“The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now.”
– Russell Moore
In his new book Onward: Engaging Culture Without Losing the Gospel (B&H – 2015), Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tells a story about a conversation that he had while he was in seminary with Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, one of the theological giants of American Christianity in the last half of the 20th century.
Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, and about the downward slide of culture. …Henry seemed not the least bit unnerved by it all. Then he cleared his throat and offered up the rebuke I needed. It was right after I had asked, rhetorically, whether there was any hope for the future of Christian witness in the public square.
“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of the church” …the old theologian said… “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current Christian subculture. They are probably still pagans.” “Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles” he asked. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, once an agnostic professor, or a Charles Colson, once Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, to lead the twentieth century church? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors of the faith.”
There is some real anxiety in the church these days about the missing generation – the Millennials.
The term Millennials is usually considered to apply to individuals who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century. The precise delineation varies from one source to another, however, Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, are often credited with coining the term. Howe and Strauss define the Millennial cohort as consisting of individuals born between 1982 and 2004. (http://whatis.techtarget.com)
Millennials are the “nones” and the “dones” that we hear so much these days. The “nones” are those who have no connection to the church, and who aren’t looking for one, yet. And the “dones” are those who used to have a connection to church, but don’t have one or want one, right now. Everyone, it seems, has an idea about how the church has failed this generation. Why, hardly a day goes by on Facebook that somebody isn’t posting about what the church must do and how the church must change if we are to have any chance of reaching them. And because we’re all anxious and afraid for this aging, declining church that we love, we’ll jump on nearly any practice that some self-proclaimed expert promises will reverse the trend. But there’s lots of problems with the advice that’s out there. To start with, none of these “experts” seems to agree with what any other “expert” has to say. So much of their advice is just flat out contradictory. This is a problem, a real problem, but it’s only just the surface problem, if you ask me. The deeper problem has to do with thinking that if we are to have any chance of reaching the Millennial generation that we are then going to have to adjust the Gospel message to make it more palatable to their tastes.
The late Michael Spencer – the “internet monk” as he was known – had the best blog on the internet in his day, and some of us would argue, the best blog on the internet of any day. I am so grateful that it is archived and still available to readers now that Michael is gone. If you don’t know of him, I would encourage you to immediately start getting acquainted with him @ http://www.internetmonk.com/archive. Michael had one of the most spiritually insightful and incisive voices in all the noise that is on the internet, and one of my favorite postings was called “A Contrarian Manifesto for the Church Growth Debate.” He was writing about his generation, my generation, the baby boomer generation, but what he had to say has relevance to any proposal to reach any generation by trying to adjust what he called “classic Christianity” to their changing appetites and “felt needs.”
…My generation is, without a doubt, the generation most likely to repackage God, the Bible, Jesus, the church and the Gospel to suit themselves. My generation must be catered to and told they are special or they won’t show up. My generation must shred what came before them as an act of self-affirmation. My generation must have their own slogans, names and bribes or they won’t come. My generation must be told they are key to everything…
… [But] most of the changes demanded by boomers in order to “connect” and “be real” and “meet people where they are” will be in concrete in no time, and when the twenty-somethings or their successors [the Millennials] ask the aging baby boomers to change and incorporate their ideas about worship, watch the wars begin. Giving the boomers their stylistic preferences in reshaping the church is going to prove to be the worst mistake that the American church ever made. The “boomer megachurches” aren’t presiding over a rediscovery of Biblical Christianity. They are leading a revolution where culture, generational niche groups and consumeristic agendas subvert the Gospel.
…[And so] I love my people enough to be faithful to the Word of God in both its method and its message. I am not ashamed to have said “no” to the pressure of baby boomer consumerists and “yes” to the instructions for preaching in the [New Testament’s] pastoral letters [I Timothy, II Timothy & Titus]. …Charles Haddon Spurgeon voiced his concerns for his age, and they echo my concern with our own:
“Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ How can he be healed who is not sick? Or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised, and consequently a religion is run up before the foundations are dug out. Everything in this age is shallow. Deep-sea fishing is almost an extinct business so far as men’s souls are concerned. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they come to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.
And this brings me back around to Dr. Henry’s non-anxious observation to Dr. Moore that I quoted at the beginning of this posting. Christianity isn’t broken, and every time in church history when people were worried to death that it was, Christianity has broken free from the church’s torpor to experience completely unexpected and thoroughly remarkable advances. This is true today, for you see, even as the North Atlantic Christianity of America and Europe struggles, the Christianity of the Southern Hemisphere – African, Latin American, and Asian Christianity – is exploding, once again proving the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s famous observation – “At least five times …the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died. How complete was the collapse and how strange the reversal.” But in this observation there is also a warning – the temptation to make adjustments to “the Faith” – “to repackage God, the Bible, Jesus, the church and the Gospel to suit” the changing preferences of this or any generation is a recipe for disaster. As William Ralph Inge (1860 – 1954), the famously dour Anglican Theologian, put it – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”
Back in December of 2011, Anthony D. Baker, a professor down at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, wrote an article for Christianity Today called “Learning to Read the Gospel Again: How to address our anxiety about losing the Next Generation.” It is the wisest response to Millennial Anxiety that I have come across to date, and so in closing I offer you the gist of his argument –
A few months ago, a graduate student in practical theology asked Stanley Hauerwas for his perspective on new church movements, especially emergent church movements. Disarming and epigrammatic as ever, the man whom Time once called “America’s Best Theologian” replied, “The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.”
…[But] isn’t “doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday” the trouble? Can we afford to engage in business as usual if business as usual is sinking the church? It all depends, of course, on what “same thing” we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if “the same thing week after week” means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.
Of course, just like missionaries entering a foreign field of service, we’ve got to learn the language and understand the culture of the people we are trying to reach. Generationally, people speak different languages and inhabit different cultures, and so “my” church – the baby boomer church… or is it the generational church of the builders – we have some real work to do to reach the next generation of the Millennials. But what we are trying to reach them with is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so learn their language in order to be able to communicate with them effectively and probe their culture in order to be able to make the critical connections with them, but in this process don’t lose the Gospel, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
When he was a youth minister, the great 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the anxious church of his day about what it would take to reach the next generation. He named as his very first principle a principle that we would do well to claim as our own today in our anxiety about the Millennials –
Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God. (Andrew Root – “Why Your Millennial Outreach Needs a Bit of Bonhoeffer” – January 27, 2015 – http://www.christianitytoday.com)