Earlier this week I was playing cards with some locals at the cigar shop in town. I spend a lot of time in this place both studying and hanging out with people in the neighborhood. At the table with us was a young lady—college student studying music at the local university. We had a good conversation about the Millennial generation, and their lack of interest in the local church and even the Christian faith. We talked about what is that keeps Millennials distant from the church. She agreed with the current research that shows that they find the church to be irrelevant and insular, over-interested in politics, and under-interested in social justice. What can we do to bring them to the faith, or back to the local church?
When she found out that our church, which is very diverse generationally and socially, is filled with so many from her generation she wanted to know why. I explained that some of them are coming to know Jesus for the first time, while others are returning to the church after years of wandering away from it. So, why are they there and what do we do differently?
First, let me lay all my cards on the table. We are a reformed, Baptist (Southern Baptist, actually), church that meets in an old, outdated and uncool-in-every-way building. We are complementarian, theologically serious, and preach expositional sermons through books of the Bible. All of these are good, but they are not the things that draw or keep Millennials. What seems to connect most with the Millennial generation in our context are these four key things:
1) We Affirm the Black, White, and Gray
The Millennials we are reaching appreciate our strong theological convictions. They are not anti-doctrine, or opposed to confessions and creeds. They appreciate the connection to the church that has gone before us and the safety that accompanies these articulated convictions. But they also want to know that some areas are gray.
They recoil from absolute certainty on every subject, knowing instinctively that our depravity and finite minds preclude us from possibly know everything. They aren’t looking for gray areas in order to get around truth, but in order to see that some things remain a mystery, or at least uncertain. This means there is room to grow and areas to explore.
2) We Focus on Community over Programs
Programs are not a bad thing. They can be good and are often necessary. But what this younger generation wants more than almost anything is a true sense of community. More than a class to attend, they want relationships that go deep and have the ability to comfort and confront, to share their sorrows and joys. It is in community like this that the mission work of discipleship can flourish.
Healthy community is not found by simply establishing small groups, but in a friendly and welcoming culture shared by the people and experienced in all forms of church life. Newcomers to our church often express how grateful they are for their warm reception and the way people seek them out. Our small groups include teaching and prayer, but are highly dialogical and personal, and in these groups people are caring for one another in tangible and meaningful ways.
3) We Emphasize the Experiential Side of Theology
Theology is meant to do more than inform. The aim of theology is worship, and the fruit of theology is transformation. And theology, if it’s done well, will always show the connection between truth and experience. This younger generation wants experience and loves to go deeper.
It is all too common for our churches to push morality as the message, or doctrine as an end in itself especially from the pulpit. But experiential theology is more than memorizing the communicable attributes of God, being able to define penal substitutionary atonement, or understanding inerrancy. Experiential theology presses every doctrine toward the heart so that conviction of sin, joy in the gospel, and awe of God is the natural byproduct. They want more than steps to take in an area of life. They want to know the God in the midst of their lives who calls them to action.
4) We Listen and Try to Understand
In talking with the young lady while playing cards she admitted that one of the main reasons she steers clear of the church is because of our often public and rigid stands on social issues. I explained that to give up our convictions would be hypocritical and “unreal.” We believe the Bible to be the word of God and submit ourselves to it. But I admitted that we also fail when our convictions are held and proclaimed without compassion. We need to do a better job at not just knowing issues, but knowing people and how to talk with people who differ from us.
Part of this is seen in the importance of listening to others with an aim at understanding them. This allows them to engage and affords us the opportunity to speak more clearly and precisely into an issue or an individual’s life. So we strive to speak clearly with love and work hard at understanding the people to whom we minister to inside and outside the church.
The church that doesn’t preach God’s word and aim at the heart, that holds out something other than the gospel as its central message, and doesn’t live in community together will have a hard time reaching a generation that is not interested in empty religion or naked set of moral standards.
Show them Jesus who dwells among his people and you might be surprised at the results.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.