The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church
The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church by David John Seel, Jr, PhD is a densely woven tapestry of sociology, research, and practical advice for Christian churches seeking to understand and reach the millennial generation. Seel exhaustively unveils the significance of a cultural “frame shift” reflected by the behaviors of today’s young people as they pertain to church, faith, and religion. Addressing the warning signs of the changing tides, the church’s most commonly misguided reactions to this cultural shift, a misunderstood millennial perspective, and constructive strategy for a new direction in church leadership, The New Copernicans serves as a guidebook for evangelical evolution. A hopeful outlook for the church’s future and preservation is at the heart of Seel’s work, as he points to the possibility of an adaptive religious framework in which young people are the guiding insight.
Millennials and Religion: Recognizing a Shift
Seel begins the book by likening the warning signs of a major cultural shift to those received aboard the Titanic before its catastrophic sinking. In the case of the Titanic, there was an opportunity to change the course of history if information regarding the threat of icebergs were passed along to the ship’s bridge. Seel explains that we are amidst that moment of opportunity for the church to heed warnings of a pending crisis, and that denying the potential threats of the younger generation’s vastly different perspective could ultimately lead to the church’s demise. In a recap of shocking statistics, “76 percent of those who are described by social scientists as religious nones or ‘religiously unaffiliated’ – the fastest-growing segment of the American population – have a church background… [and] close to 40 percent of millennials fit this religious profile.” It’s no doubt that young adults are feeling alienated by what they’ve experienced somewhere along their journeys of faith, and that “the church itself is creating the growth of the unchurched.” The New Copernicans message is clear in that there is still time for evangelical leaders to process this new reality and forge a broader horizon. Navigating these uncharted waters will require a deeper understanding of today’s young people, with ways to engage them, attract them, and empower them as church leaders.
Why Millennials are Leaving the Church
Seel argues that millennials are not the cause of such a grand societal frame shift, but instead, simply the carriers. Those born between 1980 and 2000 experienced a series of significant events during their most formative years that will forever have an impact on the way they perceive and interact with the world around them. He notes, “Not only are their perspectives different, they are better: a corrective to narrow, left-brained, overly certain analytical thinking that undermines the humble, holistic thinking that can embrace doubt and ambiguity”. Some of these events shaping the millennial culture include: the launch of IBM’s personal desktop computer (1981), the CA Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal Social Responsibility (1986), the growing acceptance of a hook-up culture (1990s), the launch of the internet (1991), the launch of Facebook (2004), the Wall Street financial collapse (2007), the Black Lives Matter movement (2013), and the legalization of same-sex marriage (2015). Church leaders will need to position their engagement with young people in ways that encompass this cultural frame, and in doing so, will become more inclusive, less judgmental, and more like Jesus.
Millennials, or New Copernicans, share a combination of intellectual humility, scientific inquisitiveness, and spiritual mysticism. Seel illustrates the “why” behind their social imaginary – the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols shared by a particular group or society – using seven predominant characteristics. According to his work, millennials are:
- secular with a new meaning – not rejecting religion or faith directly, but instead, the two-dimensional perspective in which they’ve been represented
- open-ended spiritual explorers
- influenced by the dissonance of cross-pressured beliefs
- greatly concerned with creating memorable, sharable, and relational experiences
- lovers of community and relationships
- prudent “crap detectors”, seeking authenticity over pretense
- guided by deep, defining desires in social justice, beauty/art, love/relationships, and spirit/spirituality, providing an on-ramp for Christianity as the ultimate answer to fulfillment
While the stereotypes of millennials are most often negative (ie, entitled, overly sensitive, obsessed with technology, and sheltered), we see that they are authentic, expressive, and believe in a life-long pilgrimage of experience, relationship, and community. Christian church leaders will need to embrace these positive qualities as meaningful contributions to the mission of Christ and find ways to attract these wandering spiritual pilgrims.
Strategies for Engaging and Empowering Millennials in Christian Churches
In one poignant chapter entitled “Experience Before Thinking”, we learn that “Seventy-eight percent of millennials prefer experiences to things. Eighty percent said experiences help shape their identity”. It’s no question that New Copernicans favor experience and imagination over analytics and theology. Young people of today learn best by hand, heart, then head, as opposed to head, heart, then hand. They don’t see faith as a light-switch that turns from off to on, but instead, as an open-ended journey sought with challenges, setbacks, and distractions. They are life-long explorers, constantly seeking truth and answers, with an understanding that there is always more to learn and that they can always be wrong. To them, the journey is just as important as the destination. Considering this reality, Seel passionately adds:
Most of us need to get off our self-righteous soapboxes and stop preaching. We need to join others on the damp and cold train and simply listen to the stories of others. There we will find wisdom for our own journey. We need to stop trying to be the guru, shaman, or spiritual know-it-all to others. Rather we need to get down in the muck with them, those who with us are trying to muddle through life with some measure of personal integrity and open search for meaning.
There is a certain level of intimacy and personal presence required to be effective with New Copernicans, and in reaching the younger generation, evangelical leaders must learn how to offer it.
The latter chapters of The New Copernicans highlight four significant topics of interest for millennials that serve as effective “on-ramps” to Christianity and communications from the church: social justice, beauty/art, love and relationships, and spirituality. It will be more important than ever for churches to weave these topics into their framework, as each person will have their own natural affinity for one (or more) of these pathways. The goal for church leaders will be to affirm the individual desires in each of these portals, and point our young people in the direction of a relationship with God, in hopes of adding to and completing these existential desires. Instead of a means to debate theology, The Bible should be used in a way that will emphasize the narrative arc of a story, with unity, authenticity, and love at its center. Thanks to the shared experiences and commonalities of today’s young people, these spiritual explorers will also require a greater openness in discussions about some of the more challenging topics, including doubt and sexuality. While beginning this journey of transformation may seem daunting, churches must seek first to listen, providing empathy, compassion, and connection, without needing to be an “answer-machine” for all questions. Seel summarizes in the final chapter that taking cautious and incremental steps in this new direction is the safest response to the paradigm shift.
Making Your Organization a Church for Millennials
If your church is looking to grow its millennial following and unsure of where to start, we’d love to help. Missional Marketing is a marketing agency dedicated to serving Christian organizations across the country, and we’ve done all the necessary legwork to be your millennial outreach experts. Our understanding of the new societal “frame”, referenced in The New Copernicans, is grounded in our own research. Backed by the findings of our millennial focus groups, our methodology will align your communications with topics and language found most appealing to the millennial audience. Through advanced online advertising campaigns, we’ll use platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Youtube to focus your marketing budget on only the targeted population. You can focus on your ministry and we’ll do the heavy lifting. We’ll design, allocate, and implement your church marketing plan with a millennial marketing makeover. Contact us today to get started!