Over Christmas break, I received a text from my friend Trevin. He asked if I had yet read a book called The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church by David John Seel. I replied that I had not, and he told me I should read it so we could talk about it.
So I did, and oh man.
This isn’t really a proper book review. It’s more of a review of a major idea of the book. Trevin wrote a great review of the book here.
I do want to explore one of the concepts of the book I found particularly troubling, though, and that is the idea that the church losing cultural clout is a huge problem.
American Evangelicalism Is Losing a Cultural Foothold
Dr. Seel shares a lot of astute observations about culture and the church in the book, but as a Millennial myself (and as one who has done a bit of writing on the subject), I think he grossly overestimates the importance of American evangelicalism being “culturally relevant.”
…it is becoming harder and harder to deny that evangelicalism is losing its hold on American culture. But because it has maintained such large market share for so long in the Bible Belt, it is easy to deny potential threats to its demise. The cultural dominance in the South and Midwest masks the increasing irrelevance of the church among those who curate the national social imaginary—the collective stories and myths we tell about the nature of reality and the shape of the good life. (p. xxiii-xxiv)
Here in this paragraph in the introduction to his book, Dr. Seel sounds the warning bell about American evangelicalism losing its grip on culture and those who influence culture. Later, he chastises American evangelicalism for how it dramatically influenced culture in the age of the Moral Majority and presently through its overwhelming support for Donald Trump.
It sounds like Dr. Seel is more concerned with American evangelicalism influencing culture in ways he thinks are inappropriate than whether or not American evangelicalism influences culture at all.
But generally, I agree with Dr. Seel, and I think we should accept his proposal: American evangelicalism does not influence American popular culture. I just hesitate to say it’s “losing its grip” on American popular culture, because I’m not sure American evangelicalism ever really influenced Hollywood or other architects of the social imaginary.
The point Dr. Seel makes is this: American evangelicalism is losing its grip on the people who stoke the American imagination, and this is going to make them look foolish among imaginative Millennials.
The Church: Playing the Part of the Fool
Dr. Seel characterizes his book as a “pan-pan” warning, a nautical term which is less urgent than a “mayday” warning.
He writes near the end of the book:
How we [American evangelicals] respond to the warning discussed here will determine the future direction and viability of the evangelical church. If we continue to play the game according to the old paradigm and habitus, we will be left holding a losing hand and will look the part of the fool. (p. 196, emphasis mine)
Dr. Seel says that if we American evangelicals do not heed his not-so-urgent warning about cultural irrelevancy and disconnection with Millennials, we “will look the part of the fool.”
Perhaps that’s the point.
Could that be the answer?
Maybe the right response to the present dramatic shift in American culture is not for evangelicals to try to ride the wave, but to swim against the tide?
Could it be that we are called to be fools?
Could Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4 be for us?
“We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!” (1 Cor 4:10)
Maybe American evangelicalism is called to play the part of the fool.
Jesus Is the Hope of the Church
In the introduction to his book, Dr. Seel lays out the general idea of each part. He says this about the final part:
“Part 6 explains why the coming generation of millennials is the hope of the church.” (p. xxvii, emphasis mine)
He writes later:
“The church cannot hope to survive without grappling with reaching millennials.” (p. 27, emphasis mine)
I, too, wrote a book about Millennials. I only recently shut down a blog about Millennials that I maintained for years. So obviously I think it’s important for the church to understand, reach, and equip them.
But let me be the first to reiterate what I wrote in my book: Millennials are not the future of your church. Disciples are the future of your church.
The future of the church relies more on Christians willing to be fools for Christ than it does on Christians working to influence popular culture.
Be willing to play the part of the fool.