I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines—the dire predictions that Christianity is on the verge of collapsing in North America, due primarily to a declining religiosity among younger generations.
The situation is more complex than the impression you’d get from the doomsday writers. But many of the surveys are indeed alarming. Large numbers of those in the millennial generation have yet to be effectively engaged with the gospel. And fewer millennials claim an affiliation with Christianity compared to older generations.
But some churches are overflowing with young people. They don’t fit the stereotype of the aging, slowly declining church. They’ve figured out ways to help young people thrive in their congregation.
What do we learn from the churches that are effectively reaching millennials?
Researchers Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin have compiled their findings in a new book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. They’ve researched a wide variety of congregations that have seen success in reaching and involving 15- to 29-year-olds. The book is filled with hope-filled suggestions based on this research, and these suggestions deserve your consideration.
My main takeaway? There are reasons to celebrate and a major cause for concern in what these churches are doing to engage young people. Let’s start with what’s good.
Causes for Celebration
You don’t have to be the flashiest church in town, have the coolest pastor, or the most contemporary music to reach young people. The churches in this research come in all shapes and styles and sizes. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model.
1. The Gospel vs. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
What you do need to do is to “take Jesus’s message seriously,” as the title of chapter 4 indicates.
These churches are doing a better job than most at differentiating between the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (click here for a definition) that pervades our culture and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The researchers also noted how a “Golden Rule” gospel that emphasizes “right living” instead of “right believing” eventually leads to behavior modification that often leaves Jesus out of the picture.
The good news in the research is that only 5 percent of the college-age or 24- to 29-year-olds interviewed gave a Golden Rule themed explanation of the gospel. And while Moralistic Therapeutic Deism still distracts many churchgoing young people from Jesus, it is not as prevalent in these congregations as it is in others.
The takeaway, then, is that the one thing that still engages young people is the one thing that makes Christianity distinct: the good news of Jesus Christ. Taking that message seriously is vital.
2. The Bible’s Grand Narrative for a Biblical Worldview
I was also heartened to see that many of these churches focus on the Bible as a redemptive narrative, where the focus is on interpreting “each part of the Bible within the whole unfolding story of God and God’s people” (139). As someone who has devoted several years now to The Gospel Project, a curriculum that specializes in the “grand narrative” approach, I’m excited when I read statements like this:
“Churches that communicate the gospel of Jesus as the centerpiece of God’s story are more likely to have young people with greater faith vibrancy and maturity. What’s more, those who talk about the gospel in narrative terms also tend to rate their churches higher on teaching people who to interact with culture, and they rate themselves personally higher on responding to current social issues in light of faith.” (140)
We can celebrate the research findings that young people are better engaged in churches that take Jesus’s message seriously and explore the worldview dimensions of our faith, as laid out in the Bible’s great story of redemption.
Causes for Concern
But I’m also alarmed about a couple of findings.
1. The Present at the Expense of the Eternal
In the chapter on taking Jesus’s message seriously, the researchers say “there was very little focus on going to heaven and hardly any talk of hell. Salvation was a major theme, but a kind of salvation that is more focused on life in the present than something way off in the future.” (141)
The authors say these findings are “refreshing.” I find them worrisome.
Yes, I recognize that some evangelical teaching and preaching has so focused on the eternal destinies that the Christian life gets reduced to being only about going to heaven and avoiding hell. The imbalance in this regard distorts the larger Christian message and diminishes Jesus’s kingdom announcement.
But I shudder at churches that don’t know what it means to shudder about hell. I don’t know how you can “take Jesus’ message seriously” and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. Whenever evangelicals are quick to parody the “fire and brimstone” preacher, I fear they are unintentionally mocking Jesus.
2. Evangelism on the Decline
A few pages later, the researchers say “the word evangelism and its derivatives were hardly mentioned by young people in our study. Talking about faith with non-Christians was the least common practice among a list of variables related to faith maturity.” (144)
Thankfully, the lack of the term “evangelism” does not indicate a lack of evangelistic conversation altogether. These young people do talk about their faith, but it is more in a context of honesty, struggle, and discussion. They do not press for immediate conversion.
“Suggesting to young people that they confront their friends with propositions about sin and separation from God often feels about as winsome as gaudy yard art. And yet the Good News of Jesus and his in-breaking kingdom deserves a hearing with today’s young people, as with every generation.” (146)
In reaction against an older generation of evangelicals that may, at times, have overemphasized the heaven/hell dichotomy, and in reaction against their confrontational style of evangelism, the next generation is failing to take Jesus’s message about hell seriously enough. As a result, younger Christians no longer stress that one’s eternal destiny depends on what one does with Jesus, and therefore, they less frequently issue the call to repent and believe.
I’m glad the good news of Jesus and his in-breaking kingdom gets a hearing with young people today. But part of that message is that there is a narrow road. To fail to warn people of impending judgment is not to be more focused on Jesus’s kingdom message, but less. And without the dark element of judgment behind the gospel’s good news, we lose urgency in evangelism and the greater sense of gratitude for God’s grace in rescuing us.
Let’s not adopt a doom and gloom posture about the next generation. Christ will build his church, and we know that his church will endure. Growing Young helps us see how many churches are engaging younger people with the good news of Christ.
But let’s pray for a vibrant evangelical generation in the coming years, and that we may avoid any mistakes that could weaken our witness.