Gen Z, Millennials, and the Challenge of Secularism


Derek Rishmawy writes at The Gospel Coalition, “Most analyses of Millennials likes to focus on what makes them distinct. But a key point to keep in mind is that, in many respects, they’re just like everyone else—but more so.” What does this mean?

Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, Rishmawy argues that Millennials are following the same linear and logical progressions of the generation that preceded them, taking one more step along a pathway which began with the Enlightenment and continuing through the present day. Our catch-all term for this viewpoint is secularism.

In his book The Secular Age, Taylor chronicles how the world transitioned from a place where belief in God was ubiquitous to one where religiosity is but one option among many, refining the secularization thesis by arguing that religion has not disappeared in the face of modernity, as scholars such as Max Weber thought would occur, but has instead diversified. Taylor describes this diversification as the “Nova Effect,” and Rishmawy borrows the concept to examine how many Millennials satisfy the human longing for transcendence.

First, Rishmawy notes that Millennials are syncretistic, cobbling together a religious outlook that lacks coherence but to some degree or another “works” for them. Rishmawy states, “Some of us may still choose traditional faiths like Roman Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, or one of the other major world religions. But nobody simply inherits packages of beliefs anymore; we choose to believe (and even construct) the packages for ourselves, often as part of our self-actualization project.” Religion, in other words, is a means used to define ourselves and imbue our lives with meaning, not an outside authority that defines us and directs our lives.

Second, because of their reliance on the internet, Millennials are much more apt to seek out sources of authority that confirm their notion of what is right. Rishmawy says that “if you don’t like what your pastor says, you can look up alternatives in the middle of the sermon on your phone—which you probably know how to use better than he does.” That’s true. Millennials will bear with you and even continue to walk with you, all while disagreeing with you in private. Google, in this respect, is a portal that can circumvent congregational unity by preventing conversations with other Christians concerning our convictions. Being of one heart and mind, however, can lead to greater vitality in demonstrating and proclaiming the gospel to the world. If you teach or preach matters that might be controversial, either morally or doctrinally, it might be wise to ask Millennials what they think, or create forums where they can ask questions.

Thirdly, Rishmawy notes the trend among Millennials to valorize doubt and triumphantly leave the tradition of their upbringing as part of “post-evangelical” Christianity. In these scenarios, younger Christians push back, reexamine, and challenge their heritage. In telling their story, they assume the role of the hero, the brave individual who dared to challenge the status quo. I agree with Rishmawy--in some instances the critiques are valid and even helpful. But he also notes that these approaches to faith fit the Nova-Effect by generating “an alternative form of spiritual and moral authority—the authority of authenticity.”

Rishmawy offers three approaches to ministering to Millennials in a secular age: shunning despair and nostalgia, preaching apologetically, and making room for those who fit the mold of Thomas the disciple.

It is not helpful to pine for a return to a mythical Christian “golden age,” nor to cast blame on younger Christians for the decline of cultural Christianity.

Millennials also deserve to hear rational and compelling accounts of Christian faith that answer their doubts and challenge their presuppositions with generosity and winsomeness.

Lastly, healthy churches always create room for those like Thomas. Even Jesus answered his demand for evidence with love and compassion, and when he did so, Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God.”

Ben SimpsonComment