Millennials and Lutheran Ethics: A Doorway Back Into Connection

[1] Thank you to our Editor, Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos for the invitation to write about why the Journal of Lutheran Ethics is meaningful to me in my context. Like many of my fellow millennials, I have spent time away from the church, disillusioned and disappointed. However, I believe that Lutheran ethics provide a space for millennials to engage in Christian community—a way for the gospel to reach them in a way that organized religion has not.

Who Are Millennials?

[2] The internet is full of advice about how to deal with millennials—millennials in the workplace, millennials and their cell phones, and of course, millennials leaving the church. Most of these articles are written by people much older than the generation in question and often contradict each other. At our core, millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000, give or take two years. Statistics show that, though we are idealistic and value social justice, we tend to distrust organized religion.[1] Many of us prefer to identify with the term “spiritual, but not religious.” Each person who “leaves” the church does so for their own reasons. David Kinnaman’s research with The Barna Group has found that young adults who leave the church usually fall into one of three categories. The smallest group are the “prodigals”—people who have walked away from Christianity entirely. The larger groups are “nomads” and “exiles.” Nomads are characterized as wanderers—they do not feel a need to belong to an institutional church community, but do believe in God. Exiles are distinct in that they would like to belong to a faith community, but feel a disconnect between “the real world” and “church”—they have trouble connecting their vocations to the form of Christianity they’ve grown up with.[2] Though many articles paint millennials with the same brush, when actually interviewing them, it becomes much clearer that this generation has a lot of diversity within it. For this article, I will focus particularly on Kinnaman’s nomads and exiles—those who are still thirsting for a spirituality that resonates with them but are disconnected from a community.[3]

The Journey of an Exile

[3] Why do so many young people feel this disconnect? They are disillusioned and malnourished. We have come of age in a time where Christianity has made headlines less for living out the gospel and more for sexual abuse, financial corruption, and just outright bigotry. Though these examples are extreme, growing up when conservative evangelical Christianity and its preoccupation with tying believers’ salvation to their behaviors, is the Christianity on TV and in our school hallways, it can be hard not to lose faith, so to speak. The concept of an old white man in the sky passing judgment on humans, and sometimes pets, doesn’t speak to us. Researchers from the National Study on Youth and Religion have called the Christianity that young people are introduced to “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is made up of the following beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the ​Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. [4]

In this worldview, God is a therapist, coaching us through tough times and wanting us to be happy. This form of Christianity is more insidious than the hateful Christianity we see on the news because it is so pervasive. Millennials can easily identify the problems with the former, but are often not given an alternative to the latter. For many of us, moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t quench our thirst or make us whole. We do not find the Divine there, but still want to seek it. Seeing only these two options, we leave, adopting the third: “spiritual but not religious.”

[4] “Spiritual but not religious” may be a better alternative, but it can also be shallow and isolating, leaving people still feeling empty. In an interview about her book When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, Lillian Daniel comments,

[Anyone] can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.[5]

Being spiritual but not religious may lack the simplistic God of moralistic therapeutic deism but it remains self-centered. By being a religion of one, it is easy to fall into an echo chamber, where you are not pushed or challenged past your comfort zone. It is easy for your views on social issues to be based on your own experiences, uninformed by those who have different but still valid experiences. This is compounded by the fact that social media can act as a “spiral of silence” in which we surround ourselves with people who have similar views and those with dissenting views do not feel comfortable sharing them.

[6] This insulation can be stagnating, and can leave us unable to imagine our neighbor complexly. Though being spiritual but not religious is not inherently harmful, it can share the self-centeredness of moralistic therapeutic deism. For many, like Kinnaman’s “exiles,” that feels shallow—something is missing.

The Gift of the Lutheran Witness

[5] There is a fourth option that can and does speak to millennials—progressive theology, found for instance in the Lutheran tradition. When studying why young adults left the church, Barna Group and Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that common answers were that God seemed missing from their church experience, their church was antagonistic to science, judgmental about sexuality, unfriendly to non-believers, and hostile towards doubt.[7] From my perspective, one gift of Lutheran theology is the humility to understand that no one person can comprehend all that God is. For Lutherans, paradoxes are more common than singular truths. For the average millennial, a church that doesn’t claim to have all the right answers worked out, but will say, “Let’s talk through them together,” is a breath of fresh air. Doubt and questioning are a part of the Lutheran tradition, dating back to Martin Luther himself. This openness then feeds another gift of the Lutheran tradition for millennials: ethics.

[6] Lutheran ethics provide a space to discuss social issues in a way that millennials can value. Young people are often dissatisfied with aphorisms such as “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” while seeing people all over the world oppressed, without the tools to “handle” it. According to Barna Group, many find it hard to connect their daily life to what they hear about in church, or they want to be Christian “without having to separate themselves from the world around them.”[8] Instead of being individualistic or focused on the afterlife, for Lutherans like Dr. Cheryl Peterson “the Spirit draws us more deeply into our human reality and into the interconnections of all living things….the Spirit breaks open the discourse of individualism and replaces it with connection and relationship.”[9] Connecting faith to the world is not a stretch for Lutherans.

[7] Many young people are passionate about social justice, which makes Lutheran ethics a natural bridge back into Christianity. To hear this echoed from millennials in the ELCA, check out this video from the ELCA Young Adult Cohort who recently attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Instead of being preoccupied with behavior monitoring, fear mongering, or personal happiness, the Lutheran tradition urges people work for the wholeness of the person next door, to acknowledge that the pain of the neighbor is their pain too, whether or not they see it. As Dr. Cheryl Pero has written in a previous issue of this Journal,

As Lutheran Christians we are taught that God allows rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45) and we are called to address the bad with the good, the bitter with the sweet. We are called to eradicate, to exorcize, those behaviors that do not reflect how God would have us treat one another… God calls us to reform injustice in our society in our particular corners of the world, to strive for “justice in the gates” as Amos (5:15) called it. And when the institutions with which we participate perpetuate unjust practices, God calls us to work towards their reformation.[10]

This form of Christianity can appeal to millennials who are well-versed in social justice, if not theology, because it calls out human responsibility to our neighbors while also naming that institutions are to blame, not solely humans. For Kinnaman’s “exiles,” authors like Pero and Peterson demonstrate that the church does connect to the world. Issues like heterosexism, science, climate change, sexism, and racism, are all being discussed in Lutheran circles, like in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. These conversations can be a bridge to help young disenchanted millennials to feel like the church can be relevant to their lives. In turn, the church can also help people ground their beliefs and actions surrounding social justice issues, not in themselves and their experiences, but in the gospel, which turns us to look toward others, rather than inward. Though not always easy, this deep grounding can ring true for many who aren’t satisfied by moralistic therapeutic deism, or being spiritual but not religious.

The Future of Lutheran Ethics

[8] Because of the focus on the neighbor, Lutheran ethics needs these young people with all of their diversity to participate in the conversation. In the modern social justice world, where intersectionality is key, those who may be white, male, straight, cisgender, neurotypical, etc., must listen to the experiences of others when doing theology or ethics, lest they continue to privilege the same perspectives that have always been privileged, including in the church.[11] What I need in my struggle to be whole, as God intended me to be, may be different from a middle-aged African American woman or an older South Asian trans man. It is my duty as a Christian to work for the wholeness of all three of us by listening to and working for what they need and embracing that they have wisdom I do not. The gospel may sing to us in different ways, and that is ok. What is most important is that we honor our different needs and help each other fulfill them. Sometimes that means stepping forward, and sometimes that can mean stepping back. The absence of young people from the church, those who have doubts, those who have different perspectives, means that their wisdom is not adding to the dialogue—theology and ethics are not pushed in new directions. These new directions are not limited to intellectual ones, but include the forms ethical conversations take and the spaces they take place in, physically or digitally. It is not young people’s responsibility to seek out these conversations however—the conversations must welcome them first.[12]

[9] A gift of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics in particular is that it deliberately opens the conversation. As Carmelo has written elsewhere in this issue, it is vital for the Journal to bring other voices to the table in terms of background and beliefs. Furthermore, the Journal is key because it strives to publish articles that are available for free online and that are written in “the vernacular”—in everyday language—so that people who do not have an academic degree in ethics can nonetheless access, understand, and join the conversation. Ethics are not discussions to be confined to the ivory tower, but need to be accessible for the nourishment of all, and so the discussion of ethics itself can be more greatly nourished.

[10] As a disillusioned millennial, what gave me renewed faith in the institutional church was finding its connection to “the real world” and social justice. Lutheran theology and ethics have exposed me to a world beyond Westboro Baptist Church and moralistic therapeutic deism to a God calling us into community together and sending us back out. In this journey, and by working with the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, I have been pushed to consider viewpoints that I never would have been exposed to otherwise, or may have discarded earlier because they did not match up with my own experiences. I have been able to better embed my social justice values into my daily life because they have burrowed deeper into myself at my core of who and why I am. My hope is that other millennials who are thirsting for the divine and for a faith that feels relevant can find a similar space that welcomes them.


[1]Daniel Cox, Robert P. Jones, “Doing Church and Doing Justice: A Portrait of Millennials at Middle Church,” Public Religion Research Institute, accessed March 26, 2016,

[2] “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials,” Barna Group, published June 3, 2013, accessed March 23, 2016, For a more thorough discussion, Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me is a great resource that expands on this research.

[3] Some young people do not feel called to be a part of a faith community—that does not make them “bad” or amoral people. My focus in this article is the way that Lutheran ethics can speak to young people who are interested in having such conversations.

[4] Kendra Creasy Dean, Almost Christian (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

[5] Jonathan Merrit, “Why Christians Need the Church: An Interview with Lillian Daniel,” Religion News Service, published August 13, 2013, access March 20, 2016,

[6] Keith Hampton, Lee Rainie, Weixu Lu, Maria Dwyer, Inyoung Shin And Kristen Purcell, “Social Media and the Spiral of Silence,” Pew Research Center, published August 26, 2014, accessed March 29, 2016,

[7] “Six Reasons Young Adults Leave Church,” Barna Group, published September 27, 2011, accessed March 19, 2016,

[8] “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials,” Barna Group, published June 3, 2013, accessed March 23, 2016,

[9] Cheryl Peterson, “Spirit and Body: A Lutheran-Feminist Conversation,” in Transformative Lutheran Theologies, ed. Mary Streufert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 156, 161.

[10] Cheryl Stewart Pero, “When Did We See You, Lord?” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 13, no. 6, (2013) published October 1, 2013, accessed April 1, 2016,

[11] Intersectionality is a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw—she unpacks the term in this Washington Post article—“Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait,” published September 24, 2015.

[12] Young adults within and outside of the Lutheran community are already discussing ethics—how can we also respect the conversations taking places outside of the traditional institutional spaces?

Heather Dean

Heather Dean ​is the Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. She also works in the ELCA Churchwide Office with the Theological Discernment team and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.