Ministering to Millennials (Part IV – My Recommendations regarding Faith/Life, Fellowship, and Relationships)

 

blog - Millennials 9

(image credit to csulb.edu)

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.

Connect Faith to Life

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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).

Reclaim “Fellowship” as a Positive Thing

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.[3]

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.

Church Experience Must Be More Relational

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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. 

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

[1] Kinnaman, pg. 207

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pgs. 373-375

[3] 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)

[4] Rainer, pg. 105

[5] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 1999, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wZtfqZ271w#t=162

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7 thoughts on “Ministering to Millennials (Part IV – My Recommendations regarding Faith/Life, Fellowship, and Relationships)

  1. John Huebner says:

    Thanks, James, for the work you have been doing on helping us to understand millennials so we can better communicate the gospel. I caught some of Keller’s stuff in your words about the elder brother and thought it sounded like him even before checking your sources. The Prodigal God (the two sons) was a mind-enlarging thing also for me and the people I was serving with it…they even asked if they could take the DVD home to study more.

    The fellowship issue is also huge and becoming even more so. I have a concern that some who are leading the call for new attention to fellowship issues may be of the “let’s keep them out” camp rather than the “let’s carefully look at the joys, privileges, import, blessings, and beauty of fellowship” camp. I hope they include some millennials in their study groups and that they write it in a way that communicates love and joy rather than dusty dogmatism (not that there’s anything wrong with dogmatics, of course).

    I look forward to your continuing insights. Are you running this by a focus group of any kind?

    Blessings,

    John Huebner

  2. Yes, my blog readers ARE the focus group, John 🙂 Actually, I have had a few others read some of the stuff first. But, again, these thoughts/recommendations are mine. I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone else and I’m quite certain not everyone will agree. Consequently, if anyone disagrees, they are disagreeing with me…not a church or church body as a whole. Probably important for readers to keep in mind. Like a good Millennial, I’m a proponent of respectful disagreement.

  3. saidthebear says:

    Pastor Hein, thanks for voicing so gracefully the need for making fellowship a positive thing once again. I give a little internal shudder whenever it’s brought up right now; I avoid any/all discussion about it right now, because I can’t make sense of the doctrine myself. Perhaps I just haven’t heard a good, Bible-backed answer for my questions yet. I’m hoping this discussion can change to a positive one in the future.
    I’m also hoping that maybe in this series (or another) you’ll be talking about the dissonance between the main thoughts/feelings behind feminism compared to the role of women in the church today, and how that’s impacting us.

    Thanks again!

  4. Matt says:

    Greetings Pastor Hein,

    In a comprehensively well-articulated presentation, the following is certainly your most striking claim:

    “If God can and does objectively forgive me even before I repent…”

    In an effort to reach clarity, why do we never see the apostles using such a construction? While there are many examples to which one can point in the book of Acts, chapters 3 and 8 seem to be at odds with that verbiage.

    Acts 3:19 — “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…”

    Acts 8:20-22 — “But Peter said to [Simon], “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.

    In essence, my question is this: Do you see a disconnect between the apostles’ articulation of justification (particularly in a missiological sense) and that of some Lutherans*?

    If not, how would you explain that position to someone like me, who sees a very clear and unsettling disconnect in those regards?

    *I say “some” because I’d like to imagine that Bonhoeffer’s treatment of cheap and costly grace is still regarded by a number of his fellow Lutherans.

    http://goo.gl/44ywzE

  5. Jeff K says:

    As a young person who has been following with your blog and sermons, I would like to see more discussion on the closed fellowships.

  6. Pastor Hein, thanks for the article. I, like Pastor Huebner, appreciate the emphasis on positive fellowship. There was a pastor in New York (state) during my vicar year who did a great job stressing this for me. He said that he used to dread talking about fellowship, because for him the application of the doctrine of fellowship was that he had to tell someone five minutes before worship that they couldn’t commune and thereby tick them off and then have to preside at worship with that confrontation on his mind. But he said that he came to view fellowship positively and now WANTS to talk to people about fellowship. The doctrine of fellowship isn’t so much about keeping people FROM something (though that is one application), it is more about WANTING to bring people TO something – namely to a clear conviction of and unity of faith in ALL of the truth. That is one of the priceless possessions of our synod that I think everyone who has ever attended a district or synod convention, etc. enjoys, perhaps without even realizing it. (I remember hearing a Missouri Synod pastor in New York talk about how he had never communed at his pastors’ conferences, because he knew his fellow pastors were all over the map doctrinally. By God’s grace alone, we don’t have that issue, and we want to bring others to enjoy that same fellowship with us.) Because of that pastor, I begin our Close Communion announcement with “We WANT to commune with everyone who attends our church…” Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think another tendency of millennials – and I think you yourself have touched on this – is that want solid proof for a belief or practice. It might also help to demonstrate not just from Scripture, but from history (cf. also the millennials’ fascination with their ancestry), that the WELS is doing nothing new with their doctrine and practice of church fellowship. Thanks again.

  7. I’m part of that millenial age group and I think the first point you touched on is especially true. I was educated in the WELS system all the way on through and one of the things I really struggled with when I got to college was the fact that I felt like serving God as a teacher or a pastor was emphasized SO much in my WELS schools growing up that it really came across as those were the only ways to serve God. I wish someone had emphasized more that you can serve God in so many different varied jobs and that you can serve him just as well in other things not a teacher and/or pastor. Not that there’s anything wrong with those jobs, but there are plenty of people who are not teachers/pastors out there and it would be helpful to understand better that you are serving God whatever role you are in.

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