Not long ago, I sat across from a pastor of a church known for its attractional (church growth) ministry philosophy. We discussed the methods common to seeker-sensitive megachurches in the 1990s and early 2000s—the attempt to find points of connection with the culture through sermon series based on popular movies or TV shows, the edginess of starting a service with a secular song to demonstrate cultural IQ (and how rocking the worship band was!), and the strict policing of language that could come across too “churchy” or off-putting to the newcomer.

Many of these well-intentioned efforts were built on showing how “relevant” or “in touch” the church was with the world around it. Today, these methods are cringeworthy. Young people who visit a church expect to experience, well, whatever church is. The strangeness is the appeal. Now that fewer people have any family background in church, no one hears a worship band cover an Imagine Dragons song and thinks, “Wow! This isn’t my Grandma’s church!”—in part because Grandma is in her 60s and never darkened the door either.

Young Churchgoers Today

Listen to Gen Z churchgoers today and you’ll hear conversations about powerful worship songs that facilitate an experience with God, about the realness of the preacher who just “tells it like it is” from the Bible, and about the beauty of church architecture and older traditions and recitations.

When young people accept the invitation to visit a church, they’ve already committed to experiencing something unusual. Attempts at being overly accommodating or making the church seem “cool” come off as desperate and insecure. If your ministry is seeker-sensitive and attractional today, remember that the churchiness of church is a draw, not a turnoff.

Unfortunately, many pastors have yet to figure this out. Too many churches still think the way to reach young people is to replicate the entertainment you can get anywhere else, or to lean into the social activism you find at the local university, or to offer the practical advice a podcaster delivers better.

Serious Faith

Young people are swimming in pools of superficiality, with torrents of information flooding through their magical devices. Adrift in a sea without navigation, in a world where moral strictures have been blown up in the name of freedom, many long for paths of formation, growth, and maturity.

It’s no surprise the spiritual disciplines have become an entry point to Christianity for some. Even secular influencers are hawking all kinds of “rules for life” that promise maturity and wisdom. Many students are running toward discipline, not away from it.

Previous iterations of attractional ministry too often made discipleship the “fine print” at the bottom of a gospel presentation. Today, if you want to attract young people, lead with the fine print. Shock them with the seriousness of a faith that requires rigor, a rule of life that brings structure for spirituality, grounded in the grace of the gospel. Churches that make an impression on young people take faith seriously. Gone is the superficiality of making Christianity just a religious accessory, and in its place is a religion that resembles its Latin root—religare, “to re-bind”—a faith that requires a reorientation of life.

Seriousness and Humility

To be clear, seriousness doesn’t refer to a somber sensibility or dour expression that comes from a scrunched-up self-righteousness. I’m referring to gravity—a weightiness in our worship of God and the eternal stakes in what we believe.

Seriousness is the one thing that can break through the irony-laced meme culture of Gen Z. Younger people instinctively recognize when someone is showy and superficial, and they know when someone’s trying to sell them something. It’s the combination of humility and earnestness (“I take my faith, but not myself, very seriously”) that stands out.

Unfortunately, our methods and strategies are too often built around what older people think young people want (levity, for example) rather than what young people crave (an otherworldly experience of God, built on something more durable than the latest trend).

Young people want to be courted by the church, welcomed into fellowship, entrusted with responsibility, and shown they matter. But more than anything, they want to be ushered into splendor, not superficiality. They’re looking for an antidote to the shallow life of swiping and scrolling through endless entertainment.

If you belong to an aging church, the one thing you have going for you is age. Look for ways to invest in relationships so you can mentor and train the next generation, passing on your wisdom.

Moral Ballast

It’s possible the cultural winds blowing so hard against the church right now will serve to highlight the significance and sturdiness of this majestic oak tree. A tree that can sway and bend without breaking, that demonstrates remarkable flexibility in cultural expression and missionary fervor yet never snaps, never falls, never breaks, and will stand out in a world of moral decay.

What does a generation crippled by anxiety, given over to digital compulsions and performative impulses, broken by relational fallout due to the corrosive effects of diminishing moral boundaries—what does this generation need? A clear and compelling vision of morality, a serious faith that’s meaningful and rooted.

Seriously Joyful

The serious and joyful news of the gospel—that the Messiah crucified for our sins has been raised from the dead—leads to lifelong repentance and faith, a turning from sin toward God, a rigorous pursuit of righteousness as we pick up the cross in the Spirit’s power. In the church, we encounter hope and healing. Grace for the guilty. Cleansing for the ashamed. A renewed walk of faith where we stumble forward in holiness, knowing every time we fall, we fall into the arms of a Savior whose hands bear the scars of his redemptive love.

In a world marked by coddling and canceling, let’s call up the next generation. The gospel is true. God is real. The church that reaches the next generation will not be riddled with insecurity but will hold out, with confidence and humility, a serious faith.

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