This message titled Now Is the Time: Signs of Hope for the Next Generation from Trevin Wax was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Pre-Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two-day pre-conference was titled Evangelizing the Next Generation: Gospel Guidance for Parents.
The following is an edited transcript of this message. Please confirm quotations using the original audio or video above.
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul writes this, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).“
Now, as Paul looked out from that prison cell and considered beloved believers, he knew one thing for sure: grace finishes what grace starts.
The God who saves his people is the God who will sustain his people. Paul’s confidence was not in the signs of hope that he saw in the Philippian congregation – although he found many signs of hope and many reasons to be encouraged. His ultimate hope was in God. He believed that God would carry on to completion the work that He had begun in the Philippians.
The title of this talk, as we close this pre-conference, is looking for signs of hope when we consider the next generation. I think it’s dangerous to look at the next generation and see only signs of hope, just as it would be dangerous to look at the next generation and see only causes for alarm. Every generation faces its share of challenges and opportunities. Often times, the opportunity is in the challenge.
It’s also dangerous to assume that the next generation is going to come along and fix all of the things that the previous generation got wrong. I think that’s a common tendency among young people, to sing along with John Mayer, that we’re waiting for the world to change. Hoping to finally get our time in the driver’s seat.
Why? Because then the wars would all be over and we’d make everything right again. But if you consider the history of the world and the history of the church, you find that often when young people seek to correct the errors they see so clearly in their elders, they wind up fixing some things—but also messing up a lot of other things. Then the next generation comes along and fixes a different set of messes.
So no generation is the greatest or the last hope for Christianity because generations aren’t where we put our hope anyway.
The God of the gospel is our hope. The resurrection power of Jesus is our hope. The indwelling of the Spirit is our hope.
As I look over the landscape of evangelicalism and see trends and surveys, and talk to church leaders who are seeing some success in reaching younger people—I have just a few observations that give me hope because these are evidences of the Lord’s work in our day. I have confidence that the God who has started to work in us will bring it to completion.
Hope: A Counter-Cultural Minority
The first sign of hope: younger Christians expect to be a counter-cultural minority.
You may be aware that the number of people who identify as Christian in the United States has been declining. Pew Research shows a drop in the percentage of people who claim Christian on their survey of religion. You see this contrast, especially, when you compare the difference between baby boomers and millennials. Nearly 9 out of 10 baby boomers described themselves as Christian. The number among millennials is just 67%. In some surveys, it’s even lower than that. And then the iGen (or Gen Z) is even lower than that.
Now, I know you may be thinking: “Okay Trevin, how is this a sign of hope?” It sounds like more of a challenge. It depends on how you look at it. Even amid this decline, the percentage of the population that attends church regularly has remained stable. That means we’re not seeing this massive decrease in devotion among Christians. What we’re seeing is a massive decline in nominal Christianity. We’re seeing the disappearance of a cultural Christianity or, the idea, that Christian is the default option for most Americans. Now why would that be a sign of hope? It’s certainly a challenge, but here are two reasons why the counter-cultural minority is a sign of hope.
First, many church leaders will tell you that it’s actually easier to have spiritual conversations with people who know they’re not Christian than with people who think they’re Christian, but show no evidence of salvation. The saying among pastors laboring in parts of the Bible Belt is: “before you can see people get saved, you’ve got to get them lost.”
The confusion of Christianity as the default option, and the prevalence of a cultural Christianity, can actually hinder and obscure the true gospel and make conversion more difficult and conversations harder to have.
A second reason that the counter-cultural minority is a sign of hope: it leads the next generation away from assuming that the best way to affect change in society is through political involvement.
I’ve often said that older evangelicals tend to see America as Israel, whereas younger evangelicals tend to see America as Babylon. Now, neither of those tendencies, when pushed too far, are healthy. But I’m encouraged to see a younger generation ready to deal with many issues from a pastoral perspective, rather than a political lens. Now, we’re always going to be involved in both, right? Christians and their vocations are going to be involved in both pastoral ministry and political engagement. The reason is because both of these are spheres in which we are called to love our neighbors. But the next generation’s assumption and expectation that we will be a counter-cultural minority, especially in regards to moral matters like sexuality, is a sign of hope.
It’s a sign that we’re bracing for a future in which we know, we expect, and we assume that we’re going to stand out more than ever. It’s better for us to move forward with the proper assumptions and expectations than it would be for us to have the wrong expectations and assumptions.
Those are two reasons why this idea that younger evangelicals, younger Christians, expect to be a countercultural minority is the first sign of hope.
Hope: Back to Basics
A second sign of hope is that young people thrive in churches that do the best job with the basics.
A LifeWay Research study recently investigated what parenting practices were most common in the families where young adults remained in the faith. They were asking questions like: what affected the moral and spiritual development of children and teenagers? What factors stood out?
There’s a lot that was uncovered in that research study, and you can find the results in a book called Nothing Less. But the big finding was that children, who remained faithful as young adults —meaning they identified as a Christian, would share their faith, remain in church, read the Bible, and so on— grew up in homes where certain practices were present.
And here’s why I find this to be a sign of hope: all the practices were basic Christian practices! It’s not because of the coolness of the worship band, the type of church building, the facility, or the size of the youth ministry. It all came down to basic Christian practices.
The biggest factor was Bible reading. Children who regularly read the Bible growing up were more likely to have a vibrant spiritual life as adults. Now, surely, this statistic doesn’t surprise us, right? Because God’s word is powerful and the practice of Bible reading is a constant reminder. When we go to the scriptures daily, that’s a constant reminder that we live as followers of God. Our King has spoken. He reigns over us. We want to walk in His ways. That’s deeply formative.
There’s a book by a number of researchers called Growing Young which presents findings from churches that have seen success in reaching and equipping young people. What was interesting about their study is that you find, in these churches, an emphasis on the Bible as a redemptive narrative. The focus in Bible study is on interpreting each part of the Bible within the whole unfolding story of God and His people.
As someone who’s devoted several years now to The Gospel Project, a curriculum that specializes in the grand narrative, it warms my heart. It makes me get excited when I read a statement like this, from Growing Young,
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 and narrative terms also tend to rate their churches higher on teaching people how to interact with culture, and they rate themselves personally higher on responding to current social issues in light of faith.
What you have is the development of a Christian worldview that takes place with Bible reading at the center and, Christ-centered Bible reading, at the center of that Bible reading.
A couple of other factors in the LifeWay Research study, closely behind Bible reading, came prayer and service in the church. In the practice of prayer, it didn’t specify whether it was private or corporate, before meals or before bedtime, or in the morning, but prayer was present.
When it talks about service in the church, it’s interesting that the research highlighted service in the church, not just attendance. So it wasn’t just that parents took their kids to church where professional clergy could feed them spiritually, but children and teenagers were included and integrated in the church to the avenue of service.
You have this habit of serving Christ, in the church and in the community, forming young Christians in a way that keeps us from identifying merely as a churchgoing consumer – that is someone who’s in churches for what it might do for us. Instead you see in the research, young people seeing themselves as an integral part contributing to the building up of God’s people.
And down the list church mission trips show up but that’s just another indicator of the active power of service. But again, what are the basics? Bible reading, prayer, service in the church.
I’m also encouraged to see a hunger among young people for mentors and intentional discipleship in smaller groups. You see this happening in different ways. I think Robby Gallaty’s Replicate Ministry is a good example. It’s a recent movement that combines basic Christian practices in smaller groups, but all with this purpose of replicating and reproducing discipleship in the lives of others.
I like what Robby says: “Discipleship must be the ministry of the church, not a ministry of the church for a world-changing movement to emerge.” I don’t see younger Christians resistant to that process at all. I see a hunger for it. The basics of discipleship are still the basics. No matter what’s taking place in our culture or in our world, the standard practices still serve us well.
Hope: More than the “Golden Rule”
A third sign of hope would be how younger Christians are learning to distinguish the gospel from moralistic therapeutic deism.
Now one of the findings in Growing Young is that younger Christians say they want church leaders to take Jesus’ message seriously. In this study, they found that the young people in these churches did a better job than most at differentiating between a moralistic therapeutic understanding of the gospel and the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches that are focused on this moralistic “golden rule gospel”— basically just emphasizing right living and being nice to people instead of right believing— you eventually wind up with a behavior modification that leaves Jesus out of the picture.
But the good news in the research is that, in churches that are reaching college age students and 24 to 29-year-olds, they found that only 5% of the students who were active in these churches gave that kind of “golden rule gospel.”
Don’t misunderstand me here: moralism continues to be a challenge for us in the culture and in the church. But in churches that are reaching the next generation, it is not as prevalent as it is in other places. And that’s a sign of hope to me because that means that the one thing that still engages young people is the one thing that makes Christianity distinct: It’s the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a hunger for the teaching of Jesus, even if at times, it might be seen as offensive or countercultural.
Concern: A Personalized Faith?
Now, if I could offer a cause of concern here: some of the headlines summed up a surprising finding that came out a new research from Barna— almost half of millennial Christians say it’s wrong to evangelize. These are churchgoing millennial Christians. 47% agreed with the following statement: It is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.
I wasn’t completely shocked or surprised by that statistic because, in Growing Young, they found in their research that—even among churches that were reaching and holding onto a lot of young people—the word “evangelism” and its derivatives were hardly mentioned by the 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. Strangely enough, in the Barna survey I just mentioned, 96% of millennial Christians say being a witness about Jesus is an integral part of faith.
So how does that work? Ninety-six percent of millennial Christians say, “Yes, I have to be a witness for Jesus.” And then 47% say, “It would be wrong for me to try to press someone to accept the claims of Christ.” What does that mean? My guess is this: for many or most of the respondents, being a witness about Jesus does not mean verbal evangelism.
Millennials hear be a witness and they don’t think about witnessing. They think: “I’m just going to live an exemplary life. That’s going to be my witness to Jesus.” So when they say, “I’m being a witness for Jesus,” they’re not saying: verbally calling people to put their faith in Jesus Christ is a central part of the Christian life. No, what they’re saying is,“I’m just going to represent Jesus to others in how I live. That’s what’s important, my life, not my words.”
And that explains why 73% say that they’re gifted at sharing their faith with other people. And you say, “Well, wait a minute. What does that mean?” That means that many respondents find it very easy to talk about Jesus, or to talk about what they believe, and they’re going to stop short and hesitate of calling someone—or trying to persuade someone—to actually adopt the same faith. In other words, sharing their faith does not mean evangelism.
For many younger Christians, it means talking about what Jesus means to me. I think this is one of the biggest challenges that we face. In case you were just wondering, this is not a sign of hope.
When faith becomes personalized in a consumer society, evangelism becomes controversial.
The idea of converting someone, of trying to lead someone to your faith sounds arrogant and closed-minded. And I would just add one additional problem here: hell doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.
For the churchgoing millennial, in a lot of these research and these studies and surveys, the absence of any thought or mention of hell as an eternal reality—something spoken about by the apostles, something warned about by Jesus Christ—that reveals a deficiency in discipleship.
I’m glad that the research shows that younger Christians say, “we want to take Jesus’ message seriously.” But do we take all of his message seriously? We should shudder at the church that has forgotten how to shudder about hell.
I don’t know how you can take Jesus’s message seriously and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. I know among younger generations, at times, it’s popular to mock old school revival, fire and brimstone preachers, but we better take care that we’re not mocking Jesus himself.
So this is a very important issue that, I think, is going to deserve more attention in the future. So if there’s a sign of hope here, it’s that younger Christians say they want the undiluted message of Jesus and they want to take it seriously. Unfortunately though, apparently one of the most serious aspects of Jesus’ message has been overlooked by younger Christians and, I think, that leads to a diminishment in the sense of urgency that we have about evangelism.
Who’s to say what the future holds for the church in the West? We may be on the verge of a new Dark Ages for Western civilization. We could be in a period of decline or decadence as a culture. We may be on the verge of the greatest revival that the world has ever known. We may be in the final days before Jesus’ return. We could be several thousand years away from Jesus’ return. I often thought: what if historians in the year 9000 AD refer to our church era as part of the early church’s history?
Now, the point is we don’t know the future but we know the Lord of history. And Paul wrote his most joyful letter, the letter to the Philippians, from a prison cell. How was that possible? How could he do that? Knowing all of the challenges that they were facing and seeing is own chains, how could he command them to rejoice?
It’s because no matter how dark the circumstances may seem, we are, fundamentally, an Easter people of hope. The darkest times are the moments when hope comes into its own; when hope shines as the piercing light that it is.
Hope is what leads someone to soldier on, especially when there’s good evidence or bad evidence. It doesn’t matter the evidences because, even if people would think the cause is lost, hope and us becoming and being an Easter people of hope, is what allows us to maintain faith. When we have good signs about the next generation, big concerns about the next generation, when things are working out the way we’d expected, or when things are not working out the way that we’d expected, to rest assured in the coming victory is hope. And that is the kind of hope that grabs the attention of a world in darkness.
So look out, friends. Hear the words of Jesus. Open your eyes. Look at the fields because they are ready for harvest. Let’s pray.
Father, we give you praise this morning because you are the God of our forefathers and mothers in the faith.
We give you praise, Father, because you are the one who has directed history; You are the one who has been intimately involved with history; You are the one Father who set into motion a plan in which you sent your son to enter our time, our space, and to bring redemption to your people.
And so Father, we give you praise this morning and we express to you our trust; our faith; knowing that you hold our future; knowing that you are the God of our ancestors; you are the God who holds the future of our descendants; and you are the God who is with us in the present.
And so Father, we thank you for the hope that we have because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we entrust ourselves and this generation to you and to your good purposes. And it’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.