Should churches change for the sake of the rising generation? This is a perennial debate. At the Juicy Ecumenism blog, my friend Mark Tooley has given some historical perspective on why changing theology to suit the perceived preferences of the younger generation is always a bad idea. While the church should never “pander” to anyone, however, the church does have a responsibility to “cater” to those who might be making decisions about faith and the church. Such lifelong decisions are most often made in one’s late teens and early adulthood, sometime in the transition between high school, college/career, and (where applicable) marriage and parenting. Reaching and retaining that rising generation is a constant challenge to churches. Many churches have died because they failed to meet the test.
Reaching the rising generation involves three main factors. Liberalizing one’s theology is not one of them—in fact, point #1 is the opposite strategy.
1. Offer the transcendent, compelling message of the gospel. Ordering one’s life around faith and the church requires considerable sacrifice. Therefore, people have to see why church is so compelling that they would bother to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Moralistic pabulum and vague niceties don’t cut it. Pastors and teachers need to constantly trumpet the shocking claims of the gospel. Our sin has put us in jeopardy of hell. God became incarnate as a man, Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross so we could be forgiven. He rose again bodily to defeat death. He reigns forever now with the Father. These are historic, bracing truths of Christianity, and they compel a response of adherence, for those with ears to hear.
2. Bolster the families of the church to woo the rising generation, including the up-and-coming “Generation Z.” The healthy church has a missionary mindset, but the church’s children are its number one God-given mission field. In spite of dire warnings to the contrary, children who grow up in functional, churchgoing families are quite likely to embrace and practice their parents’ faith as adults. Parents must learn to model the Christian faith, and to talk about it intelligently and lovingly with their kids.
3. Don’t sanctify the cultural manifestations of Christianity of a bygone era. Christianity is incarnated into specific times and places, and it can and does adapt to the culture of rising generations. (We can argue later about whether the qualities of certain cultures are less hospitable to genuine Christianity than others.) Can churches today succeed who insist upon 1950s methods and styles (no email! 1st and 4th stanzas from the hymnal!)? Yes, I am sure they can, but why let the culture of previous generations dictate your strategies today?
Getting a Twitter account and providing wi-fi at your church is not going to win the adherence battle alone. But refusing to adjust methods and style can become an additional barrier to reaching the rising generation. Churches should adopt a generous, outward-focused attitude toward young people who are making faith and church decisions, and “cater” to the forms of communication that speak to them.
“Pandering” to the rising generation suggests modifying the historic message of Christianity to suit contemporary ideology. As many churches and denominations have found out to their peril, doing this is not faithful. Ironically it does not work to recruit and retain young people, either. But as long as the compelling message of Christian orthodoxy remains in place, there certainly is justification for “catering” to the rising generation. “Catering” implies serving, and serving is a Christian virtue.
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An earlier version of this post appeared at the Anxious Bench blog.