I recently had a conversation with a pastor who was frustrated with his congregation. His church had an opportunity to minister to 14 young couples, but other than the pastor and his wife, no one seemed to be all that interested in getting to know the couples. He explained that these young people were, for the most part, professionals who worked in the church’s community. They were the kind of people whom any declining, mainline church would love to have as part of their faith community. By the pastor’s measure, the church members should have been falling all over themselves to get to know these people. He was astounded that the church elders had no interest in finding out who these young people are, what motivates them, or what they believe.
I, however, was not surprised. This attitude is very typical of declining, mainline churches. They are more than happy to welcome those who are different than they are (young people, people of another cultural background, people of another socioeconomic background, etc.), provided that they enter in on the church’s terms. As long as these individuals assimilate to the church’s way of being, believing, worshiping, etc., they will happily get to know them. But, they have no intention of meeting these individuals on their own terms.
When confronted about this phenomenon, these church members will often respond by saying something along the lines of, “These young people are so consumer-driven. That’s not what the church is about.” True enough. But, what ARE we about?
We ARE about bringing the gospel to bear on the culture. In every time and place, God has called churches to translate the gospel message to the communities around them. And many declining, mainline churches in the US today are failing miserably, because we have not learned about or engaged with the culture. Instead, we are assuming that the culture is the same as it was in the 1950s, so we’re ministering that way. We’re speaking that language. But, the reality is that the culture has changed, and we need to master a new language in order to translate the gospel to a new generation of people who desperately need to hear it in their native tongue.
Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that I have shared with you that God has called me to be a missionary to Mars (it turns out that there are a whole lot of people living there, you know!). I’m really excited about this, and I tell you about my plans to go to a specific region on Mars and build a church. But, I decide that I’m not going to learn the language. I’m not going to learn about the history or the traditions or the culture. I’m pretty convinced that just by my being there (and perhaps by being friendly), the people of Mars will come to me. And, not only will they come, they will learn my language and my history and my traditions and my culture. Once they do all of that, I’ll be able to share the good news with them. This is my plan for reaching the people in this region of Mars. Sounds good, right?
No. It sounds ridiculous. It IS ridiculous. And a church in 21st century North America that refuses to learn about the surrounding culture sounds just as ridiculous. Every church is a missionary in its community, and that means that it must learn about the community. It means learning about its specific region and neighborhood and the people who live and work there, and it means learning about this generation of young adults. It doesn’t mean condoning their beliefs, behaviors, or assumptions. But, it does mean understanding them.
It’s true. Millennials are a narcissistic bunch. This is the “me” generation, the “selfie” generation, the generation who had helicopter parents, and the generation in which everyone got a trophy. That level of narcissism can be off-putting, especially for those in the Greatest Generation. But, off-putting or not, if you’re going to translate the gospel for them, you have to know them.
The good news is that there are many positive qualities about millennials. In fact, the positives may outweigh the negatives. They are an incredibly hopeful bunch. They are positive about the future. They believe that change is possible. (Our president won his election on “hope” and “change.” His campaign folks chose those words intentionally. They resonate with this generation.) Millennials are not nearly as cynical as those Gen Xers. They believe that their whole life should be integrated, and they want to have an impact on the world through their work, lives, and families.
When millennials have faith at the center of their lives, they can have a tremendous influence in the world. But, until the churches in their communities learn about them and begin to translate the gospel into a language that they can understand, we will have a generation of people who never experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Church, it’s time to learn about this rapidly-changing culture and to begin to speak a new language. Let’s share some ideas about where to begin.
Questions to consider:
- In what ways is our church like the church that is mentioned at the beginning of this post?
- What are some steps that we can take to begin to learn more about and engage with our community?
- What churches are doing this well? What can we learn from them? (I think that Tim Keller and the folks at Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC are doing a great job and would be a great place to start.)