“Tolerance” is a very popular word among Millennials lately.  We hear about it all the time on the news and in our conversation.  A lot of conservative Christians cringe at the word “tolerance” because it has taken on a new definition in America.  To many in America, tolerance now equals acceptance.  You have to accept someone for their lifestyle and opinions.  This becomes a problem for Christians when they use God’s law to point out sin in order to lead someone to repentance.  As a result, “don’t judge” (Matthew 7:1) seems to have overtaken John 3:16 as the most quoted Bible passage, at least among the Millennials.  I could probably write a whole 10-part series just on “tolerance” alone, but I will just summarize some thoughts in this post.  James Hein gives a little background on tolerance among Millennials:

If Millennials have a cultural North Star for behavior, it’s tolerance.  In part, this is the natural reaction of a generation that has grown up with peers who are significantly more diverse—ethnically, religiously, relationally, and sexually—than their parents and grandparents.  They have zero patience for mistreatment of those who are different.  Inclusiveness, diversity, and political correctness are the ideals that have shaped Millennials.  (James Hein, Ministering to Millennials Part 3

Tolerance is not a bad thing

The idea of tolerance is certainly not a bad thing.  In fact, it is actually a godly characteristic.  The Apostle Paul was dealing with some hypocritical and judgment Jews when he wrote his letter to the Romans.  He told them, “Do you show contempt for the riches of [God’s] kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)  What was Paul trying to tell those people?  The whole premise of the gospel is that for a time God tolerates us.  God doesn’t just strike us down whenever we do something bad.  Instead he is patient with us and calls us to repentance. 

While tolerance in itself is a good thing, many Millennials who use that word have been a little misguided.  Millennials have grown up with a society devoid of moral universals.  There is no absolute right and wrong for them so how do we have the right to tell them they’ve done wrong? (We’ll talk more on this in part 7 of this series on “truth”)  Millennials have grown up in a very diverse society and acceptance is huge.  We should not scold Millennials for being tolerant, but instead we need to use this virtue in the light of God’s Word.

Why is the reputation of Christianity often judgmental, hypocritical, and intolerant? 

Once again this is our own fault as the church.  The problem is usually in our approach and how we act.  Christianity is seen as judgmental and hypocritical to many Millennials because it seems like we’re always pointing out someone else’s sin.  And therefore we’re seen as hypocritical because we fail to admit our own sin.  To them we are always pointing out the speck in someone’s eye when we have a plank in our own (Matthew 7:3-5).

James White in his book, Rise of the Nones, illustrates this is one of the three factors that has caused Millennials in America to look down on the church.  White calls the three factors: Lawyers, Money, and Guns.  Lawyers—organized religion becomes too politically linked to anti-gay attitudes, sexual conservatism and abrasiveness.  Money—televangelist transgressions + megapastor materialism = distrust of the church. And finally Guns—the church acting in ways, talking in ways, and living in ways that have stolen God’s reputation.  White summarizes the “Guns” of the church:

Many of those outside the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind and that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.  We’re seen as hypocritical, out of tough, pushy in our beliefs, and arrogant.  And the most dominant perceptions of all are that we are homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental.  Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian. (James White, Rise of the Nones, p. 39-40

We as Christians have often failed to approach certain issues in a loving manner.  Some Christian churches chose to publicly picket government buildings with very offensive anti-gay signs during the Supreme Court decision last year.  We may not do that, but do we ever share social media posts or have conversations that are offensive and judgmental?  Those are just as public.  It only takes a couple clicks or a couple words and God’s reputation can be thrown under the bus.

Another reason Millennials look at Christians as judgmental and hypocritical is because we always seem to be divisive rather than unified.  In previous generations Christians often identified their denomination by what they were against instead of what they were for.  Likewise, denominations often described themselves by what they were not.  A Catholic is not a Lutheran because… A Baptist is not a Lutheran because... The reason non-denominational churches have been popular lately is because they say everyone is accepted.  That is very attractive to Millennials. Doctrinal differences are serious, but Millennials don’t want to start there.  Instead Millennials want to find a commonality.  Doctrinal differences and fellowship can also come across as judgmental—to Millennials they often produce an outsider/insider mentality.

A change in attitude is needed 

Be positive for something instead of against something.  Millennials hate confrontation.  They are peacemakers.  Rather than bicker, Millennials prefer to push for constant unity.  To Millennials, it always seems like Christian churches are just arguing back and forth over doctrine.  It may be very difficult for us, but we need to stop defining Lutheranism with what we’re against and who we aren’t.  Instead we need to define ourselves as who we are and what we’re for.  Start out positively like that.  It’s different when someone asks us what makes us different from other denominations.  In that case, we’ll need to address some issues.

Here is one example: have a positive attitude toward communion fellowship.  How you describe communion has been a debated question throughout the years in Lutheranism.  Is it “closed” communion or “close” communion?  I’ve seen some churches compromise between the two and say they practice “close(d)” communion.  However, you really need to think about how you describe communion to someone.  It’s my opinion that you should start by positively talking about what a beautiful blessing communion is.  The Bible really defines the fellowship of communion first as “close” communion.  Paul talks about communion as an intimate “participation” with Christ and others of the faith: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?  And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).  “Closed” communion tells people that it is only for your special group of members, which produces that hated “outsider/insider” mentality.

A change in approach is needed

First of all, you need to be sensitive to the tolerant disposition of Millennials.  You can’t just go tell them that they’re wrong—you need to show them the inconsistency of their belief.  Second, you need to begin with the gospel.  The gospel is that God wants all people to be saved and that died for the sins of the whole world—gospel inclusion.  Millennials love inclusion.  Here are some passages that support that: Galatians 3:28, 1 John 4:2, and John 5:24.  Third, you need to admit that you are no better than anyone else.  You have now found commonality with Millennials using both the law and gospel.  All human beings are fundamentally more alike than we are different.  Millennials love to hear that.

Here is a good general technique to use: “Affirm the good, correct the bad.”  James Hein uses Tim Keller methodology (A vs. B methodology I mentioned last week) to approach someone who calls a Christian “intolerant.”

What if someone says, “I think you’re being intolerant—and therefore, unloving—of other beliefs and other Christians by not (e.g.) allowing them to commune with us.” At that point you can agree that the gospel does promote radical, almost otherworldly, inclusiveness. However, tolerance of beliefs really has nothing to do with it. In fact, by saying that I’m being “narrow-minded” or “intolerant,” you’re being just as intolerant of my beliefs as you claim I’m being of yours. Neither of us is more or less tolerant than the other. Both of us are claiming authoritative spiritual insight. At that point, you’ve both affirmed their desire for a good, gospel-flavored attitude of inclusion, but corrected their misguided application of what is or is not unfair judgment. To someone who possesses any of the humility necessary for learning, this then affords you the opportunity to walk through 1 Corinthians 10-11, at which point they might well see how loving, compassionate, and beautiful the idea of close Communion really is. If your approach is “That’s just wrong,” you’ll run into a Nietzschean Millennial distrust of authority and institutional power plays. (James Hein, “Preaching the Law without being Judgmental,” Preach the Word, Vol. 19 No. 2)

You really just need to read Pastor James Hein’s entire article entitled “Preaching the Law without Being Judgmental.”  A lot of my ideas for this post came from this article and Hein has such a wonderful and clear writing style.  I highly suggest you read it.

I could write so much more on this topic, but I pray this post gives you some insights on “tolerance” among Millennials and how to address it.  Thanks for reading.