There was a big push for churches to reach “millennials.” Every leadership conference I attended had at least one breakout session that was supposed to teach us the secrets about how to reach this entire generation of desperately lost snowflakes. One session at a conference in North Raleigh felt more like a discovery channel commentary on a species of people who seem to have showed up out of nowhere. The blonde white girl teaching the secrets described millennials,
“These people aren’t like you,” she said. “They mostly enjoy Starbucks, instagram, occasional long walks with friends, nature and the outdoors.” I thought to myself, “what a joke! She’s describing basic white girls from the suburbs!”
I’m pretty sure there are millennials who live in the inner city who already have kids and can’t afford Starbucks. I would like to believe there are millennials who don’t have cell phones and don’t use instagram.
I remember being so frustrated because it sounded like she was saying the secret to saving the millennials was to make sure our instagram accounts were on fleek, add Starbucks cafe’s in our church lobbies and build walking trails in our neighborhoods. I thought that was ridiculous because I knew the only thing that ever saved someone was Jesus, and unless the walking trail led them to glory, I wasn’t gonna build one! An older man raised his hand during the presentation and interjected, proclaiming that Satan was the one who created social media and anyone who participates is subjecting themself to the demonic and needed deliverance. On that note, I walked out of the room.
I was frustrated because my dumb self spent money I didn’t have to be at that conference. As soon as I left the building I google searched more info about millennials and that’s when I realized I am a millennial! Born in 1983, I barely made it into the most talked about, least understood generation of history. As soon as I realized I am one, I quit trying to reach them. I figured if I cannot naturally reach my own generation then I shouldn’t even be a pastor. After reading more books, blog posts and content than I could stuff into my thinker, I concluded the best way to reach a younger generation was to put them in charge.
Don’t get me wrong, reaching my generation have some challenges. It seems like folks who are my age could have zero credible hours studying a subject, but we still fully believe our opinion on that subject is as valid as any other. We feel empowered to write off the opinion of a medical doctor after reading a series of blog posts on a subject. We will passionately defend our perspective on food & nutrition after watching a Netflix documentary. We arrive at strong conclusions on the latest of politics after reading memes, statistics & data that our friend from college shared on his Facebook account. When it comes to really important subjects, most of us are afraid to say “I don’t know.” Most of us lack the focus & self discipline to really dive deep on a subject. Unfortunately, our version of “researching” is nothing more than feeling our way around a subject, then arriving at whatever conclusion we are most comfortable with. It’s not about facts or data, it’s about “all the feels” and the celebrity personalities behind the data.
And for those of us who do have the self-discipline, we often don’t have the self-awareness to admit we are wrong or even allow what we discover to change us. For the most part, we are Informed by Google, Enlightened by Twitter, Empowered by Netflix, Educated by Podcasts, Affirmed by Facebook, Confirmed by YouTube, and Emboldened by the number of other uneducated people who agree with us on a particular topic. And this is the generation to whom I’m called to pastor and preach the gospel. For so many of us, our feelings trump truth and authority. There is no authority anymore because everyone is their own authority. And if we are questioned, we use all the mediums available to prove what we feel to be true. And when someone intelligently disagrees with us, we then say, “oh this is my truth, at that is your truth,” which is basically a nice way of saying “I’ve made up my mind and nothing is gonna change it.” We don’t like hard facts, hard truths or hard lessons because anything that rubs us wrong or pushes against our opinion ultimately hurts our feelings. And our feelings are our God. If we are gonna learn, it’s gonna be on our schedule, in our own time, and under the authority of our own feelings.
Perhaps this is not a “generational” thing as much as it is a cultural thing. It’s not just millennials, it’s society. Sometimes teaching truth on Sundays is a challenge. It feels like throwing a brick into the ocean once a week and hoping to build something, but the waves of feelings & emotions are constantly beating against that which I’m trying to build. A question I’ve been wrestling with all these years has been, “how can we build a Jesus centered, gospel loving church in a culture where it’s difficult to teach anything concrete?” I’m not sure I have the answer to that question yet, because we have yet to build that kind of church. I do know that we’ve built something special, though. This is a place where anyone can belong, even if they don’t believe yet. At our church, not everyone is centered around Jesus, and everyone doesn’t love the gospel yet, and that is okay with me. Sure it’s uncomfortable sometimes because I’m preaching Jesus and the gospel the best I know how, but people still just believe whatever they want. We are not militant about our beliefs, nor do we force leaders to agree with us on every issue. We ask our church leadership to commit to four main beliefs: 1) Jesus is the son of God, 2) the Bible is the word of God, 3) you must be born again, and 4) believers can be spirit filled. These four beliefs are the starting point and the parameters that our small groups, volunteer teams, staff, and leaders operate within. All the other things the Christians like to argue about are not necessarily points of contention for us. We might discuss, debate, or talk about different viewpoints and different beliefs that are trending in Christian circles and church culture, but for the most part we don’t divide over or fight about our beliefs. We’ve just learned to agree to disagree and focus on the things that unite us instead of the stuff that divide us.