Why don’t Millennials want to evangelize?

Before we start telling Millennials that they need to preach and evangelize, we might do well to tell them the story of Israel, of Abraham, of God’s rescue operation for the world through Jesus Christ and the covenant promises.

(Image: Ben White | Unsplash.com)

When I read the recent results from a Barna Group report suggesting that just under half (47%) of Christian Millennials think it’s wrong to evangelize, I confess I felt a bit like the Apostle Paul, trying his best day by day, letter by letter to show his brethren that the promises to Abraham extend to all the world. At the time Paul was writing, of course, the story of God’s promises to Abraham was well known. Paul went to such great lengths—in his epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians, in word and deed, in every breath he took and every tear he shed—to drive home this point: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him” (Rom 10:12). Again, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (Rom 3:29).

But swirling around these and many, many more passages about the worldwide implications of the promises to Abraham, fulfilled in and accomplished through Jesus the Messiah and the Catholic—let’s not forget, universal—Church, we have Paul’s equally pressing concern: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom 10:14). Some Catholics today answer Paul like so: “Well, through the natural law, of course.” No doubt, the natural law is important, but Paul is thinking of bigger (and better?) means to accomplish the task at hand: “And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (v. 15).

We need preachers of the Gospel, not just good natural law thinkers. That is why the recent study by Barna Group is so concerning.

What’s going on here? And what has caused it? It is no coincidence that Paul confesses the need to preach the gospel within the context of God’s promises to Abraham. It’s easy to forget, but we do well to remind ourselves (especially in light of the Barna Group study), that God made promises, not just to Israel, but through Israel (Gen 22:16-18; see Sir 44:21). Paul, and the other early Catholics for that matter, were convinced that Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has fulfilled—precisely in and through the Church—the worldwide promised blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed.

For Paul, the apostolic mandate, the conclusion to the story, the way the narrative works itself out is through the Church’s mission to the Gentiles, the evangelization of the nations. Whatever else we might want to say about the Barna Group study, the one thing we must say is that 47% of Christian Millennials are truncating the story of the Bible by suggesting that evangelization is wrong.

What sort of story are they reading? Better yet: What kind of story are they living?

Suppose we react to the Barna Group study like so: we lay the blame at the level of culture; it’s the pluralistic society that’s the problem. Suppose we say, Millennials are just consumed with the thought that all religions are the same. Millennials are distracted, malformed, misinformed, don’t really believe, lazy, and so on. Yes, yes, and yes. Generalizations, however, are just that: generalizations. As a Millennial myself, I’d like to think that I’m at least one exception to at least one of the above accusations. It’s hard to generalize any group of people, let alone an entire generation. However, with such a high number (47%), one is pressed to make some attempt. But let’s do something more: What’s at the root in Barna Group’s findings?

We’ve all heard about, or even witnessed directly, the crisis of catechesis. We’ve heard that Millennials often prize tolerance above truth, and that most people today see all forms of evangelization as intolerant, and thus wrong. That’s not surprising. But think about this next point: Was there any culture more pluralistic—not least religiously pluralistic!—then that of ancient Rome? So long as no one went around claiming there to be a new king (i.e., the Christians), all gods and goddesses were welcomed and worshiped. We all need a gentle reminder from time to time of just how pluralistic first-century Rome was.

This meant, after all, that Paul was under the same kind of intense pressure to stop short of the mission to the Gentiles, stop short of evangelizing of the nations, stop short of God’s great promises being fulfilled. In at least one occasion that we know of, that pressure was brought to bear on Paul by the Pope himself (see Gal 2:11-21). Peter was himself, lest we forget, at one time part of the 47%—although he was influenced, not by Roman pluralism, but by the “Judaizers” who thought there was no fellowship with, and thus no mission to, the Gentiles (and that’s another article for another time).

So Paul found himself in the midst of a pluralistic society, facing all kinds of the same obstacles to evangelization—not unlike the challenges and temptations we are facing today. Jesus could be worshipped, but don’t go around, you Christians, telling us that he’s the only god (not least that has something to do with our politics; that is, don’t be trying to make him king). Sound familiar? This pluralistic society put Paul under intense pressure to halt his missionary impulse enflamed by the story of the Scriptures reaching its final stage.

But how did Paul ignite the early Catholics to resist pluralism and to evangelize? How did he change Peter’s mind? And how might Paul respond to the Barna Group study showing that 47% of devout Christian Millennials think it’s wrong to evangelize?

Further, what is the question to which the mandate to evangelize is the answer? Or, to put it another way, what is the narrative flow of the Bible to which the conversion of the nations is the final chapter? These—not combating religious pluralism or accusing Romans or Greeks of being bad natural law thinkers—were the sort of questions that concerned Paul the most. What concerned Paul most, and thus what ought to concern us all the same, is the actual story of the Bible. How does the story work? How does it end? And if we are in the final chapter, which Paul believed had in fact been inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who does it involve, and why?

Here’s the much more concerning part of the Barna Group study. The Millennials in questions weren’t just your less-than-average, second-rate, not up to snuff Church goers—these were practicing Christians, committed Christians, Christians who have already undergone initial evangelization. This is why I set out at the beginning to bring up Paul. Let me be quite clear: if it were a study that inquired into nominal and non-practicing Christian, those ‘believers’ who don’t take the faith seriously, I would have (a) not been surprised at all (‘just another one of those’) and (b) written a critique of pluralism in general.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here.

‘How can one hear without a preacher’ is true and good and all the rest. But the problem is that Millennials don’t want to preach, they don’t want to evangelize, they don’t want to go out to all the world. They even think the whole thing is wrong! Given what has been said thus far, we might think of Paul asking this question: Don’t they know how the story works? Don’t they know about Abraham, about the covenants, about God’s plan to rescue and redeem the world?

What about the covenant at creation, with creation, for creation? What about Noah and the renewal of the creation covenant? How do the promises of Abraham work themselves out with Moses and Israel at Sinai, and David in Jerusalem?

Paul, with everything he has to say concerning the need to preach the Gospel, is assuming something fundamental and developed in the opening chapters of Romans (1-9) all the way up and into, as well as providing the proper context for, chapter 10. It concerns the story of Israel and the world. Paul is not just making the case that ‘well, we need preachers’ (Rom 10); but rather the much larger point that ‘preachers need the story of Israel’ (Rom 1-9). Or, to make it sound more relevant for us today, this: 47% of devout Christian Millennials need the story of Israel to know why it is they need to preach (saying nothing about what it actually is they are preaching).

Given this, we might at times be tempted to give these Millennials Romans 10:14- 15—see, we say, we need to preach; Paul says it, so we do it—saying nothing of what Paul has been building on leading up to that point. The reason why we need preacher (chapter 10) is because of everything Paul has said in chapters 1-9, which is to explain how the story of the Bible plays out. We must say it again: Romans 10 comes after Paul has spilled nine chapters worth of ink on the story of Israel and the promises given to Abraham, and the implications of those promises as they have been fulfilled in and through Jesus (and Jesus’ Church; see Ephesians).

Before we start telling Millennials that they need to preach and evangelize, we might do well to tell them the story of Israel, of Abraham, of God’s rescue operation for the world through Abraham and the covenant promises. Given this larger story of salvation history, we might begin to gather up the 47% and remind them of how the story actually works, and how the need to preach to the nations ends up fulfilling the promises given to Abraham for the sake of the nations. How can one hear without a preacher? They can’t. How can men preach unless they are sent? They can’t.

But—and here’s the point—how can Millennials know they are to go forth preaching if the story about Jesus, the apostles, the Church, has no reference to Abraham, the story of Israel, and the nations—namely, without reference to the larger story of the Bible? They can’t. And when it comes to evangelizing: they won’t.

Within the biblical story, Abraham shows up on the scene precisely as the answer to the world’s problem outlined in Genesis 3 with clear implications drawn out through chapters 4-6. It is through Abraham’s family that the nations will be blessed. We all need a fresh reminder of how the story works. That was Paul’s ministry. It ought to be ours as well. Then, and only then, will we all feel the call to evangelize, which is to say this: to bring the story into its final stage, which is to say this: to bring the nations into the one worldwide family of Abraham, the Catholic Church.


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About Christopher Plance 1 Article
Christopher Plance teaches theology and history at St. Monica Academy in Los Angeles. He attended graduate school at Franciscan University, where he received his MA in Theology. He currently lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and three children.

8 Comments

  1. Answer: Because the Church no longer accepts this very clear and unambiguous infallible teaching of Pope Eugene IV (1438-1445) “The most Holy Roman Church believes, professes, and teaches that none of those who are not within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, and heretics, and schismatics, can ever have a share in eternal life, but that they will go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels unless BEFORE DEATH THEY SHALL HAVE ENTERED THE CHURCH; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those abiding within this unity can profit from the Sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and that they alone can receive an eternal reward for their fasts, their almsgiving, their other works of Christian piety and duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may be, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the name of Christ, can be saved unless he abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.”
    Pope Innocent III (1215) and Pope Boniface VIII (1302) also made similar infallible pronouncements on Extra Ecclesia Nulas (EENS or There is NO salvation outside of the Church) but unfortunately in 1854 and further on in his papacy Pope Pius IX was first Pope to ever, as far as I could discover (if I’m wrong about this someone please let me know) ,to not once, but 3 times declare, although not infallibly, that one could die in the state of so-called “invincible ignorance” or OUTSIDE of the Church and still attain eternal salvation. Again as far as I know no other Pope ever taught this before but most importantly the three Popes mentioned earlier never did in their infallible pronouncements until Pope Pius IX who seems to me to have become obsessed with so-called “Invincible Ignorance” during his papacy. Anyway imho, after Pope Pius IX EENS really IINS and the result has ultimately been that the urgency Pope Eugene IV infallibly spoke of to evangelize for the salvation of souls has been totally lost on all Catholics, not just the millennials, and will probably always be that way because PPIX’s so-called Invincible Ignorance trumps EENS in every debate I’ve ever heard and has made EENS into, as Pope Pius XII put it, a “meaningless formula.”

    • Well, guess my parents-who taught me fornication and divorce were wrong, along with sodomy (and at least were open to the idea contraception was wrong-I don’t think they used it ever though themselves) are in Hell. McCarrick, if he repents-and he may well be remorseful, we simply don’t know-is going to Heaven.
      .
      Think about that. That’s a real possibility under that Infallible Teaching. I think about that a lot.
      .
      Millennials don’t want to evangelize? I don’t want to. Why would any thinking person want to drag another into the current swamp of SJW Clown Masses, guilt, and pray-pay-obey? And I’m leaving out the current details that are likely only too true that will be found in Martels’s book In the Closet of the Vatican (non-English title Sodom).
      .
      To me, it seems as if that Infallible Statement is precisely why Sodom has taken over the Vatican. Good, hard working people are so frightened they continue to drop their coins in the collection plate. The money gets to Rome and the party continues. I was absolutely stunned to read this one woman continue to take her children to her parish after her oldest was sexually assaulted by the pastor and after the bishop (who otherwise will not cooperate and “be transparent”) granted the young man a “dispensation” from attending the Sunday obligation. Quite magnanimous, that bishop.
      .

      • this actually a cut/paste email to friend…

        nearly half of that age group Christians believe it is wrong to evangelize….I suppose in a 20-30yr old group, our own generation would have had quite a few saying it none of our business….

        Everybody has their own idea of the word “evangelize”, though…and generally quite negative, and generally its origin is media, not real life….although I have known some good old fashioned itenerant fire and brimstone preachers in my day, and there still loudspeaker guys in parking lots in Mobile, even as I tap this note….

        No….they have been quite liberally brainwashed that a modern person simply does not do such things….your god is your own goddamn business and keep it to yourself, or we will call you names…as were we, to a lesser degree, perhaps….

        It makes PERFECT sense, now, if a “believer” is actually, at best, a hoper, and generally skeptical of the reality of the message….which is the majority…most have no experience of God, have never had a union of soul with God, have no real love of God, but perhaps only a hope a God exists….certainly nothing close to the very meaning of their lives….so, they think it wrong to share what they do not have, thinking all sharers as ignorant as them, and as hopeless in actually helping.

        When one is in love, one cannot help but want to shout it from the rooftops….

        And if one KNOWS God is real, if one KNOWS the message is true, and KNOWS it the only way to happiness now, and forever….

        It would be impossible to not share what one has….

        Therefore, the survey demostrates once again the flawed statistical method, its figures skewed badly by horrible definitions, right out of the gate, and may as well be asking cabbies opinions on air traffic control, as they are all in the transportation industry, and the cabbie self-identifies as a pilot…

  2. “Suppose we say, Millennials are just consumed with the thought that all religions are the same.” It may be worse. My high school age children believe Christianity is evil. The modern day pharisees in education, the media, banking (usurious student loans), and politics in combination with the horrible behavior of some of our clergy has subverted their reason. My kids tolerate evil because they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that tolerance and equality of outcomes, above all, are good. They don’t differentiate between the goodness of Christ’s teachings and the fallible institution of the Church.

    This subversion has been going on for perhaps over a hundred years. It may take a long time to remedy the damage. Let’s repent, put our own houses in order, be there for those whose lives have been/will be damaged, and eventually convert or expel the subversives as we had done in the past.

    • And what about resurrection of their bodies? How can stealing of money resurrect a body? Especially if combined with “tolerance” – tolerance which is pushing some Catholics into new catacombs…

      How is this possible?
      Are they blind?

  3. I’m Catholic, and I have always found it a real turnoff when somebody from another religion preaches at me and tries to evangelize me. Please, leave me alone. The more you preach, the less I listen and the less I am interested in whatever religion you are. It’s one thing to ask if I am interested in hearing anything about your religion, another thing altogether to launch into preaching to me about it. I am always civil to those preaching to me, but it really does turn me off. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

    Perhaps the millennials are simply following the Golden Rule and doing unto others as they would have done unto them.

  4. Why would millennials be expected to evangelize when the Pope sigs a document saying the diversity of religions is the will of God? When blatant heresy is promoted in Rome, millennials are the least of our problems.

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