated high principles) all too often seemingly vindicates their assumptions.

2. What about the churches that fit Evans’ wishlist?

As Anthony Bradley observes, the United Methodist Church closely resembles the church that Evans says that she is looking for. However, rather than growing, it is haemorrhaging, and facing a future bleaker that most more conservative evangelical denominations. The United Methodist Church may be less polarizing and alienating for many millennials, but it doesn’t exactly succeed in evoking more commitment. This fact alone would seem to unsettle Evans’ thesis.

The real question that we need to ask here is where the strongest signs of deep and persevering commitment are to be found within the Church. Which quarters of the Church are proving most effective at calling and discipling millennials to a commitment that produces lives and communities marked by a persevering holiness and faithfulness? Evans’ error is to speak as if by addressing millennials’ professed reasons for leaving, positive commitment would naturally follow. People with a weak commitment seldom need much of a reason to leave in the first place.

3. Do they really want a less ‘political’ Church?

In my experience, while many millennial Christians might complain about the Church being too political, in reality their real problem is less with the Church being political per se than it is with the issues about which the Church has traditionally been political. Those who emphasize social justice, for instance, can often be considerably more vocally political than their standard evangelical counterparts.

It is important that we differentiate between seeing evangelicalism as being ‘too political’ and as advocating the wrong sort of politics, or having wrong emphases within its politics. Disliking an evangelical focus upon resisting such things as abortion and gay marriage through politics and law, many condemn methods that they would happily employ to serve different causes (or the other side of the traditional causes).

4. What about those occasions when we do have to choose?

Evans describes young evangelicals’ sense that they often ‘have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.’ However, Christianity has always entailed a choice between academic respectability (commonly mistaken for intellectual integrity) and faith, between ‘science’ and Christianity, and between empathy and holiness.

Being a Christian typically entails living with a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance, which, while never justifying intellectual dishonesty, makes the sort of intellectual coherence that many crave impossible. Our faith declares truths (the soul, the resurrection of the dead, the atonement, the new heavens and the new earth, the incarnation, divine revelation, etc.) which often exist in some considerable tension with other authorities, such as experience, reason, and science. And we need to live with that tension, with all of the opprobrium, ridicule, and marginalization that it can entail. While evangelical Christianity does call for a number of unreasonable choices in these areas, choices must still be made. One wonders whether many millennials would have the nerve to make these choices when they really cost.

And the choice between compassion and holiness is a classic one, upon which the Scriptures are uncomfortably clear. Holiness requires of us uncompromising action against sin in our lives and communities. This entails being prepared to resist the urge of compassion towards people closest to us when that compassion would lead to compromise. Christ places a sword between the nearest of relations.

5. Are evangelicals really obsessed with sex?

While evangelicals are often accused of being obsessed with sex, it is seldom observed that this is a remarkably odd charge for millennials of all people to be bringing. I hear remarkably little about sex within the Church, but sex is ubiquitous outside of it. Sex seems to be such a topic of discourse, precisely because this is the point where the spirit of the age is moving most aggressively against historic Christian orthodoxy.

I would suggest that disaffected millennial Christians tend to talk about sex considerably more than any other Christian demographic or previous generation. Evangelicals’ perceived ‘obsession with sex’ seems to me to have much more to do with a widespread obsession with sex among millennials which leads them constantly to run up against historic Christian norms of modesty, purity, and sexual holiness.

6. Do millennials want a place to wrestle with doubt, or a place to coddle scepticism?

Evans speaks of millennials’ desire for communities where they are ‘safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.’ While I can relate to this desire on many levels, in many cases I have seen, it appears to be little more than the dissembling desire for a Church that demands much less of us, a Church that accommodates itself to our unbelief, rather than giving us the means to wrestle with it and overcome it, calling us to struggle through the pain of unresolved cognitive dissonance.

Jamie Smith puts this far better than I could:

But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can’t believe it, it can’t be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let’s come up with a rendition we can believe in.

But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts—but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with. It’s not a matter of coming up with a Gospel I can live with; it’s a matter of learning to live with all of the scandal of the Gospel—and that can take a lifetime. Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest“ doesn’t for a moment think that the church should revise its doctrine and standards in order to make him feel comfortable about his fornication—even if he might lament what seems to be a denial of some feature of his humannness. All of his doubts and suspicion and resistance are not skeptical gambits that set him off in search of a liberal Christianity he can live with; they are, instead, features of a life of sanctification, or lack thereof. And no one is surprised by that. The prayer of the doubter is not, “Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief,” but rather: “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

7. Why are millennials drawn to high church traditions?

Evans writes that she, along with other millennials, are drawn to high church traditions ‘precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.’ It is important to pay close attention to the reason given for the appeal here. The appeal isn’t that it is more closely conformed to God’s will, to Scripture, or even because it is more in line with the historic teaching and practice of the Church. No, the appeal of traditional liturgy lies in its affect of disinterest with the ‘cool’ and its lack of pretension, i.e. it is ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’. Folks, this is ecclesiology for hipsters.

Earlier in her piece, Evans writes that millennials are ‘not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.’ This is true. However, millennials have not abandoned consumerism or performances, they just wish to dissemble their consumerism and adopt a more exacting or ironic posture towards their performances. Traditional liturgy appeals as fuel for a cannibalistic aesthetic, an aesthetic which typically emasculates its disparate sources. Traditional liturgy is for many millennial Christians as the thrift store is for hipsters. Tradition is not approached as a reality that we are subject to and which claims us, but as a convenient source for our bespoke ecclesiological affectations.

The actual substance of tradition is not appealing at all. Millennial Christians do not typically desire the authority structures of traditional orthodox Christianity. They don’t want its ethics. They dislike its restrictions of individual will. They don’t want a Church that opposes homosexual practice, which maintains a male-only priesthood, or that has a strong clergy. The earlier claim that evangelicalism is ‘too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’ is also rather ironic in light of the appreciation of Orthodoxy and Catholicism: what exactly are millennials expecting to find there? The appeal of something like Orthodoxy to many owes more to a sort of Christian orientalism than it does to genuine appreciation of and desire to submit to its tradition. What millennial Christians often really seem to want is the vintage and ‘authentic’ affect of time-honoured orthodoxy, a ‘weathered’ church feel, with high church elements as a thin veneer over the religious consumerism of the evangelical anti-culture.

8. Do millennials really want an institutional Church?

A key yet subtle underlining dynamic in Evans’ writings more generally is a resistance to the way in which substantial cultural belonging places limitations upon our actions and resists our claims to self-determination, autonomy, and self-definition. To the extent that Evans represents millennials, the crucial question of what to do with the institutional must be raised here (a question that Matthew Lee Anderson raises in his recent thoughtful post). Are millennials prepared to submit themselves to institutions designed to reshape and redefine them, to subordinate their activities, beliefs, and ends to greater purposes, truths, and realities, or do they expect all of their institutions to be reshaped to fit them and their lifestyle choices?

To a generation that prizes autonomy, self-determination, self-definition, self-expression, and choice, the institutional Church can raise fears of existential proportions. For the millennial, becoming a part of such a Church entails a death to a deeply engrained sense of identity. Are they (we) prepared to make this sacrifice, or must we make the sacrifice less onerous in order to attract them?

9. What is meant by the desire for an end to the culture wars?

One of the striking things to observe in conversations about the ‘culture wars’ is the way that evangelicals are typically presented as aggressors, even though they can hardly be accused of starting most of the wars in the first place. Rather, the very act of resisting the advance of things such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, divorce, and the like in society is framed as a belligerent move on the part of evangelical Christians. Those strongly pushing for same-sex marriage, for instance, are not subject to the same judgment, which is very telling. It suggests to me that those who call for an end to the culture wars either lack the nerve for such resistance, for the unpopularity and bad press that it produces, preferring to adopt a (futile) policy of appeasement to unreasonable parties, or that they are actually on the side of the opponents of the historic Christian social and cultural values being defended.

A key question that millennials must wrestle with is whether they have the nerve, character, conviction, or content of belief sufficient to make enemies. As Stanley Hauerwas has remarked, ‘Christianity is unintelligible without enemies.’ In a society that values tolerance above almost everything else, do millennial Christians have the nerve to voice truths that alienate, polarize, and antagonize our society, or to behave and speak in ways that might lead to them being hated? The sort of Christianity that spends much of its time criticizing benighted evangelicals for their unprogressive views may receive a friendly platform in places such as the Huffington Post religion section and may be looked upon more indulgently by secular society, but is hardly living up to its calling.

10. What exactly do millennials stand for?

Evans declares that millennials ‘want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.’ The ironic thing is that so much of her oeuvre and that of her fellow progressive evangelicals, including the present piece under discussion, is incessantly framed by the foil of a caricatured conservative evangelicalism. Given their dislike and distrust of ‘predetermined answers’, the sort of millennials that Evans claims to represent tend to have rather few positive claims that they agree upon. Rather, their primary source of agreement and common identity is found in the identification of a common opposition, and the adoption of similar styles and contexts of communication. Remove the foil of conservative evangelicalism from Evans’ piece and the actual content will start to appear much slighter.

11. Are millennials prepared to call themselves and their questions into question?

Evans speaks of millennials’ desire for questions that don’t have predetermined answers. While I appreciate the healthiness of a desire for a culture of faithful and fearless questioning, I suspect that more is going on here. What can often underlie the desire for questions without predetermined answers is the resistance to external claims upon the self and its loyalties. We dislike predetermined answers because they limit our autonomy and our right to craft bespoke ideologies. Predetermined answers reek of authority and hierarchy, things that we dislike intensely. We love questions without predetermined answers because they grant us an unchallenged space for self-fashioning, rendering us immune to claims of God, the world, our community, our tradition, and our neighbour.

Many questions do have predetermined answers in the Church, answers that resulted from extensive theological enquiry and which are no longer open. Such settled orthodoxy can chafe for those who desire theological autonomy and feel entitled to institutional recognition that their faith and theological or moral beliefs are as good as anyone else’s.

While persons with such a desire will celebrate the value of questioning everything, they seldom hold themselves firmly in question. Their sexual mores and desires, the ethos and inclinations of their generation, their reliability as interpreters of God’s truth, and their qualifications to act as theological and moral authorities are rarely challenged. Rather, an unexamined position of subjective entitlement and self-validation all too easily serves as the point from while all else is called into question.

In contrast to such an approach, the truths of the gospel as upheld by the Christian tradition, truths determined long before we arrived on the scene, provide us with the means to hold ourselves in constant and radical question. The institutional Church is the place where we can be subjected to a form of discipleship in which we are reformed by Christ’s questioning of us. Any generation that does not always begin by being questioned by God at the foot of the cross will doom itself to self-serving self-delusion.

12. Do millennials really wish to be ‘challenged to live lives of holiness’?

Within the very concept of ‘a challenge’ is the notion of confrontation. To challenge someone is in some sense to present them with an obstacle or opposition. The degree to which millennials really wish to be challenged will be most clearly revealed by the way that they behave at the point where the challenge presented is most difficult or most naturally unwelcome. And this is why Evans’ ‘not only when it comes to sex’ clause needs to be questioned. This is because millennials all too often show little desire for the challenge of the life of holiness at this precise point, the point where Christian ethics can face the firmest resistance from our flesh, the fiercest temptations of the devil, and the most vociferous outrage and ridicule from the world. If the challenge of holiness is truly desired, rather than just a de-emphasis of the most culturally painful and onerous form of that challenge that will be manifested in the behaviour of millennials.


While this piece has been fairly critical for the most part, I really do not want to dismiss Evans’ piece entirely. There are genuine problems that she does identify along the way. I have written very critically of evangelicalism on several occasions in the past. My desire here is not to defend evangelicalism, but to question millennials and their claims. Their mere rejection of a dysfunctional form of Church does not of itself put millennials in any position to present us with a better alternative. Without a deeper understanding of our generation, its characteristic sins, blindspots and failings, and a subjection of ourselves to the questioning of Christ within the life of a tradition and community and through the ministry of other generations, cultures, and ages, we will achieve little more than replacing a Church bearing the exaggerated flaws of our fathers with one no less riven by our own.

Update: Derek Rishmawy’s thoughts here take this discussion in a very healthy direction. Well worth a read.

Update 2: Read my follow-up piece over on Threads.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, On the web, Sex and Sexuality, Society, The Church, The Emergent Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

137 Responses to Talking About My Generation: Millennials and the Church

  1. Pingback: Talking About My Generation: Millennials and the Church | The Rationality of Faith

  2. Mike Bull says:

    Great post. Too long, but still great.
    “While evangelicals are often accused of being obsessed with sex, it is seldom observed that this is a remarkably odd charge for millennials of all people to be bringing.”

  3. Jackee says:

    Wow!! Thank You! Thank You! You hit the nail on the head on all of these issues!! I especially like point # 7!

  4. Pingback: The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not in the Way You Think (CaPC) | Reformedish

  5. This is a great post and I thank you for it. Though I am not convinced that Millennials are returning to liturgical churches, the data simply doesn’t support this, their occasional attract to it likely is a result of their large syncretized outlook. Everything is worth exploring and savoring.

    20somethings seem to always captivate the broader culture. Maybe its because of the free time and the formative time they have, but they capture the culture nonetheless. I just wish the media would be wiser about who they consult for insights.

    • Thanks for the comment, Garet. I suspect that one of the chief reasons for the focus on people in their twenties is the belief that they are the generation who will most powerfully shape the immediate future of our society. In a society where tradition and the wisdom of age held more sway, this belief might not be so natural.

  6. James Hakim says:

    Our family’s memory verse today:
    Proverbs 30:12
    There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes,
    Yet is not washed from its filthiness.

    The entire little section in Proverbs 30 is appropriate to this discussion.

  7. Enoch says:

    Excellent thoughts.

  8. Pingback: The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not In the Way You Think It Did

  9. Judd Spencer says:

    Thanks for your thoughts! I especially agree with questions 5 and 6. We live in a culture/world that is obsessed with sex and if anything the church has not said enough…or is arriving too late to the party. We (the church) aren’t saying too much, we are just the one institution saying something counter-cultural. I am two years into my pastoral ministry and am astonished at how much sex is THE issue I continuously have to deal with…absolutely the ‘not only when it comes to sex’ clause needs to be questioned because what this actually means is “In any area of my life but sex.” It seems to me that the mantra (I don’t know about millennials, I would just say people) is “God you can have 99% of my life just leave my sex life to me.”

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Judd. You are certainly not the only person that I have seen making such observations. The attitude that you identify really is very widespread.

  10. Pingback: Why Millenials Don’t Go To Church – But Really Should | I Think I Believe

  11. Donald says:

    Great post. really enjoyed.

  12. Morgan Guyton says:

    Several points:

    1) Evangelicalism is very different in America than in Britain. Until you’ve been a girl who was required by her youth director to wear an oversized t-shirt and shorts over her already modestly cut one-piece swimsuit at a youth pool party, I’m not sure you’re qualified to say whether American evangelicalism is overly obsessed with sex or not. I’ve written about my own theory on this. I think it’s the murky legacy of a segregationist culture which justified its existence on the basis of protecting white females from black male libido.

    2) It is absolutely the case that American evangelicals, particularly those who grew up in the eighties in the Southern Baptist Church like Rachel and I did, think that we represent all of Christianity. We had this drilled into us by the church we grew up in. The Catholics do rituals instead of Jesus, the Pentecostals make a show of themselves in worship like Jesus told us not to do, the Methodists think that doing nice things for other people can get you into heaven, etc. When you grow up in a denomination that looks down on every other denomination, it’s a shock to find out that there are more possibilities than being a fundamentalist or a rebel against fundamentalism. But for anyone to claim to speak for all millennials who are leaving “the church,” yeah that’s of course problematic.

    3) When Rachel talks about “questions,” it’s in reaction to the hyper-rationalist neo-reformed culture in America in which everything about Jesus has been filed away into a systematic theology schema. I don’t think you’re accurately representing the psychology behind the longing for mystery. It’s a longing for the beauty of the infinite, to borrow from David Bentley Hart. There’s very little beauty in the purely rationalistic theos of the logic-worshiping neo-reformed culture. It just seems like a caricature to reduce the reaction against that to the well-trafficked accusation that millennials believe the most in their own sovereignty. It doesn’t have to do with rebelling against expectations for my behavior. It’s rather an aesthetic concern for God’s beauty which should absolutely not be tossed aside and dismissed just because modernity decided that aesthetics is window-dressing and reason is the real stuff. The need to conquer God’s infiniteness and tie God down to an exhaustively explained system by which I can set myself above other people is the Pharisaic sin and a worship of my theology rather than the mysterious Person who not only questions individual seekers but also questions the church that claims it has already understood everything about Him.

    4) The folks over at First Things have also had some prickly things to say about how their holy water isn’t for these individualist, self-absorbed millennial brats who want the sacraments without the authority. I’m just really not sure that God intended for His church to have such a brittle magisterium that sex only came to be seen as having a valid purpose other than procreation within the last century, because of the long shadow of Platonist duality that has indeed corrupted the church. I’m sorry but the “natural law” of Thomas’s 12th century Summa and other aspects of tradition absolutely need to be open to questioning. Benedict himself said that tradition must be evaluated critically (of course he was speaking about Vatican 2, but it can be applied to other things). How in the world did it come to be Christian teaching that once somebody gets a divorce, they are permanently cut off from receiving the eternal life of Eucharist? I think Francis agrees with me on that one. There are many other problems with simply submitting to traditional authority without any questions that I could name despite the fact that I worship God every week by attending Catholic mass every Monday even though I preside over Jesus’ body and blood with my own congregation on Saturday nights. It’s not because I’m a postmodern dilettante who wants to dabble in spiritually feeling stuff without any commitment. It’s because I am zealously seeking to worship in spirit and truth and the institutions of man will not hinder me from the savior that I seek. The eternal life of the sacraments is a very real thing. A broken institution that sanctioned child abuse because of its ethos of blind obedience to hierarchy is also a very real thing. I have a lot of hope in what God plans to do through Francis, but no, longing for the sacramental presence of God isn’t the same thing as longing for an authority structure that creates the climate for pedophilia.

    5) If you’re interested in what I wrote in response to Rachel’s piece (every Christian blogger wrote something!), it’s here: I hope I wasn’t too prickly. I was probably responding to a lot of other people I’ve read all at the same time in what I just wrote. So I apologize if it was ungracious.

    • Thank you for the comment, Moragn. I appreciate the pushback. A few thoughts in response:

      1. I am very well aware of the difference between American and British evangelicalism, having interacted extensively with both worlds. This difference is something that I have commented on myself (here, for instance). I am not unaware of the experience of American women in relation to an evangelical modesty culture. I have followed recent debates on the subject with interest, and have probably read at least a few dozen posts by women describing their experience. More importantly, however, I have a number of very close friends who were raised in such a culture, with whom I have discussed these issues at some length.

      I don’t want to absolve evangelicalism from blame here. I do think that evangelicalism thinks too much about sex and have said as much on various occasions in the past (see here, for instance). My point is rather that this is a pot calling the kettle black situation. Evangelicalism’s intense focus upon sex, purity, and modesty culture in many contexts is a product of the more general cultural fixation upon the subject, a fixation that is often most clearly exemplified in the attitudes and behaviours of millennials.

      2. Part of the problem here is the belief that all conservative Protestant Christians are raised within a generic transdenominational evangelical – or fundamentalist – culture (I have written at length about the problematic identity of ‘evangelicalism’ here). They aren’t. Many conservative Protestant Christians, for instance, were baptized as infants and raised within a culture rather far removed from the generic evangelical culture. While they hold many beliefs that would be identified as conservative evangelical, the whole evangelical culture doesn’t necessarily come with that. The self-absorption of the evangelical culture is shared by many of those who leave it, as everything is defined relative to the culture that they left, which, for instance, makes it difficult for them to distinguish certain beliefs from their abuses in particular evangelical subcultures. Post-evangelicals often seem to allow the evangelicalism that they left to continue to define them, as they exist in reaction to its most unbalanced practices (often leading them to become fairly imbalanced themselves), rather than as a non-reactive and independent attempt to forge a faithful form of discipleship. For instance, concepts of purity and modesty are furiously attacked and little appreciation shown for the way that these emphases occur in many other Christian contexts where the purity and modesty culture of evangelicalism doesn’t exist.

      3. Rachel and many other progressive or post-evangelicals seem to be in constant reaction to neo-reformed culture (which, for all of its many faults, is typically highly caricatured, but that’s a discussion for another day). And therein lies the problem: by defining themselves so powerfully by what they are against, they become very poor at articulating what they are for. The reaction itself can – and I believe has – become the defining principle of the movement. For those of us looking from outside of both camps, it seems that progressive evangelicals are all too often trying to live on medicine – the remedies for the ailments of evangelicalism – rather than on solid and substantial food. A resistance to the unconsidered dogmas of a close-minded evangelicalism is one thing, but what I all too frequently see is this resistance mutating into a reaction, a reaction that isn’t really about the historic Christian celebration of ‘mystery’ (a very slippery term in the contemporary world) at all, but about a taste for a Church without firm and authoritative teaching and a God who doesn’t have all of the unpleasant rough edges that we encounter in Scripture.

      Remarkably few Christians – even neo-Reformed Christians! – believe that they have understood everything about God. In fact, most of us are deeply aware of our ignorance, the limits of our knowledge, and how much higher God’s thoughts are than ours. What I all too often see is not so much resistance to any claim or presumption of absolute knowledge of God, but resistance to the idea that we can truly know certain things about God and his truth, when those things run sharply contrary to our prejudices. Hence, people who suggest that God really is very clear on such things as, say, the subject of marriage or divine judgment will be accused of worshipping their theology and the like. I have been on the receiving end of this on several occasions. Appeals to divine ‘mystery’ are used as means to dismiss the clarity and authority of divine revelation.

      This is not to deny that neo-Reformed Christians can often be hyper-rationalistic. They really can. I like Hart as much as the next guy and have read almost all of his books at least a couple of times. However, if behaviour truly is the window to the heart, I have yet to be persuaded that the quest for ‘mystery’ in any genuinely Christian sense of the word really is as important a motivation for many of these millennials as resistance of the discomfort of a God who speaks clearly on issues that run against our will. I don’t want to deny that some do generally seek a healthy form of mystery. However, among those who are more defined by the reactionism that I have described, this is far less clear cut.

      4. I never advocated an unquestioning submission to authority. However, we should have a genuine submission to it. Blind resistance and suspicion of institutions is no less pernicious and dangerous as blind obedience to them. True submission to tradition and institutions will constantly place our cultural prejudices into question, unsettling our overweening self-confidence in our own insight. It will curtail our supposed entitlement to our own sovereign opinion and call us to subject our opinions to the judgment and discernment of a wider tradition and community of discourse, a tradition and community that might well not rule in their favour.

      The issue of abuse that you raise really is a crucial factor. The experience of abusive churches has led many to a suspicion of authority and institutions more generally. The abuse has rendered people resistant to the healthy use. While the reaction is very understandable, it must be made clear that, as long as the reaction continues, those who have it are not in a healthy position.

      5. Thanks for passing that piece on.

      • Morgan Guyton says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful and gracious response. I agree with a lot of what you say. And I appreciate the need to be disoriented and critiqued instead of always being the critic. For modernity, the most sovereign position in discourse belonged to the “objective” scientist. In postmodernity, it belongs to the deconstructive critics who only exist parasitically in the objects of their critique. One place where I need to remain in push-back mode is to say that it makes a lot of sense that millennials should be hungering for sacramental reality in a world where every object they are surrounded by is a commodity somebody is trying to sell them. Perhaps instead of deconstructing/mocking this hunger as amounting to “a sort of Christian orientalism” or a superficial interest in a “‘weathered’ church feel,” there’s a way to speak of it sympathetically. I’m not sure you did this as much as the First Things piece, but puffing out your chest and saying, “You think you can handle tradition? Ha!” doesn’t seem like a terribly evangelistic posture to take. It seems more like a bone to throw to the amen chorus. Who was it who said that the man who goes to the whorehouse is really looking for God? My favorite podcast preacher Jonathan Martin talks about how he tries to listen for how God has already revealed himself to the seekers he meets and that’s where he starts with them evangelistically.

      • Thanks for the comment, Morgan. I hope that I haven’t simply dismissed the genuine insights and healthy desires that the individuals in question have. That was not my intent. I do, however, wish to call the commonly expressed desire for ‘sacramentality’ into question, especially when, as in Evans’ remarks, it seems to be motivated by a hunger for a particular affect of ‘authenticity’. The sense of hunger resulting from a commodified world is understandable, but this sort of ‘authenticity’ isn’t truly going to satisfy it. To the extent that it is a genuine and healthy hunger, it is for something much deeper than ‘authenticity’.

        The interchangeability of the options is one of the tell-tale signs of the problem that I am referring to. Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism each represent deep traditions and worlds, each with its particular substance and character. My concern is that the people in question want the semblance of a deep tradition and world, without seriously engaging with and committing themselves to the substance of those worlds and traditions.

        By ‘a sort of Christian orientalism’, I am referring to the sort of romantic notions of Orthodoxy that prevail in many such quarters, as a sort of obverse to ‘Western’ theology and Church, capable of putting Christians in touch with their true selves (akin to natives in such films as Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, or Avatar). Another way of putting it would be to observe that Orthodoxy is the Manic Pixie Dream Church for many Western Christians. Orthodoxy becomes a screen upon which to project a set of ideals, ideals that tend to obscure the actual reality of Orthodoxy, a reality that tends to disrupt and unsettle such projections (which is why such individuals seldom demonstrate close attention to and knowledge of Orthodoxy’s fine details).

      • When you tell people that you know what they’re thinking better than they do, aren’t you taking a deconstructive posture that is very similar to that which you’re critiquing? I’m not sure that Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy are so utterly different from each other in a way that their “interchangeability” for the post-evangelical sensibility proves a shallow disingenuousness on the part of the post-evangelical who finds something refreshing in Alexander Schmemann or Henri De Lubac or Rowan Williams, which has been the case for me, and sees a fair amount of similarity in their views which are equally radically dissimilar from Wayne Grudem, John MacArthur, John Piper, etc.

        I saw a photo on the internet of a man with a super-long beard at a gay pride parade in Russia beating the crap out of a gay guy. I can’t find it now, but I think this was the incident where it occurred: I don’t know if he was a priest. Maybe people in Russia other than Orthodox priests have super-long beards like that. But if he was a priest whose behavior has basically been blessed by the hyperbolic statements from the patriarch of Russia about homosexuality, then the burden is on the Orthodox themselves to explain the dissonance between the beautiful words of Schmemann, Lossky, Zizioulas, et all and how Orthodoxy behaves in real life. It just doesn’t add up. I’ll take Schmemann, Lossky, and Zizioulas without the anti-gay riots. And if that makes me a shallow dilettante with authority issues, so be it.

      • I think that you are caricaturing somewhat here, Morgan. In speaking of the substance and character of Orthodoxy, I am referring to the content of the tradition, its theology, and ecclesial forms. Schmemann, Zizioulas, Lossky, Hart, etc. are all great in their own ways, but knowing about the Orthodox Church and its tradition as they appear idealized on paper for a few individuals (mostly operating within a Western context) is a far cry from actual knowledge of the substance of the tradition. It may be easy to try to brush off this point by reference to a homophobic incident, but I am afraid that such a facile and dismissive answer is quite unpersuasive as an attempt to answer my point.

        And, no, I do not claim to know what people are thinking better than they do. I am just pointing out that they demonstrate little evidence of more than a dilettante’s knowledge of the actual form and content of the traditions that they are speaking of.

    • David says:

      Hi Morgan,

      I think your commentary contributes considerably to the conversation–not least in your relating that more than millenials “believe in their own sovereignty”–but I confine my own remarks here with respect to your third point.

      Surely it would be a caricature to represent traditional harmonization schema of apostolic writings and other Scripture to be always applied in purely rationalistic ways in (e.g.) American Protestantism as if devoid of consequent wonder or worship. Systematic theology ought to end in worship and obedience, and surely does for many among those you seem to criticize.

      More specifically while harmonization or systematization of Scripture is surely accepted by various (such) Christians in ways that overreach Scripture and/or squeeze out legitimate mystery, the way forward it seems to me lies in exegetical and hermeneutical and systematizing principles consistent with logic rather than in embracing the antithesis of logic, the irrational, or in rebuffing systematization and harmonization in which we all necessarily engage one way or another.

      Divine mystery (e.g., the Incarnation) is not illogical even if it reaches beyond it, nor contrary to what God has revealed to His people. The trick is to locate where the mystery lies within the lines God’s revelation has laid down. The problem is not in systematic theology or in harmonization per se, but in bad systematization (and/or a foundation of systematization, exegesis, or in a consequence of systematization, application). An aesthetic of divine beauty is defensible on some sort of systematic theological grounds, not the contrary.

      I suspect you will agree with me at least in large measure.

      • Morgan Guyton says:

        I’m going to push for a hermeneutics that gives God full sovereignty to speak in the moment through a given verse in scripture to a specific person as opposed to a hermeneutics that gives each verse in scripture a static meaning that people should learn and accept from the Wayne Grudems and Thomas Aquinases of the world. For example, I had a powerful charismatic encounter with the Holy Spirit several weeks ago when I read Psalm 26:7 in the Catholic basilica in DC. The verse says, “Remember me not according to my youthful sins and transgressions, but according to your mercy and for the sake of your goodness.” An abstract, rationalistic reading of this scripture says, “Okay, good, another foreshadowing of the justification of Jesus’ cross, next?” But what the Spirit gave me was not reassurance but conviction. God said, “I am re–membering you according to my mercy and for the sake of my goodness; YOU need to forget that you’ve always been a cynic and accept my sanctification.” There’s no way to argue that my encounter with Psalm 26:7 is what that verse *should* mean for everybody. But it will always mean that for me. Until I read it two years from now and God says something different. Now I recite it in Hebrew as part of my prayer practice in order to write a posture of repentance into my heart. Obviously it’s not open to any possible meaning, but whatever systematic way of thinking we have should always submit to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit to disrupt our presumptions and behave Pentecostally every time we open the Bible. Regarding the systemization of aesthetics, I will quote my favorite verse in Psalm 119, verse 113, which says, “Seaphim saneti v’torecha ahavti” and which I translate, “I hate opinions but I love your law.” Seaphim is the word for branches or to cut and divide (into categories!). Pure Torah is so smooth that it transcends any kind of casuistry that we try to snap it into; it’s like calculus to our trigonometry, which is not at all to give us a nihilistic cop-out. It’s rather that Gregory of Nyssa was right to say that our journey to truth will always be an infinite journey of epekstasis in this life and the next. We will always be in the process of getting to know the infinite love and perfect truth of God more and more deeply. Now maybe from the perspective of eternity that journey is experienced as a single instant. I don’t know. I kind of hope not. Because part of the intense desire I feel for God is inflamed by the trust that He has so many more secrets to reveal to me.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      It’s rather an aesthetic concern for God’s beauty which should absolutely not be tossed aside and dismissed just because modernity decided that aesthetics is window-dressing and reason is the real stuff.

      I think you assume far too easily that a more imaginative approach to the faith would be a more liberal approach. In fact, I’d argue, we might even end up with more conservative morals and theology than we might otherwise. Religious (and poetic) thinking doesn’t just say that the world is just made up of matter, but also of forms, essences, purposes and ideals. The critics Nikos Salingaros and Mark Signorelli write about “the misunderstanding of freedom as liberation from essence rather than perfection of essence.” That is what ethics is for the religious person, including the Christian.

      An example. One of the most fundamental aspects of reality, at least human reality, is the division into two sexes. The mechanistic view is that these are just arbitrary arrangements of atoms, but if we view the forms out in the world as speaking a kind of language, then these two sexes have a certain intrinsic meaning. And, if this fundamentally sexed nature of the body does have any meaning, it would seem that, at the very least, which sexed body part is meant to go with which other sexed part would be one of them. I think we can see where this is leading.

      I also think that it is highly likely that there are further practical and ethical implications that follow from the sexed nature of the human body. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases where different treatment of the two sexes is unjust. Of course. Sometimes what matters most is our common human essence. But, if the sexed nature of our bodies has any intrinsic meaning, then it cannot be true that different treatment of the two sexes is inherently wrong. We cannot just view ourselves as here to fulfill our own individual nature. So, most of the arguments from secular feminism would seem to be completely irrelevant to Christian ethics and we probably should be quite suspicious of them.

      I’d also note that liberal ethics is highly reductionistic. Our bodies are just hunks of matter out there to do with as we please (so long as we don’t hurt anybody else), and all that really matters for ethics is happiness and suffering, and how we distribute those things. You end up with Jeremy Bentham’s assertion that poetry is of no more intrinsic worth than pushpin, the standard being simply what makes people feel good. I don’t think any great poet would cop to that. The poet and the natural lawyer are one.

      • Morgan Guyton says:

        Hmm… So you’re presuming that I think being liberal is a good thing. Regarding poetry making gender into a binary, I actually wrote a poem about it:

        In the beginning there were only one syllable words;
        when longer words were born,
        their extra syllables were cut off or hidden
        because a word with two parts could not be imagined.

        After some time, a poet came along and said that two syllable words
        were good for poetry,
        Because half put the accent on the first half
        and half put the accent on the second half.
        They would complement each other perfectly.

        The poet was killed for violating the order of language;
        but then the words repented
        and they discovered the beauty of two syllable words.
        They made beautiful poetry:
        sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, haikus,
        all because half of the words had accents on the first half
        and the other half had accents on the second half.

        Sometimes three, four, and even five syllable words were born,
        And their parents had to decide
        which half of the word would have the accent
        and which would not.
        Any extra syllables could not be pronounced,
        because that would ruin the poetry.

        One day there was a rebellion against form;
        a group of words were sick of rhyme schemes
        and iambic pentameter;
        so they said we can make poetry
        that doesn’t rhyme;
        and they did the inconceivable:
        they pronounced the silent syllables of three, four, and even five syllable words.
        Some words even had more than one accent.

        The sonnets called a town meeting:
        We must stop this rebellion
        for the sake of all the poetry that has ever been written;
        Random words are putting themselves together,
        even in sentence fragments –
        Verbs on other verbs
        Nouns with other nouns (with no conjunctions in between).
        What will happen next?
        Will the letters themselves revolt and detach from their words?
        Language will disintegrate into nonsense.
        All of this can only be prevented
        if we outlaw the pronunciation of
        more than two syllables.
        Nobody can help the number of syllables they’re born with
        and it’s okay to have extra letters to look at
        but the extra syllables must be silent
        because there are two kinds of words:
        those with accents on the first half
        and those with accents on the second half.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        A rather forced conceit you have there.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        So you’re presuming that I think being liberal is a good thing.

        Briefly looking through your writing, I would confidently characterize your ethical position as liberal. You don’t seem to like the wishy-washiness and sentimentality that often go with liberalism though. I didn’t look far enough to determine if you are liberal in the other parts of your theology.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        If you don’t like being called liberal for whatever reason, I’m happy to go with utilitarian/Rawlsian.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      When Rachel talks about “questions,” it’s in reaction to the hyper-rationalist neo-reformed culture in America in which everything about Jesus has been filed away into a systematic theology schema.

      Dunno about this. Jay Bakker talks the same way and he’s coming from the Pentecostal end of things.

      • David says:

        Hi Morgan,

        It would be a logical inference that our learning and experience of God will proceed into eternity because God is, shall we say, infinite while we are finite–or perhaps that is an opinion we share. And I think your experience with Psalm 26:7 sounds beautiful and not contrary to the original intent.

        … And by the way your experience as you represent it seems not unlike pieces of my own experiences.

        But your representations of harmonization and systematization seems a transparent caricature.

        There is no inherent reason why a truth in or consequence of Scripture known today should be contradicted in eternity. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. We can know God partially even now, and truly, since God has revealed Himself in part to us. And surely your experience with Psalm 26:7 engaged in some form of systematics, whatever else it means–any mockery on your part notwithstanding.

        It is one thing to cite an example of the misuse of systematics, another to characterize systematics as misuse. The desire for growing relationship with and awe of the Almighty is not inconsistent with reason. Nor is systematics the sum of its caricatures.

  13. Thank you for sharing your clear perspective and questioning our generation. I certainly find myself questioning the generation of my parents just for the sake of my sinful desire for autonomy. I like how you pointed out that instead of being so skeptical of the pre-established answers to our questions, we ought to have a sincere desire to allow the Word of God, the theology to question us. And true Christianity IS about sacrifice, sacrifice that began with Jesus’ own loving sacrifice of himself on the cross for our sins.

    I received a lot from your post. Thank you for asking difficult questions that caused me to evaluate my own priorities and motives.

  14. Jonathan says:

    I’m more or less in agreement with most of your questioning and claims. But I am struck that you seem to make a number of broad, sweeping generalizations about millenials, just a few paragraphs after you write convincingly that:

    “Greater attention to the incredible diversity represented within a generation would caution us against attempts to homogenize their variegated experience. While there are undoubtedly generational themes, types, and widely shared underlying frameworks of cultural perception, none of us is capable of singlehandedly representing the whole unwieldy teeming mass of humanity that constitutes a generation.”

    How is the rest of this piece different from what you warn against? And given this warning, how do you suggest that others write about this, or any other generation?

    • Thanks for the questions, Jonathan. My references to millennials should be read as if in inverted commas: it is shorthand for referring to the category of people that Evans claims to be speaking for. The group of people that Evans refers to do exist, but I don’t believe that they should be straightforwardly equated with millennials in general.

      As to your second question, there are truths in group characterizations, even when those characterizations don’t fit every individual. I am more inclined to think in terms of ‘family resemblances’ within particular generations. Not everyone within a family may have a particular resemblance, but they are characteristic traits of the family more generally and are significant when it comes to describing the group. Millennials definitely have their ‘family resemblances’ and Evans and others do name some of these. However, we should beware of allowing recognition of such resemblances and their significance to lead us to homogenize the groups within which they appear. The analogies of gender or race as groupings might be helpful here, as we are particularly sensitized to the dangers of gross stereotypes or generalizations in these cases.

  15. dgardner says:

    Several years ago my parents left the “traditional” southern baptist setting and moved into a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship situation. While these folks will repeatedly tell you they are “moderate”, I find no such animal. Anywho, I thought at the time that their only rallying cry was being against anything the SBC was for. My parents finally got themselves back into the SBC after seeing the church’s pastor’s “moderate” approach to pursuing their first same sex couple to marry.

  16. Mark Reimers says:

    Hmmm. I read the Evans article yesterday. I agree 100 percent. There is an awful lack of clarity in her presentation. Yes, I guess I’m probably the same age and I understand what she is trying to address. But she is simply making a rebranding argument — while at the same time complaining that the church is too commercialized. And if I had a podium, I’d bang my head on it as well.

    BUT Alastair, I must say that, as a journalist, your writing makes me want to scratch my eyes out. It’s not that I can’t read it. I’m just afraid many others won’t make it through the verbosity. As a new digital friend, allow me to politely ask you to shorten your sentences and be more careful with your word choice (accessibility is just as important as precision).

    • My generation wants a safe place where we can be overly verbose and not be criticized for it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark.

      Complaints are fairly frequently made about my style and length of writing, so I think that it is worth explaining why I write in such a manner. The principal reason is because, in my own space, I want to speak with my own voice and on my own terms. The primary purpose of this blog is to serve as a place for me to think out loud, in the company of a select group of interlocutors. I long ago realized that, if I allowed the demands of a wide readership to determine my style, that dynamic would swiftly change. This could easily result in blogging becoming a chore and, if that happened, I would stop doing it. I purposefully write dense and lengthy posts because it is one way of making clear to my readers that they do not set the terms here. They are welcome to be my guests, but they have no right to complain about the menu.

      I have explained a further reason in the past:

      A number of readers have kindly observed that my writing is rather … well … long-winded. I would be the last to dispute this claim. It really is. I write my posts fairly rapidly and they seldom undergo much editing or sometimes even basic spell-checking before posting. I write primarily as a way of thinking through subjects out loud. Einstein once famously remarked that his pencil was smarter than he was. I feel the same way about my blog. My blog’s primary purpose is that of a thinking tool. Its secondary purpose is to communicate those thoughts to others. Were I writing in a more public forum, I can assure you that at least half of the dense mass of verbiage in my posts would be removed. What you read on this blog is my thought in its unexpurgated, raw form.

      Writing at such brain-numbing length has certain advantages. It has been suggested that Nigerian 419 scammers include so much poor grammar and spelling and so many comical details in their e-mails precisely because they want to narrow their self-selecting pool of respondents. If they can write in such a manner that only the most gullible of persons would respond, they will have a far better rate of success for their scamming. Likewise, by writing at such tedious length, I ensure that only the most charitable and patient of readers will bother to engage. This suits me fine.

      Finally, one other reason why I write in the manner that I do is as a purposeful response to the style adopted by people like Rachel Held Evans. If you read her article or follow her blog (or the blogs of many of those who closely associate with her) you should observe that the paragraph has been rendered almost extinct, replaced by the sentence, and sometimes not even a complete sentence. Instead of carefully developed arguments that need to be followed with care, we see the assemblage of fragmentary impressions. They are often closer to ad copy than they are to anything resembling classic theological reasoning, a dynamic that I have commented upon in relation to the work of Rob Bell here.

      I don’t write as a journalist, but as a theological thinker. The sentence with multiple clauses and the lengthy paragraph are indispensable as machinery for thought. My writing will be inaccessible to those whose form of communication is chiefly shaped by the forms of television and advertising. I am quite capable of writing widely accessible prose, but I want to write prose that is off-putting and difficult to those who lack the patience and disciplines of thought. I want to write prose that is not designed for the convenience of readers as ‘word consumers’, but for readers who must learn to appropriate my words on my terms. I write as a way of selecting readers who are attuned to my patterns of thought or prepared to become so, readers who approach reading as a discipline and seek to be attentive, sensitive, and responsible to the authors that they read. Readers accustomed to reading texts on their own terms are the most inclined to use texts against their authors’ intentions.

      Wittgenstein once remarked that he wrote to slow his readers down and also observed: “The book must automatically separate those who understand it from those who do not. […] If you have a room which you do not want certain people to get into, put a lock on it for which they do not have the key.” Nietzsche wrote: “all the nobler spirits select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against the others.” My style is designed to press people to develop the skills of developed argument and sensitive reading, to resist the populism of consumer-driven ‘thought’ pieces, and to learn to operate with the machinery of thought themselves, rather than expecting to have its pre-packaged results handed to them.

      • touche' says:

        I started off reading this thinking that you were just an arrogant prick, but I’m not gonna lie, It’s hard not to agree with you on a certain level. You seem to be accomplishing your purposes in a fairly efficient manner. ha

      • Matthew Petersen says:

        “Lengthy paragraph[s] are [an] indispensable as machinery for thought.”

        For what it’s worth, Aristotle did not use paragraphs. 😛

        More seriously, there is a superficial analogy between RHE’s style of writing, and, say, the Dao De Jing, or the Analects. Do you think there is potential for that style to be developed and grown into something more deeply resembling Laozi’s or Confucius’s style?

      • Lol! Good point, Matthew! 🙂

        While there can be thoughtful writing without lengthy paragraphs, the lengthy paragraph is not something that we could lightly dispense with without impoverishing our thought as a culture. When people lack the literacy, logic, or patience to engage with the lengthy paragraph something very important has been lost.

        I would question the appropriateness of the analogy between RHE’s style and that of Laozi or Confucius (or Aristotle, for that matter). In those characters we are dealing with products of a more oral culture, with its immense literate capacity for condensation. Our culture is undergoing something of a half turn back to oral and image based forms in many respects. While there are some promising signs here and there, the sort of literacy that produces and interprets texts such as those mentioned above is not operative in our culture in the same manner. So, no, unless there is evidence of a more advanced form of literacy developing, I don’t think that any style with the potential to serve as a powerful medium of higher thought is going to be produced any time soon.

      • Matthew Petersen says:

        Thanks for that response. The link was particularly interesting.

      • Mark Reimers says:

        Thanks for the reply Alastair. I’m hesitant to even continue on the topic lest it take up too much oxygen at the expense of your fantastic analysis of the main topic.

        But briefly:
        It simply came as a shock since my whole professional goal is to communicate more than people even realize they took in — mainly because, as you correctly observe, culture is so increasingly short on stamina. Even so, I still must live knowing for certain that almost every single consumer of my writing barely gets past the headline.

        “The sentence with multiple clauses and the lengthy paragraph are indispensable as machinery for thought.”

        This is a pretty interesting claim. I think I agree with the spirit of it, having spent a lot of time with Theology. But I’ve never encountered the concept of controlling the audience by locking some out, as Wittgenstein put it. I’d have to give that a lot of careful thought.

      • Chris E says:

        ” My style is designed to press people to develop the skills of developed argument and sensitive reading, to resist the populism of consumer-driven ‘thought’ pieces, and to learn to operate with the machinery of thought themselves, rather than expecting to have its pre-packaged results handed to them.”

        This description is something to be bestowed, not claimed.

        I think you often have the habit of sub-clausing your arguments to the point where at least part of your argument must be right and at the same time forcing people to engage in every argument simultaneously. I don’t think this necessarily makes for great debate, unless your aim is win by exhausting every opponent.

      • Lengthy paragraphs are usually the result of grammatical error on the writer’s part. For example, in your above response the first paragraph should be split in two. Your first response addresses complaints, but “I long ago realized…’ is the beginning of a new topic: your goals and your audience.

        Your first italicized paragraph should be split into three. Paragraph 1 discusses your readers’ POV. “I write my posts” begin s a shift in POV and should be paragraph 2. “I feel the same way about my blog” should be paragraph 3. You’ve shifted from talking about your writing to talking about your blog.

        Like it or not ,theological thinkers are as beholden to grammar as anyone else is. Don’t be so prideful and remember the lessons you learned about writing in 5th Grade. If your writing fails to communicate clearly, then that’s your fault, not the audience’s.

        Also, watch the passive voice. Don’t use more words to convey an idea than you need to. Writing isn’t the same as playing Scrabble.

      • I think that you are quite missing my point, Christian Vagabond. I would be the first to admit that my posts and comments are very far from textbook examples of style and freely grant that the errors you mention and many more besides can be found in my writing. If I devoted more time to proofreading and editing them before posting this would change. However, I am not writing journal articles here, but posting on my personal blog.

        This is not a pedantic point about writing styles, but rather a point about the relationship between habitual forms of writing and forms of thought. My point about paragraphs is that they are an important element of the machinery of the developed argument. With the shift from several sentence paragraphs to single sentence paragraphs all too often we are witnessing a fragmentation of carefully developed argument into a collection of successive and cumulative impressions. Despite its occasional usefulness, this form of writing is typically ill-equipped for much serious engagement with either opponents or with issues. It certainly is problematic when it comes to the task of theological reflection and argumentation.

        Following rather a lot of progressive evangelical blogs, I am increasingly observing this style. I am also noticing how prevalent unhealthy reactive dynamics are at work and the degree to which they drive the conversation. When reaction and impression start to dominate a discourse, we should not be surprised if it produces more heat than light.

        To be frank, Christian Vagabond, the post within which you linked to this post—a post entitled ‘A Seething Cauldron of Rage’, which initially had a picture of an angry man giving two middle fingers at the top—was a particularly strong example of this sort of reactivity overtaking the conversation.

      • The solution to bad writing isn’t more bad writing. The one-sentence paragraph might be a tiresome habit on many blogs, but the solution isn’t to write thirty sentences on various sub-topics and mash them together.

        Judging from your responses here and elsewhere, I’m not sure why your blog is public. If you only want a small audience of similarly educated people, you’ll get better results by joining a theology message board. I don’t mean that as an insult. The kind of engagement you’re looking for is out there, and there are hundreds of them gathered in one place. You won’t get as many complaints about your writing there, and you’ll find a lot of people able to give you the engagement level you’re hoping for.

        Paragraphs are important, which is why you should treat them with respect. If you value writing as an art form, that means editing is required. Look at Al Mohler’s blog. He doesn’t dumb down his writing, but he also writes with clarity.

        Your comment about my blog post is a great illustration of my point. I posted that photo, thought about my audience, and changed it an hour or so later because I realized it was an impediment to communicating with my audience. The audience deserves consideration.

      • I think that you are continuing to miss the point here. This isn’t a discussion of the technicalities of writing, but of modes of thinking and engagement.

        This is a personal blog, not an art form. When I publish journal articles or write for something like Christianity Today, I write with a rather different style.

        I am already a member of several academic or otherwise theological discussion lists. And, no, they don’t provide the sort of engagement that I am looking for in such posts.

  17. Well-written response! Thanks for pointing out the weaknesses in RHE’s argument. Unfortunately, too many of our millennial colleagues don’t exercise the discernment to logically examine the claims by RHE and others and adopt her views since they “sound right” and have an emotional, rather than logical, appeal (only bolstering her idea that she is the voice of our generation).

    Keep up the good work!

  18. Pingback: The Church Of Ramona Flowers: White Hipsterism, Evangelicalism, and the Millenials Conversation | Political Jesus

  19. We might also add, 13. Does it even make sense to talk of “Millennials” this way?

  20. jON says:

    First, thank you so much for taking the time to tell us young people how absolutely wayward and horrible we are – makes perfect sense 🙂

    I might posit a question in return. Has the thought occurred that maybe, just maybe, these mysterious “millennials” are indeed trying to find the right way in life? I, for one, know I have a lot of questions … I mean a looot. But not only am I having a hard time finding answers from “the church”, but I’m finding that “the church” generally provides a toxic environment towards even asking those questions – generally viewing people that ask questions, even if earnestly seeking the truth, as wayward, or rebels, or “skeptics” as you liked to term us. All most people really want is an honest, open discussion.

    You also bring into question the idea that these “millennials” don’t even know what they stand for. I might point you back to my previous statement as a response. I’ll admit, sometimes it’s confusing, but seriously, what did you expect when simply asking questions is frowned upon – did you really expect a generation that has answers?!? I think most people know generally what they want – they want to live a life closer to what Jesus lived, and less focused on the petty bickerings of denominations – but what does that even mean?

    One thing I think that is universal across this spectrum is that people are tired of just blindly accepting answers – “because the pastor said so” doesn’t cut it any more. If that makes us these heretical skeptics, then so be it – but I’m having a hard time seeing how trying to answer life’s questions from the Bible, from the example we see in Jesus, could possibly be so horrible.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon. At the outset, I should point out that I am the same age as Rachel Held Evans. While I probably just don’t class as a millennial myself, I have spent the entirety of my life in close proximity to them (all of my siblings are millennials, for instance). My purpose is not to issue a blanket condemnation of the millennial generation, a generation that in many respects I could be said to belong to myself, but to suggest some tough questions that millennials need to be asking themselves, while they are asking questions of the Church.

      None of this is to deny the importance of the questions that many millennials are asking of the Church. I believe that the Church in many quarters has let younger generations down for decades, expecting that beliefs that once persisted unquestioned purely through a powerful cultural momentum could just be foisted as dogma upon a generation for which that once strong momentum had dissipated.

      Anyone who knows me (or just takes a close look at this blog) should know that I take questions extremely seriously and have a lot of sympathy for those who are looking for answers and feel frustrated by churches that fail to provide them. There is nothing heretical about asking Christian orthodoxy to explain itself and to throw it some hardballs. In fact, this is an essential dimension of what it means for faith to seek understanding. However, while we are about this, we should expect Christian orthodoxy to throw a few tough questions back at us, for that is its task.

      My point about the millennials that Evans is speaking about not knowing what they are standing for is a response to her statement: ‘We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.’ Such a statement is highly problematic if it comes from a generation that experiences the sort of disorientation that you are describing. A generation that has been let down by many of those called to be their teachers can hardly be blamed for that. However, if they go on to claim the right to teach others from that position of disorientation, we have a blind leading the blind situation.

      Trying to answer life’s questions from the Bible (and to question life from the Bible) and to learn how to walk in Jesus’ steps is a noble aspiration. I hope that you will find wise and gracious spiritual leadership and a community of discipleship to help you to pursue this greatest of ends.

  21. Kamilla says:


    Just a quick comment while I’m reading …

    Point 3 hits the nail on the head. I’ve stopped counting the number of “social justice” Christians who have told me to shut up about abortion. It’s not politics that they object to, it’s particular political stances that give many the hives.

    There are two significant problems with the common social justice approach:

    First, the right to life is foundational to all other rights. IOW, if you don’t first have the right to life, then you really don’t have any rights at all, except those that society chooses to grant at whim.

    Second, Social Justice-focused Christians fail to recognize the prudential judgments we, as faithful Christians, can make about how we fulfill our duties to the poor (for instance). Arthur Brooks and others have show repeatedly that conservatives give more in terms of time, talent and treasure than liberals/progressives. Jesus Christ never advocated we give more to Ceasar so *he* can care for our neighbor.


  22. Don’t know anything about millenials, but I left because it was too loud – loved the old fashioned hymns, but enough with the small churches having sound systems that leave me with a headache. Don’t tell me to wear ear plugs either – they’re destroying the youngsters’ hearing with those things. I’m up for Bible study, but not church services.

    • I’m really sorry to hear that this has been your experience. I feel fortunate to have enjoyed contexts where I never had to attend a church with such oppressively loud worship music. I am more used to traditional hymns. I hope that you are able to find a church with reasonable sound levels.soon.

      • thrufaithalone says:

        Thank you… I’m looking for a house church now – with fellowship and Bible study – and no mics 😉 .

  23. (Well, between the noise and the harping on “tithing and attendance”…)

    • Kamilla says:


      The notion of the solitary Christian is historically novel, to put it charitably. There is a reason the Church still holds to the ancient saying of St. Cyprian, “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as Mother.”

      • thrufaithalone says:

        The attendance was to be there even if you were sick, every time the door was open – 4 times a week wasn’t good enough – they wanted 5. And the volume of the mic was really was out of order for a small church that didn’t need one in the first place.

      • Kamilla says:

        Well, you’ve certainly had a nasty experience! I don’t blame you for leaving that fellowship. But I have a hard time believing the other options were equally unpalatable.

  24. Gina says:

    “It is important that we differentiate between seeing evangelicalism as being ‘too political’ and as advocating the wrong sort of politics, or having wrong emphases within its politics. Disliking an evangelical focus upon resisting such things as abortion and gay marriage through politics and law, many condemn methods that they would happily employ to serve different causes (or the other side of the traditional causes).”

    This is SO true. I know it’s only anecdotal evidence, but in my experience, a liberal saying, “The church is too political!” usually translates to “The church isn’t political in the way I want it to be!”

  25. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Prepare for a few rants.

    A few specific criticisms of the RHE article and similar arguments:

    1. It isn’t just churches in decline:

    a. People are leaving other religions. Buddhism is a shell of itself in Japan. Traditional pagan practices are in decline in places like Brazil.

    b. People are leaving community in general. Research is showing that this is one of the most individualistic generations in the West ever and everything from bowling leagues to secular community organizations are suffering.

    (Aside: It is a bit rich to suggest that the decline in Lion’s Clubs is over their stance on homosexuality.)

    2. People used to leave churches and religions all the time. However, what they did then was either start a new religion or a new church or backslide into a robust paganism. None of this is true now. People are becoming indifferent, which is entirely new.

    3. People leaving the church is not realted questions about science, except maybe for a tiny minority. The studies are quite clear on this: most people, including most educated people, are basically totally ignorant of science.

    4. It isn’t about bad (or at least offensive) behaviour by the church:

    a. Religion has been with associated with corrupt, oppressive and/or unsavoury political parties and regimes for a long long time, and this didn’t seem to in the past. As I note above, the usual response to this kind of thing throughout history was to create or adopt a new kind of religion, not to become indifferent. Because that’s what truly religious people do when religious organizations behave badly.
    b. Religion was declining dramatically in Britain and Europe well before thing like the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church became public.
    c. Religion was also falling in Britain and Europe well before gay rights became mainstream. (And churches who are more accepting of gays tend to be declining even more rapidly than those who uphold the traditional teaching.)

    5. It isn’t about sexual teaching turning people. People like to have sex outside heterosexual marriage and have acted on this for a long time. There should have been a big market for redefining these things as non-sinful. It just didn’t materialize until modernity.

    What Rachel Held Evans is describing are precipitating events, not underlying causes. And the real reason people are leaving the church is that . . . they are less religious. The child abuse scandal or the churches teaching on gay sex is what crystallizes a modern person’s realization that the church is out of step with their modernist, essentially non-religious views. But this was the last push on a rotten tree, and if it hadn’t been this it would eventually have been something else.

  26. Thanks for the comments and interactions, everyone! I have really appreciated your input and engagement. I have to focus on other writing projects now, so I will bow out of this particular discussion at this point and leave the rest of you to it. 🙂

  27. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    OK, let’s take a step back and think for a moment. Could it be that the reason the church is in decline in the West is . . . that people there are just less religious.

    I’ve noticed a couple things about all emergent church types:

    1. They’re always banging on about how much doubt they have.
    2. They often cannot see the point of traditional Christian moral stances on sex roles, gay sex, premarital sex etc.

    All (and I do mean all) religion is based on the perception of personality in the world. Some people, for reasons both innate to themselves and environmental, have stronger or weaker religious perceptions. Those with stronger religious perceptions tend not to actually have much, if any, doubt. There are even studies where researchers have such people talk to God and they use exactly the same part of the brain as if they are talking to a friend. People usually believe in God because he’s right there, at least some of the time. So, my strong suspicion is that the more theologically (and socially) conservative you are the more certain you are of your religious beliefs, because you have more actual contact with the supernatural. While you hear lot more about doubt and such in emergent type blogs and books, doubt is not actually universal.

    That creates problems for liberal mainliners and emergent types, in that their target demographic seems to be people who have weaker religious perceptions and hence weaker religious belief. That means less commitment and less energy. It’s tough keeping a religious organization together when your target market is, well, people who are inherently less religious. The research seems to show that this actually seems to be the case:

    According to the PRRI study, most religious conservatives (54%) view religion as the most important thing in their lives. For religious progressives, the far majority consider (59%) it as one important thing among many. Religious progressives are actually more than twice as likely to say religion is not as important as other things (29%) than as the most important thing in their lives (11%).

    While this doesn’t speak directly to the strength of peoples’ religious perceptions, it does not seem much of a stretch to imagine that people for whom God (or the gods) are less real, are just going to care a lot less about religion.

    I suspect that an awful lot of the people who are involved in either liberal mainline or emergent churches are people who have a conservative/fundamentalist background that steeped them in church culture. That indoctrination formed a strong cultural bond with church and/or the Bible, but their religious perceptions (and conservative moral intuitions) for whatever reason just aren’t as strong, so they just can’t get on board with what the more conservative/fundamentalist churches are up to.*

    My further suspicion is that emergent Christianity was the beneficiary of the great wave of secularization that came to the United States in the 1990s. There are an awful lot of people raised in conservative/fundamentalist homes that have left the church, but some haven’t wanted to “go all the way.” Because a lot of these people are coming out of a specifically American Evangelical subculture, not a mainline culture, they’re not entirely comfortable with a lot of the cultural aspects of the mainline, and so are doing things somewhat differently than mainline liberals in areas like ecclesiology.

    As for the link between religious belief and social conservatism, it seems that the same perceptual faculty that is used for perceiving the workings of personal agency in the world (ghosts and gods) is also used for perceiving forms, essences and ideals in the world. The stronger you perceive those things, the more likely you are to be a social conservative. Obviously strong religious belief and social conservatism aren’t exactly the same thing, there are strong religious believers who are socially liberal and there are social conservatives who are not particularly religious, but there does seem to be a very strong correlation between the two, so my educated guess is that the strongest and most vibrant churches will continue to be on the conservative side of things on both theological and moral issues.”

    In summary, progressive religion just means less religious religion, both in terms of belief and morality. Religious liberals have trouble perceiving God’s presence and work in the world. Their spiritual sight has become dulled. For much the same reason, they cannot perceive ideals, essences, and purposes in the world and so simply adopt a thoroughly secular, basically utilitarian morality.

    *The problem is passing on progressive Christianity to the kids. Liberal mainline and emergent types just aren’t going to beat Bible and church into their kids like the fundies. Yet, that kind of indoctrination was precisely what gave liberals their attachment to the Bible and church, such as it is, in the first place. Not some conversation.

  28. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    So, what exactly is causing people in the West to become less religious?

    Here’s my stab at it.

    Our way of life (not science, not philosophy) conditions us to see things in a mechanistic (not personal) way. Compared to past societies, we have very little uncertainly in our life and very little direct contact with creation. Everything is human made and human controlled. We live in an ultrasafe (compared to most human history), ultrapredictable (compared to most human history), technological and technocratic, almost entirely human built environment, with a multitude of distractions to go along with it. That is the perfect environment for dulling our perceptions, particularly our religious perceptions. People can no longer see God (or the gods) working their work out in the world, just as they can no longer see ideals, essences and purposes in the world, which underlie all forms of religious morality.

    I like this anecdote:

    “In Chuang Tzu, a traveler sees a farmer laboriously carrying water with a pitcher to water his crops. The traveler walks up to the man and suggests that the irrigation could be done for a hundred plots much more simply with a draw-well and channels (a piece of appropriate technology if ever there was one). This is the farmer’s response:
    I have heard my teacher say: ‘When a man uses a machine he carries on all his business in a machine-like manner. Whoever does his business in the manner of a machine develops a machine heart. Whoever has a machine heart in his breast loses his simplicity. Whoever loses his simplicity becomes uncertain in the impulses of his spirit. Uncertainty in the impulses of the spirit is something that is incompatible with truth.’ Not that I am unfamiliar with such devises; I am ashamed to use them.

    We’re obviously much farther along that spectrum than Chuang Tzu’s farmer.


    Some references:

    1. Religion is the perception that there are at least some things that are irreducibly personal about reality.

    2. Modernity is changing how we perceive the world.

    Click to access Weird_People_BBS_final02.pdf

    3. Secular morality only recognizes harm and justice as legitimate, while religious morality involves things like loyalty, respect for authority and holiness.

    • Matthew Petersen says:

      I’d strongly recommend Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam to get a feeling for how much of our culture is specific to our culture, and should not be uncritically accepted by Muslims (and, it seems, on almost all counts, by Christians–though, naturally, he does not talk about the Christians).

    • Ron Amundson says:

      Haidt’s Morality is fascinating and it does seem to play out quite well within the context of a system of religion, but so much of Jesus message was different. Time and time again, he upended loyalty, respect for authority, and false purity of the Pharisee’s. I’m not sure how one can bring those traits/tribalism back into the fray without gutting much of Jesus words. Granted, Paul does provide for a bit more wiggle room.

      On the other hand, I tend to agree with your premise that people are becoming less and less religious, yet it seems there is a zest for more spirituality. Bonhoeffer talked about a Christianity without religion in his letters from prison. Such may well be the path we are on… Bonhoeffer seems to suggest such leads to a deeper and wider Christology, but there is a lot to digest.

    • Interesting seeing the discussion that you have been having in the comments on RHE’s recent post.

  29. Let’s see if I have this straight. You said that:

    “The first thing that hits one about Evans’ article is that it is a ‘voice of a generation’ piece.”

    (What’s that supposed to mean? She doesn’t claim to speaking for a generation. She’s analyzing data and sharing her experiences.)

    “At this point, I should point out that I am decidedly leery of people who claim to speak on behalf of an entire generation. ”

    (Again, she never claimed to be doing this.)

    “While I don’t want to accuse Evans of doing this here, ”

    (Then why did you spend your first few paragraphs characterizing her essay as a “voice of a generation” piece? You brought it up. If you didn’t want to accuse Evans of doing this, why bring it up?)

    “claims to be the mouthpiece of such a vast demographic are all too often grandiose projections of a narcissistic and entitled subjectivity, resulting from the belief that the mere possession of a particular set of sensibilities renders one a privileged and exalted medium of the zeitgeist”

    (I see. So you’re not saying Evans is claiming to the voice of a generation, but you’re going to march right along and accuse her of doing it anyway.)

    “Let me reiterate: it is not my intention to accuse Evans of co-opting the voice of a generation (if there were such a thing in the first place) for cynical and self-serving ends.”

    (But you just said you’re not accusing Evans of trying to be the voice of a generation AT ALL. Now you’re saying that she’s doing it, but not for her own needs.)

    “There appears to be a lack of clarity at various points concerning the precise group that she is claiming to represent:”

    (So let’s review the original source. Where in the article does she claim to represent any group? What she states is that she identifies with the millennials. Not that she speaks for them. She identifies with them. So churches (not her – churches!) have asked her to explain the millennial viewpoint. Sort of like how you’re writing about evangelicals right now. I doubt that, by writing about the evangelical viewpoint and addressing questions by non-evangelicals, you therefore claim to be the voice of evangelicals.

    Your sole evidence for the accusation that you can’t quite admit that you’re making is that Rachel’s piece struck you as a “voice of a generation piece”, which isn’t even a category of essay in the first place. And judging by your ad hominens against both Rachel and the generation she never claimed to represent, your distaste for her and her style of writing warrants dismissal of survey data that she didn’t even create. So of course it’s not clear what group she is claiming to represent. She never claimed to represent anyone. And by the way, this is a critique coming from someone much older than you or Rachel.)

    • Thanks for commenting. I was meaning to bow out of this comment thread, and will do so after this, but I thought that I should make myself clear in response to your questions.

      I maintain that Evans’ is claiming to speak for a generation in some sense. I suggest that you reread the piece and pay attention to all of the ‘we want…’ statements, statements that are quite distinct from mere analyses of data or sharing of her personal experience.

      The ‘while I don’t want to accuse Evans of doing this here’ needs to be read with the following clauses, not the preceding sentence. Those clauses, which you quote, are designed to identify some of the dangers of and unhealthy impulses towards engaging in such a practice. Your misreading of that one sentence’s opening clause is the cause of most of your confusion here.

      If Evans were engaging in close analysis of survey data, my post has definitely missed its mark. However, I suggest that there isn’t really any such analysis within her piece at all. It is a series of assertions and bold claims without clearly reasoned foundations, within which she presumes to speak on behalf of the millennial generation.

      And our relative ages are rather irrelevant to these points of fact.

      You are clearly free to believe whatever you want, but you haven’t really presented anything resembling compelling evidence for your claims, especially once your misreading of my statements is resolved.

      I am finally bowing out of this discussion. You are welcome to have the final word.

      • I’ll finish with this thought. Your contempt for Evans aside, you’re engaging in the same broad generalizations about the mentality of millennials that you claim Rachel is guilty of. What’s sad is that you’ve packaged a lot of very good points into your essay, but your answer to the problems millennials raise seems to be that it’s their fault that they aren’t getting more out of church. You say that there are good reasons to be concerned with the issues raised in the article, but you’re unwilling to budge on any of them or suggest plans of action beyond lip service. At heart the church still feels as though it has the privilege of dictating the terms of the debate, which means that no changes will take place beyond what the establishment is willing to concede. The problem boils down to a choice of allowing the church to die, or taking action to prevent it.

  30. Alistair, thanks so much for this insightful piece. You articulated so well the instinctual response of (I believe) so many who read Rachel’s blog with a mixture of excited hopefulness and nervous dismay. I am particularly thankful for your recognition that this discussion takes place within a context. As an Australian who has spent considerable time in the US, I find it particularly unfortunate when my fellow Aussies pick up on reactive themes within the conversation among North American Evangelicals and unthinkingly chime in as if we were all brought up Southern Baptists. Anyway, thanks for weighing in. Well done.

  31. Dipping into the RHE ‘phenomenon’ it seems obvious that her fame/ influence is due to her being *perceived* by the mainstream as a subversive fifth columnist, who can maybe help secularize or at least neutralize some of those troublesomely-un-liberal evanagelicals (and by the usual media-favoured route of promoting the sexual revolution).

    Insofar as RHE is NOT herself doing this – she should be worried!; as should Pope Francis, who is also being used by the mass media in the same fashion (albeit at three orders of magnitude greater scale!).

    It is usual in the West now for religious people to be famous for all the wrong reasons – and Christians who are or become famous need to be aware of this, and of the incremental corruptions towards which they are being shaped by the very nature of mass media coverage.

    • Donald says:

      I really appreciate this comment in relation to Pope Francis. Although I think he demonstrates genuine Christian humility in his private life, overall speaking frequently on poverty is almost invariably now a days to advance leftism (secular, statism, relativism, greed and envy) of some form or another. Granted I interpret him through the medias perspective, but the fawning I take to be proof that either they are grossly misrepresenting him or he is indeed cooperating in evil (destruction of the good, undermining orthodox and traditionalists, empowering liberals etc) albeit unwittingly (such is the usual mode of demonic influence). His comments on homosexuality were sufficiently ambiguous to serve the purposes of those favouring the sexual revolution. I mean you think the Pope would drill pre-canned nuanced and orthodox lines on these kinds of things, so as to (as best as able) be as accurate as possible whilst indeed trying to be pastoral – recognizing the spin that would be put by the media. Alas…

  32. Nice article. And it may have been a bit long, but it was spot-on. Before Rachel’s brouhaha was blasted through the blogosphere by Huffington, I had responded to her and her kind already, from a slightly different angle. It sounds like you would largely agree.

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  34. Pingback: Hey Guys, I’m a Young Person and I Have Opinions (Rachel Held Evans, Millennials, Etc.) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  35. Jonathan says:

    This was probably one of the best pieces on progressive evangelicalism I have read. Thank you for taking the time to think through each point. All of your points hit the nail on the head.

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  37. Geoff says:

    Alastair. While I appreciate your article I think your largely missed the point. What Evans is advocating is a church with substance. Lets take a serious look at our sanctuaries. Is she right? The church in America needs to take an honest look at ourselves as ask are we living like Jesus? Jesus didn’t need to market himself. Word spread about him like wild fire. He was known for loving people. Not known for what he was against. When his disciples preached, multitudes were converted, not asked to pray a prayer.

    The kingdom of God is amazingly transforming and addictive. If we can truly show millennials or anyone the Kingdom, will the results be different than what we see today?

  38. Caned Crusader says:


    A very insightful peace. i particularly appreciate your addressing of how contextualized Evans is within a Northa American fundamentalist (and–I must add–SOuthern) context. Speaking as someone raised in the north amongst free evangelicals (descended from Lutherans) I can tell you that there is overlap, but also quite a lot of difference. (If I didn’t happen to be naturally intellectually curious, I would perhaps never have discovered, for example, the complementarian/egalitarian debate at all.) As someone who, though not participating in a high church tradition, regularly uses Puritan and ANglican forms of devotion in public and private worship, I’d like to say that I do believe that many young people my age are turning to liturgy, the contemporary hymn resurgence and a higher sacramentality not for the “authenticity” (a word I am increasingly coming to despise) but precisely because it seems to point us youtside and beyond our narrow evangelical context. I can tell you that when I started praying from the BCP, for example, one of the things that was incredibly profound was how Scripture was organically related to prayer, and how the words of Scripture and the saints could become my words, and thus be one of the many means of slow sanctification that God uses. I do agree though (because I’ve seen it in myself) that along with that comes an attraction to “Christian orientalism”–a superficial understanding of liturgy without due acceptance (or even consideration!) of the things that go along with liturgy (The Catholic Catechism, for example, has two other sections besides the liturgical.) This is why, despite my love for ancient prayers and the lectionary, I have not yet crossed the Tiber or the Bosphorus.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Caned Crusader.

      Something that I think that some people have missed in reading my piece is that its purpose was not that of characterizing and damning millennials, but of providing some tough questions for them to answer (specifically, as I pointed out at the beginning, those millennials who resonate with Evans’ representation of them), questions designed to get behind the appealing soundbites to make clearer what exactly it is that they really want. The questions, of course, are pointed to the extent that I maintain within them that the motives of millennials are often other or less healthy than those typically focused upon.

      Given the way that I have framed my piece, if some millennials tell me that, after carefully asking my questions of themselves, they find that my pointed questions do not hit any target in them, I will be pleased to hear it. It was never my intention to dismiss all quests for a healthy and richer form of Christian faith and Church among millennial Christians or to tar them all with the same brush. Such quests are incredibly important, but they need to be undertaken in a manner conscious of their potential pitfalls and of the unhealthy motives that they can often conceal. This is why we need to recognize some of the more common errors or misguided causes that can prevail among millennials (every generation or culture can have a particular vulnerability to particular sins, failings, or self-delusions) and test carefully to see whether we also have fallen prey to them.

      One thing that I do want to clarify is that this particular statement in my piece — ‘However, millennials have not abandoned consumerism or performances, they just wish to dissemble their consumerism and adopt a more exacting or ironic posture towards their performances’ — lacks necessary qualification. In the unqualified sense in which it is written (I didn’t pick it up in editing), it doesn’t reflect my true opinion. There should be an ‘all too often’, or something like that in there.

      • Caned Crusader says:

        I definitely didn’t feel targeted specifically by your piece,; I only responded because I and a anumber of friends, while not abandoning our nondemominational evangelicalism, are interacting with other forms of Christianity and learning from them. i wanted to acknowledge the danger you pointed out, but also say that this is not wholly the way things are going. This may seem a bit petulent, but my least favorite thing about the reaction to RHE (not her specifically, as I think she tries not to give this impression) is that a lot of Christians (and secularists) think that she “represents” or speaks for those of us who are “millennials.” Well, she doesn’t speak for me, and I differ with her on almost every major point of importance for what seem to me to be important reasons. (I am not dissimilar to the vast majority of Christians i know, but we don’t get attention because we don’t write incendiary blogs.) Also, I wish everyone would give up the straw man of evangelical monergists being “rationalistic”, having no place for mystery or questions and being unconcerned with practical holiness. it’s coming from so many places and is so radically untrue to both my reading in evangelical monergist theology (I avoid the term “Reformed” deliberately) and my experience with those churches and Christians that I have little hesitation in calling it slanderous and an injury to the body of Christ.

      • Yes, the rationalistic accusation does stick sometimes, but a lot less than some people think. And there is certainly not a necessary connection between classic monergistic theology and such rationalism.

  39. Tyler Giles says:

    My immediate question on reading the RHE piece was: Which Millennials? What church?
    I guess I’m still waiting for her follow-up post?

  40. Pingback: Disillusioned Millennials | Penny of a Thought

  41. Frederick says:

    Please find two references (plus much more too) which describe the kind of spirit-killing mind and emotion that mis-informs all of the usual Christian propaganda hacks whether new style (progressive) or “old” style (“traditionalist”) – without exception.

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  45. Chris E says:

    The critique of RHE’s brand of spirituality is just a variant of her own critique of Evangelicals. ‘Authenticity’ is as much as part of consumerism as it is an attempt to react against it ( and has parallels in the wider world. At the same time, modern evangelicalism is in itself a co-opting of the cultural practices of previous generations.

    At the end of the day, which of the last four generations hasn’t tried to re-imagine Christianity in it’s own image ? (Judging by the old testament it has been going on for longer than that).

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  47. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Evans is being passive-aggressive again. In today’s post, she is disclaiming any comprehensiveness in her original article. Though she declines to mention either this blog or my comments over at her blog, it seems pretty clear that we had an impact. In the original article though, she did write as if she were talking for millenials as a whole and did talk about what millenials as a whole wanted.

    Of course, she’d never admit it.

    You know for someone who is so critical of shiftiness and lack of charity in mainstream evangelicalism, she sure does engage in a lot of it herself.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      I should also note that this isn’t about totally running down Evans, who has a engaging personality and a genuinely nice and generous side to her character, as well as a somewhat darker side. I just find it extremely odd that a person of such flawed character and inconsiderate behaviour seems to have become a rallying point for those who have complaints about the flawed character and inconsiderate behaviour of those in mainstream evangelicalism. Something else is going on here.

      • I think that there are underlying dynamics that, once taken into account, go some way to explain this. I will be posting some concluding reflections on this debate later this evening, which will discuss it at more length.

        My general impression of Evans is that she is probably a pleasant individual in person, intelligent and witty, sensitive and highly engaging, with a lot of very important concerns and things to say (even though I have sharp differences with many of her positions), remarkably gifted in connecting and relating to many, especially those who have been hurt by abusive churches and theologies. I wouldn’t be surprised if we would get on well in person.

        However, as a leader of thought she is doing a lot of serious damage by not successively controlling the reactive dynamics of her own writing and of her community. The effect is toxic. As in other cases, I think that much of this is attributable to a gifted individual prematurely being given considerable influence, before they have gained the requisite self-control necessary to avoid reactive patterns of engagement and community formation.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        She has an engaging personality and is a very good storyteller. The problem is that she also desperately wants to be thought of as an intellectual and simply does not have the chops. I honestly don’t think age and experience would really help much as I don’t think she would ever be prepared to realize the limitations of her own talent.

        I agree that she would be a great person to have a beer with, but I would not trust her with anything of the slightest importance in my life.

  48. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    One further comment. A lot of us who are on the more conservative end of the church have had less than ideal relationships with the church and clergy in general too. We’ve just never considered leaving.

    As an artist, I am perfectly aware that some of the edgier stuff I do, while not really that crazy, would probably be quite disapproved of, or at least be met by total incomprehension by, many members of the churches I’ve attended. This makes me somewhat anxious from time to time. Yet, I’ve never really considered not going to church.

    I have another friend who works in a government office but has a strong musical background. He tells me that listening to the praise songs at his church fills him with “total rage and despair.” Yet he wouldn’t consider leaving either.

    Rod Dreher, the Orthodox blogger, over at The American Conservative was totally burned out by the rank misbehaviour and cover ups of the Catholic clergy while investigating them a few years ago. He came to believe that he just couldn’t trust clergy. He still doesn’t really trust them. But he didn’t leave either; instead, he became Orthodox.

    Because that’s what really religious people do.

    • I am wary of judging other people’s actions in such areas. Some people really have experienced serious abuse, fled from their churches, but still haven’t found anywhere to go. They aren’t necessarily unreligious. Many of them were young and vulnerable, caused to stumble by unfaithful or abusive leaders. God knows the truth of their situation.

      The point that you make about the fact that most of us have had less than ideal relationships with the Church is absolutely correct, though. It really takes me effort to love the Church a lot of the time (not the Church on paper, but the actually existing Church). I have experienced plenty of things that depress me, make me cringe, disgust and appal me, grieve me, or make me feel isolated, alienated, stigmatized, or unaccepted at various points in my life within the Church. I have had many, many good Church experiences along the way, but I am very far from finding a church that really fits me like a glove. However, like most Christians, the Church is the family of God, and so, despite its failings, I stick with it and I love it, just as I have benefited from the way that it has stuck with me and loved me despite mine.

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  56. Jodi says:

    Alastair, you said “And the choice between compassion and holiness is a classic one, upon which the Scriptures are uncomfortably clear. Holiness requires of us uncompromising action against sin in our lives and communities. This entails being prepared to resist the urge of compassion towards people closest to us when that compassion would lead to compromise. Christ places a sword between the nearest of relations.” I agree with you. This is what the Bible teaches. Compassion comes second, or third, or not at all. That’s why people leave, or never join. I left because the Bible says that God created people for hell (Romans 9:11-22). I don’t want to spend eternity with that monster. And I was fully committed from the time I was 6 years old until I was 35. I was even a missionary. Completely sold out for God. When I realized what the Bible really was saying–not just in Romans, but throughout–I couldn’t stomach it.

    Now I’m free to love people and accept them and listen to their stories without looking down on them and judging them and trying to figure out how to convert them. I can read and think and question without the heavenly thought police threatening my eternal soul. I know I’m good because I choose to be good, and to do good, not because I fear hell, but because moral living is good for society. And my idea of morality goes beyond being faithful to my spouse to caring for the needy, and the planet, and striving for justice for those who have no voice.

    Rachel Evans is right when she says people “… perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people” That perception is correct. She also says that they “…often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” That is also true. We all have to choose between Christianity and a life based on a different world view. I say let them go! Christianity isn’t for everybody.

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  67. Phil says:

    Perhaps the best part of the whole article (since this is true of every generation): “The truth of ourselves is revealed in our actions. If we truly want to understand millennials, we will learn more from examining their behaviour than from listening to their self-descriptions.” Well thought out, well written, and humbly shared. Kudos. 🙂

  68. Pingback: Why I Stayed in the Church - Sometimes a Light

  69. Steve Swan says:

    Appreciated stumbling upon this and profited from it. Albeit a couple years late.

    With your blessing, I intend to quote several lines from this in an upcoming sermon. Fully credited of course.

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