The Common Good

How Conservative Evangelicals Misunderstand Millennials

Yesterday morning, an op-ed piece went live on CNN by a young evangelical author named Daniel Darling, titled " Millennials and the false ‘gospel of nice.’ Darling’s piece is clearly written in response to many recent articles — like Rachel Held Evans’ recent piece "How evangelicals won a culture war and lost a generation " — which argue that many of the leaders of evangelical Christianity have abandoned the core convictions and teachings of Jesus Christ and instead have leveraged their faith as a weapon to be used against anyone who disagrees with their political and moral principles that they claim are rooted in Scripture.

Young people at a coffee shop, wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com
Young people at a coffee shop, wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

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All of this is very fresh in our minds as news broke yesterday that Christian relief organization World Vision lost more than 10,000 child sponsorships from people who disagreed with the organization’s policy change on hiring people in legal same-sex marriages. To many who watched this controversy unfold, this is an utter travesty. It seems simply unfathomable that anyone who claims to follow Christ could justify removing support from the impoverished children that they know by name because they disagreed with the organization’s hiring policy.

In his op-ed piece, Darling argues that the cry of many progressive and millennial evangelicals is:

"If only orthodox evangelical leaders would give up their antiquated beliefs, get more in step with the real Jesus, the church and the world would be better off."

He then continues by saying that:

"embedded in this narrative are two presuppositions: Young evangelicals are fleeing the church at a rapid pace [and] the real message of Jesus looks nothing like orthodox Christianity."

When I read these comments in Darling’s piece, I was utterly fascinated. Because as a millennial evangelical, and one who is participating in these conversations on a national and international level, I have never heard a single person call for "evangelical leaders to give up their antiquated beliefs." I have never heard anyone say "the real message of Jesus looks nothing like orthodox Christianity." When I read Darling’s piece, it became crystal clear to me what the key problem is that is causing so much friction between the "old guard" in evangelicalism and us millennials:

The old guard has confused orthodoxy with their political and moral interpretations of Scripture.

I am trying my best to be a committed follower of Jesus, and I have been handed a picture of God that I’m discovering is radically inconsistent with the Scriptural, historical, orthodox image of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The same could be said, I am confident, of most millennial evangelicals who are, in fact moving away from the version of faith that they inherited in their youth. And the motivation for our exodus is clearly seen by the tone and fallacies contained in Darling’s article.

So what in the heck is "orthodoxy?” The way Darling has portrayed it in his article, orthodoxy seems to be one and the same with many evangelical leaders’ views on topics like sexuality and abortion. It's also likely that when Darling uses the word "orthodoxy," he is using in the way that many of the leaders in his own denomination use it, to refer to a heavily reformed, Protestant systematic theology. But the problem is that neither of these things are even part of what defines orthodoxy. For nearly 1,800 years, the Christian Church has been in near universal agreement on what it means to be an orthodox Christian. In A.D. 381, 150 Christian leaders from around the world gathered together in Constantinople to formulate a simple creed that clearly defined what one must believe in order to be considered an "orthodox Christian." After much debate and deliberation, the council released to the church what is known today as the Nicene Creed. Ever since it's release in A.D. 381, the Nicene Creed has been accepted as the standard for determining a person or movement’s orthodoxy. The creed reads:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This has been the generally accepted standard for Christian orthodoxy for thousands of years. But it seems that many in conservative evangelicalism have forgotten what the creed contains, and instead have loaded on to "orthodoxy" a ton of political and theological beliefs and positions that a majority of Christians throughout the world could not affirm or uphold.

I don't know a single millennial evangelical who doesn't wholeheartedly affirm every line of the Nicene Creed. I don't know a single millennial evangelical who is calling for evangelical leaders to "give up their antiquated beliefs [to] get more in step with the real Jesus." If anything, there has been a staunch increase in millennial participation in more traditional and robustly orthodox versions of our faith. Darling has constructed a straw man of millennial evangelicals that doesn't even come close to representing who we truly are or what we believe.

What millennals are calling for is for the old guard of evangelicalism to return to orthodoxy and to stop putting their political and social positions on top of their definition of orthodoxy and then using them as a measuring stick to determine who is in and who is out. We are calling leaders of evangelicalism to repent of making Jesus in their own image by imposing on the Christ of the Scriptures social and political ideas that were completely foreign to him. And most of all, we're calling the leaders of evangelicalism to stop demonizing the next generation who is doing our best to worship, obey, and follow Jesus Christ in a cultural context that they know little about. All of us truly desire to see our world transformed by the Gospel of Jesus and the way that is going to look will be radically different then the way it looked for them.

It precisely my love and desire to follow Jesus that is fueling my passion to do justice in the world — to work to un-politicize the Gospel and to work for a better world for all people. Jesus is my motivation. He's my goal. And I firmly believe that for most millennial evangelicals, this passion for Jesus will continue to empower and spur us on to a much more robust faith, hope, and love.

May it be.

Brandan Robertson is a writer, activist, speaker, and dreamer behind The Revangelical Movement. He has a B.A. in Pastoral and Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and is pursuing his Masters of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary. Brandan writes for a number of prominent outlets and is a frequent guest on national and international television and radio programs. Follow him on Twitter @BrandanJR.

Image: Young people at a coffee shop, wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

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