Book Review – The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church

I am excited to introduce you to a book that, while not a faith and work book, has serious implications for the future of the faith and work movement, John Seel’s The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church. I realize that is a strong statement; please read on.

John is a cultural renewal entrepreneur and social impact consultant. He was the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation and is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, specializing in millennial research. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland, an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a B.A. from Austin College.

Seel starts the book, not in the present, but by jumping back a century to describe how the famous sinking of the Titanic could have been avoided. Captain Edward J. Smith received nine warnings which unfortunately were largely ignored:

The Marconi radio operators in charge of passenger communications on the Titanic received even more updated and threatening warnings about icebergs, but as they were employed to facilitate passenger communication, they did not relay this information to the ship’s bridge. Consequently, those with the greatest knowledge of the situation [emphasis mine] remained silent. Once an iceberg loomed directly ahead, there were few options still available. By then it was too late.

Seel describes the three levels that are used for emergency radio warnings at sea, in escalating order of importance: sécurité, pan-pan, and mayday. This provides the impetus and context for this book.

This book is pan-pan alert. There is a looming cultural frame shift, largely carried by millennials, which if ignored is poised to threaten the evangelical church. The warning is not limited to youth or college ministry, but encompasses the entire legacy and survivability of what is known as institutional evangelicalism.

Warning: There is a fundamental frame of reference shift in American society happening right now among young adults. You may think of this group as millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—but millennials resist this label for good reason: the national narrative on them is pejorative, patronizing, and just plain wrong.

Here’s what we do know:

  • Of Americans with a church background, 76 percent are described as “religious nones” or unaffiliated—and it’s the fastest growing segment of the population.
  • Close to 40 percent of millennials fit this religious profile.
  • Roughly 80 percent of teens in evangelical church high school youth groups will abandon their faith after two years in college.

It’s unlikely that the evangelical church can survive if it is uniformly rejected by millennials, and yet:

Millennial pastors and youth ministers are disempowered; their perspective is often not taken seriously by senior church leadership.

  • Most millennial research is framed in categories rejected by millennials; that is, left-brained, analytical communication is lost on right-brained, intuitive millennials.
  • Evangelicals’ bias toward rational left-brained thinking makes the church seem tone-deaf.

–book description and background from the publisher’s website

I had an opportunity to interview John about his book and his research on millennials.

Chris Robertson: What was your original purpose or goal for The New Copernicans?

John Seel: The goal was to right the widespread misperceptions in the public about millennials and to give them a language by which to articulate their important insights. It was to right a wrong.

CR: How does The New Copernicans make a distinct contribution to the existing body of knowledge?

JS: It is true that millennials are the most studied and most misunderstood cohort in American history. This book is different in that it seeks to let millennials frame the questions, it is not based on cohort research, and it provides a broader cultural analysis of what is happening in and through these young people. It argues that millennials are carriers of a shift in the plate tectonics of American religious culture. They think differently and better.

CR: What are the top two things you most desire people to come away with after reading this book?

JS: The church has long accommodated itself to a left-brain Enlightenment mindset that is now threatening its own survival. A frameshift is needed if one is to be genuinely biblical and there is not a lot of time to make this difficult shift. The survival of institutional evangelicalism is at stake.

CR:  I’m curious what are the 1-2 things have really struck you as you have learned more about this generation.

JS: These young people are very tired of being stereotyped unfairly. This defensiveness sometimes makes it hard for them to articulate the unique way that they process reality and relationships. As a result, their important contribution is sometimes muted. Their younger siblings, sometimes called Gen Z, are far less muted. Gen Z young people are the voices behind the March for Our Lives movement.

CR: Do you have any stories of individuals who have thought incorrectly about millennials and how their thinking has changed?

JS: Tom Scott, formerly of Nantucket Nectars and CEO of The Nantucket Project, had his eyes opened. He said, “I’m embarrassed to admit I have held an under-examined negative view of millennials. John has opened my eyes to what is possible.” Hopefully, as a result, there will be more millennial voices participating on stage at The Nantucket Project.

CR: I know you’re currently working on a book about vocation and the common good. As I read The New Copernicans I could not help but make connections to the faith and work movement and see some opportunities based on your research if the movement is to endure. As you study the faith and work movement, what opportunities or improvements do you see as you reflect on the research you did for The New Copernicans?

JS: Millennials think about work in a very different manner than previous generations. They avoid sacred vs. secular dualism, which is good. They start with the “why” or “meaning” and then work toward the “how” and “what.” They are more entrepreneurial and more aspirational. They make no mental distinction between for-profit and non-profit. Nor do they think in terms of institutions, but results. They have also adopted a portfolio kind of employment pattern. No business will long survive without aligning themselves to their priorities.

CR: Is there anything you would like The Green Room audience to understand about millennials in particular?

JS: Millennials are the needed answer to the impending crisis facing the church. They are also the front line of the missional opportunity. Sadly, for many evangelical churches, this will prove to be a bridge too far.

I would like to highlight Seel’s discussion of dwellers versus seekers/explorers from the book:

Hitchhiking is one of the cheapest ways to travel. It is best to think of it as a walking adventure with the chance of getting a ride, more than anything else. People today are far more reluctant to pick up hitchhikers than in the past. One needs to be prepared to walk all day.

For most hitchhikers, the adventure is the appeal, as much as a cheap mode of travel. There is an attitude of openness, an unscheduled chance encounter with a total stranger perhaps going in a similar direction. The journey is the point as much as the destination. The picture of a hitchhiker on an open road is an apt metaphor for New Copernicans.

Dwellers are those who are happy where they are, who feel they have found the truth, while seekers, represented by New Copernicans, are those still looking for answers. Anyone can be an explorer: a Catholic, a Muslim, even an atheist. [Father Tomas] Halik, [Czeck philosopher] believes that those in the community of seekers actually have more in common with one another than do seekers and dwellers from within the same faith tradition.

Dwellers, whether religious (fundamentalists), philosophical (foundationalists), or political (ideologues) are increasely passé because this perspective is no longer on the front line and is receding from cultural relevance. It continues to exist in subcultural pockets, but is no longer cutting edge or broadly held.

His section reflecting on Burning Man gives a good description of the millennial audience that our faith and work movement needs to engage.

At its best, Burning Man is an experience of liminality, a desire to transcend or find the sacred in the ordinary.

If Burning Man is New Copernicans’ most effective cultural event, then the open immanent social imaginary is their natural habitat. Here is the church’s missional front line. If we pay close attention to the world they are now creating in business, education, politics, religion, and philosophy, we can begin to see the long-term significance of this emerging perspective. New Copernicans are in the process of rethinking their understanding of human society. We are now caught in the brief interlude between the lightning of their insight and the thunder of its implications to cultural institutions. As we touched on before, even now the Olympics and the Republican Party are aware that they face a crisis because of the disaffection of millennials. The evangelical church will follow. So millennials are a benefit to us as observers because their reactions are valuable in determining the ongoing implications of this cultural shift.

The Burning Man culture is based on ten principles, principles that largely express the contours of the New Copernican sensibility: no boundaries, a priority on experience and participation, expressive individualism, respectful community, antonomous authenticity, oneness with nature, justice, beauty, love, and spirit.

In a world where nuance, uncertainty, and shades of grey are ever more common, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire. If you view your job as taking multiple choice tests, you will never be producing as much value as you are capable of…Life is an essay, not a Scantron machine. -Seth Godin

I heartily encourage you to get a copy of The New Copernicans. This is an important resource as we consider the past and future for the faith & work movement as well as how we engage millennials as well as other generations in our work, churches, and organizations.

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