Despite the widespread complaints about the attitudes, ethics, and attention spans of millennials, it can be easy to forget the failures of generations gone by.
Not unlike the baby boomers of yore, we millennials were raised in a world of unparalleled prosperity and opportunity. This has its blessings, to be sure, but it also brings with it new temptations to view our lives in grandiose terms, punctuated by blinking lights and marked by the vocabulary of “world change” and “social transformation.” Behold, we are the justice seekers, sent to “make the world a better place” and put society to rights.
But how does real transformation actually take place?
In an article for Providence, Walter Russell Mead offers some lessons from the boomers, noting how the next generation might learn from their fruits…or lack thereof:
Most of us [boomers] (at least of that part of the generation that was interested in public service) ended up putting our energy into anti-poverty programs, human rights NGOs, environmental organizations, and so on. All of these are much stronger now than when my generation first got involved with them. The enormous growth of the NGO sector both in the United States and abroad has been one of the hallmarks of the Boomers’ engagement with the world.
Looking back, I think we got it wrong. In our eagerness to change the world, and to embrace the tumult and challenge of our times, we overlooked the most important NGO of all: the Church of Christ.
Alas, for as important as various programs and policies may be, the church provides the spiritual and cultural lifeblood that connects the dots between the individual and society. The church coordinates the contours of man’s efforts and institutions, conducting them toward the mysterious harmony we sometimes call “flourishing.”
Yet, as Mead and many others remind us, the church has dwindled in its voice and influence, even while do-gooderism of various shapes and sizes has increased in visibility and stature. With the bounties of capitalism at our fingertips, many have generously asserted themselves, offering their hands up for service for the preferred cause of an arbitrary humanistic impulse.
Meanwhile, the original “home base” for human flourishing, is cast aside and ignored, confined to Sunday sermons and occasional eschatological daydreams. The results speak for themselves:
The greatest paradox of the last fifty years in the United States has been the contrast between the enormous growth of the non-profit sector and the collapse in the social capital of poor and middle class American communities. We have more organizations with more money working to solve more social problems than ever before – and more children are growing up in broken homes, more adults are disconnected from communities of fellowship and solidarity, more drugs are wreaking greater havoc in more families and more individual lives than ever before, and more people are cut off from full participation in social life than before my generation, with its great ambitions to change and improve the world, came on the scene.
As a generation, I think we made a simple but costly mistake. We were the builders who cast aside the stone that turns out to be the cornerstone of the whole building. We never really understood, at least most of us didn’t, that strong local neighborhood church communities provide the necessary structure for a just and progressive society.
Unless millennials see the light, recognizing the unique and sweeping transformational power of the church, we’ll make the same mistakes as our parents, “taking the health of the church for granted,” as Mead puts it.
“For Millennials, the integration of their lives as believers living intentionally in Christian communities and their vocations to serve the wider society won’t be a luxury,” he concludes. “If the church continues to retreat and to withdraw as an institution, if the proclamation of the gospel fails to reach those who need it most, the goals of social and political reform so many Millennials seek will not be reached.”
Read the full article at Providence.
Dr. Self provides here a vivid picture of what it looks like for followers of Jesus to take the Great Commandment and the Great Commission seriously in the context of their own local communities.