Church, Ministry, and the iGeneration
An interview with Skye Jethani
Skye Jethani is an author and pastor who was Montreat College’s 2018 Calvin Thielman Lecture Series speaker. Prior to his Thielman lecture, he took the time to talk with Reflection to discuss his ministry, the state of 21st century Christianity, and the unique challenges and opportunities facing the iGeneration.
Reflection: For our readers who aren’t familiar with you, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your ministry?
Skye Jethani: Well, I’m an ordained pastor. I spent a number of years on staff at my church, primarily as a teaching pastor helping to plant new congregations. But for about 11 years, I served at Christianity Today, which is a communications ministry primarily known for its magazine, both in an editorial and an executive role, dealing with resources for pastors and church leaders. That gave me opportunity to see the landscape of the American church and even some international fronts. Out of that grew more of a writing ministry and publishing books. And so for the last number of years, while I’m still an ordained pastor and still at my same church, my ministry is primarily outside. I write, travel, speak, consult, and podcast. It’s been an unexpected trajectory for me, but all somewhat related to issues of faith and culture—what that means at a local congregational level and in a broader sense as well.
A lot of your writing has focused on the younger generations—millennials and the iGeneration. What do you see as some of the unique characteristics of the iGeneration, the generation that’s currently in college right now?
A lot of people focus first on the digital realities; this is a digitally indigenous culture. And that’s certainly true. I don’t want to diminish that at all. But I think that blinds us to some other factors that are somewhat unique to this generation. This generation has experienced globalization to a degree that previous generations have not. So that’s a big change. Obviously, they’re growing up in a far more post-Christian society, where established moral and cultural values that were just assumed in the past are no longer assumed. The most obvious is marriage. I’m a Gen-Xer, and when I was growing up, nobody even thought about what we believed marriage was. It was just an assumed background of understanding in the culture. And today, every young person has to ask themselves, “What do I think marriage is?” and even, “What do I think about my own sexual identity?” Those are challenges that were just foreign to previous generations.
There’s a sociologist who talks about every society having foreground and background decisions. What he means by that is background decisions are decisions that the society makes for the individual, and the individual never really has to think about. And foreground decisions are decisions that the individual consciously makes for himself or herself. The argument is essentially that the more background decisions a society makes, the more stable it is, because there’s more shared, assumed norms, and the more foreground decisions in a society, the more destabilizing and anxiety-producing it is. I think the iGeneration—they don’t know it because they don’t have anything to compare it to—but they’re growing up with levels of anxiety that are completely unfamiliar to those who are older, because so many more decisions are thrust on them at a younger and younger age about their own identities, about society, about culture and values that just didn’t exist before. So the level of anxiety is enormous. Then you add into that the digital realities of constant connectivity, and it’s not a surprise, unfortunately, that we see escalating rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young adults.
A recent Barna study says iGens are twice as likely to identify as atheists than previous generations. A lot of Christians see this as foreboding news, but you see it somewhat differently. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, I don’t think I’m the only one. Russell Moore [president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention] has talked about this as well—the trend away from church engagement, the rise of the “nones,” as people refer to them. I don’t think it’s necessarily a depletion in commitment to Christian faith. I think it’s a depletion in nominalism. In other words, the number of people in our society who feel that they have to identify as Christian just to be seen as socially acceptable is going down. That’s disturbing if you’re trying to maintain a religious institution, because you like people showing up and you like them occasionally giving money to maintain those organizations, but that alone is not an indicator of devotion to the Christian faith.
"With the decline in nominalism, I think there is more opportunity for people to encounter genuine faith and hopefully be transformed or impacted by those who are seeking to follow after Christ in an authentic manner."
So how do you see the future of faith for young people in America?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. With the decline in nominalism, I think there is more opportunity for people to encounter genuine faith and hopefully be transformed or impacted by those who are seeking to follow after Christ in an authentic manner. For their book UnChristian 10 years ago, Barna polled twenty-something non-Christians about their perception of Christianity, and the downside is that the overwhelming perception was that Christians are homophobic and too political and hypocritical. But when they asked them, “Well, what about Christians you actually know and have a personal relationship with? Are those qualities true of them?” They said, “No, that’s not true of my friend who is a Christian, but it’s true of most Christians.” What that uncovers—and I know this is marketing language—is that there’s a brand problem. Christianity in our culture—the way it’s popularly presented, through secular media and, frankly, also through high-profile Christians in the media—is perceived as homophobic, hyper-political, and hypocritical. And that creates significant barriers to people who don’t have personal relationships with Christians.
Also, there’s a whole generation now who doesn’t believe the Christian life is even plausible, that it has any ability to be lived out in the reality of the world we now see. Because they live in a world of pluralism, where there’s a bazillion different people with different worldviews and religions around them all the time, they see this Christian thing and think, “It’s exclusively the truth—are you kidding me?” Then they’re growing up in this moment where gender identity and sexuality—there’s no binaries anymore; there’s just this wide spectrum of infinite choices and options, and here comes a Christian worldview that says, “Well, no, actual marriage is between a man and a woman, and here’s a view of sexuality”— and it’s like it’s from Mars. It seems completely implausible. And then you add on top of that the clownish behavior of the few Christians they do see in the media, and there are huge barriers there to the acceptance of Christianity and its claims.
The good side is, when they meet an actual, committed, genuine Christian, there’s an opportunity for them to not only see relevance and credibility, but plausibility. “Here’s a Christian in the flesh, living this life after Jesus, and wow, that’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.” The downside is, those encounters are becoming rarer and rarer, and we can no longer rely just on mass evangelism, institutional engagement, or Christian media to do the work of mission. It has to be returned to an incarnate life-on- life experience, which we’re just not as prepared for as a North American church, sadly.
What have you seen in your ministry that has been effective in addressing this “plausibility gap?”
This is going to sound so unexciting. But it’s frankly what it was two thousand years ago. It’s seeing the life of somebody or a community of people who are genuinely seeking after Jesus, and recognizing that they’re different, and they’re real, and they’re authentic. That stops people in their tracks and makes them think, “Maybe all the perceptions that I’ve internalized about Christianity aren’t accurate, because the people I’m actually meeting don’t fit the stereotype that I’ve been told.”
I don’t think there’s a programmatic silver bullet, that if your church or your ministry just does A, B, and C—putting some candles in the sanctuary, changing the music, or getting the pastor to stop wearing a tie—that iGens are suddenly going to come in the door. Or if you have a live Twitter feed or Instagram feed up on the screen in your church, it’s going to attract millennials. I don’t think that’s the case. And that’s scaring a lot of ministry professionals because they’ve been taught for the last 50 years that ministry is this sort of this mechanical endeavor—that if you just pull the right levers, you’ll get the right outcome. And that’s no longer the case.
In this context, how do you see the evolving usefulness of the term “evangelical?”
I think it’s a beautiful term theologically, and even historically. You can go to Bebbington’s quadrilateral. You can talk about historic evangelicalism going back to the Great Awakening with George Whitfield in the 18th Century, and the various awakenings in England. All of that is wonderful. It’s theological, it’s historical. I would have no problem associating with those things.
Then there is the practical usefulness of the term in our current setting. For me, the turning point was much earlier than 2016. It was actually 2008. There was a document that was put out then called the “Evangelical Manifesto.” The point of the document was to lay out, during that election cycle, the issues that evangelicals care about and how we should be thinking as we select leaders for our country and all that. And the people who wrote it are fantastic and thoughtful luminaries in the American evangelical movement. But the document was long—more than 10 pages—and the entire first half was dedicated to just defining the word evangelical, away from its cultural assumptions. And when I saw that, I thought, okay, this word has lost its usefulness for genuine communication. If it takes you four or five pages to define it for somebody, it’s no longer particularly useful.
If I use that word in most of the circles I move within, they’re going to make assumptions I don’t intend. It’s going to erect barriers I don’t want to have to spend time deconstructing. And more and more people are feeling that way. A few years ago, I went through all my Twitter followers’ descriptions of themselves, and I could not find a single person who used the word “evangelical” to define themselves. I know the vast majority of those people probably do hold to what we would consider a theologically evangelical framework. But no one was using that word. They’re a Christ-follower. They’re a Christian. They’re a child of God, redeemed by Jesus. They’re coming up with all kinds of terms, but nobody wants to use “evangelical” because it has become so polluted.
What do iGens think about the term “evangelical” compared to older generations?
There was a study done by Putnam and Campbell looking at all the factors that had contributed to young adults abandoning Christian faith. And the single most consistent correlation was the association of Christianity with partisan politics. So the more evangelicalism is associated with conservative Republicans, the more likely young people are to abandon the faith. The solution to that problem is not going the other direction and associating evangelicalism with liberal Democrats. But the popular perception is evangelical equals conservative Republican. If the popular perception was evangelical equals Bible-believing Christian, no problem. If people don’t like the Bible and they don’t like Jesus, there’s not a lot we can do about that. But if people are walking away from evangelicalism because they don’t like conservative Republican politics, now we have a problem. We’ve created a barrier that Scripture itself doesn’t create. And the evidence suggests that’s what’s going on.
What would your closing advice be for iGens and the people—like the faculty and staff on our campus, or pastors and youth leaders—who are looking to support them?
You’re seeing a lot of research now about the impact of constant online communication, and one of my favorite writers on this is Sherry Turkle from MIT. One thing that she talks about, which I think is really relevant to those of us who care about spiritual formation of young adults—and she’s not a Christian; she’s not coming at it from a religious point of view—but she talks about how boredom is a prerequisite for intimacy. When we’re bored, we have to go inside of ourselves. We become familiar with our own fears, our own anxieties, our own joys and sorrows; all of that internal self-awareness happens when we are bored. The more we know ourselves, the more we are able to give ourselves to others, to have more intimate transparency with a spouse, with a child, with those most intimate of human relationships. Her argument is that because this generation is growing up without boredom— because the moment they feel that pang of boredom, they reach for a device and distract themselves—they’re losing the basic capacity for intimacy and relationships. And I think the exact same dynamic is true spiritually. The prerequisite to a spiritual intimacy with God is boredom. You have to have boredom. You have to have quiet solitude, self-reflection, self-awareness. None of us would ever repent of our sins if we weren’t bored.
My single greatest concern for this generation is that they do not experience boredom, and the church is not giving them space to experience boredom. In our Christian communities, we believe we have to keep them as active as possible, because we’re told they can’t sit still; they can’t be quiet. We have to go-go-go. We have to keep them stimulated and entertained, and heaven forbid you have 10 seconds of silence in a worship service or give a youth group an opportunity to reflect quietly on what they’ve just heard or read. You can’t do that. We want them tweeting their response and posting a picture on Instagram. When we do that, we’re only reinforcing a form of relational and spiritual retardation.
So I would go to Sherry Turkle and some of the other research on the importance of solitude and boredom, or just human flourishing and intimacy, and ask hard questions about what does this mean for the way we construct our Christian communities, our churches, our youth groups. Are we just feeding the beast or are we being an alternative to give these kids the basic skills—not just for intimacy with God, but intimacy in life—that they lack? We need to be aware of that and recognize, okay, there are some good things we can do with this technology in the church for the formation of people and the advancement of the Gospel. But there’s also a whole lot of damage that can be done by embracing this completely and not recognizing that God has made us to be incarnate people that experience His presence in community and need to be present where we are, even if being present requires us to be bored.
That’s where I feel like we’re not particularly well-equipped in the evangelical tradition. Because for the last 500 years, frankly, we have wholeheartedly embraced every new technology that’s come along rather unreflectively. Now one has come along that has incredible potential for damage, and we’re not trying to slow down and ask the hard questions. ■
Skye Jethani is an award-winning author, speaker, consultant and ordained pastor. You can learn more about his work and ministry at http://skyejethani.com/.