All churches are struggling to retain Millenials.  Although it’s true that every generation has a higher rate of religious attrition than preceding generations, there is far less stigma to being unreligious now than ever before.  If churches want to retain Millenials, more effort needs to go into understanding them, finding common ground, and presenting the gospel to them in ways that bring them closer to Christ’s teachings, not just under church authority.  This is easier said that done.

Politicizing Jesus

Since the 1980s, churches have become more and more politicized.  While liberals may be Christian, conservative messages often predominate in congregations.  Neither liberal Jesus nor conservative Jesus gets it right, of course.

Liberals see Jesus as someone who fought for the rights of the underdogs of society [1], who would forgive freely [2], was not into materialism [3], and never lost his temper.  Conservatives like to point out the incidents in which Jesus did lose his temper [4], insulted people [5] and supported capitalism [6].

In the April General Conference, E. Holland decried these caricatures of Jesus:

it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.

Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of “comfortable” God. Really? He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like “comfortable” doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in? [7]

And what of those who just want to look at sin or touch it from a distance? Jesus said with a flash, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off. “I came not to [bring] peace, but a sword,” He warned those who thought He spoke only soothing platitudes. No wonder that, sermon after sermon, the local communities “pray[ed] him to depart out of their coasts.” No wonder, miracle after miracle, His power was attributed not to God but to the devil. It is obvious that the bumper sticker question “What would Jesus do?” will not always bring a popular response.

Problematically, given the political polarization that exists today, it’s easy to imagine both liberals and conservatives feeling that their worldview is the one bolstered by this description.  Given that E. Holland warns against “comfortable” Gods, a closer reading should give both political camps pause.  A liberal imagining a liberal Jesus is equally unrealistic and self-serving as a conservative imagining a conservative Jesus.  Both of them fail to know Jesus and fail to recognize the shortcomings of their worldview and the ways in which they are too comfortable.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Neither group seems to remember a few fundamental things about Jesus.

First, he was in a powerless group.  The Jews were not autonomous; they were under Roman rule.  Very few Mormons today live in such circumstances.  Most are from wealthy western countries where we can vote and enjoy basic freedoms and rights.  Most of us live like kings compared to people a century ago.  We fly through the air in comfort [8] to global destinations.  We have flush toilets.  We don’t know what starvation feels like.  We mostly haven’t seen torture happen in the public square.

Second, even within that low status group, Jesus was lowly.  His parenthood was suspect [9], and his earthly father’s job of “carpenter” is more accurately rendered “day laborer” [10].  These were not high class people in their society.  Jesus didn’t have earthly power.  Jews in general didn’t.  They even had to get permission from their oppressors to kill him.  When he lost his cool, it was usually in speaking truth to power, but within the underclass that was the Jewish community [11].  He wasn’t enforcing the rules of Judaism or policing modesty or telling women to stay in the kitchen.  He was pointing out their hypocrisy and that their rules deliberately misapplied scripture and that their parentage wouldn’t save them.  E. Holland was right that Jesus wasn’t all about making people comfortable!

Jesus vs. Dolores Umbridge

Here’s why the criticism of liberals we sometimes hear from the pulpit is misguided.  Millenials are not “hippies” who even know what the “village love in” is.  And their values are not as morally relativistic as that implies.  They aren’t into free love and drug experimentation.  There’s a big difference between a hippie and a hipster.  Let’s not conflate the 1970s with the 2010s.

A recent article by Anthony Gierzynski at New Statesman describes the impact of J.K. Rowlings’ popular Harry Potter series on the development of personal values among Millenials.  He says:

I found empirical support for the idea that the Harry Potter series influenced the political values and perspectives of the generation that came of age with these books. Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture.

The values described in the Harry Potter books are revealed through the actions of the main characters (who are students) as they interact with those of the older generation who are in various positions of authority:  Dumbledore, Snape, Voldemort, and the reviled Dolores Umbridge.  Of these characters, Dolores Umbridge is perhaps the most insidious, and if we aren’t careful, the best reason for the next generation to avoid religion altogether. Dolores Umbridge should be the cautionary tale that Jesus’ parables are.  If we want to be made uncomfortable, we should be mortified to bear any resemblance to her individually or collectively.

Here’s what’s so bad about Dolores Umbridge, and consequently, what Millenials can’t stomach from their co-religionists at church:

  1. She’s controlling, meeting any challenge to her authority with more rules.
  2. She ignores what is unpleasant rather than preparing for it.  She prefers not to deal with reality.
  3. She’s smugly self-righteous.
  4. She mistakes titles and hierarchy for competence.
  5. She has no real experience, and thus no judgment.
  6. She is petty and cruel toward those who threaten her worldview.  She prefers to shoot the messenger or at least make him write “I must not tell lies” in his own blood hundreds of times.
  7. She expects and rewards tattling.
  8. Her clothing choices wouldn’t look out of place in Relief Society.

Those sound a lot like the criticisms of the church I hear [12].  In the case of Dolores Umbridge, she remains an obstacle to the very end.  Rather than being an educator who facilitates growth, strength and goodness of character, she elevates the weak, the sycophants, and the manipulative.  She virtually paves the way for the Dark Lord, which is sadly the last thing she wants to do.  She’s really a caution for all organizations to face reality and not get too comfortable in their own view of things.  Just as we are cautioned not to think “all is well in Zion,” Umbridge disastrously thinks all is well in the Ministry of Magic.  She will do anything possible to preserve the status quo that no longer exists, including denying that the Dark Lord has returned even when confronted with direct evidence, preferring to punish those who point out the obvious.

By contrast, Dumbledore is kind but wary, makes allies among unpopular outcasts, and puts others in danger but stands by them in the fight.  It seems to me that the values espoused by J.K. Rowling’s books are genuinely Christian.  Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them, and in the process, understand the Millenials who are our future.

Discuss.

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[1] woman of Canaan notwithstanding, dog that she was.

[2] such as the woman taken in adultery  – likely an apocryphal story according to biblical scholars, which is super disappointing since it’s everyone’s favorite story.

[3] made easier by having no material wealth to hoard.

[4]  money changers in the temple – overthrowing capitalism rather literally, natch.

[5] calling them a den of vipers and whited sepulchers.  Dude could turn a phrase.

[6] Jesus voted FOR taxes when he said “render unto Caesar,” and you’ll recall his labor practices when workers hired in the 11th hour got paid the same as those who worked all day – no minimum wage requirements in his parable, and the workers were essentially all scabs, so there go the unions.

[7] E. Holland’s biases are on display here with his swipes at hippie culture that seem taken straight out of Godspell.

[8] except on US Air

[9] a potential status problem if it were known

[10] contrary to what’s implied by lots of Jesus videos.

[11] or as one rabbi famously put it:  “Jesus was a bad Jew.” Meaning that he was not observant.  He broke the rules.

[12] Who would be more likely to be a BYU president?  Dumbledore, who sends kids into the dark forest for detention, or Dolores Umbridge?  Aside from being a woman, that is.