In defense of millennials: Why the church--and the world--needs the Entitlement Generation

I was invited to speak at my church last night.  One of my fascinations--okay, borderline obsessions--is the place of millennials in today's society.  Here are some reflections I shared on why millennials are not all bad, and how I hope our church and world will respond to some of my generation's insights. 


Life’s messy.  This might be my lesson in life, or at least for this decade.  Life's messy, but that’s okay. What insight do I have to tell about the experience of life, when I have barely lived a quarter of it? I can’t tell you all of my life's high and low points yet, or my regrets, or all the things that I wish I had known, but I can tell you about being a millennial and how my generation has its own insight to offer.

I know that millennials get a lot of grief: we’re entitled and flaky and addicted to technology and lazy and lack a moral compass. We’re too forthcoming with sex and we don’t really know how to work and we rely too much on our parents. This all may be true, but we bring some of our own gifts to the table, too, and I think that these gifts help make a bit of sense of my story so far.

We millennials, we’re kind of disillusioned. We’ve heard that we can have it all, and sooner or later, we all discover that we can’t. I think so much of the dream has been framed in terms of perfection: it’s about having the perfect house and perfect family and perfect job and perfect work-life balance. But life is full of trade-offs, and maybe my generation, with our instantaneous awareness of the bombs shooting off halfway around the globe and our unpaid internships and our appreciation of the pluralistic nature of our society--and the oppression inherent to its makeup--gets that in a really profound way.

What excites me, though, about being a twenty-something right now, is the possibilities I see open around me. No, I can’t have it all, but I can be creative in choosing what I want. I’m entering a field where jobs and paychecks are dwindling, but instead of viewing the reality that I may need a second job to support myself as a tragedy, I can see it as an opportunity. That is how the church began, after all. In the first and second centuries, priests and deacons and presbyters had other roles out in the world. Porous boundaries are not a bad thing. Moving back and forth between the parish and the publishing house or hospital or non-profit organization or whatever my be the case makes a lot of sense.

My generation craves depth and meaning. Part of the reason why we don’t want to pin ourselves down to 8 to 5 jobs is because we want not to be slaves to appearances but pursue what matters. Sometimes inspiration may strike at 10pm, and in the age of the internet and telecommuting, it might easily be possible to deliver our best work. Again, the boundaries between work and personal, office and home are becoming increasingly fuzzy--which has its problems, yes, but also has benefits. Work that fulfills us--and does not simply pay the bills--is what we want.

And when it comes to faith, denominational label has little to do with where we will place our allegiance. We want to find a church home that has substance and truth rather than rules and dogma. For us, it’s not so much about believing the right things as doing the right things--like serving the neighborhood and being kind instead of passing judgment. Churches that are places of acceptance and love and hospitality are much more inviting than churches that are about boundary-drawing and orthodoxy and rigidity.

I say all of this because I want to explain where I come from and why I feel the need to break the rules. I give details about the many times I have screwed up or felt despondent or doubted not to overshare but to pass along the gift I believe I can offer, that I believe millennials can offer, one which I believe the whole church, in fact, can offer. I cannot offer a ten-step plan for stewardship or service or how to grow the church, but I can testify to how messy this world is, and how my hope is in God to use it all. I can talk about how much it has hurt to be crushed, how I have felt ashamed and embarrassed sometimes, and how I brace myself for when it will happen again.

But I can also talk about the light that has broken through the darkness, how beauty can emerge from the mess. I don’t believe that God gave my dad cancer or killed my husband Dan’s parents in a plane crash, but I do believe God was present in the casseroles and doctors and hugs and tears of loved ones. I don’t know if God wanted me to be a priest all along instead of a professor, and if I simply ignored the call, or if God changed God’s mind too, but I know that my experiences as a religious scholar at Vanderbilt will make me a better priest. And I am not sure whether the decline of the Episcopal church (and the church as a whole) is God’s rally for us to toughen up, but I am sure that the church needs to begin to realize that its influence extends far beyond the bodies who are in the pews, and that its purpose is the building of a better creation, not capital campaigns.

Glennon Melton is an author and blogger at the popular website Momastery. I bet many of you have read it. She talks about how life is brutiful--equal parts broken and beautiful. I love that, but if I put my own words to my experience, I might describe life as a beautiful mess. Still messy, not perfect, but beautiful nonetheless.

That’s the eternal question: How do you make beauty out of life’s mess?