In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Leigh Stein, a non-religious millennial, asks this insightful question: “How did Instagrammers become [millennials’] moral authorities?”
As social-media celebrities and influencers connect online with millennials searching for hope, they easily become quasi-spiritual leaders. Stein calls them “Instavangelists” because they use social-media platforms like Instagram to pedal their brand and their promises of hope, just like Christian evangelists of the 1950s.
It’s a comparison that should cause Christians to take note and action: online, millennials are finding and following false-gospel preachers and becoming their digital disciples. Stein explains: “American women are desperate for good vibes, coping skills for modern life, and proactive steps,” and they’re looking for modern answers to spiritual questions. They’ve created their own self-centered gospel, scripture, and functional theology that is a “blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology, and Dolly Parton.”
Chances are you know someone looking for answers to life’s biggest questions from a branded star on Instagram. But when their answers prove empty, the search will begin again. And you may be the influencer the Spirit uses to lead them to true and lasting hope in Christ.
Consider three ways Christians can serve millennials in an empty Instavangelist culture.
1. Labor humbly, to bring true knowledge.
Christians wanting to help their millennial neighbors need to begin by relating to millennials’ needs by beginning from a position of humility, like Jesus did. Without his sacrifice, we too would be selfish deniers of God, looking for answers apart from Christ.
Chances are you know someone looking for answers to life’s biggest questions from a branded star on Instagram. And you may be the influencer the Spirit uses to lead them to true and lasting hope in Christ.
We can graciously identify with millennials’ corrupt desires, because we’ve had our own. We know how itching ears once tempted us to accumulate “teachers to suit [our] own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3) in order to find hope. Rather than shaming millennials, praise them for admitting need and seeking help.
At the heart of the Instavangelist culture is a desire to provide answers of hope to people who feel empty. It isn’t wrong to desire to feel filled; it’s wrong to fill emptiness with lesser substitutes. An unbeliever’s experience with emptiness is an opportunity for Christians to fill their neighbor’s hearts and minds with the true knowledge of Christ. God fills those he first forgives. The lost will remain empty until they are filled with the saving hope of Christ.
At the heart of the Instavangelist culture is a desire to provide answers of hope to people who feel empty.
When a friend announces on Instagram that she didn’t score her dream job and her feed blows up with words like “You’ll get there!” or “You’ve got this!”—she will need a friend who isn’t prompting her to try harder or believe longer. She needs encouragement to think through her discouragement biblically, with the promises of God that are hers in Christ Jesus.
She needs to learn to identify and destroy arguments and lofty opinions “raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). She needs the Holy Spirit to expose her “empty deceit” and fill her with the knowledge of Christ’s fullness.
2. Labor to invest in real-life discipleship.
Social-media influencers and Instavangelists rarely engage or follow up with millennials who seek their help. When online posts draw out readers’ vulnerable comments, readers often experience digital silence. Stein calls this relationship “a confession without a confessor.” Scripture calls it “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
Instavangelists rarely engage or follow up with millennials who seek their help.
As those who’ve experienced the gentle leading of the Shepherd, we should be the first to demonstrate his compassionate care to others. And to the millennial generation, gentleness and compassion—or a lack of it—is often first reflected by our online persona.
Have we considered that every word we type online has the potential to attract and gather others toward Jesus, or to repel and scatter lost wanderers? Our online words should be a gracious and conversational entry point, inviting others into our lives.
While it is good to convey the love of Christ online and to shepherd unbelievers through posts and DMs, these means of communication are limited. Pray your online friends might be willing to invest in real life, through discipleship. Meeting face to face will enable you to draw near, to note wounds that need healing, to pray and read Scripture together, perhaps even to offer a real hug or a warm meal.
Millennials need to experience the good gift of in-person, Christian fellowship. Consider the millennials you’re currently following and whom you might invite to join you for coffee. Labor online and offline, investing in friendships for the purpose of discipleship.
3. Gather God’s sheep into the safe pasture of the church.
Stein’s article ends on this poignant note: “Instead of helping [millennials] to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?” I concur. Please do come in.
Don’t startle millennials; welcome them warmly. As unbelieving or searching millennials enter our church doors, keep in mind that doing so is no small step. They are likely moving their search offline and seeking real answers and community. As they bravely step out of online anonymity and into a church filled with strangers, welcome them as Christ would: affectionately.
As grateful members of the body of Christ, we are privileged to help millennials acclimate to the blessings of abiding in the sheepfold, cared for by an earthly shepherd, and being known and loved by the family of God.
As millennials observe our lives or enter our church, do they want to know more? Do they see why Christians love to flock together weekly, in real life? Point out the ways the local church is a good blessing in your life because of your choice to gather together, break bread together, celebrate the ordinances together, listen to God’s Word together, and pray together.
Is there a wandering millennial you could begin to pray for and begin a friendship with? Ask the Lord to give you opportunities to welcome millennials into your life and your home for fellowship. Invite them to study Scripture over coffee. Ask them to attend a small group or your church’s worship gathering. You don’t have to agree on everything in order to begin a welcoming friendship. You can serve a millennial by listening well, asking deep questions, and looking for opportunities to share the true gospel.
Be Patient With the Sheep
Christians, we are not, like so many Instavangelists, peddlers but men and women of sincerity, commissioned by God (2 Cor. 2:17). Speak Christ to millennials online and offline. Bring his hope to a world wearied by empty promises. You don’t have to have a celebrity-sized platform online or aspire to be this generation’s Billy Graham or Elisabeth Elliott to show others your consistent love for Jesus. Be patient; God is already at work leading his lost sheep to follow behind those who follow Jesus. You can trust he will use your ordinary life, by his grace, as a source of influence and evangelism for advancing his kingdom.