Millennials are abandoning the traditional church. But they are not abandoning spirituality. Is there a way to reconnect the two? The answer may be found by looking at cattle ranchers.
There are two methods of keeping cattle on a ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the center. The first approach operates on the basis of forced exclusion; the second works on the basis of magnetic attraction, or compelling inclusion.
If churches were to establish themselves as centered on a life-giving well—one that touches a universal longing, and that is based on an accurate understanding of relationships and reality—then church will become much more compelling to the emerging generation. Drawing others toward a dynamic spiritual life that touches all of life in the here and now is far better than establishing barriers of arbitrary exclusion with promises about salvation in the by and by. Ranchers have a choice: build fences or dig wells. Wells are the better choice and church leaders would be wise to follow the ranchers’ example.
Jesus did not say, “Here is a short list of things that must be believed in order to qualify for heaven and not hell.” No, he said, “Follow me,” which is an open-ended invitation to pilgrimage.
Jesus said, “Follow me,” which is an open-ended invitation to pilgrimage.
For some time many in the American church have expressed a confused understanding of the gospel. The late philosopher Dallas Willard writes, “We have been through a period when the dominant theology had nothing to do with apprenticeship to Jesus. It had to do with proper belief, with God seeing to it that individuals didn’t go to the bad place but the good place.” But what, he asks, was Jesus’ gospel or good news, his central message? It was the availability of life in the kingdom of heaven right now. Jesus’ central message was that there is another spiritual reality that you can mystically appropriate that will make sense of your life now, and empower you in keeping with how reality was originally designed. Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr concludes, “the Way of Jesus is an invitation to a Trinitarian way of living, loving, and relating—on earth as it is in the Godhead.”
Many in the church have failed to appreciate how much of its thinking and practice have been shaped by the Enlightenment—where cognitive abstractions dominate, either/or thinking is necessitated, superficial belief common, and Pharisaical judgment the consequence. New Copernicans, as a post-Enlightenment generational cohort, reject this way of thinking. Their critique of church is a prophetic one—exposing a 300-year accommodation to a viewpoint that is alien both to Jesus and to the ancient church.
If faith is framed as a relationship, if spirituality seen as a journey with love as its overt dynamic, then it is much more compelling to young people today. Rob Bell reminds his followers, “I don’t follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion. I follow Jesus because he leads me into ultimate reality. He teaches me to live in tune with how reality is.” Young people today have a problem with how religion is framed, not a problem with faith.
When church is centered on the gospel, and the gospel reflects the immediate availability of transcendent spiritual resources that enable one to be fully human now in the midst of one’s cross-pressured life, in a manner that is relational and dynamic in character and expresses itself in overt love, then this is a faith with magnetic attraction and a compelling center. “Fences” are for religion. “Wells” are about the real presence of authentic spirituality. Jesus demands nothing less.
John Seel is a consultant, writer, cultural analyst, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact consulting firm working with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is a national expert on millennials and the New Copernicans. He has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park). He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Lafayette Hill, PA. He directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University. This post originally appeared on his blog, New Copernican Conversations.