[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you are just starting this series you may want to start with Part 1, which kicks off Millennials, religion and culture and Part 2, which deals with things important to Millennials.
Part 3, Where does that leave us in regards to reaching Millennials?
In order to categorize the changes I think are necessary to attract younger people, I’m going to borrow from my pastor: he states that at our church our Christology (our view of Christ) informs our Missiology (how we deal with the world outside our doors), and those two come together to form our Ecclesiology (how we do church). Those are listed in order of importance, with our view of Christ being first and foremost. Much of what you see here will be a reflection of what I see at my church (we average around 1,300 people every Sunday and our median age is below 30) in comparison to what I’ve seen at other churches where I’ve been a member in the past.
First, Christ. When I was a teen much of the evangelistic tactics I was taught were geared towards a “wheat versus tares” stance: impressing upon the person that cultural Christianity, familial Christianity, or casual Christianity isn’t enough – a personal faith is necessary. In effect, “I know you think you’re a Christian, but what you’re doing isn’t good enough.” It’s not unimaginable that today’s teens may not only have non-Christian parents but grandparents as well; they’re not familiar with our language, our core beliefs, or any of the other presupposed doctrines that we may assume everyone knows.
At my church, we preach almost exclusively from the Gospels. We follow the Anglican lectionary plan of preaching through the Gospels over a three year span. By examining expositorily and contextually the life, teachings, and death of Christ we are able to focus on Christ’s work and teaching, we are able to introduce the basics of Christianity to new and non-believers and reinforce these core beliefs to those who have been believers for a longer time. By focusing on the core beliefs of Christianity and its core figure rather than topical messages about how to be a better dad or mom or co-worker or addressing political or social issues, we can engage Millennials on the ideas of meaning, counterculturalism, and justice as well as core beliefs such as sacrifice, charity, and forgiveness without veering into areas that might conflict with Millennials’ social or political beliefs. We must be able to explain Christianity in an experiential, personal way. Facts, apologetics, political/moral stances, scientific reconciliation won’t work; information about Christianity (or anything else for that matter) is pretty useless to a generation with endless information at their fingertips.
Next, our mission. Obviously, conversion and discipleship is paramount in the mission of the church, but I think it’s necessary to discuss a practice of community involvement first to set the stage for evangelism. If your church isn’t willing to engage the community for the sake of charity rather than as a method of conversion, then you’ll miss out on an opportunity to engage Millennials on issues that they care about: meaning, social justice, and community. When you do things in the community, don’t restrict service opportunities to members, but make them a form of outreach for the volunteers, not just those being served. As I mentioned previously, we’ve seen a number of conversions at our church from people whose first interaction with us was as a volunteer with our homeless ministry. When we allow non-believers to serve alongside us as partners, we allow them to personally witness our commitment to obey Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors in an experiential way. It takes the focus away from dogma and shows that we are truly committed to seeing Christ’s kingdom come.
Evangelism with Millennials can flow from this practice of community engagement. Paul instructs Timothy to always be ready to give an explanation when asked about the “hope that lies within.” This places the action upon the non-believer to begin the conversation; rather than constantly preaching to non-believers to repent (which is also necessary in the proper context, just as John the Baptizer did) it is also necessary to allow the non-converted to be a part of our community, to serve the larger community alongside us, to “taste and see” that we’re legit before demanding a conversion. In previous generations a sales-oriented, crisis point conversion based on information made sense. Evangelism essentially consisted of a sales pitch (the presentation of the gospel), a call to action (“The sinner’s prayer”) and an instruction manual (a six week new believers’ class). Evangelism more closely resembled purchasing a Kirby vacuum than a life-changing decision (as a matter of fact, if you type “door to door” in Google the first suggested search is “door to door evangelism” before “door to door sales”). Millennials value personal experience over information. If we truly believe in Christ’s analogy of our relationship with Him as a marriage, we must allow Millennials to “casually date” Christ first. Imagine conversion as an intersection: rather than a four-way stop, perhaps we should see it as an on-ramp in a cloverleaf, a curve in which one gradually changes course rather than abruptly. At my church we have baptism twice a year, preceded by a catechism class to ensure that those who have chosen to be baptized understand the commitment they’re making, similar to pre-marriage counseling. Allowing nonbelievers to create their own catalog of experiences and become a part of the community ensures that they make an informed decision.
Lastly, the way we do church. While I don’t purport to know exactly how to do church and I don’t know what the order of the service looks like where you worship, there is one thing that I have observed at my church and in my classroom that relates to Millennials: they like structure. When I was a teenager, you never missed school on a Friday. This was in an age that was pre-mobile phone, and the only way that you could know what was happening on the weekend was by being at the lunch table on Friday. Everything demanded a high level of structure, and as a result I left the structured services of the SBC church where I grew up to move to a more charismatic church, whose spontaneity I found tremendously appealing. Today’s young adults are constantly connected via technology and, as a result, their lives are constantly in a state of spontaneity. A teenager can text friends at a party before determining whether to attend, they can make plans immediately, they can do schoolwork individually or collaboratively from anywhere, anytime. If your regular Sunday service gives them a set structure it will be appreciated. I know that when the service starts at my church we will read the week’s Old Testament scripture from the Anglican Lectionary. We’ll sing three songs then read the week’s Psalm. We’ll sing two more songs, followed by the Epistle text. A few announcements, then a sermon on the Gospel text for the week, followed by Communion and ministry time. On the odd week that we aren’t studying the Gospel text some of the readings may be transposed, but other than that I know what to expect week in, week out. It’s comforting in an age where our lives are constantly in flux.
We also do our best to keep technology at a minimum. Sure, we have a projector and put the words to the songs and the scripture readings up for everyone to see, but it’s simple white text on a black background. No video, no motion backgrounds, no pastor projected on the screen during the sermon. As I mentioned in relation to my classroom, Millennials are better with technology than you are. They can do things with their phones that you couldn’t accomplish with a NASA control room. If you’re using technology to try and impress Millennials, it’s not going to work. In fact, it may even be detrimental. When it comes to how we do church, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.
As a child I watched a lot of wrestling (the professional kind, rasslin’ to us Southerners). Rowdy Roddy Piper had a famous quote that I never really understood: “every time they think they have the answers, I change the questions.” The church figured out the answers to the questions that previous generations had, and we did a very good job of answering them. When it comes to Millennials, however, the questions have changed. We can find the answers to the real questions they have, or we can expend our energy trying to make them interested in the questions for which we already have answers. We must engage them where they are rather than try to get them where they need to be for our current methods to work. If we really believe that we must “change the method without changing the message,” that has to extend beyond coffee and worship songs, beyond exchanging the organ for a guitar and the tie for a t-shirt and blazer. We can’t simply dress up the old methods in skinny jeans; the questions have changed and it’s time we find some new answers.
I am very appreciative to David for putting his thoughts and experiences in front of the Kingdom in the Midst audience. Your thoughts on this or other parts of the series?