The Hearts of Millennials

As longtime readers of Sightings will know, a quotation from José Ortega y Gasset about “decisive historical changes” has been decisive for my own work as an historian

By Martin E. Marty|December 11, 2017

As longtime readers of Sightings will know, a quotation from José Ortega y Gasset about “decisive historical changes” has been decisive for my own work as an historian. I’ll cite it today both as an introduction to this week’s “sighting” of millennials and as a comment on how I, for one, choose a topic for Sightings: “Decisive historical changes do not come from great wars, terrible cataclysms, or ingenious inventions: it is enough that the heart of man incline its sensitive crown to one side or the other of the horizon, toward optimism or toward pessimism, toward heroism or toward utility, toward combat or toward peace.” Sighting movements in the heart of the human person calls one from the need to be moved to comment only on the Big News of the Week. I admire commentators who do “Big” commenting, learn from them and depend on them for much. But my scouting and sighting lead in somewhat different directions.

Thus: in treating “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” the focus of our work, it is hard to avoid featuring ideological conflicts in polarized America, or to overlook (apparently) the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and their doings. But our specialty is to look underneath “great wars,” “terrible cataclysms,” and “ingenious inventions,” and to concentrate on “inclinations” of the “sensitive crown” of the human heart. I repeat myself, but … you get the point. My eyes were drawn this week to the crowns of the hearts of the much-observed people called “millennials.” Hard news about this cohort is on the front page of newspapers and gets prime time coverage in other media. Rightfully so. But less trumpeted are revealing comments which should not be neglected.

This week when I was reading Living Lutheran, a denominational magazine that reaches our house, a headline caught my eye: “The Millennial Mystery: A generation distanced from the church, yet longing for community.” Now, most of us citizens can keep up on Broadway, Hollywood, Wall Street, the Olympics, and the media, and not worry about a question which author Erin Strybis reports was asked of a young Montana pastor by older parishioners, “Why aren’t people your age coming to church?” Their question inspired Pastor Seth Nelson to research and write and, of course and of necessity, to self-publish a book, The Church Unknown.

Who would look to under-attended, off-the-beaten-path small churches or other religious gathering places for signs and signals about the larger issues in our culture? There are some “who’s” who do: poll-takers, social historians, ethnographers, and other observers who attend “close up” to the human heart as it is inclined toward faith or unfaith, community or isolation, etc. Not being able to squeeze even one of their findings into this short column, I thought I’d sample their interests through the research tool called Google. Try it or its analogues. I typed in not just “millennials and religion” but up-close approaches, especially “ministering to millennials.” Dozens if not hundreds of stories, reports, and commentaries deal with this, from all sides, pro and con.

From such entries one learns much about affirmation and rejection of religion, or (my focus) “indifference to religion” and to many other things which demand attention, commitment, sacrifice, and entertaining the possibility of hope. Following up on links to such topics led me back to Ortega’s guiding theme and specialty—and why not ours?—those movements in the heart of the person. People, including millenials, who might be heeded and admired in such a search can be hospice nurses, inner-city pastors, alert volunteers in causes where they are needed, sitters-in rising from the pews, and other often-overlooked stewards of generosity and purpose far from the headlines.   


- Nelson, Seth. The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. CreateSpace, 2016.

- Ortega y Gasset, José. Quoted in Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 1966.

- Strybis, Erin. “The Millennial Mystery.” Living Lutheran. December 2017.

Photo Credit: Hernán Piñera/Flickr (cc)

Author, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB’07, MDiv’10), a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.