Dying to the Genius of Youth: Andrew Root vs. John Seel on the Future of the Church

I just had an article published with The Christian Courier in which I review some recent books on youth, faith, and church. The subject, of course, is close to the heart of the university, as it is dedicated to the formation of youth for wisdom and service in society. To be for higher education is to be an advocate for youth and their vocational flourishing.

See the article here:

A friend told me he and his wife have a habit of sitting out on the front porch on Fridays after work and just having sweet conversation about the week. His teenage daughter approached them last week and innocently asked, “Why do you sit here and talk?”

After they briefly explained the preciousness of this ritualized time as a couple, their daughter responded: “Why not just text each other?” As if that would be more efficient and normal. He then recognized that his daughter lives in a different world: she has never known a world without texting.

Numerous congregations today are focusing their attention on young adults. In some circles, it’s become an obsession. The young adults want bands! They want crowds! They want to see passion! 

What do young adults want, and is what they think they want what they really, really want? This is the first thing Jesus asks young adults around him in the gospel of John (1:38). Not because his mission was to give them what they want, but because it’s a way to get right to the heart of things – or rather, to the soul of things. Our desires, our loves – what we worship – is the keel of our spiritual life.

My local small group is just finishing The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church (2018) by John Seel. This writer is insistent that we need to move beyond the negative research studies that claim young adults are narcissistic, entitled and lazy, caught in the spin of self-centred, middle-class Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In fact, Seel claims that young people are the carriers of a new paradigm of Copernican proportions, and this paradigm is not only more holistic and true (more right-brained), it’s more Jesus-like.

In a nutshell, Seel says: “Follow the genius of youth.”

The message of the book is a warning to Christians: Change your ways, or like the self-satisfied Titanic you will crash and drown on the iceberg of the new cultural frame! Current membership decline in the church is a symptom of the church’s increasing irrelevance – its pride, its judgmental attitude, its disembodied emphasis on doctrine. Instead, what youth want is a body of Christ that is more relational and experiential, more open to mystery, spirit, beauty and justice. In a word: it needs to be more authentic – not fake or cool, but like real people who connect with the “longings and losses of others in a manner that is deeply human.” Our focus should not be on inviting youth to join “us” in the church, but rather “joining together on a shared spiritual pilgrimage to a yet undeclared destination.”

Meanwhile, some friends and I read another book that gave a seemingly opposite message: Andrew Root in Faith Formation in a Secular Age (2017) argues that starting from anxiety about decline in the church is to configure our faith as first of all about institutional membership, and that misses the soul of things. That is to say, it too easily misses the aim of faith as centred in the experience of our mystical union with Christ.

In a nutshell, Root says: “Live out the dying and rising of your baptism.”

Secondly, the oft-proposed solution to waning faith – to focus on the youth and what they want – further exaggerates what our culture fetishizes: the “genius of youthfulness.” This not only denigrates what is elderly and ancient; Root argues it reinforces a consumer culture of cool that must constantly re-invent itself in order to survive. Being hip is an endless pursuit that can only exhaust and paralyze those caught up in its spell. To a large degree, the cult of authenticity is part of the problem: it magnifies the “Big Me” (David Brooks’ term) of expressivist individualism that leaves so many disconnected and lonely.  Community requires at least some compromise with something larger than yourself. Some conformity to an agreed pattern of life.

Faith, insists Root, is about dying to our self, our self-branding and our self-sufficiency and entering a “negation of negation” in Christ, a death that leads to a new story and new life. This is what young adults need, and if they perhaps dug down deep enough into their desires, they would find they really want this: God’s help and God’s love. This is first of all a deeply mysterious encounter, a participation in the energy of God, and only secondarily about institutional commitments.

Some studies may show, as Time magazine highlighted in an article entitled “The Me, Me, Me Generation” (May 20, 2013) – that millennials want more selfies, more mirrors, more technology. But John Seel says more profoundly that they want mystery, acceptance and a more holistic expression of faith. Andrew Root says what we all need is to experience God. Not the idea of God, but God – entering into his death and in his life.

There is one more vital piece to consider that I’ve hinted at already. Journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote a viral article in January 2019 entitled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” She says millennials suffer from “errand paralysis” and “post office anxiety” – meaning they are so overwhelmed with advice and ambitions that they often cannot perform simple “adulting” tasks like mailing a letter. 

The products of “intensive parenting,” these young adults are no clone of 1960s rebels. They seek approval, straining to self-optimize and self-brand while locked in a system that makes only piecemeal employment possible. They are burning out. Left anxious by a world described as “relentless” with pressure, they continue to perform, perform, perform their endless to-do list. Burnout is not a temporary condition or an exit strategy; it is a “permanent residence” of constant motion and uploading, never-ending work.

Root doesn’t talk about this at all, and yet he inadvertently addresses it in his last few pages on the household of faith. The body of Christ, he insists, is not about self-improvement or entertainment or culture wars. “The only thing that the church offers the world is ministry!” he proclaims. “And this only thing . . . is everything.” 

What must first occur is that we – adults, millennials, Gen Y and whatever – kill our story. It sounds harsh, but what Root is simply saying is that we must enter the death of Christ, and our false stories – that we are good, that we are smart, that we must be beautiful or successful – must be crucified with Christ.

Once we have been liberated from these oppressive and paralyzing narratives, we enter into a new story of being united with Christ and his kingdom. Now our story is “I am ministered to; I am grateful; I am gifted to be a minister, too.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the household of faith can be a friendship of rest. When tempted to make worship a continuation of the culture of performance, hype and spectacle, God’s ministry invites all to come, be silent, find rest and pray. The body of Christ – at its best – makes space in which we can receive, let the old stories die, and be born into a fresh plot. When Christ’s passion directs our pilgrimage, we are freed from the pressure to perform for God, to feel intensely spiritual, or to demonstrate our fervent commitment to the faith.

I have named a number of books about youth adults, and they arise from people with lots of experience with young adults. But we still need to have conversations with each other, and consult each other. Just as not all churches and adults fit the stereotypes suggested of them, so not all young adults fit what the studies assess about their generation. Talking to young adults – from church and beyond – is a best practise. 

In many ways, what every young person needs is to find a community in which to minister and be ministered to. The virtual networks of cyberspace are not sufficient to carry any of us through the crushing blows that bruise our tender souls. We don’t need more text; we need a good word made flesh.   

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