Reaching a New Generation

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Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says,
 I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions, 
your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, 
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below, 
blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Acts 2:14-21).

This post is a about reaching the next generation of young people for Christ. It focuses on what is called the Millennial Generation, but it applies to most young people today from about twenty to forty years of age. There is no question but that Christians face a tremendous problem reaching the next generations for Christ. America seems to be traveling down the same road that Europe followed following the Second World War.

Fortunately, The challenge we face is not as big as the challenge the first church gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Pentecost morning! They were just a few provincial Jews from Galilee, some women and a few men. They had no real formal training. Few of them had ever traveled further than the short journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. They did not have the problem of a weak church out of step with the culture. They had the problem of no church at all.

In the Upper Room, they waited for the Power of the Holy Spirit, just as we must wait. We also have to pray and wait for the Spirit with open hearts willing to reach out to people God puts in our path. We have to be willing to reach out to those who are trapped in sin and brokenness, who are different, who are outsiders, who have different customs and traditions. We have to wait and pray not hoping that God won’t come so we don’t have to change, but hoping that God will come so we will change and receive the blessings God has for us.

We Worship an Unpredictable God.

Most people, young and old, expect things to stay the same. The Old Testament name for God translates, “I Am that I Am” or, “I Will Be What I Will Be.” The Name God chose for himself before Moses on Mt. Sinai reveals God as the inexhaustible source of everything that is, was, or ever will be. Therefore, it is not surprising that God embraces change. God is a God who is deliberately bringing about the future in surprising, unexpected and mysterious ways—ways we can hardly imagine.

In Acts 2, Peter quotes from the Prophet Joel, who prophesied that, when the Last Days come—that is the long awaited “Day of the Lord,” God would pour out his flesh upon people in a new way (v. 17). Not just adults, but sons and daughters would prophesy (v. 17). Not just prophets and especially religious people, but young men as well would see visions, and old men would dream of the future (v. 17). God’s Spirit was not going to be the province of one sex. Instead, the Spirit was going to be poured out on men and women alike (v. 18). There were going to be wonders and disruptions and strange signs like those that accompanied the Jews leaving Egypt (v. 19-20). In the midst of all this change and disruption, anyone who calls upon the God would be saved. Before human history is over, God intends to do a lot of unpredictable things. Peter is proclaiming to the crowd that the day of the Lord has now come. A new era is beginning. We are a all a part of that New Era in which God intends to use everyone to reach the world with the Gospel of Love.

Loving a New Generation.

There is no question but what it is God’s desire that every generation of Christians be reached. Unfortunately, recently American Christians have not been good at reaching young adults, what sociologists have called “Millennials,” or young people who entered adulthood right around the beginning of the new Millennium. Today, the oldest Millennials are about 35 or so and the younger Millennials are in their late 20’s.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in Post-Christian America. They are the first generation to live all their lives in a nation where having babies is a personal choice, birth control is common, abortion is frequent, sex is always on television, in movies, and in the media, and the technology to communicate information and images is in their pockets. This is the first generation that has always relied on media and technology for information and communication.

Around half of Millennials grew up for a part of their young life in a home in which one parent was missing. Because of the prevalence of two income households, Millennials are a generation that spent a great deal of their childhood alone. This is the generation that first heard the term “latch key kid” used for a large number of children. Scholars say that his is a generation that has not known stable family and community relationships, and is hungry for them.

My generation, sometimes called “the Boomer Generation,” saw the beginning of this phenomenon. We also saw the beginning of another phenomenon: Our parents, the Builder and Silent Generations, built institutions, public and private. During the Viet Nam War, for the first time in American history, a generation began to mistrust institutions. As Boomers became cultural leaders, our children became the first generation that never trusted the institutions of our society and was educated not to do so. Therefore, this generation is hard for institutions to reach, including churches.

For those of us who grew up going to church with our parents before the Cultural Revolution, it is hard to recognize that more than half of the next generations grew up never, or almost never, going to church. What they know of churches is largely what the media tells them, which is that churches are harsh, legalistic, judgmental, and mostly led by white, abusive males. In order to overcome this stereotype, it is important that churches go out of their way to welcome and empower young people and shows them God’s love. We must be interested in them, not just interested in their coming to our church.

Millennials grew up with technology. They instinctively use the Internet for communication and information. They love to tweet, post, and text. Many of us are not as tech savvy as our children and/or grandchildren. Using technology wisely is a part of reaching the next generation that is really important. This will impact everything from how we structure worship and write sermons to what kind of discipleship materials we use, to how we communicate information.

Perhaps as a result of the technological revolution, and perhaps as a result of media saturation, this is a “post-printing press” generation. Older adults primarily learn from reading. This is a generation that is used to getting its information visually from the media. It is a generation in which posting on Instagram is as popular, or even more popular than posting text on Facebook. Anyone who has used social media knows that experts encourage posting pictures and not just text because of the difficulty of getting people to read just text.

We are the People God will Use.

By now a lot of readers are thinking, “I am not qualified for this. I don’t even want to do this! I am happy just as things are.” I feel this way a good bit of the time. I am sixty-three years old. I am an old dog not too crazy about learning new tricks.

We don’t know much about the disciples. Paul indicates that they were all married. I suppose this means that they had children. We have every reason to believe that Peter, Andrew, James and John were successful business people. Matthew was a wealthy tax collector with a mind for business. Paul was a Pharisee and moving into a position of power in Israel. I suppose none of the apostles wanted leave Israel and go to the ends of the earth. I’m certain they did not want to be around Gentiles, eat unclean food, and die far away from home. Nevertheless, they went in the power of the Spirit and along the way a lot of things they were accustomed to changed.

Reaching a New Generation.

To reach another generation, we must be willing to change and embrace a series of challenges and paradoxes. Here are just a few:

  • We must be willing to change how we do things, without compromising the Gospel.
  • We must be willing connect emotionally with people, while still communicating the cognitive, truths of Christian faith and life.
  • We have to be willing to make our ministries accessible and relevant to new generations using the communication styles they are accustomed to using.
  • We need to emphasize relationships, including mentoring relationships. In a world of technology people want and need deep personal relationships. In a world where people live alone, isolated, and away from family, we need to provide a place of healthy, stable, relationships.
  • We need to be real not slick. We don’t have to change who we are; we need to be interested in a new generation, tolerant of generational differences, and ready to embrace Millennials with God’s love.
  • We need to be mission and ministry focused. This is a generation that wants to serve as well as learn.

One of the young people who helped with this sermon made this comment: “We can’t just want young people to come to our church so it won’t die. We have to want them to come and build something new.” [i] One of the most successful congregations in reaching young people is a pretty traditional Reformed congregation. It has a lot of small groups, what they call “Life Groups,” which are led by young people. It has a community garden, run by young people. It even has a worship service led by Millennials. The older church members did not decide to do these things. Young people decided to do these things, and the congregation, young and old, encouraged them. It did not shame them into doing what they were doing. It opened its arms and welcomed them to do what they desired to do.

May it be so with our churches.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[i] I have consulted a variety of sources, including Paul Fritz, Ten Keys to reaching Young People (December 2002) and an entire issue of Presbyterians Today entitled, Young Adults: Their Vision for the Church Special Millennial Issue A Guide for Young Adult Ministry (May 2014). Several of the young people of Advent were shown an early version of the sermon. They made many good comments, and I want to thank them for those comments. The sermon could not have been written as it was without them. I also need to thank the Long Range Planning Task Force and the Communication Task force for their comments, which I have tried to embed in the text. David Shotsberger, Don Kerns, Dan Eubanks, Coenraad Brand, and Cindy Schwartz did not see an advance copy of the text, but they have been working on how Advent reaches a new generation for a long time. Their work and advice is appreciated.

 

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