Three Messages To Millennials: Marriage, Church, And Work

Marriage
On March 7, 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results of a new Survey:Millennials in Adulthood. Bradford Wilcox has a summary in the NRO. According to the study, Millennials have become disconnected from some basic institutions: marriage, church, and work—though not in exactly the same way in each instance. In response, I thought it might be helpful to address Millennials (aged 18–34) directly on these issues.

According to Pew (via Wilcox),

Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, a record low for their age group. By contrast, back in 1980, when they were the age that Millennials are now, 48 percent of Baby Boomers were married. The Millennial retreat from marriage is particularly worrisome because it hasn’t stopped many of them from having children. In 2012, 47 percent of births to Millennial women took place outside marriage, a troubling trend because such children are much more likely to end up in single-parent families that put them at higher risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.

Millennials seem to have given up on marriage. In their defense, a Millennial might argue, “We’re just being consistent. The Boomers showed us that marriage is a joke. They gave us “no-fault” divorce, the Gen-Xers were a half-way house and we’re consistent. We spent our youths shuttling between angry and disappointed parents. Why would we want that for ourselves and our children?” Fair enough. The Boomers could argue that their parents, “the Greatest Generation” (World War II) were trapped in cold, stifling marriages that made a mockery of true love and romance.” There’s probably some truth in that characterization but most of the (now aging) Boomers were raised in stable, two-parent households whose greatest mistake was spoiling their children in reaction to wartime deprivation. We could go back to the Dustbowl Generation and fault them for giving up on the fundamental convictions that undergirded the institution of marriage. The sins of one generation reverberate through history to the next and the next.

So, the Millennials are not entirely at fault. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of previous generations who weakened the institution of marriage. Still, are the Millennials right to give up on marriage? No. Why? Because God instituted marriage for a reason. In this fallen world nothing will ever be perfect. One of the more basic reasons that we’ve lost faith in marriage as an institution is that we have been sold a bill of goods about what is possible in the life. The Christian faith has a vision of the future, of how things will be one day. We call that vision “eschatology” or “the doctrine of last things” or “of ultimate things.” Despite what you may have heard and read, this life is not the “ultimate thing.” This life is a penultimate (next to last) thing.

Modernity has offered us a series of competing visions of heaven on earth: Marxism (when the proletariat are in charge), Romanticism (when we’re all experiencing the most sublime experiences), and so on. They’re all cheap replacements for the Christian doctrine of judgment and glorification. The problem with these competing visions of the end is that they have inflated expectations about what is possible in this life. One advantage the older (pre-Boomer) generations had is that the tended to expect a little less from this world and so weren’t as easily disappointed. The life of the Dust Bowl generation was more like that of the Founding Fathers than it was like ours. They were still getting used to electricity. They likely couldn’t imagine a world where we expected a new pocket telephone-television-computer every 12 months. The computerized technological revolution has only fueled those visions of what is possible in this life that tend to make mundane, routine, and ordinary life seem inherently bound for failure.

So, why should you, Millennial, re-think your suspicion of the institution of marriage? That’s a fair question. The first part of the answer is, despite all the corruption and effects (and affects) of the fall, marriage is still a divine institution. It is built into the nature of things. Scripture says,

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” …The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So Yahweh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Yahweh Elohim had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18, 20–25; Revised from the ESV)

Marriage was instituted before the fall. Even before the fall it was not good for us to be alone. The human fall into sin brought with it deception, broken relationships, and pain but after the fall there was something else: mercy and grace. Though he did bring to pass the threatened curse for our covenant breaking (death) he also showed mercy in not destroying us. He showed mercy in restraining the effects of the fall. As bad as things have sometimes been in this world (e.g., the Black Death of the 14th century) they’ve never been as bad as they might be. God’s restraining mercies toward his rebellious creatures does make a difference.

As part of his restraining mercy, God continues to make marriage a good that men and women are intended to share. As a young Christian I once thought that marriage must only be for believers but a dear friend gently pointed out that heterosexual marriage (which should be redundant but must be made explicit in our confused age) is for all of God’s image bearers. Even to non-Christians marriage points back to the original state and to a future state. At its best, it is a witness that things have not always been this way and shall not always be as they are.

Beyond the restraint of evil, from which all humans benefit, he also showed undeserved favor to rebellious humans by promising deliverance from the judgment we had brought upon ourselves. We call that undeserved favor grace. God promised to pour out his last days (eschatological) wrath upon the child of the Eve and that child would conquer the Evil One, who, in God’s mysterious and all-wise and utterly good providence, had introduced corruption into the world (Gen 3:14–16).

The Apostle Paul, who himself was a widower, said that Christian marriage is a signpost to believers of the way Christ loves his church. Reflecting on the very institution of marriage that we saw in Genesis 2, Paul says:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:32–33 ESV).

The second part of the answer is that, despite all appearances, marriage is still good. They are complicated and messy. Your own experience of your parents’ marriage may have been quite blessed or perhaps not. Whatever your experience you should be a little skeptical of the story the mass media has been telling about marriage and divorce. Things are bad but they aren’t quite as bad as they are made to seem on TV. There are good marriages out there. It’s not true that you have only a 50% chance of staying married. The statistical likelihood of your marriage surviving is much greater than 50% (here’s a summary).

God is good. Despite what you’ve been told, creation (though fallen) is good too. Marriage is one of those creational goods in which God intends for most of us to participate.1 I know you’re nervous. That’s okay. I know that most of your friends don’t seem interested in marriage. That’s unfortunate but they’re confused and misinformed. A million Frenchmen can be wrong. Your desire for sexual union with someone of the opposite sex is normal and it needs to be ordered in the divinely intended way.

Church
In the first part we looked at the some of the challenges Millennials face relative to marriage. According to the recent Pew Study, Millennials identify with organized religion at a lower rate than previous generations. To quote Billy Joel, they “didn’t start the fire,” as it were, but they have added to it. Millennial suspicion of the visible church is a part of the pattern we noted previously: suspicion of existing institutions generally.

Why should Millennials (and everyone else) value the visible church? Because God values the visible, institutional church. The prima facie biblical evidence is overwhelming. Our Lord Jesus said, in Matthew 18, “tell it to the church.” That instruction only makes sense relative to a visible covenant community. It was not possible to “tell it to” all believers everywhere. It is possible to make an announcement about church discipline to a congregation, an expression of the church catholic (universal).

We know that God values the visible, assembled church because he gathered Israel, whom, by his sovereign grace, he had saved from bondage in Egypt, at the foot of Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 says,

Yahweh gave to me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments Yahweh proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of Ha Qahal (i.e., the assembly, See Deut 10:4; 18:16).

Ha Qahal is Hebrew for “the covenant assembly.” These were the people whom God had baptized, as it were, in the Red Sea, when he brought them through on dry ground (Ex 14:22). These were they whom Yahweh fed with quail (1Cor 10). In other words, the visible church is ancient. Sacraments are ancient. We could look at the church under Abraham, Noah, and even Adam before and after the fall. In other words, there has always been a visible people, assembled by the Lord himself, organized by God’s Word, with appointed visible signs and seals (sacraments).

Though it is widely thought that the early church was unstructured and purely spontaneous, that such is definition of “spiritual” is much more the product of assumption. When our Lord Jesus spoke of the ecclesia he was picking up on an ancient thread in Scripture. The New Testament speaks repeatedly to and about the visible, organized assembly where the Word is read, preached, and administered in the sacraments. I’ve summarized that data here. The church is a body but it is also organized and disciplined. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to represent him in official functions (Matt 28:18–20). At Pentecost, those disciples became apostles, with a special, unique endowment of the Holy Spirit and with the authority of Christ they established the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.

Americans are independent by inclination. Church growth experts tell new congregations to downplay their denominational identity in order to appeal to Americans, who tend to be suspicious of denominations. The corollary for individuals is the tendency of Americans to identify themselves as “spiritual” but to say that they are not interested in organized religion. American Christians like to be free agents but that isn’t the biblical view and it isn’t the historic Christian view.

When, in the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess,

I believe the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins…

we are saying that the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep, who hovers over the church (1 Peter 4) is still creating or re-creating a community of the redeemed. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians confess:

That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.

In other words, in Scripture and in Christian theology there is no dichotomy between the Spiritual and the material (and the organized). Spontaneity might be fun and exciting but it isn’t inherently spiritual. It isn’t necessarily biblical. It is in these assemblies that we find the communion of the saints. Again, in the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:

What do you understand by the ‘communion of saints’?

First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.

Honesty compels us to admit that the visible churches have made great mistakes. Ministers have sinned. The assemblies are composed of sinners, of broken people. There are hypocrites in the visible church but Jesus spent considerable time with one of the greatest and most notorious hypocrites in human history: Judas Iscariot. We should not seek to be more holy than God the Son incarnate.

Are there grounds for being disappointed with the visible, organized church? Yes. Is there a reason to be connected to it anyway? Yes. We go back to our understanding of eschatology. Last time we saw that we’re in the in-between, penultimate time. The visible church is part of that in-between existence. Christ intends for us Christians to spend that time together, in congregations, hearing the Word read and preached, in praying and singing his Word in response, and in celebrating his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return in his appointed signs and seals.

Work
Above we looked at the way, according to a recent Pew Study, Millennials relate to the visible, institutional church. The third major topic is work. As Bradford Wilcox summarizes the results of the study he notes that 80% of those aged 24–29 are employed. Only 44% of those aged 18–29 are employed full-time. That latter number seems quite low. I’m not a social scientist and I don’t play one on the web (as an undergrad I used to social “science” when required but I was more interested in arguments than statistics). One study claims that Millennials are about four years behind the previous generation in reaching the same level of income. According to this study, one reason is that, even though they are nominally educated (i.e., they’ve gone through late-modern educational process) young men particularly have failed to develop the necessary skills to flourish in the workplace. Paul Solman claims

Millennials aren’t employed at lower rates because they’re lazy or bad at math; they’re the most educated generation ever. But they’re also the first generation to face the new demands for education and skill — and a bad economy, a much higher cliff to climb than previous generations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that might be an overly optimistic assessment. The educational system has largely failed the Millennials. They have gone through the process but I doubt that they are as highly educated as Solman claims. Since the arrival of the modern, industrial age, many generations have had to adapt to changing conditions and market demands. There have been bad economies before, though this seems to be the worst post-Reagan economy by a longshot. I’m having flashbacks to the Carter years.

Vince Ginn is probably correct, however, that the job market is working against them. This is not the go-go 80s where young people can expect to find a good job easily upon graduation from college. They are competing for low-skill jobs once thought to be the domain of High School graduates or even High School dropouts. Millennials certainly face an uphill climb. Obamacare, rising college costs (and the resulting loan debt—many grads are now carrying the equivalent of a mortgage as they graduate from college),  apparently failed policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and a generally unsettled economy (which makes companies reluctant to take risks, to invest, to expand or to recover some of the workforce they laid off after the crash of ’07–’08) seem poised to make the economic future of Millennials darker than previous generations.

Even with all that, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression. This was a post-Reagan recession. The Malls remained relatively full. Yes, there were some empty shops but I recall recessions under Nixon-Carter-Reagan (’80–81) where there were empty shelves, empty stores, gas lines and the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression was markedly worse than than anything we’ve experienced since.

One thing has changed, however, since the Great Depression: the work ethic. There are two great social changes afoot that will mark this generation. Homosexual marriage, which the Millennials generally support partly because it makes them feel enlightened and morally superior to support what they see as a cause of liberation (allowing people to do what they want). It seems like a pain-free way to say: follow your bliss. They don’t, however, seem to grasp the significance of what it means to re-define marriage in purely affective terms, without reference to nature. They will.

The second great social change that marks this generation is the legalization of pot. As an GenXer (you’re not a Boomer if you didn’t see Howdy Doody or if you can’t remember where you were when JFK was assassinated) raised with some Dustbowl economic values, I worry about what the legalization of weed signifies. Perhaps it means nothing but weed does nothing if not destroy one’s desire to work and accomplish. That’s not true for a glass of wine or even a beer—a six-pack maybe or a whole bottle of wine but now we’re not comparing apples with apples.

Recently we’ve had national leaders extolling the virtues of unemployment. We’ve heard national political figures sounding very much like Marx regarding the virtues of leisure. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream politicians of both parties sounded very different. That they can now speak like Marx makes one think that there has been a fundamental cultural shift relative to work and it’s hard not to think that people (including Millennials) no longer view work as inherently good and valuable.

As I argued back in September, however, work is inherently good. God is a worker, a Creator. We were made in his image. We are given work to do in the garden even before the fall. Work is an important way in which we express our status as bearers of the divine image. Work continued after the fall, even if it became difficult and frustrating. When the Apostle Paul learned that some believers were quitting their jobs because they thought that Jesus was coming immediately, he told them to get back to work and that if they didn’t work, they shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the ancient biblical and Christian idea of vocation. Where the medieval and Roman churches tended to locate vocation only in the sacred, in Monasteries and in the call to ministry, the Protestants argued that every image bearer has a vocation, that secular work is not inherently defiled or defiling. It is just an honorable as sacred work. We’re called in Scripture to do our work to the glory of God and to the well-being of our neighbor.

All business people are not Gordon Gekko. Starting a business, selling a service or a product, meeting a need in the marketplace at a fair market price is a good thing. Business is noble, not evil. Investing and getting a return on that investment is a good thing. Being successful and employing others is a good thing. One of the fastest growing segments of our economy is the non-profit segment. That’s all well and good but who is going to fund all these non-profits? Business people. We can’t all work in non-profits and I say this as an employee of a non-profit. I’m deeply grateful to those business people who make it possible for me to do what I do at work and here at the HB.

I fear that the reaction to excess (real or perceived) is grounded not in a Christian evaluation of work and leisure but in a sort of Gnostic, docetic denial of human reality. As a largely urban and suburban culture, Americans don’t seem to understand clearly any more, e.g., from where food comes. They think it appears magically in the grocery. It doesn’t. A farmer risked his capital (money) to buy/rent land, to buy equipment and animals, to buy seed and materials. That farmer got out of bed (sometimes in awful weather), grew it, sold it, and a company processed it and turned it into food. People risked themselves and capital (money and resources) in order to produce it. So, of course, they aren’t going to give it away. They can’t even if they wanted to or they wouldn’t be able to continue growing food.

The same is true of something as apparently simple as a pencil.

All those people, through whom a pencil eventually comes into existence, are doing something valuable. That’s the way God made the world. Work is not greedy or money grubbing. It’s one of the reasons we exist, to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be and to play our part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

NOTES

1. Singleness is a gift from God (1Cor 7:8) but it is the exception rather than the rule. If God has called you to singleness, then praise God. If not, praise God but please don’t confuse fear and uncertainty about the future for a call to singleness.

This essay first appeared in three parts on the Heidelblog in 2014.