A Response to Alex McFarland’s Article: “Ten Reasons Millennials Are Backing Away from God and Christianity”

–Daniel S. Ferguson

This is the article I’ll be talking about. Open that up in a new tab, if you will.

Alex McFarland is one of the biggest names in American Christianity that you’ve probably never heard of. He’s a big deal within Christian circles, speaking at conferences for the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, Focus on the Family, True Foundations (from Josh McDowell’s organization), and Spirit West Coast.

He’s also a pretty big-time conservative, having established himself as a regular contributor to FoxNews and a whole host of conservative talk radio shows, mostly on Christian networks and topics. You might have spotted his name in the New York Times, the LA Times, or the Boston Herald, or the Washington Post, or on CBS, FOX, NBC News, SRN news, BBC, or C-SPAN. He’s been on all of them, usually on the opinion side as what CNN once called “an expert on world religions and cults.”

Let’s be fair before we dive in: this guy is a widely respected, legitimate expert on the topic of religion in the United States. Credit where credit is due.

Speaking of credit, his list of ten reasons why Millennials are backing away from God and Christianity isn’t nearly as bad as many have made it out to be. I’ve seen some truly vicious commentary, and I don’t think either he or this article deserves that. That kind of response usually only comes from people who feel taller by making other people shorter. I don’t want anything to do with that.

Besides, his article isn’t all that bad. For one thing, I’m happy that he and other church leaders are at least thinking about Millennials. They may not be thinking with as much grace, empathy, and hope as I wish they would, but they’re thinking about us, and in a meaningful way. I think McFarland’s goal is to reach Millennials first by understanding them, and that’s a good thing.

That being said, his list of ten reasons has some–what shall we call them?–holes in it. I could probably work through all ten, but I’ll spare you and only hit on three.

McFarland #1: “Mindset of ‘digital natives’ is very much separate from other generations.”

McFarland’s first point is that because Millennials are “digital natives,” we are also not very brand loyal, and this has led us not to commit to church loyalty as well. There’s certainly some truth to that; we’re shrewd in that if we can get a better product from X than from Y, then we’ll shop with X, even if we shopped with Y for years. I did the very same thing when I switched from Windows to Chrome OS. Chrome was simply a better product, so I switched, even though I had used Windows for literally as long as I could remember.

But the underlying assumption in McFarland’s argument is that Christian churches sell a product of some kind that Millennials have simply decided to get somewhere else. Rather, the Millennials I know who have left church don’t think of church as a seller, or even a product. They think of church as a buyer and of themselves as a product. And they’re simply no longer willing to sell their very limited supply of product for the low price the church appears to be offering them. It’s not that they’re not loyal; it’s that they’re hesitant to commit. But once we do commit…well, ask Apple how that’s worked out for them.

McFarland #2: “Breakdown of the Family”

McFarland claims that “it has long been recognized that experience with an earthly father deeply informs the perspective about the heavenly father” (italics original). This tired lament is one that simply has no place in reality. Much of the notion is based on a book from 1999 called Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, published in 1999 by Paul C. Vitz. That book noted that three of the major atheists of history (Nietzsche, Voltaire, and O’Hair) all had awful or non-existent relationships with their father, while three of the major Christian heroes (Pascal, Wilberforce, and Bonhoeffer) all had positive paternal relationships.

And that’s all it was: anecdotal data that had no basis in statistics or studies. But that didn’t stop organizations like Focus on the Family from jumping on it as if it were solid fact, when in reality, there is no evidence to suggest this. There hasn’t even been a significant independent study on it. Not even the Census Bureau has useful data on this.

While I certainly agree that relationships with earthly parents can inform a relationship with the divine, I would stop far short of saying that they predict that relationship. I’ve known way too many exceptions on both sides.

McFarland #3: “Militant Secularism”

McFarland claims that because secularism is taught (he uses the word enforced) in schools, it is the baseline from which Millennials understand their world and that they therefore think of religion as mere preference instead of as truth.

Many of us Millennials would say that the respect we were taught for facts and diversity of opinion is a good thing. We were taught to question everything, even bedrock assumptions, and yes, even secularism. My rural, public school taught me how to think hard and break everything down to its basic tenets. That’s not “enforced secularism”; that’s critical thinking. If some Millennials left the church because of their critical thinking skills, I contend that has a lot more to do with the church’s logical consistency problems than it does with the fact that Millennials have been taught how to think logically.

Like I said, I’ll limit myself to three objections. The article isn’t all bad. For example, his fourth point, “Lack of spiritual authenticity among adults” is something we Millennials would almost certainly agree has driven us away from the church. I was very tempted to hit him on points number 7, 8, and 9, but I couldn’t find a way to do so politely.

There’s always tomorrow.

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