Getting a book published is a funny thing. People you’ve never met suddenly think you’re amazing. Other people you’ve never met (but may leave a review on Amazon) think you’re the scum of the earth (and not the good Pauline kind). And lots of people expect you to be an expert in things you don’t know much about.
After my first book came out, Why We’re Not Emergent, pastors and other Christians started asking me how my church reached out to young people. “I agree. We don’t want to go emergent,” the questioner would ask. “We need sound doctrine. We need good preaching. But what do you do in your church to reach the next generation?” My usual response was, “Nothing.” I wanted people to understand that there’s nothing fancy or brilliant about our church strategy. We are just trying to be faithful.
But after awhile I began to sense that “nothing” was not a terribly helpful answer. So I talked about our campus ministry, and staff structure, and our small groups—all of which matter. But this kind of answer seemed like more of the same. “If you want to reach young people you have to have this program, or capture this feel, or go for this look.” Don’t get me wrong, thinking about strategy, structure, and feel is not sinful. I’m thankful for all the people in our church who work hard in these areas. I try to be wise in these areas. But this is not the secret to reaching the next generation.
There have been times as a pastor where I’ve been discouraged by the slowness of growth in my congregation. I’ve thought, “Why is that church over there so successful? Why did they go from 150 to 1500 in three years?” I’ve even been borderline snippy at times, “Lord, if I get to heaven and find out there was some secret musical style or movie clip or new program I was supposed to use in order to be successful, I’m going to feel pretty bummed.” But in my saner moments I’ve come to see two things: One, it’s more my sin that wants success than my sanctification. And two, the secret is that there is no secret.
Reaching the next generation—whether they are outside the church or sitting there bored in your church—is easier and harder than you think. It’s easier because you don’t have to get a degree in postmodern literary theory or go to a bunch of stupid movies. You don’t have to say “sweet” or “bling” ” or know what LOL or IMHO means. You don’t have to listen to…well, whatever people listen to these days. You don’t have to be on twitter, watch The Office, or imbibe fancy coffees. You just have to be like Jesus. That’s it. So the easy part is you don’t have to be with it. The hard part is you have to be with Him. If you walk with God and walk with people, you’ll reach the next generation.
Let me unpack that a bit. After thinking through the question for over a year, I’ve come up five suggestions for pastors, youth workers, campus staff, and for anyone else who wants to pass the faith on to the next generation: Grab them with passion. Win them with love. Hold them with holiness. Challenge them with truth. Amaze them with God.
Grab Them With Passion
Increasingly, people do not go to church because they feel like they have to. This is true especially among the young. Newer generations will not give Christianity a second thought if it seems lifeless, rote, and uninspiring. They will only get serious about the Christian faith if it seems like something seriously worth their time. You can have formal services, so long as you do not have formalism. You can have casual services, so long as you do not approach your faith casually. Your services can have a lot of different looks, but young people want to see passion. They want to see us do church and follow Christ like we mean it.
We would do well to pay attention to Romans 12. “Let love by genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (9-11). We would be far less likely to lose our young people and far more likely to win some others, if the spiritual temperature of our churches was something other than lukewarm. People need to see that God is the all-consuming reality in our lives. Our sincerity and earnestness in worship matter ten times more than the style we use to display our sincerity and earnestness.
I’m tired of talking about authenticity, as if prattling on about how messed up you are and blogging about your goldfish are signs of spiritual maturity. We need to start talking about zeal. Young people want to see that our faith actually matters to us. They are like Ben Franklin when asked why he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. “You don’t even believe what he says,” they told Franklin. To which he replied, “I know. But he does.” If our evangelical faith is boring to us, it will be boring to others. If the gospel is old news to you, it will be dull news to everyone else.
We cannot pass on what we do not feel. Whitefield blasted the church in his day because “the generality of preachers [in New England] talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they have had dead men to preach to them.” The next generation, every generation really, needs to hear the gospel with personal, passionate, pleading. There is a time for dialogue, but there is also a time for declaration. People don’t need a lecture or an oration or a discussion from the pulpit on Sunday morning. They need to hear of the mighty deeds of God. And they need to hear the message from someone who not only understands it, but has been captured by it.
If we are to grab the next generation with the gospel, we must grab them with passion. And to grab them passion, we must be grabbed with it ourselves. The world needs to see Christians burning, not with self-righteous fury at the sliding morals in our country, but with passion for God. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “I’m not looking for someone to set the world on fire. I want to know that if I dropped you in Thames it would sizzle.”