Confessionalists value unity; Millennials celebrate individualism. Confessionalists cherish tradition; Millennials love innovation. Confessionalists are guardians; Millennials are liberators. The combination of these words seems like an oxymoron. But does it make sense to completely separate the categories “Confessional” and “Millennial?” To answer that question, we need to reach down through the porous layer of cultural stereotypes, and hit theological bedrock worth building upon.
A Confessional Millennial is no oxymoron. I believe that we will see more men and women, over the years ahead, who fit this description in our churches as my peers continue to come under the formative influence of biblical teaching. Subsequently, they will express themselves in confessional language. At least three issues – identity, community, and aspiration – are at play, and worth exploring.
Analysts typically identify as millennial anyone born between 1980 and 1997. Consider the stereotypical “millennial identity.” If one word comes to mind to describe the millennials that you know, it is probably “individualistic.”
Millennials generally start families later, go to college in greater numbers, and enter the workforce with a more earnest “change the world” attitude than prior generations. These shifts provide more time to consider identity, aspiration, and vocation. Higher education marketers have figured this out. University marketing campaigns almost always contain words like “self,” “mission,” “find,” “transform,” “change,” “champion,” and “called.”
If this individualism persists past the twenty-something years, we might expect resistance to comprehensive theological systems like what we find in our confessions. But the thoroughgoing individualist runs into a problem. “Whatever exists has already been named” (Ecclesiastes 6:10). The desire for the absolutely unique will be left unsatisfied. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). In my own experience, the desire at the heart of the pursuit of the Unique or Authentic is actually a desire for the True.
Sin has corrupted this desire, but Millennials - like all human beings - were made in the image of the God of Truth. One nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor wrote, “Stamped with the divine image as being made ‘a living soul,’ man’s high prerogative is to catch upon the mirror of his own nature the glory of the Creator, and to reflect it back upon him in intelligent and holy worship.” God is true, and we were made to reflect His truth.
The regenerate man cannot ultimately turn away from the truth. Insofar as our Reformed and Presbyterian confessional documents distill the truth of God’s Word, they will attract regenerate people from every generation. We discover truth in God’s Word, which was “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (WCF 1.2). The quest for authenticity, expressed in individualism, is fulfilled only in the discovery of the truth.
Next to individual authenticity is authentic community. From Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat experience to Pokemon-Go’s virtual gyms, personality tests to alumni associations, millennials desire to identify with groups and movements organized around shared affinities. This is not uniquely millennial, but it is something that has come to pervade every area of life.
How can our churches compete with these micro-communities, perfectly formed around shared preferences and affinities, without totally fragmenting itself? What about congregations that are faithful to the Bible and its doctrine? Faithfulness may solve the authenticity problem, but generally such congregations do not cater to a targeted population. They cast their nets wide by proclaiming the whole counsel of God to people from every generation, tax bracket, and personality type! In the throne room of God, we will see “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Affinity networks and online groups cannot satisfy the desire for true community. True community is found only in communities of Truth. By definition, confessional churches are communities of Truth. They are comprised of people who are united by shared beliefs regarding what is true and good. Churches that are founded upon ever-changing trends and growth plans can never offer true community to anyone. Insofar as these congregations maintain attendance, it is by way of a revolving door.
Churches that will produce leaders (committed individuals dedicated to Christian service) from out of the Millennial generation will be those united in the Truth. In such congregations, we find Christ’s precious gifts to His bride: “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world” (WCF 25.3). They not only maintain a confessional standard that is identifiable, clear, and published to the world, but also call men of integrity to serve as elders to maintain that standard.
Like the members of every generation before them, Millennials in the church take their marching orders from venerated leaders (probably youth directors and campus ministry workers) who proclaim liberty from contrived tradition. Phrased charitably, Millennials look for truth with eyes unclouded by the various debates and discussions of yesteryear.
By comparison, confessional aspirations are sometimes indistinguishable from traditionalist dreams. Both confessionalists and traditionalists in the church cherish a theological heritage, and labor to safeguard it for posterity. However, the two camps operate on different motivations. Whereas Traditionalists hold onto the status quo for fear of change, Confessionalists proclaim timeless truths for the love of biblical reformation.
When confessional churches herald the Truth, sin-enslaved men and women find liberty in Christ, and are blessed with “the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ” (WCF 13.3) as they become more and more like their Lord. Properly understood, confessional aspirations ought to resonate with Millennials who desire truth, even at the expense of tradition.
The starting point of confessional theology is greatly liberating. We recognize the great value of the theological progress that the church has made over the past nineteen centuries, bringing God’s people into greater conformity with God’s Son. There is no need to circle the wagons to figure out foundational biblical doctrines like the Trinity or Justification by grace through faith. These debates have been had, and we are free to proclaim and defend what we know from Scripture to be true.
If our churches are going to reach Millennials, we must “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” (Hebrews 10:23). Only those churches founded upon God’s Word will promote spiritual maturity and strengthening. Churches built on the solid rock of biblical truth - confessional churches - will weather social and cultural changes in such a way so as to glorify God and to remain relevant. This is not an issue of reaching any one particular generation. This is a matter of the church’s divine mission to reach every generation through divine means. If we are for a continuing Christian witness, then we must be for a confessional witness.
Zack Groff is Director of Advancement and Admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS). He is a graduate of Temple University (B.A., ’12) in Philadelphia, PA, and a M.Div. student at GPTS.