Every generation has struggled with how to effectively communicate with the next. Perhaps no generation has seen the world changing as rapidly as it has in recent years. How can we preach to a generation facing so many changes?
Actually, we would do well to recognize that there is not simply one new generation. Each different culture has a new generation with unique features. As well as the world around us, we also need to recognize that there is a new generation within the church too – a new generation that also needs to be invigorated with a love for God’s Word, a passion for the Gospel and most of all, with a delight in the Savior. However, across cultures and whether inside the church or outside, there are some common features that seem to define this new generation.
For a while they were referred to as Generation Y – the generation that followed X. Born after the early 1980’s, they reached early adulthood at the start of the millennium. The Gen-Y label appears to have been a placeholder awaiting a better label, which it seems most agree should be “Millennials.” But the label is not as important as the characteristics.
First, this is Generation-Me – a generation brought up in an era of increasingly unanchored liberalism in respect to the economy, politics and morality. Combined with a general increase in wealth (or at least a reduction in the cost of “luxury” technology), this generation has been described as increasingly narcissistic and entitled.
Second, this is Generation-Like – Millennials are generally marked by familiarity with and use of digital technology, media and communications. It is now a social media world.
A few years ago I sat with a friend and he asked about how I would help my publisher to promote my new book. When I mentioned the use of Twitter he pointed out that if I wanted to reach the under-25’s then I needed to get on Instagram. Just a few short years later, now to reach the younger people I would probably need to get on Snapchat. I think I may have to accept my days of being fully up-to-date are now behind me!
Yet for the younger generation this is not an option. Many feel an overwhelming pressure to maintain their “streaks” on Snapchat – consecutive days of interaction with their friends that are measured and highlighted. For many, digital technology determines the definition of both friendship and personal worth. Some have labelled this as Generation-Like – a generation whose interaction with their ever-increasing community or tribe is continually more automated and superficial. With all the benefits of social media, many feel lost behind their self-published persona, essentially disconnected and lonely.
Third, Millennials could be called Generation-Unaffiliated. While tribal affiliation may continue in respect to brand ownership or loyalty to a sports or celebrity fanbase, most feel no abiding sense of loyalty to traditional institutions. When church-going Millennials move to a new city they will not automatically go to the same denomination that they left behind in the previous locale. For the unchurched there is an increasing disconnect from organized religion, period.
And yet there are two sides to every story. This generation values community, they long for meaning, they prize authenticity. At the same time they face economic and political uncertainty, are experiencing unprecedented religious confusion, and are feeling relational emptiness and insecurity, some might even recognize a sense of unidentifiable shame. The positive traits, and also the negative ones, all invite us to engage them with the hope of the Gospel. Like every generation, this generation needs Jesus, and only Jesus will truly offer life to the full.
So how do we preach hope to this new generation?
Ministry logic would suggest that while our methods may need to change, our message must always stay the same. The timeless truth for an ever-changing world. Indeed. After all, some streams have never changed methodology and have become increasingly irrelevant to the people they were trying to reach. Others have changed their message and thereby become impotent in their attempts to be more palatable or acceptable. Surely the wisdom holds true: we must change our methods, but never change our message.
A Surprising Suggestion
Actually, in this article I would like to suggest that we may need to change our message (and perhaps our methods too).
Before you cancel your subscription, allow me to complete the thought: we need to change our message inasmuch as the message we preach has drifted, shifted or shrunk from all that the Bible offers to us. The Bible speaks a perfect message for this new generation, but sadly too much of the church does not. It is as if we have settled for a 2-D representation of the truth instead of the rich 3-D reality the Bible presents. I want to suggest that too often we settle for a very thin version of the truth of the Gospel. What we say is true, but what we say is not enough. What we preach is biblically accurate, but what we preach is biblically incomplete.
I would like to suggest that there are four big questions we would do well to ponder. Four areas where our message may have grown thin, and therefore we will struggle to connect with the new generation. (For a more complete articulation of these four thoughts, please see my brief book Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t (Christian Focus Publications: 2015)
Question 1: Which God are we Preaching?
These four questions reflect four foundational assumptions that we typically do not think about. We assume that everyone thinks the same, but that is an optimistic assumption in every case. We would do well to take these questions into our Bible reading, as well as using it as a grid to analyze movies and other aspects of our culture.
A.W. Tozer famously wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We could look at any number of Bible passages, but let’s consider the book of Ephesians for one example. Paul begins by giving us his longest sentence in 1:3-14 – a massive sentence that presents to us the God of the Bible, the Trinity.
We have been lulled into complacency on this question. We assume that when we refer to God, our listeners will know who we mean. Actually, most people in most of the world for most of history have not shared that assumption. For most people, a reference to God would naturally be followed by a question, “which God do you mean?”
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul presents the Trinity: we have been chosen by the Father and redeemed by the Son; chosen by the Father and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Three times we find the recurring conclusion that all God has done is “to the praise of his glory” (see v6, 12, 14). Actually, don’t miss the first time Paul uses the phrase, for there he gives the full version of it, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” (v6) This portrait of God is a portrait of a giving, gracious, loving God who has lavished us with his grace (see v8). If you trace through the whole book you will find that the loving initiative of the Father is a dominant feature of the letter.
What happens if we don’t watch the text carefully and answer this first question? Then we will tend to present an increasingly thin version of God. We will tend to offer a more philosophical deity that is powerful, creative and sovereign, but perhaps less relational, gracious and loving than the God of the Bible. Many preachers have reacted to the anti-authority spirit of our age by emphasizing the authority of God, but in doing so have made the God they describe sound much less relational and knowable.
Have you noticed how you are able to know whether you like a waiter or waitress within seconds of arriving at your table in a restaurant? The briefest interaction and you already know whether you like them or not. It is like we are tuned to respond to people. But many Christians in our churches might struggle to answer the simple question, “do you like God?” They know the correct answer to whether they love God, or believe in God, etc. But how is it possible to be a Christian for decades and yet not know if you like God or not? Perhaps our problem is that we have believed in a set of truths about God, but have failed to encounter the rich personal and relational reality of our triune God.
For the sake of the next generation, we need to preach the Trinity. The Trinity is not an embarrassing appendix to our theology, it should be front and center. In our evangelism, in our discipleship, in our church life, we need the Trinity, not a thinned-out version of God.
Question 2: What Does it Mean to be Human?
Preaching tends to treat listeners are either people that need to be educated, or as people who need to be pressured, or some combination of the two. Honestly, how effective has our “educate and pressure” strategy been in seeing lives transformed and matured? Perhaps we have assumed some truths about humanity that are actually fallen world assumptions and thus failed to engage the fullness of each person as the Bible itself does so effectively.
Ever since Genesis 3 we have been living in a corrupted and upside-down world. In this fallen world we assume that humans are autonomous decision-makers. We assume that we are all primarily rational self-starters. This morning I thought about which socks to wear and made that decision; therefore that is how every decision is made. If this is the case, then as preachers our primary tasks will be to educate in order to inform, and pressure in order to conform. But the Bible points to a different reality.
In Paul’s next sentence in Ephesians 1:15-23, we find his prayer for the believers in Ephesus. He prays for them to know their hope, inheritance, and power. Yet this is not a passage that affirms an “autonomous humanity” assumption. Primarily his prayer is about them relationally knowing God. He prays that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened, that at the core of their being they would know him (in English we lack the differentiation between knowing a person and knowing a fact, but Paul’s Hebrew background would underline the more relational intention here). In fact, each part of his prayer is profoundly relational – it was the hope God called them to, it was God’s inheritance in the saints, it was God’s power toward them as they believed.
The idea that we are made in the image of God is not suggesting that we are a smaller version of that philosophical deity that just thinks and chooses. The image of God in the Bible points to the fact that humans are relational responders, we are defined by who or what we love. If we are going to effectively engage this new generation, then we need to get back to the biblical richness of what it means to be human. This generation is not looking merely for information and pressure to conform, they are looking for something deeper than that – and the Bible is where we find it. We need to preach a more biblical view of humanity.
Question 3: What is Sin?
Of all the questions, this is the one where we perhaps assume the most. After all, everyone knows what sin is, don’t they? The moment we make that assumption we will tend to drift into equating sin with sins. That is, we will only have half a picture of sin. Traditional evangelistic illustrations may not communicate today. For instance, “if your life were represented by this white sheet of paper, it would be perfect, but if I put one dot of ink on it, then it would fall short of perfection.” This is true, but it can also communicate that God is petty and restrictive. And yet the reality is that nobody is sent to hell for stealing a paperclip or for just one white lie. The bad news is much worse than that we are all slightly worse than perfect.
In Ephesians 2:1-10 it is clear that our situation is bleak in the extreme. We are not slightly hindered, but rather we are dead in our sins. We are caught up in an entire system that is working against God’s purposes in this world. And our participation? It is heartfelt. That is, the heart of the human problem is the human heart. We live in the passions of our flesh, we carry out the desires of our sinful nature. Our sin rises from the very depths of our being.
Thus, just as Martin Luther explained in his introduction to his commentary on Galatians, we live on a continuum which stretches from virtue at one end to vice at the other. We may move along that line, but we do not move off it. We may turn from vice to virtue, but we remain dead to God. God comes to us on another dimension, rescuing both the rebels and the religious from this self-absorbed world. Our sin may manifest as gross sin in the shadows of society, or it may manifest as self-righteousness in the pews of a church, but apart from Christ we are corrupt to the core.
When we allow our Christianity to shrink into two dimensions we tend to think of God as merely the lawgiver. Then we tend to think of humans merely in terms of our individual resources – our education, our experience, our possessions, our substance. It is as if we are defined by our resume rather than by the sum of our relationships. This “thin” Christianity flows on into our view of sin, where we think the issue is merely behavior and lawkeeping.
Whether we keep the law and avoid sins or not is not the whole story. Our problem is at root a love problem, not a law problem. To connect this new generation with God’s good news we need to do a better job of diagnosing the problem and declaring the bad news so that it is heard rather than sounding antiquated, petty and dismissible.
Question 4: What is Salvation?
If the bad news is worse than we had imagined, then the good news is actually better than we have ever dared to dream. Again, too often the Christian gospel is presented as merely a legal loophole. That is, even though you are guilty and deserving to be punished, Jesus has taken the punishment so that you can go to heaven when you die. It can sound like a heaven sent legal loophole.
I remember speaking at a student training event in northern England. I was chatting with a young lady over lunch who seemed so encouraged. I asked why this was the case and she relayed an illustration from a book she had read. She told of how she was the sinner in the dock and had been found guilty of sin and had to pay a fine. Then the judge took out his check book and paid the fine for her. She was blown away by that. I shared her joy and agreed that if that were the whole gospel we would have reason to worship God for all eternity. But that is not the whole story. I told her how that same judge got down from the bench and approached her. Not only did he pay her fine, but he also got down on one knee and proposed to her. Actually he did not get down on one knee, but stretched his arms out on a cross. Now she was even more blown away!
In Ephesians 2:11-22 Paul recounts how Jesus fulfills Zechariah 6 by building a temple and preaching peace to those who were far away, bringing them near and uniting them together as a temple for God to dwell in by his Spirit. This image of the temple is not primarily about the architecture, it is about the indwelling presence of God by the Holy Spirit. Paul continues this image of the temple through the next chapters of the book.
It is the dimensions of the temple in chapter 3 that speak of the indwelling love of God in his people. It is the unity of this temple in chapter 4, followed by reference to pleasing aromas rising up as his saints pray at the start of chapter 5. At the end of that chapter we discover that when Paul writes about husbands and wives he is actually speaking about God’s great plan to unite Christ and his bride, the church. We are in Christ and he is in us. We are one!
The gospel is wonderfully good news. It includes the wonderful reality of our guilt being wiped away as we are forgiven by God. But that is not all. We are also reconciled, we are baptized in the Spirit into Christ, united to Christ and brought into the most gloriously loving relationship and intimacy with God. We live among a new generation that may feel ambivalent about a thin gospel, but the relational richness of the biblical message can capture their hearts and win them to Christ.
From cover to cover the Bible offers us relationship with God our Father and Christ our brother, marital union with Christ our groom by the Spirit, friendship with God and intimacy with the Trinity. We need to preach the rich fullness of all that the Bible offers if we are to connect with this new generation. They crave authentic community, we have access to the richest community of them all – communion with the Trinity!
Method as well as Message
I said that we may need to adjust our message if it is falling short of the richness of all that God has communicated with us in his Word. But what about our methodology? Do we need to make some adjustments there?
This new generation is not really looking for celebrity performers, nor distant prophets. What they look for are preachers who are accessible and authentic. For us to be accessible means that we need to be relationally connected. We need to spend time with the people we preach to. When we preach we need to communicate warmth along with our words. Congregations can be like dogs – they can sense when you don’t like them. Check to make sure that your preaching conveys warmth to your listeners. Be sure to smile and remember that you are representing a wonderfully gracious God when you preach!
As well as relational connection, we also need to be appropriately vulnerable. We don’t achieve anything good by coming across as the experts in living the Christian life, the ones who always get it right. Don’t be the hero of your every story. Do be sure to show that you also struggle, you sin, you doubt, you fail.
Finally, for our authenticity to be felt by our listeners, we also need to consider our actual manner of delivery. In every area of society there has been a shift in communication style. While some of these suggestions may not be true in every subculture, gone are the days of learning to speak so that we can be heard in a vast auditorium. Now our effort might be better spent learning to be natural.
On the TV news, on the radio, in stand-up comedy, and in sales, there has been a shift toward a more natural style. My grandmother might have bought from a salesperson who could rattle off an impressive “sales pitch,” but my generation tends to hang up the phone when we sense the person at the other end is reading a script.
We will each have to consider our own subculture for specifics on how, but in one way or another we must be increasingly accessible and appropriately authentic. To put it another way, we need to be relational, just as the message we preach needs to be relational. This is not because of the new generation, even if it might be for them. It is because when we look carefully we find that what this new generation needs is what the Bible has been offering all along – the wonder of genuine community and relationship with our God, the Trinity.
May we consider our message and our methods in light of Scripture so that we can preach the old, old story with fresh vitality to our own hearts, as well as to this new generation!
This article is adapted from a theme address given at the International Congress on Preaching in August 2017, and it is based on his brief book, Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t (Christian Focus, 2015).
Peter Mead is one of the pastors of Trinity Chippenham, a church in southern England. He is a mentor with Cor Deo, a mentored ministry training program. He teaches preaching for Union School of Theology, as well as leading the Bible Teachers and Preachers Networks at the European Leadership Forum. He blogs at BiblicalPreaching.net