Is it good evangelism to ridicule “millennial” spiritual seekers?

David Koyzis’s recent First Things article, “Millennial Religion and the Sovereign Self,” disses the way that “millennials” purportedly want the trappings of ancient-feeling church without submitting to the authority of the hierarchy of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The author writes that “attending Mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a ‘high-church’ atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.” I understand the irritation at religious consumerism, but is this a good evangelistic response to people who are saying that they don’t want to have anything to do with church anymore?

I think part of the reason that Koyzis reduces Catholicism to a “matter of obedience” is because he’s Reformed, not Catholic. So it’s really unfortunate that a conservative Catholic website is allowing him to represent their faith so unattractively when what he could have said was, “You think it’s just about a ‘high-church atmosphere’ but it’s so much richer than that. When you embrace the disciplines of the Catholic faith, then your encounter with Jesus will be so much deeper than just a vague sense of ‘reverence’ at being in an old room with incense and candles.”

I have an interesting vantage point on this question as a Protestant pastor who attends a weekly Monday mass. I absolutely “soak it up” but not on the superficial level of “high-church ambiance.” I soak up the Holy Spirit because He floods the room every time I go to mass. Sometimes, I have a mini-Asuza Street revival in the pew, which I try to keep as quiet as possible. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but speaking in tongues seems to happen to me the most when I’m at a Catholic mass.

Part of the reason that I have the encounter with God that I do is because I fast every Monday and spend the 40 minute ride to the basilica praying with my rosary beads, even though I say the Jesus prayer and “Our Father” in Greek instead of Hail Mary’s. Sometimes I substitute sentence prayers that I have memorized in Hebrew like Psalm 42:2, which reminds me of my thirst for God, or Psalm 26:7, which reminds me of my need for constant repentance.

When I enter the back of the basilica, I have felt compelled to bow with my forehead touching the floor, sometimes staying there for half a minute or so. I do the same thing when I enter the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament where I go to do my scripture reading and journaling. Before I attend mass, I go around the basilica praying the Jesus prayer and kneeling on the marble floor at each chapel altar unless it hurts too bad and then I use the padded kneeler. I’m not doing it to prove anything. I do it because something made me think that I could taste Christ more deeply by doing so. I can’t explain why the pain is sweetness, but it is. It becomes part of my ache for God, like the groaning in my empty stomach. I can’t explain why my fasting becomes a Jesus feast for me, but it is.

The practices that I engage in are a patchwork of spiritual disciplines that I have drawn from a lot of places. They are not a “matter of obedience” to any human institution. They do not feel like something tough and serious that I am doing out of duty so that God will see and compensate me appropriately. They are simply what the breath of God has inspired me to do. I do not do them to have an “authentic” feeling worship experience, but to feed on the One who is the bread of life, whose presence I am constantly seeking.

My spiritual disciplines are precisely the kind of cafeteria approach to faith that Koyzis seems to have so much contempt for. According to his argument, I shouldn’t do the Jesus Prayer without accepting the authority of the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and finding a priest to be my spiritual father. I actually tried to get an Orthodox priest to be my spiritual director, but it became clear that for him, spiritual direction would involve my renouncing United Methodism and becoming one of his spiritual children. That was the only paradigm acceptable to him. The Roman church is a little more willing to be ecumenical in those types of things.

I suppose Koyzis would say that I shouldn’t use rosary beads unless I’m talking to Mary or sit in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and gaze at the strange unnatural light around the altar unless I’m willing to submit to the pope and agree with everything that the Roman church says about birth control and female ordination.

There certainly is a widespread epidemic of “spiritual but not religious” fickleness that keeps people from entering the kingdom. I do agree that we need to seek God together in a community instead of just saying “Me and Jesus like to hang out in nature instead of in community with His people.” As a leader in a religious community, I do some of my seeking in accountable relationship with others, but some of it I do as a solitary pilgrim at least partly for the sake of those whom I shepherd. If I idolized consistency and propriety enough to say that I shouldn’t go to mass unless I really want to become Catholic, the Methodist congregation for whom I break the bread and share the cup every Saturday would be deprived of what God gives me every Monday through the “smells and bells” of the Roman church to share with them that weekend.

I suspect that many “millennials” are genuine pilgrims seeking Christ like I hope that I am. The fact that they draw from multiple different resources across the spectrum of Christian traditions without submitting to a particular tradition’s authority absolutely doesn’t mean that they are shallow dilettantes. There are real legitimate reasons why I’m not willing to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, even though their theology is beautiful. In Tbilisi, Georgia this May, Orthodox priests led rioters in beating up gay activists who were trying to engage in a peaceful march. That testifies of a Satanic presence that is very troubling in a church that is supposed to be the most purely apostolic.

In any case, the culture wars (which are not entirely a fabrication of the secular media) have orphaned a generation of evangelicals who are trying to figure out where to find the Jesus that they’ve always wanted to believe is really there despite the sadistic caricatures of God that they grew up with (which are not entirely straw men they’ve made up in their heads). No, Rachel Held Evans does not speak for “millennials,” but she does a pretty good job of capturing the ethos of thirty-something ex-Southern Baptists who grew up in the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover like I did.

So I don’t see any reason to hate on pilgrims who are searching for God in the mixture of deep and shallow ways that God is always using to draw us to Him. So what if God makes use of what another critic calls a “cannibalistic aesthetic,” “ecclesiological affectations,” or “Christian orientalism”? Rather than mining “millennial” consciousness for delegitimizing deconstructions that you can use to zing them for their unsophisticatedness, why not let God continue to use these superficial considerations as prevenient grace? My friend Jonathan Martin at Renovatus Church in Charlotte says that he always tries to listen for how God has already been speaking to the curious seekers that he meets and start there rather than try to argue them into admitting that they’re completely wrong about everything and utterly lost and they need to pray a sinner’s prayer before there’s anything else to talk about. I guess such an approach depends on a theology of prevenient grace rather than total depravity.

In the comment section of Koyzis’s article, a young man named Ben wrote about the Catholic church: “I love the Church’s history and the ‘high church’ feeling I get. But I can’t go along with the rest of it. I wish I could, but I can’t.” In response to this, a man named Ed posted the following:

@Ben — You miss the entire point of what Christianity is by seeing only a “sense of high-church worship.” Christianity is about our union with Christ. That union begins with being baptized into Christ (Rom 6:3) and it continues and intensifies as we are fed with Christ (John 6: 35-58 whose Flesh is called “The Bread of Life…” The problem with you, Ben, and modern man, is that you think that a relationship with Christ is one way — you get to do anything you wish and Jesus doesn’t have any say in how you should run your life. Again, good luck with that in marriage. Take that attitude into your marriage and we will see you in divorce court in 3-5 years max.

Ed is basically expressing the same attitude as David Koyzis in raw, unpolished form. Did Ben write something a little bit ditsy? It’s certainly got a ridicule bulls-eye all over it. But the thing is Ben is not the stereotypical rebellious millennial ex-evangelical. He’s just starting to explore Christianity, as he later shares. He’s not familiar enough with the pieties of Christian lingo to know that using the word “feeling” to talk about a worship service in the comment section of a conservative Christian magazine article is like jumping into a river full of piranhas with an open wound on your leg.

Ed could have tried to engage him in conversation by saying something like, “Tell me more about that ‘high church’ feeling. Why do you like that?” He could have tried to say something about how awesome it is when you experience real union with Christ and when God has deepened your heart through spiritual disciplines so that you can truly feast on Christ in the Eucharist (he could even say all this without citing scripture references). But the fact that Ed is talking to “Ben, and modern man” both shows that his response has nothing to do with Ben; it’s all about putting on a display of his own piety.

I suppose the prerequisite of being able to lovingly evangelize other people is trusting Jesus enough to know that you don’t have to prove your piety to Him with the zeal of your scorn toward those who “don’t get it.” What was really beautiful was the grace and humility with which Ben responded showed to Ed in response:

I forgive you for feeling the need to attack me and my person, despite having no knowledge of me or my spiritual condition… I will admit I am on a spiritual journey, and have been for about a year. I am learning about my spiritual self, my relationship God, and the Christ in my life. It has been a time of research and learning… Like many people, the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope filled me with curiosity about the Church that I previously did not have. I am still learning. With that being said, Edward, I understand that this can be an emotional topic. I just hope that in the future you will reconsider the use of personal attacks when you respond to comments.

I have no idea whether Ben is a millennial or not. But he was the only true evangelist in the comment thread. What beautiful irony that the greatest witness of Christ’s spirit associated with this article was the comment of this spiritual pilgrim who exuded the very attitude the article ridiculed since he doesn’t know the theologically correct lingo and perhaps doesn’t know Jesus very well, but wants to learn about Him and continues to be open to His teaching.

Ben’s response makes me feel confident that Ben isn’t going to let people like Ed push him away from his quest to find Jesus. That’s good news for Ed, because otherwise he would need to find a millstone and throw himself in the Atlantic Ocean. But for the sake of the other Bens in the world, can we engage millennials and other religious seekers with attentiveness to the seeds that God has already been planting and a spirit of encouragement rather than a spirit of ridicule?


17 thoughts on “Is it good evangelism to ridicule “millennial” spiritual seekers?

  1. Pingback: Millennials and the Crisis of Unmet Expectations | Mark Demers' Blog

  2. I feel your words deeply, Morgan. I go to RC mass once a week and do active ministry at a united methodist church on campus (we’re actually the 1st wesley foundation in the world and celebrating our 100th this fall!). My mom used to take me to mass on weekends with her, and my dad to a megachurch on weekends with him. It really taught me a lot about the spectrum of faith traditions within Christianity…I was never one of those Catholics who was afraid all protestants are going to hell (or one of those protestants who was afraid catholics are going to burn) because heck, I’m half and half!

    If that’s not okay with some people, so be it. It’s not them I’m out to impress and follow.

  3. Wow! What an interesting and wonderful post.

    I am Eastern Orthodox (Antiochian) and my experience with Orthodoxy was that people were very gentle, and let me set my own pace. Personally, I found it so compelling that I felt right at home. But I know it’s harder for others, which is fine. My spiritual journey to Orthodoxy started with evangelical Protestantism, but also took me through Tibetan Buddhism and Neo-Paganism. As it turns out, it was the PERFECT journey to make me feel at home in Orthodox Christianity. No one in my home parish batted an eye at that.

    We are taught in Orthodoxy that Triumphalism is not a good thing, that we should be humble and remember our own difficult journeys to Christ. Sometimes we actually manage to not be triumphalist, and those are good days. 🙂

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of humility. Glory to God for all things!

    • My theology is very influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy and those I have met have been wonderfully grounded and spiritually mature people. The lack of women’s ordination is an issue not just theoretically but because my wife has a call to sacramental ministry. And the way that priests are getting involved in violence against LGBT folk in Russia is very spooky.

      • I must admit that the actions of Russian clergy are spooking me as well. I realize that this is a cultural different, yet it bears the name of Orthodoxy and that really makes me pray – HARD – that the Orthodox Church doesn’t become the Westboro Baptist of Russia.

        I struggled for a long time with the issue of ordination of women in Orthodoxy, especially after my involvement in pro-feminist Neo-Paganism. What I did eventually realize was that there was a great deal of women’s leadership in the Church. I also realize (now) that the sacraments are performed by men in a religious body known as the Bride of Christ. The entire Orthodox Church is a woman! And so in a sense, these men are subsumed beneath the overall (feminine) church body. And finally, the utmost example in Orthodoxy of humility, the most pleasing virtue to God, is Jesus’ mother Mary. She is the first of all saints for a reason. And as she contained God in His very essence in her body, so the Church (female) contains the bodies of her clergy.

        But this all came with time, prayer, and reflection. 🙂 I had to be in the Church before even beginning to grasp this, and I still can’t grasp it all in its entirety.

        Perhaps that’s another thing that attracted me that does attract others: there is a real understanding that God is a Mystery to us, that the Holy Trinity cannot entirely be explained. God is ineffable and in reality, it is God that has the last word.

  4. Did mister let’s drop verses of the Bible because we really know it read Roman 14 too? Because to me it looks like he’s doing precisely the opposite of Paul’s suggestions on how to deal with the new community that is being created…

    • I don’t think people like Ed are real big on Romans 14-15. It would take away one of their greatest satisfactions in life.

  5. I think that sometimes people deeply involved in a particular religious practice have a very severe case of “not actually listening to other people.” I know as a young evangelical, I was taught all sorts of arguments about why certain things were correct and certain things were not and there was no real back and forth in conversations about religious practice, just listening for the spot where the argument might be inserted. (I no longer consider myself to be evangelical). It took me a while to figure out that I was not hearing individuals telling me about their experiences, I was hearing an imagined person constructed to fit into a certain category, like the “modern man” category you talk about. It helps to finally deconstruct all the categories and to actually see the person in front of you. Sometimes they are not saying what you think they are saying. It’s kind of strange to finally acknowledge that other people might be real! Gives you a whole new perspective on them.

    • Very different when you actually have a conversation with other people instead of just performing your evangelical catechism publicly.

  6. My own shorthand explanation for practices leading me closer to Jesus is “truth is where you find it”. And its corrolary, God is where you find Him. That attitude is hopefully, making me a more tolerant, accepting person in my relationships with others.

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