A group from my church often visits a restaurant right across the parking lot to share a meal after Bible study. One night the server asked one of my friends if we lived nearby. “Not far,” he replied. “But we work together every Tuesday night over at Resurrection. Have you ever been there?” “Nah,” said the server, “I don’t usually get along with church people.” “Why is that?” someone from our table asked. His response: “Because I have too many big questions, and their answers are always too small and packaged.”
No Easy Answers
This person was looking for the church to admit that sometimes things are too hard for easy answers. This person would rather have the church admit that some things are just too complicated to really have a nice and neatly packaged answer. This is one of the major challenges facing disciples living in a post-Christian culture. Many Christians have wrestled with the Bible and the somewhat-unanswerable questions of life and have either learned to live without knowing an answer, live in the tension of multiple answers, or come to an answer that may seem clear to them but far-fetched to a young person who didn’t grow up getting ready for church as a kid.
This is a post-Christian world. It is not churched, and it is not primarily viewed as Christian. For some, this is devastating and a reason to panic and live in fear. For others, it is a blessing in disguise because it allows for what searching Millennials want — conversation, relationship, leadership, missional causes in which to collaborate, and inclusivity that loves without reason.
We need an apologetic that is rooted in the purest aspect of the gospel, love.
For many, especially Millennials, the best response is not to quickly answer their question with certainty and dogma. Rather, for many, the best response to a difficult question of life, such as why good people have bad things happen to them, is not a well-thought-out and immediate thesis but an acknowledgement that life is difficult and sometimes there is no painless answer or response.
The old, modern apologetics that “rationally” argued to prove prophetic fulfillment, the existence of God before time, and the preeminence of Christianity over other religions are not what the church needs to be relevant and impactful now. No, instead, we need an apologetic that is rooted in the purest aspect of the gospel, love. That isn’t to say that the modern apologetic framework doesn’t have a place in the conversation. But it doesn’t have a place being first in the conversations with nonreligious people, especially Millennials.
A Larger Framework for God
The answer is not to hire younger, cooler-looking staff and build edgier programs. The answer is to give Millennials a larger framework for God and to push their boundaries of God, thus changing their concept of God. Far too often I hear from churches that they are starting a program to reach nonreligious young people. I’m thrilled to find the passion and sometimes blown away by the carefully planned-out methods. However, in the end, the programs and methods typically fall short because Millennials are not looking for programs and methods to connect with God and others. They can do this anytime they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. Millennials are not looking for us to provide a room for them to meet in and have some snacks.
Millennials are looking for meaning in their vocation, opportunities to work in partnership for the greater good, amusement and adventure, and the openness to choose what they want to talk about and what questions they want to ask. Sometimes the worst thing we can do is program for what we think others want. Instead, remembering it is a post-Christian culture, we should be looking for ways to spark younger people’s imaginations, fuel their passions and dreams, and offer them a chance to contribute to God’s mission to restore the world regardless of their beliefs and convictions, and individualized to their multiple ways of self-expression. This will broaden their concept of God and their perception of the church.
What Millennials, and the generations to follow, need from the church are meaningful conversations, dependable relationships, faithful leadership and mentoring, a commitment to missional discipleship, and a lasting promise of enduring inclusivity. More than all of these, for Millennials, however, is a big concept of God. The smaller we make God seem, the less likely Millennials are going to engage with the church. Each of these significant desires within the hearts and minds of Millennials must be enveloped by ruthless truth-telling, hope, compassion, nontraditional thinking, diversity, complexity, beauty, deep-rooted values, and practical solutions to common problems.
This article is adapted from Chris’s book Gladhearted Disciples: Equipping Your Congregation with a Generous and Enduring Faith (Abingdon Press, 2015) and used with the publisher’s permission. It is available through Cokesbury or Amazon .
- Think Bigger: The Challenge of Reaching Millennials by David McAllister-Wilson
- Reaching the Millennial Generation by Asa J. Lee
- Lessons on Engaging Young Adults Effectively by Asa J. Lee
- Young Adults and the Future of the Church by Ann A. Michel