We are certainly concerned about millennials.

It began about the time this age cohort reached adulthood, with the 1999 publication of Saving the Millennial Generation: New Ways to Reach the Kids You Care About in These Uncertain Times. It accelerated when some polls in the mid-2000s began to suggest millennials’ waning interest in church. Enter “millennials and church” into a search engine, and soon enough you are pointed to sites that proclaim, “Ten reasons churches are not reaching millennials,” or, “Why millennials are leaving church.” The latter article quickly garnered some 100,000 page views not long ago.

This past October, the 2014 Alignment Conference featured Barna’s David Kinnaman and pastor and church planter Dave Ferguson talking about millennials, who present a “game changing moment” for the church. Gen2 Leadership Conference is meeting this month with the theme, “Fighting for the Heart of the Millennial Generation.”

We find ourselves facing into “millennial anxiety” as well as concern about the “rise of the nones” (those who do not identify with any religious tradition, a cohort that is apparently growing in the West). Like some reverse Paul Revere, many ride through the fiber optics of the Internet and into church basements shouting, “The millennials are leaving! Watch out for the rise of the nones!” Simply put, millennial anxiety—a concern shared by both mainline and evangelical churches—is the fear that those between ages 18 and 25 have little interest in the church, and that the church has failed to convince them to stay.

As a professor of youth ministry and theology, I suppose this is my time to shine. I should stoke the flames of millennial anxiety, preaching afresh how important youth ministry is, urging that if we don’t offer some new, culturally sensitive initiative, the future of the church hangs in the balance. Or I might become a booster, pointing to the counterevidence that, while some millennials are leaving the church, according to studies by LifeWay Research and Barna Group, many others are as faithful as ever. To do that, of course, would only reinforce millennial anxiety by locating the focus of our anxiety on the next generation.

Instead, I find myself moved in another direction. I wonder if millennial anxiety is about our concern for real young people, or if it’s about the church’s desire to possess a youthful spirit. Do we want departing millennials and nones to encounter the gospel—or to merely become members? Are we worried more about their spiritual health or about the health of our institutions?

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Over the past several months, as I finished writing a book on the youth and children’s ministry of 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve had the chance to rethink the church’s approach to millennials. Bonhoeffer scholars and others have often overlooked the fact that most of Bonhoeffer’s ministry from 1925 to 1939 was among children and youth. In fact, many of Bonhoeffer’s most creative theological periods coincided with his direct interactions with children. For this reason, he provides a fountain of theological and practical wisdom that can free us from our own millennial anxiety and help us offer something of lasting value to our young people.

Youth Pastor Doing Theology

Bonhoeffer entered children’s ministry in Grunwalde as he typed the first pages of his doctoral dissertation. Sanctorum Communio is laced with rich comments, rarely unpacked, about baptism and the church community “carrying” its youth. Bonhoeffer focused on young people during his internship in Barcelona as well as in Harlem, where he taught Sunday school to African American children in the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Even his deeply philosophical thesis for his habilitation (the highest academic qualification in many European countries) concludes with a section on children.

In the mid-1930s, Bonhoeffer sketched important lectures that became pieces such as “Christ the Center” and “Creation and Fall.” During this period, he was elected as secretary to youth in the ecumenical movement. He also taught a confirmation class that was so rowdy, the older pastor leading the group had a heart attack not long after Bonhoeffer took over. Yet while balancing ecumenical work, university lectures, and preaching at the technical college, the youth ministry—the confirmation class—most deeply engaged Bonhoeffer. Even as the Nazis moved into power, Bonhoeffer wrote and presented lectures such as, “The Younger Generation’s Conception of the Fuhrer.” Because of this, I argue that Bonhoeffer is primarily not a theologian doing youth ministry, but a youth minister doing theology.

Bonhoeffer’s era was not that different from ours—at least not when it came to anxiety over youth. In the 1880s, a national youth movement called Wandervogel (“rambling” or “hiking”) had sprung up within Germany’s middle class. Young people, frustrated and disengaged, decided it was time for adventure, so they gathered to wander the forests of central Europe. Like some 1980s Coke commercial, they congregated in suburban neighborhoods to walk, sing, then camp in the forests and countryside. The youth hostel, now ubiquitous in cities throughout Europe, was created to give young people a safe destination outside the city.

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In the ensuing decades, the Wandervogel took new shape, but its spirit had permeated German culture. By the 1930s, everyone, especially Christians, was worried about the young and debated how to keep them involved, connected, and motivated in all sectors of society.

This was the context for Bonhoeffer’s only public radio address, “The Younger Generation’s Conception of the Leader.” The fact that it was broadcast at all shows the prevailing anxiety over Germany’s youth. Everyone within and outside the church wanted to know how to capture the spirit of the youth movement.

We in the United States are 50 years past our own national youth movement. Teenagers and young adults grew their hair long, tie-dyed their clothes, and wandered to Haight-Ashbury, singing the folk and rock songs of their movement. And like Germany in the early 20th century, our society and churches have been figuring out how to respond ever since. Like Germany, our response has shifted from outrage to conflict to acceptance and back again.

Germany’s response in the mid-1930s was to glorify youth, to do whatever it could to assimilate them into its structures and institutions. The Nazis assumed power in part because they knew how to engage the young. But Nazis weren’t the only group that sought to capture the spirit of youth. They were just the most successful.

Youth Cannot Save the Church

In the midst of this, Bonhoeffer wrote eight theses on youth work (I’ll discuss only one here). We are not sure when they were written or why. But Bonhoeffer’s thesis confronts and recasts our own millennial anxiety, shifting our perspective on youth ministry today.

Thesis One reads:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God.

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Bonhoeffer is direct and, as usual, passionate. Upon first read, no one would disagree. But his words reveal a hidden agenda: He was striving to shake up youth ministry and free the church from accommodating the youth movement.

“It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God.”

Bonhoeffer knew that if the church of any age is to survive, it must disciple youth so that they constitute the church as they grow older. But he believed too many Germans thought the future of the church depended on getting spirited young people engaged in it.

Today we commonly justify youth work by reminding each other that youth are the future of the church, that we need them if the church is to survive and thrive. When such rhetoric becomes commonplace, Bonhoeffer believed, it means the spirit of youth has become more important to us than the work of the Holy Spirit. We talk as though the church’s future depended not on the Spirit of Christ as much as on the spirit of the young.

Bonhoeffer called our fixation with youthfulness idolatry. He wanted to remind us that the future of the church does not depend on youth but only on Jesus Christ. He believed we can minister to youth only if our ministries are not about getting the spirit of young people into the church, but about encountering the Holy Spirit (especially through the Word of God) with young people in the church community.

Bonhoeffer said youth ministry is first and foremost a theological task. It is not a sociological or cultural task or a church growth strategy. Of course, there are sociological and cultural factors to consider when ministering to youth. But Bonhoeffer would argue that youth ministry is first and foremost about the encounter of the divine with the human.

Again, who could disagree? Except that youth ministry today often puts theology on a back burner. Youth ministry in North America became full blown after a youth consumer culture emerged in the 1950s, and took shape in response to the mid-’60s youth countercultural movement. The binding of the counterculture youth movement with a consumer society (see Thomas Frank’s book The Conquest of Cool) has embedded a “youthful spirit” deep within our cultural consciousness.

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Different denominations and political camps have interpreted this spirited counterculture youth movement either romantically or immorally: Either a moribund church desperately needed to get young people for their spirit, or the spirit of youth was corrupt and needed conversion. Either way, much of North American youth ministry was shaped by the desire to capture and use the spirit of youth.

In fact, our anxiety about millennials and “the rise of the nones” exists in part because youth ministry in North America has been so successful. We’ve done a relatively good job of capturing the youthful spirit of 12- to 17-year-olds. But since many young people leave the church when becoming young adults (as many studies show), Bonhoeffer is right: We’ve been too focused on the youthful spirit. The strategies that captured them as youth no longer hold. These young people experienced only rooms full of teenagers and not a community of faith that crosses generations, let alone a community that dwells together on the Word, one that encourages us to care for one another in our unique humanity.

In short, youth cannot save the church, for the church is not simply an institution that needs new members (even enthusiastic ones); the church is the body of Jesus Christ in the world.

Millennials as People First

While few might disagree formally, this theological commitment rarely leads us to new youth ministry practices. North American youth ministry leaders often passionately say that loving the youthful spirit is exactly where it all starts. “Youth ministry is about loving kids,” they plead at conferences. Blogs tout the spirit of millennials, as per one recent post: “I am very passionate about the millennial generation. I know much has been said pessimistically about this generation, but I hold to the belief that the millennials are poised to change the culture for the good in this country and impact the world.”

But this love is rarely driven by theological concerns as much as by ministry goals that treat youth as a project. One millennial writing for OnFaith reacted to an all-too-common expression—“As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids”—saying, “It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler . . . but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.”

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Of course, we needn’t stop loving young people. Bonhoeffer did not say that concern for youth is bad. It is actually of utmost importance. The problem in the millennial conversation is that we are tempted to move away from loving and encountering concrete persons who happen to be (so-called) millennials, and instead chase after an abstract collective called “the millennial generation.” In loving the youthful spirit of millennials, we actually love not the young person in his or her particularity; instead, we love what having the young person’s youthful spirit in our churches can get us. We love the idea of having millennials in our church, but may not be ready to love the particular young people that come to us in their concrete humanity.

Bonhoeffer was particularly sensitive to this. He saw how the National Socialists used the spirit of the youth movement for their own gain, without much concern for the youth themselves. They wanted young people’s passion without their humanity.

Instead, the church that truly seeks to invite and welcome the young is driven not by youth at all, but by the desire to discover the revelation of Jesus Christ in the concrete and lived experience of young people. We invite them to struggle, along with the rest of the church, to discern the presence of Christ in their midst.

For instance, I know of a church that for many years lived with millennial anxiety, pleading with young people to read their Bibles, hoping their youthful spirit would avoid corruption and find a home in the church. The church invested money and resources to this end, seeking new programs and strategies every year.

Then one of the ministers realized that they were working so hard to get young people to read their Bibles, no other adults from the congregation were reading the Bible with them. So instead of looking for the next curriculum or program, the leader created a space for youth (ages 14 to 22) to read the Bible with older members of the congregation (even up to age 82). Each week, in groups made up equally of the young and the older, they read two chapters of the Gospels and then discussed three questions: What do you find interesting? What is confusing? And where are you in this text?

In such reading groups, the young were no longer “millennials” or young bodies that represented “the spirit of youth,” but concrete persons. And the not-so-young were no longer those anxious to capture the youthful spirit as much as those seeking with concrete young people to dwell in the Word and encounter the Holy Spirit.

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Neither Millennial nor Boomer

This is but one example of what youth ministry inspired by Bonhoeffer might look like. There are surely others, many of which we’ve not even imagined yet, partly because we’re stuck in a paradigm created by millennial anxiety.

But our ministry with youth cannot be about getting millennials to come and stay so that they might do good things or revitalize the church or even evangelize the world. If these things happen, we rejoice. But as Bonheoffer articulates in this first thesis, the church’s ministry to the young is primarily about encountering the living Word of God in the context of the whole church. If acts of justice, church revival, and evangelism are to happen, they will not run on the gas of youthfulness. If they happen, it will be the act of God through the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit calls young people to love the world as they are loved by Jesus Christ in the context of the whole church.

Anxiety always obscures and corrupts our ability to share in each other’s lives. Thus, the best way to help the church engage millennials is to stop wringing our hands over the millennial problem. Instead, we might seek the Holy Spirit together with all generations, looking for concrete experiences of the presence and absence of God in the lives of the young, confessing our confusion and telling our own stories of God’s work in our lives. That’s when the Holy Spirit binds and unites us, calling us beyond our generational divides. For in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, millennial nor boomer.

Andrew Root is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He has written a number of books on youth ministry and practical theology, including Christopraxis (Fortress Press) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker Academic).

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