When I was a college student, I heard someone say, “The church is always one generation away from extinction.” As I remember this was intended to encourage us to be evangelistic in sharing our faith. The idea is that God has no grandchildren, only children who have personally chosen to follow God. If new children or believers are not birthed in each generation, then there will not be a “people of God.”
The challenge came to mind as I have read (and contributed to) some recent blogs related to reaching millennials for the church. These discussions cover the spectrum: how do we engage young adults in the church, what is negotiable and what is not in the tenets of our faith, what type of worship attracts millennials, and does a church’s stance on social issues impact the involvement of this coveted group?
Although most see this discussion in a positive light, I have heard some comments that run along this theme: “Why should we adapt in order to reach these people? Why can’t they accept the church and the Christian faith as it is? Why should we accommodate our practices and beliefs for them?”
I respond to this in several ways.
First, the church has always been in the process of framing its mission and message to reach those on the outside. Paul used his education to engage the Greco-Roman culture with the truth of the Gospel. Francis and Benedict developed movements within the church that called everyone, but especially young people, to a higher level of commitment. John and Charles Wesley launched a reform movement within the Anglican Church that used innovative methods such as small groups and music to reach the unchurched. If we do not find ways to communicate the Gospel in our culture, the church will stagnate and falter.
Second, the church takes on the role of the servant or, in the words of D. T. Niles, “One beggar telling another where he found bread,” because this is what Jesus did. He humbled himself, accommodating himself to a hostile, hurting world in order to share the message of redemption. We reach out to millennials, even those who are disinterested or antagonistic, because this is what Christians do.
Third, the church is willing to engage millennials—both churched and unchurched—because we believe in the mission Dei, the mission in which God has invited us to become a part. The task is bigger than our abilities, therefore we trust in God for the wisdom and ability to pursue it. By doing so, we follow Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church].” (Matthew 16:18, KJV)
What a challenge for those who call ourselves God’s people!