There I was, standing in an empty ballroom that seated over 500 people in a downtown hotel in St. Louis just three days after Christmas. I had been invited by Intervarsity to speak at Urbana 2015 about the plight of child abuse within the church. Urbana is an international student missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that brings together over 15,000 students, young people, and ministry workers every three years in St. Louis. This year’s conference made national headlines with its focus on social justice as it boldly embraced #BlackLivesMatter. What didn’t make the headlines is what happened in that hotel ballroom.
As I arrived thirty minutes before my scheduled session, I have to admit that I thought I was in the wrong room. After 20 years of speaking on this issue, I was sure that the room for my session would be much smaller. The sad reality is that people seldom flock to hear about sexual abuse in the church, especially when they have many other available seminar options to choose from. At least that’s what I expected that afternoon. When I expressed my doubts to one of the room hosts, she assured me that I was in the right room and that they were expecting a large turn out. I remained skeptical.
Then it happened.
At first, it was just a trickle of students. But, just as I was about to tell my host, “See, I told you so”, the trickle turned into a steady stream. Over the next 30 minutes, I watched as students and young people poured into this once empty massive room. And they kept coming. I was blown away that so many young men and women had decided to come and hear about a topic that much of the Church has worked hard to keep quiet for generations. As I got up to speak, I was blown away by what I saw. The ballroom that just 30 minutes earlier was empty, was now crowded. Very crowded. Crowded with young people who looked eager to hear about this heart-wrenching topic. Crowded with young people who came not just to listen, but wanting to do something about it. There is something hopeful about this generation.
Being in an academic environment, it is not uncommon to hear lots of complaining about the millennials. And to be honest, I’ve contributed to some of those complaint sessions. No doubt at least some of our complaining can be justified. Wouldn’t even many millennials agree that they are often known for embracing entitlement, narcissism, and an unhealthy obsession with social media? Let’s face it, every generation has its faults and struggles. Having said that, I have also discovered many other characteristics of the millennial generation that are amazingly admirable and give me much promise about ending sexual abuse. Here are just three that I’ve observed in many of my millennial friends:
Pro life means more than abortion. This younger generation seems to grasp that being pro-life means from the womb to the tomb. I have encountered many young people who are perplexed that while many of their parents have fought hard to end abortion, they have been virtually silent about the ongoing epidemic of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse inside and outside of the Church. Many of the millennials I know want to live out their faith in a manner that protects all life, including unborn babies, vulnerable people of all ages, survivors of abuse, and the countless others amongst us who have been mistreated or marginalized by our world. In fact, Christian millennials seem to be the most willing to acknowledge and grieve over the fact that the Church is often doing the mistreating and the marginalizing. Their love for Jesus propels them to spend less time pointing out all the problems outside of the church and more time focused on confronting and addressing the many problems plaguing the inside of our churches. This generation seems to grasp the sad reality that for too many precious souls, inside the Church is always winter, but never Christmas. And there’re not ok with that. There is something hopeful about this generation.
Words aren’t enough. Many in this younger generation don’t seem satisfied with confronting evil with mere words or rhetoric. They value action. An action that drives many of them to step outside of their comfort zones as they encounter the hurting laying on the sides of life’s highways. An action that is fueled by a compassion that is so moved and overwhelmed by the distress of another that in many ways it becomes their own. A compassion that overrides fears and risks and is fueled by a love for others made in the image of God. I've had a front row seat to watch many of these amazing actions of millennials. Actions such as risking ridicule and retaliation by walking alongside a sexual abuse survivor as the crime is reported, investigated, and either prosecuted or declined for prosecution. Actions such as starting a support network on college campuses for students who have been ravished by sexual abuse and largely ignored. Actions such as staying up to all hours of the night to finish legal research to help a victim determine if she has a cause of action against the institution that enabled the abuse. Actions such as spending months searching for victims who are suffering in silence out of a fear that their cries will be ignored as their “Godly” perpetrator is supported and heralded by friends and family as the "real victim". The list could go on and on. There is something hopeful about this generation.
Not everything is political. Many millennials seem to be much less interested in politics than their parents and grandparents. I don’t think this means that they care any less about the problems facing our world. Perhaps, they just realize the answers to most of these problems won’t come from politicians. No doubt the pros and cons of this political disinterest can and should be argued and debated. However, it’s refreshing that not every issue with this younger generation is viewed through a political lens. Political lenses so often blur our ability to objectively approach and solve problems alongside those who may believe very differently than us. I’ve encountered countless millennials from all parts of the ideological spectrum who happily join forces with anyone who wants to bring an end to the horrors of sexual abuse. Quite frankly, protecting the vulnerable, exposing offenders, and serving survivors is more important to them than political differences. There is something hopeful about this generation.
Instead of complaining about the millennials, I have come to realize that perhaps they have much to teach the rest of us, if we would just be willing to listen and learn. That began for me as I stood in front of a packed ballroom on a cold and rainy December afternoon in St. Louis. That day, I came face to face with a generation whose love for life propels them beyond words and political differences into actions. Action that are saving lives.
May we all learn from this amazing and hopeful generation.