On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

Work Unto the Lord, Not Unto the Advocate

elijah-in-the-desertAdvocating for justice is a difficult business at the best of times. This is not only because we are fallen sinners, but because we are finite and the world is a complex place. Moral discernment takes hard-won wisdom, passion, and a great deal of humility. Acting on it takes even greater courage and care. Few places seem require this more than the painful struggles around racial reconciliation and justice, both in the broader culture as well as within the walls of the Church.

Unfortunately, it seems particularly easy for discouragement to set in at just this point.

I do not consider myself an expert in these matters, though I have written on them occasionally. Still, I wanted to briefly speak to one particular sort discouragement: that of the frustrated ally. I have noticed among some of my white friends (especially Evangelicals) who care and speak out on issues of racial injustice and bias (often in the face of opposition), a disappointment and weariness that sets in when it seems that their efforts go unrecognized.

This discouragement sets in especially when some POC (people of color) advocates speak as if there are no white allies trying to stand alongside them. Or as if the efforts of certain allies still aren’t good enough—or indeed shouldn’t be seen as true efforts at all.

At that point, for some the question can become, “Why even bother?” And I get that. I’m not white (Arab and Hispanic), so I don’t typically struggle with white-guilt about these sorts of things. But I can imagine a bit of the frustration, especially if you felt you’d sacrificed and were doing your level-best from the heart.

To that frustration I would speak a few quick points and one major encouragement that might be summed up as, “Work unto the Lord, not unto the advocate.”

First, if you’re aiming your efforts in part to please the loudest voices for justice out on social media you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Prophetic voices are not often looking to hand out praises to those who are doing work that is the basic responsibility of Christians anyways. Also, the prophetic mindset is often more keenly attuned to what is wrong, what is still broken and needs to be alleviated, than applauding what is going right with some. Third, they are humans as well, who cannot see all and speak to all things. Finally, you should consider that they might not even be talking about you.

Second, I’ll be very Calvinistic and say that, as sinners, we often tend to evaluate our efforts more highly than we ought to anyways. I know I do that myself. In which case, there is likely more to forgive in our best works for reconciliation than we’d like to admit in the first place. We need to not rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from these voices and to grow in our work unto the Lord, by letting our first instinct be that of self-vindication. They are not perfect, and they may be missing some of the good in your work, but the Lord can use them to sharpen us nonetheless.

Third, following this, we need to remember that all of our work is done unto the Lord anyways.  As Jesus puts it in his brief parable, at the end of all of his hard work, all any faithful servant can really say is, “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). God does not owe us for our hard work for justice. We are to work, sweat, struggle, cry, pray, and go to bed only to wake up and go through the same cycle over again, simply because it is the proper obedience due to our Lord who wills justice.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important point, it is to the Lord that we work. And this is the forgiving, saving Lord who is our Righteousness. It is unto the gracious One whose eyes behold heaven and earth, who judges the living and the dead that we turn our efforts. In which case, we know that even if others do not see our efforts for what they are, he does. And on the right day, he will vindicate them and reward them.

What’s more, even our most impure efforts he will forgive and accept, for (as Lewis says) he is a gracious Father who is never satisfied, but quite easily pleased by the stumbling first steps of his children. Indeed, Jesus says there is a special blessing from the Father for those good works done without any public recognition (Matt. 6:4). This is a special encouragement to work from a pure heart unto the Lord alone.

That said, we should recall we have already been vindicated in Christ. In which case, our efforts for justice in the world are no longer part of our project of self-justification. They are carried out in the power of the Spirit because we have been united by faith to the Just One, Jesus Christ. And he is the one who is at work in us, giving us the energy to do what is right whether or not the voices whose approval we seek give it or not. We love them and we serve them, but we serve them because we work unto the Lord.

Take heart, then. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Is It Harder For Younger Generations to Commit to the Church? (TGC Video)

A few months ago, I was asked to film a couple of videos with The Gospel Coalition on working with young adults. In this one, I try to answer the question, “Why Is It Harder for Younger Generations to Commit to the Church?” I also try to seem not-awkward when talking direct to camera. Not sure how successful that was. Anyways, here’s the video.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can I Drag That Into Church?

snow bootsThis last Sunday was the first time I ever went to church in the snow. Chicagoland had its first snowfall of the season on Friday night continuing into Saturday, immediately transforming the landscape, covering the last vestiges of autumn red, gold, and hints of green, into a dense carpet of white powder. For a California boy, it was all a bit magical. I’d never seen snow fall before–certainly not outside my window.

Of course, that also means I’ve never dealt with snow as a reality of life. Because it is a reality of life out here. So much so that you have to get special gear for it. Not only jackets, gloves, and boots, but gear for your car like ice-scrapers for your windows and shovels to move the all the snow the snow-plow pushed up against your car in the morning. And there’s not just one kind of snow, the lovely white powder. There’s also slush. And Ice hiding under the powder and slush. And the salt, that gets poured out to get rid of the powder and the slush and the ice.

Needless to say, it can get a bit messy, especially when you’re trying to walk indoors. No matter how hard you try, or how good your boots or doormat are, it’s difficult not to track your mess inside, without taking off your shoes altogether. And even then, if the snow has been kicked up on the legs of your pants, it’s just inevitable.

Which brings me to church.

Every week at church one of our pastors leads us through a time of corporate confession of sins and an assurance of pardon. This week my pastor Jason noticed the tentative way people were walking into church. “Are we allowed to come in like this on the clean wood floors? Is all the salt, slush, dirt, and powder too much of a mess for church this morning?”

He pointed out that’s the way all too many of us walk into church every week: “Am I allowed to come in like this? Is this mess okay in here? Can I come sit in the pews with all the slush, grime, and filth from my life? Is this sin too dirty to clean up? Is my mess going to stain the carpet? Do I have to make sure I’m gotten every single speck off before I walk through the door?”

The good news of the gospel is that God’s church is a place of welcome because the God of the Gospel is a hospitable God. Our forgiving Father does not require you to clean up your mess to come through the door. In fact, in the gospel, he has sent his Son out into the highways and byways to collect you from the cold and the slush you’ve been wearily trodding in. In baptism, he himself gives you a new set of clothes–his own garment of righteousness to clothe you. And he sits you down to be warmed by the gift of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Finally, in the Lord’s Supper, he feasts you on the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant.

So to answer the question, “Can I drag this dirt into church?” Yes! Of course, you can. That’s the only way anybody ever makes it through the door.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (TGC Review)

searchingforsunday_229_350_90Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pp. $16.99.

Disclaimer: Rachel Held Evans is an “internet friend” of mine, meaning we’ve never met in person but over the last couple of years we’ve laughed online, shared prayer requests, and encouraged each other in difficult moments. We’ve also argued, publicly disagreeing in articles and on Twitter about important issues. So I hope this review is read in that spirit: one of affirmation and critique from a friend.


While her first book (Faith Unraveled, 2010) tackled issues of doubt, science, and faith, and her second (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012) examined problems with, well, “biblical womanhood,” the title of her third entry, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, similarly says it all: Evans shares her story about leaving and finding the church again in a new way. Arranged in seven sections corresponding to the seven Catholic and Orthodox sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage), she chronicles the various glories and pains of growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist evangelical tradition and offers an apologetic of sorts for leaving(?) for the mainline when the incongruities of the former proved too great. It’s a story about death, and yes, resurrection.

Beyond that, Searching for Sunday is purposely presented as an archetypal story (xi). According to the stats, millennials are apparently leaving the church. Evans’s own story of departure and return aims to articulate some of the millennial experience to a confused church: their doubt that won’t be satisfied with easy answers; their fear of exclusion; their burnout from the culture wars and the marriage of evangelicalism with conservative politics; their fatigue once the strobe lights, hip music, and gimmicky youth games didn’t distract them from their burning questions or the pain of their LGBTQ friends. Evans also aims to point the way to a Christianity—a church—with arms open wide enough to draw them back, just as it has drawn her—questions, struggles, and all.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Evangelical Church Listicles Waiting to Be Written

There’s a certain kind of self-indulgent listicle that keeps being written about nearly everybody. You know the kind. “18 Things Only Introverts Will Get.” “95 Reasons Whovians Are Imaginative Flowers.” “13 GIFs to Explain Why Left-Handed Shamans Are the Best Spiritual Advisers.” They’re mostly harmless bits of “Hey, someone else gets me too!” Buzzfeedery, if a bit narcissistic. My problem comes when these types of articles are written with an air of revelatory gravity.

The Holy Grail, for me, consists of the listicles related to “millennials”, the church, and, of course, the failures of Evangelicalism. Often times they’re little more than performative exercises in show-martyrdom. Mostly fruitless, they tend to do little more than reinforce our over-weening sense of entitlement, aggrievement, and disaffection from the Church.

Even though they’re kind of paint-by-numbers predictable at this point, they’re still good one thing: getting shares and clicks for bloggers.

Now, maybe it was sympathy, or despair, but I reached a point today where I figured, “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em”, and so I decided to propose a few future titles on Twitter for a possible listicle of my own. I present them here for your approval. Also, because I probably don’t have anything else to write at this point.

And finally,

If you’ve got any suggestions of your own, go ahead and leave them in the comments. I just want to make sure if I write it, my list is the listiest and clickiest of them all.

Soli Deo Gloria