Boomers. Generation X. And now the Millennials. Sociologists can be very helpful for church leaders who are interested in understanding large demographic groups. As with all generalizations, these sociological observations are not perfect, but they are often quite perceptive. Who would argue that Millennials are an experiential bunch who strive to fight against labels while labeling everything around them? Who would argue that the next demographic, the so-called “iGen,” is going to grow up with more technology at their disposal than I ever imagined possible?
With that being said, many of the missiologists and sociologists who study cultural trends are telling us what we are likely observing: Millennials (and by default the post-Millennial “iGen” folks) are either bolting from or haven’t grown up with any connection to the Church. After the Pew Research Center confirmed this as an American fact, many offered their reflections as to why. Rachel Held Evans made her case in an op-ed for CNN. David Kinnaman offered a collection of reflections in You Lose Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith. And, no surprise to me, some of the most helpful thoughts came from Preston Sprinkle (here and here).
Some of my peers, those who are in the Boomer and Generation X spectrum, have essentially written the objections of the Millennials off. I think this is a huge mistake. We need to listen well and observe what is happening around us. The Millennials have, in my opinion, made it very clear that many of our “churchy” things are essentially ineffective and empty. In my opinion, Millennials aren’t necessarily rejecting Church; rather, they are rejecting a very American form of Evangelicalism that, truth be told, should be abandoned. The whole “knowledge-about-Bible-facts-is-transformative-all-by-itself” and rejection of an experiential Christian spirituality should be abandoned. And the Church was never meant to be shallow, inward-focused, and safe.
All this is to say that I value learning from the world around me. I’m completely and totally convinced that God is sovereignly guiding and at work in the societies around me and that the Holy Spirit is at work revealing the love of God to a desperate world full of chaos and conflict. My observations can inform my understanding of both the state of those in my culture as well as their needs. So after we have listened well to the generations around us, and have made the approrpriate changes necessary to be both faithful to the message of the kingdom and to contextualize that message, not to mention being a community of the kingdom, what do we have to offer Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Post-Millennials?
I think we need to invite all people, no matter the generation, to three specific commitments:
(1) Invitation to the Holy Spirit.
The pneumatological reality within the New Covenant is that the Abrahamic blessing included the promise of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14). Therefore, the Spirit is promised to all who call upon the name of Christ, regardless of whether they are part of Gen. X or Millennials, Modernists or Post-moderns.
And here is what I’ve found to be true, time and time again: living and walking in the Spirit is relevant for every generation. Moreover, because Millennials (and post-Millennials) are so experiential, the “Come Holy Spirit” prayer that the Vineyard is so famous for is extremely relevant. After all, as Moltmann notes in The Source of Life, an aspect of the Spirit’s mission is the renewal of God’s people as well as the renewal of all things. Experiencing God, not to mention the work of Christ and the benefits of his cross, are experienced byway of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, in order to be faithful to the message of Scripture and the tradition(s) of the Church, and in order to capitalize on the fact that todays culture / society is dominated by a desire for experience, we must beckon today’s (and tomorrow’s) generations to experience the life of the Spirit. The ultimate experience, and the ultimate reality, is that which comes by the power of the Spirit and which ends at the feet of Jesus. If Christian spirituality has anything to offer, and I believe it has much to offer the world, one of the primary invitations we proclaim is a true and eternal experience, not to mention the ongoing experiences that are a result of that initiatory encounter with God through Jesus.
(2) Invitation to the Church.
If there is one thing that drives me crazy, it’s the assumption that the Church don’t matter and has no value. Actually, not only does this make me crazy, I get borderline aggressive and have been known to throw things. Some might suggest that I’m only passionate about the Church because I’m a pastor… and I guess that would be a fair suggestion. I certainly love the Church because my life is caught up within her. But I’m in love with the Church, and fascinated by all things related to ecclesiology, because Jesus loves the Church and has not only chosen her as his bride / partner (Eph. 5:21-27), he has chosen the Church to be his sacramental instrument to the world. The Church is a (primary?) means by which the world experiences the grace of God.
Carl E. Braaten, in Mother Church, stated that “we are now in a struggle for the soul of the church.” For anyone concerned with ecclesiology, that statement, which was published in 1997, obviously still has a ring of truth to it. Yet I’d also ague that not only are we in a struggle for the soul of the Church, we are in a struggle for the value and priority of the Church. When some Evangelicals elevated personal salvation at the cost of giving up the value of the collective community of the kingdom, the result was an individualistic understanding of salvation that left the Church’s role in the empty “take it or leave it” vortex of death.
Yeah, you read that correctly. Christ without the Church… salvation without the Church… the Holy Spirit without the Church… is spiritual suicide. If, as Donald Bloesch states, “the church is an anticipatory sign of the kingdom that is coming” as well as “the springboard and vanguard of this kingdom,” an invitation into the kingdom is an invitation into the Church which reflects the kingdom.
Now I find many of the criticisms that Millennials have about the Church to be relevant, as I’ve already stated, so we need to be realistic in regards to understanding that having a better sense of the Church’s “soul” matters. But we equally need to articulate for Millennials why the Church matters, and why Christian spirituality must include a deep commitment to the collective people of God. After all, post-moderns are said to have a strong value for community… so it makes absolutely no sense when our churches have such low emphasis on koinonia.
Fall deeply in love with Jesus and fall deeply in love with his people and the various ecclesiological expressions that exist in the world. Commit to the church and then cast a wide vision to those around you. Create opportunities for the Millennials and post-Millennials, not to mention the Boomers and Gen. X folks around you, to experience the power of community, the power of partnership… the power of family.
(3) Invitation to Mission.
Speaking of the soul of the church, did you know that the Church actually exists for a purpose? While it’s no secret that many assume that the church exists for itself, to meet its own needs, this is antithetical to what Scripture teaches as well as in direct opposition to the historic way in which the Church has traditionally viewed itself.
I’m guessing that one of the reasons that the Church in the west has a tendency to lean inward is because we are often shaped more by American culture than kingdom mission. Yet there’s a profound connection for followers of Jesus: they are empowered by the Spirit to collectively gather and scatter as the Church that is on mission. The Spirit ushers people into the Church, which then continues being sent to the world for the sake of God’s great mission of making himself known to every tribe, every tongue, and every nation. The purpose of the Church is mission and the goal of mission is worship.
In my experience, this is what is so easy to communicate to Millennials, who often lack purpose yet know that purpose matters. They, if we are to generalize here, have a desire and longing to be a part of something greater than themselves. What cause is greater than the cause of Christ? What mission is greater than the Mission of God? What work is greater than the work of the kingdom?
Because of this, there is, I believe, great opportunity in dealing with today’s sociological sub-groups. If Millennials long for purpose, the work of the Spirit in the Church offers the most engaging and exciting mission available!
Spirit, Church, Mission: Invitation to Opportunity
Take heart. The Church has not lost its power or voice. If anything, the current cultural challenges provide missional opportunities that the theology and practice of the kingdom are perfectly suited to engage.
But you and I need to understand that it’s rather valuable, not to mention pragmatically effective, to have the ability to articulate, cast vision toward, and seek after encounters with the Holy Spirit, the Church, and Mission. The Scriptures are full of examples, lessons, and stories where this takes place and we, the followers of Jesus, have a responsibility to invite the world to, as Psalm 66 states, “come and see… come and listen” to what God has done.
And not only is it what God has done, it is what God is doing… by his Spirit… through the Church… for his Mission.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.