Millennials, as a generation, though exiting local churches and the profession of Christian faith in historically unprecedented ways for our country, are certainly not beyond hope, nor uniquely burdened by impenetrable, undecipherable unbelief. They need Law and Gospel. They need the grace of God to forgive them and make them alive, just like the rest of us. The ministerial skill will be in communicating Law and Gospel with all of the humility, grace, understanding, and complex emotion that, say, Paul used as he is “greatly distressed” by the idolatry he saw in Athens (Act 17:16). He got to know these people (“I see that you are…”) (Acts 17:22). And then he courageously, sympathetically, humbly communicated with them in a way that they could understand. And some of them believed and wanted to hear more about this Jesus (Acts 17:34).
These highly educated, pluralistic, hedonistic Athenians weren’t beyond the power of God’s converting grace, nor are their twenty-first century counterparts.
With that said, over the next several weeks, I’m going to share some of my personal recommendations, based on my research and tailored somewhat to our church body’s culture.
While I wouldn’t suggest that all of these recommendations are equally important, to avoid insinuating a “silver bullet” attitude in ministering to Millennials, I’ll refrain from ordering these in any sort of ranking. Suffice it to say, I think that they’re all issues that Millennials, including those within our church body, tend to be affected by.
Researcher David Kinnman said,
“For me, the most heartbreaking aspect of our findings is the utter lack of clarity that many young people have regarding what God is asking them to do with their lives. It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.”
I guess it doesn’t surprise me, because I struggled with this for many years myself, but, as a pastor, when I ask people about what their purpose is on this planet, I get a lot of blank stares. This is particularly true of young people. For some reason, as young people are trying to carve out their place in this world and establish their identity, despite many occasions of Bible contact, they can’t seem to recognize (or at least verbalize) that their identity comes primarily from their status as God’s redeemed children and that their purpose, just like the first humans, is to exist in relationship with the God who created them, carry out his designed will for them (i.e. responsibly manage and subdue his creation), and do so while reflecting out to others the grace that this amazing God has shown to them in Jesus. I rarely, if ever, get anything other than blank stares.
Why young Christians don’t grasp this faith-life connection is probably multifaceted. In general, their life goals seem to mirror that of the secular Americans around them. In something of an instant philosophical classic called A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor says that post-Enlightenment, the western world has gone through something he refers to as an “anthropocentric turn.” By this, Taylor means that, while western civilization (including our most educated, influential people) once generally believed in God, today, the belief in God’s presence and involvement in life has drastically faded. Consequently, where our society’s goal at one point looked something more along the lines of “glorify God,” now, the basic goal of the average American is to find pleasure, comfort, and happiness. In more negative terms, our goal is the avoidance of suffering, fundamentally at odds with Christ’s exhortation to pick up our crosses to follow him (Matt. 10:38; 16:24).
Furthermore, if Millennials don’t understand the basic reason for their existence, they’re certainly not going to understand the implications of God’s gospel of grace for their lives either. Paul’s concept of “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) is a foreign concept. Paul is obviously not talking here about working for salvation. Rather, he’s suggesting that as we know we have salvation gifted to us in Christ, it now has implications and applications in our every day lives. So, for instance, if we’re all truly saved by grace, then I never have the right to look down on anyone else as inferior to me, nor do I ever have to fear looking up at anyone else as superior to me, because we’re all sinners saved by the grace of God. Millennials will love that aspect of gospel inclusiveness. And this is just the start. If God has been infinitely generous in sharing his riches with me, I am empowered to be generous with others less fortunate (2 Cor. 8:9). If God can and does objectively forgive me even before I repent (Rom. 5:8), then this empowers me to extend forgiveness to others, even when I don’t get the “I’m sorry” I’m seeking, or perhaps no remorse at all. Furthermore, if the doctrine of Final Judgment means that one day everyone will have to give an account before God for what they’ve done, this empowers me to not show vengeance on those who have wronged me, because they either will fully repent of their errors or will have to answer to God someday. Finally, the doctrine of the Resurrection means that all the wrongs of sin will somehow be righted. For God’s people, all that is dead will be made alive. Consequently, when this life doesn’t go the way I’d like it to, like Paul, I mourn, but not like the rest of the world mourns (1 Thess. 4:13).
So far as I can tell, young believers are not consistently being guided to make these sorts of connections. Or, if they are, it’s not clicking. Millennials are craving to connect biblical truth to the realities of every day life. They need to see the unparalleled resources the gospel provides for dealing with the complexities of life. In other words, they not only need to hear the saving elements of gospel truth, but they also need to see Jesus and his gospel work as the fundamental meaning of life, the Logos that then is naturally the most effective approach to life (John 1:1-18).
As a child attending a Lutheran Elementary School, my main experience with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod was through athletics. My primary understanding of Missouri theology came from the fact that before sporting events, when their announcers would say a prayer asking God for safety and sportsmanship in the game, we were told beforehand not to pray with them. I didn’t understand exactly why. I simply knew it had something to do with the word “fellowship.”
Today, whenever I preside over a wedding, at some point during the premarital counseling and service preparations, the conversation of which family members will or will not be allowed to participate in the wedding inevitably comes up. This is an issue at virtually every WELS wedding. And it rarely comes off well. In fact, I’ve had several friends who’ve left WELS, and the tipping point was their own wedding. Again, the key word that becomes a sore spot is “fellowship.”
I don’t have a perfect solution to remedy all of this. I’m certainly not suggesting we leave sound theology behind. I’m simply suggesting that if the average young person in WELS associates the word “fellowship” with something of a negative connotation, our theology probably isn’t being communicated as clearly as we’d like. In retrospect, telling a 6th grader not to pray at a basketball game with a Missouri Lutheran elementary school feels a bit like maneuvering a child as a pawn in a fellowship war. If it’s truly a concern, perhaps a better alternative would be to have a pastor contact the other school ahead of time and respectfully, tactfully, explain how this is a sensitive issue and ask if it could, as a favor, possibly be avoided. That’d be an improvement. Or just play public schools where this would never happen. As it stands, it is a sore spot for nearly every young WELS person I’ve encountered. We (i.e. Millennials) want to be sensitive to how many WELS members went through a difficult time with Missouri in the 1970s. But we also want you to know that we DID NOT. We weren’t alive.
Furthermore, whether or not they realize it, there are some WELS youth who do trumpet the merit of closed fellowship as though it is the doctrine by which the Church stands and falls. They tend to come across as self-righteous and out-of-touch to their Millennial peers. These characters don’t seem to recognize their synodical zeal for what it may occasionally be, condescending tribalism that drives others away. In other words, it might be less because, as they think, the time has come “when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3) or because of “the increase of wickedness, the hearts of many have grown cold” (Matt. 24:12). That might very well be part of denominational differences. Or it might be more that humans are justifiably turned off by sanctimonious, unchristlike arrogance. And this self-righteousness needs to be repented of as much as any other sin. To date, I’m afraid this attitude has not only not been held accountable, but has actually been cultivated by some spiritual leaders. Put differently, if “elder brother” bad behavior (Luke 15:25-32) is never called to repentance, but sin is only defined in terms of “younger brother” bad behavior (Luke 15:11-21), you will be left with churches full of an elder brother spirit. And, of course, once you get to know the elder brother in Jesus’ parable, you start to understand why the younger brother wanted so desperately to run away from home.
Please understand, I’m not suggesting that this negative perception of “WELS people are holier-than-thou” is all right or fair, only that it’s undeniably there. Nor am I calling for a complete overhaul in our practices regarding interdenominational church fellowship. I’m simply saying that if you think closed fellowship was an issue for Boomers or Busters, that is nothing compared to the sensitivity that inherently inclusive Millennials have for it. Consequently, for the sake of the gospel, we probably need to revisit some contemporary applications of the Doctrine of Fellowship. And if nothing else, the unarguably necessary (but socially counterintuitive) aspects of close fellowship (e.g. Member Communion) need to be balanced with overwhelming demonstrations of the positives of “fellowship” that resonate with everyone. Fellowship, in and of itself, is a wonderful Scriptural concept. We need to work hard for it to once again become one in the mind of WELS youth. If we don’t, remember, this generation feels almost no organizational obligation or loyalty to traditional authority structures. They will gladly leave their parents’ church. I’d hate for that to happen over a widespread misunderstanding of a beautiful biblical teaching.
As a continuation of the last point on fellowship, Millennials are extremely relational. As an organization, you will lose them if you don’t help them foster relationships. As Thom Rainer has said,
“The best motivators in the workplace for this generation are relationships. The best connectors in religious institutions are relationships. The best way to get a Millennial involved in a service, activity, or ministry is through relationship.”
Whether he realized it or not, when describing the African concept of “Ubuntu,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu was essentially speaking for Millennials:
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
The concept of Ubuntu states that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself. This is no different than God’s conception of “church” or God’s statement about Adam that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are meant to be together and we are meant to be for one another. Millennials, victims of more divorce than any other generation, seem to understand this better than other generations.
“Well, why are they always on their phones, then?” you ask. Don’t mistake a different form of communication as a lack of communication. Even though Millennials do many relationships through screens, that doesn’t mean they’re not unsocial. This is the social media generation. Granted, it’s relationships at their personal convenience, but really every generation has done that to some extent. Millennials are by no means impersonal. In fact, if anything, they are radically transparent…online.
The point is that relationships are more important to them than almost anything. They just cultivate these relationships using technology more than previous generations. When people from older generations make comments about “no substitute for face-to-face meetings” or the like, Millennials don’t just not understand, they disagree.
Because of their relational nature, especially one cultivated by technology, churches that can help Millennials improve existing relationships or foster new, meaningful relationships will be more appealing. Moreover, if you can get this to happen by leveraging modern technology, even better. Warning: Don’t use technology to be cool. That’s counterproductively uncool. Use it only because it’s simply better.
That’s it for now. I’ll have some more recommendations next week. Feel free to offer your comments below.
 Kinnaman, pg. 207
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pgs. 373-375
 Timothy Keller’s exposition of Luke 15:11-32 in “The Prodigal God” might be the greatest spiritual insight I’ve ever gained in my adult life. It was brand new to me as an adult. And it has probably also been the single greatest step in spiritual development that I’ve witnessed in my members. They are now well tuned-in to the idea that there are two equally dangerous ways to avoid Jesus – i.e. self-indulgence (avoiding Jesus as Lord) AND self-righteousness (avoiding Jesus as Savior). The misnomer of “The Parable of the Lost Son” might be the single greatest mistake in our English Bibles. After all, Jesus begins the parable by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” (Luke 15:11)
 Rainer, pg. 105