Some days, it feels like I’m part of a species that’s on the verge of extinction.
Based on a recent study from the Pew Research Center, the numbers are looking pretty bleak for Christian millennials in America. Over the past decade, there’s been a 12% decline in American adults who describe themselves as Christians. Within this decline, one of the most prominent dips is among millennials, nearly half of whom now identify themselves as non-religious altogether.
In recent years, many Christian friends of mine have talked about having somewhat of a crisis of faith. When confronted by billboards heralding former President Donald Trump as “The Word Became Flesh” and Christian leaders making statements like “I think evangelicals have found their dream president,” the underlying narrative seemed to be that following Trump was “the Christian thing to do.”
To a degree that we had never quite seen before in our lifetime, we were witnessing the astonishing conflation of Christianity and the conservative agenda. This conflation naturally created friction — a friction that demanded to be reckoned with.
“American politics have always been volatile,” says Jamie Whitaker Campbell, a former undergrad professor of mine. “That part for me is not new or necessarily alarming. There’s just an element of tension, particularly for those of us who are younger, in navigating the way that that platform has been utilized to articulate a version of Christianity that we’re finding ourselves less and less in alignment with.”
While the struggle to resolve that tension has pushed many young American Christians away from the church, it actually had the exact opposite effect on me. To me, the inconsistencies I was seeing were not a reflection of any inconsistencies in God. They were the product of misguided views of God that had seeped into the cracks of our culture and even our churches.
Convinced of this, I took a slightly different approach than some of my fellow millennials. I decided to enroll in a seminary program.
Fast forward to January 6, 2021.
A few short weeks after completing a course specifically focused on Jesus and the Gospels, I spotted the banners in the live footage. Woven throughout crowds of enraged rioters and their desperate shouts for resistance, they waved among the carnage. Their message pierced through: In God we trust. Jesus 2020.
The sight of these sentiments in the throes of such violence and anarchy was both disturbing and unsurprising. As the rise of Christian nationalism reached its inevitable crescendo, Americans everywhere — myself included — were once again confronted by a chilling question: Who is this Jesus they’re fighting for?
I can say with confidence that it is not the Jesus of the Gospels — the one who, in no uncertain terms, proclaimed, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Shortly after the riots, Dr. Brian Lugioyo and Dr. Drake Levasheff, the seminary professors who co-taught that Jesus and the Gospels class, shared some critical insights on the matter.
“When you see the name of God or Jesus co-opted in these other-kingdom movements that are not of Jesus’ kingdom, what you have is something akin to blasphemy,” says Dr. Lugioyo. “It’s a confusion of what the gospel actually is. In this case, it’s the pursuit of a kind of gospel that has tied the Bible to the constitution in tangled ways.”
This entanglement is a slippery slope. When our Christian values pledge allegiance to a specific political agenda in the name of securing moral authority, we’ve completely missed the message of the Gospel that we are trying so desperately to defend.
“The way of Jesus is to serve,” says Dr. Levasheff. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. In these places where our brothers and sisters have broken things, we need to be part of bringing healing and life. It’s a different kind of exercise of power, but it’s an embodiment of what Jesus calls us to do.”
The Jesus of the Gospels never sought to rule. He “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). When the crowds tried to “take him by force and make him king,” he withdrew (John 6:15). To the great surprise of his many followers who hailed him as the promised Messiah, he did not come to lead a political revolution. Instead, our peace-making, truth-telling, promise-keeping Savior led by serving.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of a tragically flawed image of Jesus. In its ashes, there is an invitation for the Church— perhaps, more specifically, for Christian millennials.
“We have been handed a version of Christianity,” says Campbell, “and we can either choose to accept the inconsistencies that we’re seeing and pass them down, or we can generationally decide to turn to God and ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate us and to help us move forward well.”
If we really are a faith community that’s committed to upholding and proclaiming truth — and I believe that we are — then we must be willing to put ourselves under the microscope without ignoring the dark spots. We must identify and realign the areas in which the Church has drifted from the truth it proclaims. We must call out the blasphemy of Christian nationalism and return to the Jesus of the Gospels.
This is our only way forward, and it is a hopeful one.