The best book about Millennials and the church

In writing book reviews I almost always avoid superlatives like you see in the title above: how can I know that something is the “best” in its category unless I’ve read every single book in that category?

But in this case I actually have exhausted the literature, because in researching and writing The Next Mormons, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about Millennials and the changing profile of Christianity in America.

A number of those books are excellent and helpful, but The New Copernicans is a cut above: it’s quite simply the best book available for a general audience about Millennials and the Christian church, with one major caveat I’ll get to at the end.

I don’t know anything about author David John Seel except what’s on the back cover: he is a “cultural-renewal entrepreneur” (so that’s a thing now?) and “social-impact consultant” (also a thing?). He’s an evangelical Christian whose grown kids are Millennials. Having them out of the house clearly gives him ample time to read, because the book is a wonderful rabbit trail of references to other books and authors whose thinking he has absorbed.

Seel says this book is a “pan-pan alert.” If you’re not a sailor (which he’s not, unless that’s what a cultural-renewal entrepreneur actually is?), that’s a midlevel warning issued at sea.

It’s not mayday yet for evangelical Protestants in America, but it’s time to issue a pan-pan. The current course is going to result in disaster, but there’s still time for a course correction. The book’s basic message is that the iceberg is right ahead, Christians. Lots of young people are abandoning ship. So you’d better move your ass.

Too many books about Millennials resort to gimmicks: Here’s how to style your pastor’s hair so it will be cool enough to lure These Kids Today back to church! Here’s the surefire playlist of what to say and do so they will settle for becoming your Mini-Me!

Seel says that is almost laughably not the point. Millennials don’t want to be like you. They want to be better—and in many ways, they already are. The greatest gift of Seel’s book is how often he takes a hard look at the rising generation’s concerns about religion and is able to say, “You know, they’re actually right about that.”

Millennials, he says, are “resident crap detectors.” In their quest for authenticity and their allergy to anything that feels manipulative, Millennials show us how inauthentic and transactional our approach to Christianity often is.

Baby Boomers and older Christians, he says, have relied on “left-brained thinking” (modernism, rational paradigms, propositional truth) rather than imagination or beauty in trying to reach this generation, which is myopic. Millennials “always prioritize lived experience over abstract reflection,” which Seel says is a hugely important “corrective to three hundred years of distorted thinking” since the Enlightenment.

In making church relevant, window dressing won’t help. What’s required is a thoroughgoing reconception of how truth is measured.

For me, the most helpful portion of the book is its central chapters, which thoughtfully identify seven characteristics of Millennials. While Millennials hate being reduced to a list, there are some important truths here.

  1. They are secular. Millennial secularity is not about the “death of God” or anything dramatic that’s fueled by anger; it’s more that the church has made itself irrelevant. Because it has not privileged experience or mysticism or an engagement with the natural world, modern Christianity doesn’t speak to Millennials, who are simultaneously “functional atheists and potential spiritual mystics.”
  2. They’re explorers, not dwellers. Robert Wuthnow first charted this shift years ago from dwelling (where people remain within the bosom of one religion for a lifetime) to seeking (where they find truth in many places, and believe the journey itself is most important). Millennials are taking that shift to its logical conclusion. As a Mormon, this was a thought-provoking chapter for me, because my church exists in a thoroughly modern paradigm in which there is one acceptable destination—which, who’d have thunk it, happens to be our church!—and the journey is only valid if and when you arrive at our doorstep and seal the deal. Millennials think differently.
  3. They are “cross-pressured” from living in a hyperpluralized world. Millennials have doubts, real ones, and they need a way in church to voice those doubts or they are outta here. They can’t understand how older people hold theological beliefs with such apparent certainty. Rather than finding that certainty an attractive feature, it makes older people less trustworthy. Elders who won’t admit to their own doubts or the contingent nature of their convictions just don’t seem three-dimensional.
  4. They want to keep things small. This, more than anything, is the chapter I wish every single Mormon leader would read. In the last half century the LDS Church has made the corporatization of religion a cardinal virtue, in which the fact that the same lesson is taught on the same Sunday everywhere has been regarded as a strength. That approach is a major obstacle to what American Millennials want, to say nothing of the cultural imperialism it imposes on Mormons in the rest of the world. Millennials want local; they want farm-to-table; they want relationships. Consider an example from the fitness industry. The segment that has grown by triple digits recently is made up of the tiny specialty studios that are niched to one kind of exercise, like bootcamps or “soul cycling.” This generation has less interest in joining Gold’s Gym, shopping at big-box stores, or getting co-opted into a large religious institution. Again, though, what’s needed is not a merely cosmetic change. You can’t do to your church what some Targets and Meijers have tried, where they divide up the exteriors of their ginormous buildings with facades that make it appear as though they’re just a series of small, intimate shops. The famed Millennial crap detector is going to sniff that one out immediately. Rather, we need to stop embracing the whole modernist paradigm that says bigger is better and sameness is desirable.
  5. They prioritize relationships. This stems out of the previous characteristic: they like to keep things small because genuine relationships are more valued. Millennials are sensitive to anyone perceiving them as a project, which is bad news for churches that don’t yet understand what it means to walk alongside someone just for the pleasure of their company rather than from the agenda of getting them to join a church or commit to a program. No script, no agenda. “The church does not need ‘friendship evangelism,’” Seel quips. “Rather, it needs ‘friendship friendship.’”
  6. They are prophets who need a voice at the table. Millennials insist on authenticity, and there is no substitute for it. So churches that disneyfy the truth and paper over reality – and, even worse, get defensive when young adults call them out on it – are in trouble. Churches that solicit Millennials’ voices especially when those voices are critical will emerge the better for it.
  7. They are haunted by beauty and idealism. Millennials feel things deeply, and long for a better world. As often as not, they reject church because they see what church could and should be if it were authentically living out the call of Jesus, and are dissatisfied by the superficial counterfeits that many older Christians seem to settle for.

OK, so what did I not like about this book?

Like I said, the author is wonderfully well-read, and there’s a high caliber of author/thinker he relies upon in getting these points across – Charles Taylor, James A. K. Smith, Charles Templeton, C. S. Lewis.

Notice anything about that list? Well, here it is depicted visually:

(And yeah, I did go through the entire book page by page and make notations about every woman and every man that was quoted or whose professional work was referenced. The full list is at the bottom of the post as a PDF. I never said I had a social life.)

The thing is that in a 200-page book, the first woman is not quoted until page 66, a third of the way through. As though it’s an afterthought that female scholars and thinkers may have something to contribute to the conversation.

That is unacceptable. In an otherwise outstanding book that is about reaching the younger generation, one way to practice what the book preaches is to take women’s ideas seriously.

I’m not just saying that because it’s politically correct, blah blah blah, but because the church’s continued failure to include women may be having a negative effect on its own outreach. Longitudinal data about religiosity among young adults from 1966 to 2014 has shown declines in almost every measure of religiosity, from church attendance to belief. But when you break it down by gender, unexpectedly, the sharpest drops have actually happened among girls.

Quoting six men for every one woman does not help make girls and women feel valued in the church. Opportunity lost.

Download the PDF: 2.18 Quoted in The New Copernicans


  1. Thanks for the review! Seems like there are some real gems in the book.

    I do have a question though. I am not neck deep in the literature on the intersection of generations and religion. Out of curiosity, do you think that the published literature in that space is 50/50, or is it closer to his citation count of 6:1? Stated differently, is the breakdown a bias or representation of who is actually publishing on the topic? While I haven’t run the statistics on it, I would venture to guess that the ratio in the organizational domain is at least 3:2 for men; and without being conscious of it, I wonder what my citation breakdown would look like. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is around 6:1. Part of that is because most of the seminal pieces in my field are published by males. I would hate for someone to accuse me of being biased towards males because of the statistics in the published literature is weighted towards a gender that has historically been the dominant gender in the published literature (I think that is more attributable how our culture used to be than the way it is now).

  2. Ryan, most of the people he is quoting are theologians and scholars of culture, not generational researchers. And there are enough female theologians, church planters, memoirists, and historians to make this a pretty egregious oversight.

  3. Thank you so much for this review. And for your dedication to very clearly documenting whose voices are missing! Can’t wait to read the book, but also now with the challenge of doing my own augmenting of women’s voices. So very helpful, I feel a sermon coming on…

  4. So what you’re saying is churches need better music.

    Kidding. That comment seems to come up every single time anyone talks about millenials and church. Drives me crazy every time.

  5. So what else is new? This has been my experience in my 62 years of membership in the Mormon Church. My ideas, experiences, talent, and contributions are less valued because I am female. Because I don”t have priesthood authority, my voice has less importance and significance, if it is heard at all. My opportunities are limited to RS, Primary, nursery and food committees; the only areas deemed appropriate for women. The programs I participated in as a young girl paled in comparison to the programs provided for the boys. I learned at a young age how little females mattered and nothing has changed. Oh, I take that back. They did put up a few pictures of women in the Conference Center. I often wonder what it would feel like to be as valued, appreciated and respected as men in this church.

  6. I am getting so sick and tired of all this generational clumping together which creates nothing but more divides and alienates groups from each other as if there is nothing in common. It all started with so called “baby boomers” and ever since there has now been the need to label age groups similarly. It’s a freaking marketing tool people, you falling into the new gerrymandering of people so that business can market to new groups. And, if I may be so bold as well, NONE OF THEM HAVE THE ANSWERS EXCLUSIVELY TO SOCIETIES ILLS.

  7. If the seven points the author makes are true, and they seem to be, then the Church is in BIG trouble. The prophet and apostles are tone deaf to many of the points.

  8. Thank you for recognizing how us Millennials reject anything that is manipulative, inauthentic and transactional. I’d write more, but I have to go and give all my personal information to an app that will allow me to hire someone to walk my own dog.

  9. Our Relief Society President (now in two different wards), come to the monthly Priesthood Executive Committee (PEC) meetings and we look to her for advice and counsel since they can give insight that we hadn’t thought of.

  10. YIKES! That was a huge leap. I’m not saying that the discussion on having more women represented in the Church is a futile endeavor, because I agree, we should long for a more balanced representation…it’s just healthier and a genuine marker of the Kingdom of God. (That is why as a pastor my Elder board consists of 7 men and 7 women and through out my leadership my team has consisted of more women than men, but I digress.)

    My only issue with your final point about the author’s unequal representation of men and women authors is that it attempts to discredit (even if only slightly) the validity of Mr. Seel’s work. My honest question is, do you even know if there is an even distribution of Christian writers between male and female, or do males dominate the field of Christian authorship? And if that be the case, couldn’t that be the reason for the imbalance?

    Just some food for thought.

    But, I do want to say I am going to go read this book because of your excellent review. Thanks, Jana! God bless!

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