I teach a senior seminar class in communication topics every fall. The format is reading and discussion. I curate a selection of topical texts for my students and together we read and discuss our way through them in our 15 weeks together. One of the things I have observed is how the nature of the discussion changes when even one person is absent from the table—sometimes dramatically. We “create” the discussion each time we meet in such a way that every learner matters, and we tangibly feel the presence or absence of presence of each person in our seminar group. Every interaction we have together is fundamentally different, even if it is my sixth or seventh time leading the group through the same material.
Contrast that with the prevailing evangelical church model today—one of large group gatherings featuring high-end music performance and teaching—that works against the relevancy of the individual that attends. Simply stated, it matters not if one attends or doesn’t attend the weekly service. The experience created at the large group level is unaffected by any individual. In this model it is only the individual that is affected by their presence in the service. There is little or no interdependence. Much like swimming in the ocean, the individual gets wet and experiences the refreshment of the cool water, but the ocean is unaffected by their presence. Generationally this consumer model has appeared to be successful with Boomers and even Gen Xers.
In 1902 German Sociologist, Georg Simmel considered the impact of group size on the sociological forms those groups take. He noted that there was a stifling impact on individuals immersed in large collectives: “It is this large number which paralyzes the individual element and which causes the general element to emerge at such a distant form it that is seems as if it could exist by itself, without any individuals, to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic.”
At a certain point, the large group is perpetuated without meaningful connection to the individual. “The large group gains its unity… only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures and the individual,” Simmel wrote. The value of the individual ceases to matter apart from what can be quantified.
Yet, it seems, this quantification is all anyone can talk about with regard to millennials and Christianity. The blogosphere erupted with responses to the most recent Pew research ostensibly heralding the decline of Christianity in America.
More generationally focused Pew research from 2010 found young people much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) were unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older.
Use of the term “affiliation”—the quantitatively measured membership roll of a religious denomination or church body—seems indicative of what makes millennials different. Again, Simmel’s ideas are on point:
The super-individual character of the group, the fact that its form no longer depends upon any contents of the component individuals, is nowhere seen in a more absolute and emphatic manner than in the reduction of the principles of organization to purely arithmetic relations. – Georg Simmel
Attend a large evangelical church on a Sunday morning and ask yourself if your presence there would fundamentally change the service experience in any way other than adding to the size of the audience and for anyone other than yourself.
This is where Simmel resonates with the generational data. Millennials have a high need to count—and count for more than their objective value as statistics. Myriad references to the rise of the “nones” in much of the recent church research on this topic masks the reality that millennials seek something more than affiliation. This is not the generation of auto clubs, AARP or the American Express card where “membership has its privileges.”
While Boomers and GenExers could be said to be individualists and self-reliant in different ways, milliennials exhibit an individualism that craves significance through collaboration and co-creation: the individual is most valued in relation to the social group.
In a December Forbes article by Micah Solomon touting 2015 as “the year of the millennial,” Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox.com characterized millennials as “a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand.” Soloman agrees, with the caveat, “as long as they believe their say matters to the company in question.”
Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge. – Alex Castellarnau
The prevailing church model puts inordinate resources in to getting people to attend—to show up. Gabe Lyons characterizes The Next Christians as a generation that strongly believes “…no one solves anything by merely showing up.” Instead, “The next Christians are provoked to do something when they arrive on the cultural scene.” And that something must not be filling traditional church roles that prop up and perpetuate the existing consumer church model. Rather, Lyons continues, “…they create culture that can inspire change. They create organizations, services, and goods—art, films, music, campaigns, projects, media, churches, and businesses—anything that incarnates Christ.”
In order for the creative impulse to be realized, an individual must have subjective value within in their social group.
In the small group, by contrast, the individual’s views and needs are directly effective, are objects of immediate consideration. – Georg Simmel
Try to forget, for a moment, that Simmel uses the phrase “small group.” Writing in 1902 he certainly is not referring to modern church programs that seek to infuse more community and discipleship into large, impersonal churches. Simmel writes more fundamentally of group size indicating a sociological tipping point between one’s individual presence in a group being significant and even essential as a subject, and that presence being largely irrelevant when objectified as part of a larger quantity.
To understand the millennial disaffiliation from the consumer church model, one needs to understand the characteristics that are coming to distinguish this generation. A 2012 MTV Strategic Insights study entitled “Generation Innovation” found considerable evidence to refute the notion that millennials are entitled or coddled.
We found a vibrant and strong fixer/maker/builder culture where nearly 3 in 4 of Millennials believe [they are] starting a movement to change old, outdated systems. Put more broadly, if the American Dream isn’t working as promised, Millennials will take it upon themselves to iterate the next “version” of America. – Nick Shore, Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research for MTV.
In step with that strong proclivity for creativity and meaning, Solomon notes that millennials “care about what’s genuine and authentic. This interest falls somewhere between a purely aesthetic preference and a search for honesty.”
I recently received a tweet from a local millennial audaciously announcing the launch of a newsletter featuring handmade goods. Think about that. In the age of mobile technology and social media, a millennial is using an old medium to generate marketplace interest in handmade goods. And he’s right on the trend. Handmade goods are gaining popularity, led by a wave of creative millennials.
Handmade happens on a small scale. It is necessarily subjective. The craftsperson, inventor, artist or maker leaves their fingerprints on their work. Handmade is the epitome of authenticity.
John J. Thomsen, author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World, describes a realization he had as he compared his regular mass market loaf of bread with the delicious bread his friend, a baker by trade, shared with him more than a decade ago. In the age of mass production people have “chosen to sacrifice quality, nutrition, flavor, and integrity in our pursuit of convenience and cost savings. In fact, that kind of trade-off has become one of the prevailing values of our age.”
These industrial age values have profoundly affected how we produce food, how we educate children and how we conduct the church.
As I sat there in the kitchen tasting my friend’s bread I started thinking about all of the other things we have sacrificed on the altar of convenience and industrialism. … the squishy loaf of plastic-wrapped bread on my counter reminded me of the ways…the church had taken on certain toxic values of the Industrial Revolution far more that she had shaped those values. – John J. Thompson
The generational trend toward seeking meaningful creativity and hand-crafted authenticity, along with the data suggesting the apparent rejection of the industrial producer-consumer model of church, points toward a new millennial ecclesiology.
Our Internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product. – Jonathan, from Dear Church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out
This is what pierces the filter bubble—the sharpness of the real; the penetrating reality of a hands-on community incarnating Jesus.
At the ground level, what does a church consist of that is made, or co-created, with parishioners?
I return to the analogy I began with in Part 1. Clay Shirky made a prediction about what would replace the public good of accountability journalism that the newspaper industry long provided now that the Internet had fundamentally changed the economics of the industry. In short, he asserts no one model will replace newspapers, but rather the next “step needs to be vast and varied experimentation, not the transfer of allegiance from one institution to another.” The state of affairs for the church is the same. We must let a thousand flowers bloom.
And while I want to avoid proposing anything formulaic in this regard, in light of Simmel’s sociology of groups, my strong proclivity is that church communities going forward, in the midst of this experimental and entrepreneurial necessity, must intentionally strive toward ways of gathering together for worship where every person matters as a co creator, and that their presence or absence makes a qualitative difference in the ongoing experience of the group.
The data is shouting at the church to stop trying to get millennials to just show up and, instead, “make” something entirely new with them.
Simmel quotations taken from Kurt Wolff (Trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950.
Lyons quotation take from Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.