Improving Our Witness to Millennials

Romans 4:17, “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations,’ — in the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Much of this is borrowed from thinkers like Charles Taylor, Tim Keller, James KA Smith, Carl Ellis, and other RUF campus minsters.

In order to reach the next generation with the gospel, we must believe that those of us in Christ’s church exist for those who are not yet in the church. They do not exist for us. Millennials are the least religious age demographic in America (39% of young adults 18-29 were “religiously unaffiliated” in a 2016 Pew Research Study. Compare with around 13% of those 65+ years of age). That means that an “attractional” model of ministry (“We do church well and shepherd those who come”) must be replaced by a more active ministry of pursuit and gathering (“Since they will not naturally show up, we must go find them and reach them with the gospel”).

Where we are: Younger Americans (and very many middle-aged and older) live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls an “immanent frame.” It’s a new version of modern empiricism. It basically means that the predominant culture conducts their lives with little to no awareness of transcendence. There is nothing beyond our immediate experience of the world. No “out there” or “God.” So, the narrative of their lives looks radically different than pretty much every culture that has come before.

Illustration: The sad reality is that most millennials haven’t seen a marked difference in the lives of “Bible believers,” and their secular friends, outside of nominal church attendance. For example, I had a very dear person to me when I was speaking with them on this topic and I asked him, “Well do you believe in the resurrection?” And he said, “Maybe, but even if I did, it would not make a difference in how I live my day to day life.” Now, what does that show us? That shows us, that at least in his experience, people who believe in the resurrection and people don’t believe in the resurrection function about the same. As materialistic consumers. We avoid suffering like the plague.

How culture used to work: An individual found their life out of whack. The solution? Look outside of the self to a “sacred order” (religion, community, inherited career, tradition, etc) in order to find one’s true identity. Looking outside of one’s self to an assigned identity allowed the individual to thrive and find purpose. The protagonist sought the sacred order while the antagonist sought autonomy.

How Culture works now: Well, there is no “sacred order” to speak of, so if an individual finds their life out of whack, they cannot identify with something like religion or tradition. To attempt such a thing would likely result in oppression/violence to the self or to others. Therefore the individual must look within and discover their inherent identity to thrive and find their purpose. The protagonist seeks autonomous individuality while the antagonist represents the sacred order. (ex. Babe - the protagonist pig proves himself to truly be a sheep dog by winning a sheep dog competition). Courage is requiring the world to affirm your identity.

This is a challenge because (1) the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick and (2) there is no articulation of sin. In fact, the only “sin” would be to believe there was something fundamentally wrong with us and what we need to be “redeemed” from is the notion that we need redeeming at all. This is key! The only gospel in the secular world is to not believe that we would even need a gospel. Instead of being offended by this (which the Bible never is!), how can we combat it and take every thought captive?

How are we in a position to speak into this? WITH CLARITY, BOLDNESS, HUMILITY, AND GRACE. Think about how the first question of Heidelberg speaks directly into this: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” Evangelism today has to have two primary truths undergirding it for you to even begin:

  1. Your view of your own personal sin is far greater than anyone outside of you.

  2. God really loves to save really sinful people, because there are no other types of people.

Illustration: I had this experience multiple times when I was a campus minster going around to other (reformed) churches preaching. And I would have some mother of a student or older congregant come up to me after a sermon and say, “I’m so glad you’re on campus because it is so liberal and they really need Jesus.” Which was predominantly true. The problem was that it was said in a way that this church member didn’t really see themselves as in as much desperate need of Jesus as the “liberal campus.” The Church has to be a place where we don’t separate our selves off into good or bad, red or blue, or black or white. Millennials have a keen sense of those divisions and they can feel their home churches judging them. If you have children that’ve gone “liberal” coming out of the Church, can you ask questions that open them up as opposed to push them away? Do you think we can learn from them? Schaffer use to say, “If I had an hour with a non-Christian, I’d ask questions for 55 min, and talk the other 5.” Are you curious about why people “de-convert” from Christianity?

Five Self-Evident Truths:

It is vital to remember that these are not beliefs but are considered self-evident truths to an increasing number of Americans. That means they are largely not self-aware of them and it takes a lot of compelling work to challenge them.

  1. Identity - I have to be true to myself

  2. Happiness - I am obligated to pursue my own happiness

  3. Freedom - I should be free to live any way I want (as long as I do not harm others)

  4. Morality - Nobody has the right to tell anyone how to live their lives

  5. Technology - I don’t need religion to prosper or to be happy. Technology and science will do that.

The good news is living in this culture makes our NT hermeneutics easier. After all, the world of the NT was one in which the Christian gospel was either derided or was completely foreign. That is increasingly true of our own moment.

Three distinct opportunities for us to improve our witness to folks under 35:

1) Authenticity/Consistency: If you seem to live consistently with what you believe, they will respect you. After all, they are striving desperately to be authentic to who they are. This is by far the biggest reason why many young people reject the Evangelical church: they do not see us living consistently with our own ethics. Politics—we have to engage in an honest way. Lack of racial diversity within our churches (particularly reformed churches). Millennials write most Christians off as inauthentic or inconsistent with the teachings of the Lord Jesus (and they are right). Again, can we learn from younger people?

Opportunity: REPENTANCE. What is godly living if not repentance? The Church has all the tools we need in our justification and sanctification to pursue authenticity via repentance and the Great Commandment. As reformed people, we should be the first to repent, and search our own hearts for ways we can change, led by the kindness of God’s forbearance and patience with us. Yes, we may lose our safety, and we will definitely lose our pride. Acts and the rest of the Bible promises that.

2) Community: Even though people live in a secular world, they still have a longing for the transcendent God because they were created in His image for relationship with Him. The closest reference they have for the transcendent is their longing for intimate, vulnerable relationships with other people. Young people struggle big time to develop these relationships because they are constantly comparing themselves to others on social media and are simply afraid. Want to know why the LGBTQ community is thriving? They are a community where people feel “known and loved.” Of course we were created to be known and loved by God and Christ redeems us for and restores us to intimate union with God. Millennials need to know Jesus.

Opportunity: ENGAGEMENT. Building a grace-centered relationship where someone can feel comfortable being themselves around you may be the most radical thing you could do for the kingdom. How can our church grow as a community where people feel “known and loved” rather than “naked and ashamed?” It IS possible to do this and still be orthodox.

3) Catechesis: If you are able to build relationships with younger people, there is a wonderful opportunity to root them in the gospel and the scriptures since they have very little experience with any of it. We have such a beautiful deposit in the Reformed tradition of creeds, confessions and catechisms which are ancient enough to ring true and to form their hearts to Christ. Of course this must be done carefully, patiently, and with clarity. This is part of what excites me about this generation. They are passionate about living authentic lives and long for deep community. Imagine what that could look like if rooted in the gospel!

Particularly important is rooting their theology in creation. In my experience, many people have heard “God loves you” or “Jesus died for your sins” but they don’t know at all what it means to be a human being created in God’s image. We MUST begin with creation if we hope to make any headway toward an understanding of fall, redemption and glory. Catechesis builds categories for sin, humanity, ethics, worship, etc. Illustration: A gospel of the kingdom which Jesus preached. Jesus came to restore all things, as far as the curse is found (as Isaac Watts said in “Joy to the World”). This includes more than restoring my personal relationship with Jesus, but God has come to restore every facet of fallen creation. We must include the imaginative new creation in our evangelistic approach as the Bible does. Dr. Carl Ellis’ four-fold quadrant of righteousness/justice (see grid below). He likens reformed folks (of which he is) as having access to this beautiful sports car (aka our robust and attractive theology) which we leave under a cover in our garage because we’re scared to take it for a spin because it might get scuffed up. I.E. we’re scared to minister to secular people because we think we’ll become too liberal or be perceived as too liberal. He says that our orthodoxy was meant to be orthopraxi and if our theology isn’t practiced then it is incorrect theology.

Practically in Lincoln: Where do you want to see the gospel go? Who do you want to see converted to the hope of Jesus Christ? Where does it seem like it would be impossible for the gospel to penetrate? What do you think it means that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church? (Mt. 16:18). Does God like to bring into existence the things that do not exist? (Romans. 4:17).

Opportunity: DISCIPLESHIP. An example from a friend of mind who does RUF at App state. A student named Abby who grew up very close to her uncle and his husband. They led worship at their church, were faithful and loving to one another and were Abby’s ideal for “what a healthy relationship looked like.” When she was converted in RUF and came to trust the Bible, she said, “Nothing about that relationship feels wrong or gross to me. I love my uncles deeply and feel no internal issue with their relationship. But if God says it is sin in his word, it’s sin and I must trust that more than how I feel.” That is real discipleship.

Membership BasicsMatt Odum