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Addie Zierman's reflection on millennials and the church

A couple of months ago, Addie Zierman wrote an article for The Washington Post that has since caused plenty of buzz across the church. Her article, “5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials”, discusses numerous phrases that rub millennials (people in their 20s and 30s) the wrong way. Zierman, who was born in 1983 (which, incidentally, is the same year this examiner was born), describes herself as someone both hopeful and cynical, someone who left the church and then decided to come back. Publisher’s Weekly recently named her debut book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over one of the Best Books of 2013.

First of all, it’s unfortunate that our society segregates people into age categories in the first place. It’s divisive, widening the generation gap that already exists by virtue of older and younger people’s differing life experiences. Attempts to categorize people of certain ages also almost always succumb to stereotyping. For instance, this examiner who prefers Turner Classic Movies to whatever’s playing at the local theaters, who prefers Jackson's Oldies 1400 AM radio station over today’s hits, who prefers old black and white sitcoms far more than anything on prime time today, hardly ever feels represented by surveys that attempt to describe the preferences and lifestyles of the “millennial” generation. This examiner often feels more comraderie with the baby boom generation than with millennials.

Every person is an individual, and much of what Zierman pinpoints as especially important to her generation is likely also important to people from varying age groups as well.

Speaking for her generation, Zierman said, “We grew up on easy answers, catchphrases and cliché, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that things are almost always more complicated than that.”

Frustration at pat answers is something that people of all ages can empathize with, but it is true that younger people are probably more keenly sensitive to this than the older generation. The reasons for this are many, one of which is surely the fact that younger people today have grown up in a postmodern culture, a society whose presuppositions are very different from what they were 40 or 50 years ago.
The five specific phrases that Zierman highlighted in her article were the result of a poll she took of her online followers. Let’s take a minute to explore her list.

1. “The Bible clearly says…”

Again, speaking for her generation, Zierman said, “We’re acutely aware of the Bible’s intricacies. We know the Bible is clear about some things– but also that much is not clear… We want to hear our pastors approach these words with humility and reverence.”

She then suggests that pastors who admit that their conclusions could be wrong are more disarming than those who resort to saying, “The Bible clearly says”.

This is a tricky one. Personally, the phrase in itself is not offensive, but it could certainly be offensive if applied to something that is far from clear in the Bible. One of the reasons C.S. Lewis enjoys such popularity to the present day is, this examiner believes, because of his unassuming approach to deep theological questions. Rather than pontificating from a settled, “This is how it is” platform, he qualifies what he says as coming from a layman, someone who has as much to learn as he has to teach.

Being reactionary is what must be guarded against at all costs. If the older generation tended to make complex things overly simple, our generation—raised on a steady diet of relativism where everyone has his or her own personalized, subjective “truth”—tends to have an innate dislike for absolutist statements.

2. “God will never give you more than you can handle”

Zierman explains that this is a paraphrased Mother Teresa quote, but one that has taken on a bit of a life of its own. Speaking for millennials, she said, “We know that life so often feels like entirely too much to handle. And we want to know that this is okay with you and with God.”

This is one of those statements that is open to varying interpretations. Some people, when they hear it, believe they are being told to suck it up. If God never gives you more than you can handle, and you feel like you are going through more than you can handle, the problem must be with you—your inadequate ability to cope. Personally, the phrase doesn’t communicate anything like that. The phrase simply seems to be saying that God will never abandon when you need him, but will always be there to help you handle whatever you’re going through.

3. Love on (e.g. “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.”

It’s hard to relate to Zierman’s frustration at this phrase. She says it sounds “just plain creepy”. Personally, it just sounds like a colloquial, somewhat southern way of saying to love people very tangibly.

Zierman elaborates:

“It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler…but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.”

It seems unlikely that people who use this phrase intend for it to communicate acts of “contrived kindness”. Again, it just comes across as a colloquial expression.

4. Black and white quantifiers of faith, such as “Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding”

Zierman explains her problem with these quantifiers:

“Millennials are sick of rhetoric that centers around who’s in and who’s out. We know our own doubtful hearts enough to know that belief and unbelief so often coexist…Terms like backsliding that try to pinpoint the success (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of our faith, frustrate us. We don’t want to hustle to prove our faith; we don’t want to pretend.”

Unlike most of the other phrases on Zierman’s list, terms like “believer”, “unbeliever” and “backsliding” are rooted in Scripture itself, so surely there’s some way for these words to be appropriately used. Of course, there’s no need to center everything on “who’s in and who’s out” in a cliquish sort of way. Of course, belief and unbelief can at times coexist, and of course even the most “successful” Christians backslide. All that said, some things are black and white. The Bible refers to those who accept the apostles’ proclamation of the gospel message as “believers” and refers to those who reject the message as “unbelievers”.

5. “God is in control . . . has a plan . . . works in mysterious ways”

Zierman explains that her objection is not so much to the phrase itself, but to its ill-advised use in times of tragedy:

“It’s the last thing we want to hear when something goes horribly wrong in our life. We are drawn to the Jesus who sits down with the down-and-out woman at the well. Who touches the leper, the sick, the hurting. Who cries when Lazarus is found dead.”

Zierman brings up a good point here. Some tragedies are, humanly speaking, completely unendurable, and the fact that God has a plan, while true, won’t heal a hurting heart.

Zierman closes her article by saying:

“You’ve heard us say that we like Jesus but not the church, and it’s not because we’re trying to be difficult. It’s because the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it.”

Although this examiner honestly can’t relate to some of Zierman’s conclusions, it’s hard not to appreciate her call for more authenticity and transparency in the church. She’s not so much calling for the church to become more “postmodern” to fit the tastes of young people as she’s simply calling for the church to be an honest community, a place where it’s okay to be broken, okay to not have all the answers, okay to open up and be real. All of her objections seem to boil down to a basic distaste for pretentiousness.

May God make the church, made up of people just born, all the way up to people in triple digits, such a place. May the generation being born today not have to grow up and complain about any lack of authenticity in the local church.

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