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

Willimon: 12 Disciplines for How to Listen to a Sermon for Sanctification

listeningWe have a loquacious God. At least that’s what Will Willimon thinks (“Preaching”, Sanctified by Grace, 221-233). And it seems he’s on to something. The Scriptures give us the story of a speaking God. One who brings the world into being with the word of his mouth. One who restarts the human project by speaking a word to nomad named Abram. One who gives us a people his covenant in 10 Words. One who inspires prophets and poets to proclaim his coming wrath and salvation. One who comes to us as the Word made flesh. One who saves us by pronouncing words of justification and forgiveness. It should come as no surprise then, that one of the key practices of our ongoing sanctification should involve the ministry of the Word. Hence the need for preaching.

Indeed, faith is essentially a posture of listening, of trusting the Word of the Lord above all other words. As Willimon puts it:

“one might characterize the whole of the Christian’s life as lifelong training in listening to God more than we listen to ourselves, taking God a bit more seriously and ourselves less so.” (pg. 227)

But that’s difficult, isn’t it? We naturally tend to rebel against what appears to be the passive act of listening, of sitting and hearing the word of the Lord through the mouth of God’s appointed preachers and teachers in the church.  It’s not something that comes naturally, especially in our distracted, consumeristic, advert-driven, social media culture in which we’re trained by Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section on every article we read, that our voice is the one that matters.

So how do we learn to grow as listeners of the Word? And by “we” I do mean all of us, really. Preachers are not excluded. Indeed, Willimon says that “preaching begins with listening” (226), so preachers ought to be the most interested in learning to cultivate the habits and skills of listener such as “humility, attentiveness, self-knowledge…focus, patience” and so forth.

Well, Willimon gives us a list of disciplines or attitudes contemporary Christians ought to cultivate in their weekly, sermon-listening (228-232):

  1. A conviction that these ancient Jews and first Christians know more than we about the true and living God. We’re moderns who typically have trouble submitting to cultures and ways of looking at the world that are different than hours. Sermon listening requires us to humble ourselves and listen to the words of Scripture, which presumably form the basis of all good preaching.
  2. A weekly willingness to be surprised by a sermon’s revelation that God is other than we might have believed God to be, that God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55.9), and that part of the adventure of Christian believing is being corrected by a sermon. We don’t come to sermons asking whether we agree or whether it fits with what we’ve always thought. Sanctification is a process that requires and expects correction of our old ways of thinking and doing, especially about God. Sermons are a part of correcting those old ways with the joyful truth of who God really is.
  3. An expectation that, in listening to a sermon one’s life may be caught up into purposes grander and more dangerous than one’s personal projects, namely a life commandeered by God. Sermon’s not just explanation but application. Listening to a sermon opens you up to Jesus’ command to “follow me!”, not just “agree with me.”
  4. The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus told sermons precisely in order to disrupt and reorder our ways of understanding the coming Kingdom of God. He brought the kingdom to bear in the lives of hearers that provoked new understanding and new living, not a rubberstamp on what we’ve always known.
  5. A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon. Sermons are first about God and what he’s done and then after that about us. We need to get over our pragmatic expectations about tips for living, personal happiness, and so forth, and understand that worship is priority number one. Willimon writes, “An always useful God, an instantly applicable sermon is often a sing of idolatry, making ourselves and our endeavors more significant than the Trinity.
  6. A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you. Don’t be a narcissist in your listening habits. Maybe you have to sit there one week and listen to a sermon that speaks more to your neighbor in the pew than you. Your turn will come soon. And who knows when that sermon will apply to you?
  7. A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit. Listening isn’t a natural work. We need the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to receive the Word. Pray for illumination and before the reading the Word and its preaching is essential for receiving God’s Word.
  8. An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. The Word bears fruit within the congregation over time. And the congregation is the natural habitat of the received word. We listen together, apply it together, understand it together, and worship in light of it together. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons a podcast in your living room can’t totally replace your church.
  9. A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God (2 Tim. 2.15) than for the love or ire of the congregation. Pastors need to be more impressed with God’s opinion than that of the congregation. They need to love their people, but loving them in such a way that they’re able to tell them the truth of God even when it requires deep courage.
  10. A joyful submission to the language of Zion, learning how to use the peculiar speech of the church, rather than demanding that the preacher attempt to translate our faith into language that is more acceptable to the culture. This one is fascinating since so many modern preaching theory puts a premium on “translation.” Willimon thinks there’s an element of strangeness that’s helpful in sanctification. The language of Scripture has a priority and a formative effect that is lost when we reduce words like “sin” to “brokenness”, or “error”, or “mistake.” While we should explain, we can’t replace Scriptural language.
  11. Joy in a preacher who attempts, on Sunday, to help us pay attention to matters we try to avoid all week long. Preachers are there to get you to think about things like meaning, righteousness, faith, grace, and death—stuff we’re usually too busy or distracted with “real life” to focus on. “By God’s grace, we can stand more truth, and put up with more reality than we think.” We need to be ready to hear about the Reality behind our everyday reality more often than we’d like.
  12. A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health) and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about. This one is fascinating. When we listen to Scripture or preach Scripture, we need to be ready to let Scripture itself—God himself—set the agenda of what we talk about. God always gets around to the things that matter to us, but usually we need the urgency in our heart reordered and our eyes opened to the issues that are pressing to God first.

These are the sorts of attitudes and disciplines that, if cultivated regularly, will lead to a sanctifying impact on our practice of listening to sermons week in and week out.

And if you want more thoughts on the sermon, the Mere Fidelity chaps discussed the future of the sermon without me a couple of weeks ago. You can listen to that here:

Soli Deo Gloria