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

Kingdom Opportunities Means Kingdom Adversaries (TGC)

Kingdom adversariesPaul’s ministry philosophy never ceases to surprise me. Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wraps things up by informing them of his plans to come to them soon, but not yet: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9).

Paul says he’s going to stay in Ephesus because there’s a wide door open for effective work. Apparently people are responding to the gospel, being discipled in the way of the Lord, built up into the image of Christ, developed into community, and trained as elders. The kingdom is moving forward.

Also, “there are many adversaries.”

I don’t know why, but that little phrase stopped me short. I suppose that despite everything I’ve seen, read, and been told about Christian ministry, I still have this sense that if God is for a thing, there shouldn’t be any opposition; if it’s a real opportunity for the kingdom, that will automatically mean the field is clear and there are no obstacles or enemies. My assumption seems to be that if God is with me, then everything will go smoothly and all will embrace me.

And yet nothing in the story of Scripture leads us to believe that’s true.

You can go read the rest of my article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Thistles and Thorns in Ministry (Leadership Journal)

thorns

Thistles and thorns—that’s what the earth gives up to Adam this side of Eden. Adam’s work is no longer a pure good undertaken in delighted obedience to his Creator, but a toilsome chore. The sweat of his brow mingles with the dirt as he engages in the mighty contest, hand to the plow, wrestling life from sandy soil. Life after the Fall is hard and nothing comes easy. Reflecting on life under the sun, without the hope of redemption, Qohelet’s question in Ecclesiastes rings true today, “Who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

Basically, if you’re breathing, you’re frustrated.

Thorny questions

For some reason, I forget this when it comes to my ministry.

Groggy with exhaustion and the mildest tinge of depression, I roll out of bed after a night of ministry with my students. I wander over to the coffee machine for the fix that will get me through my devotions. After a passage from John and a little commentary by Calvin, I stumble into my prayers. I thank God for the good things he’s given me; my adoption, my wife, and my call to ministry. Still, eventually the questions come:

God, what am I doing wrong? What needs to change? Why is it so hard? Where are the people? I did the thing the guy in the book said. I did the stuff the guy on the blog said. Why are the ones I have not growing up? I thought you wanted this to work?

You can go read the rest my reflections over at Leadership Journal.

“Give Light, O Lord” (A Prayer for Preachers)

lightBryan Chapell tells a story that should convict and encourage the heart of any preacher:

In one of the key debates during the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, one scholar spoke with great skill and persuasiveness for a position that would have mired the church in political debates for many years. As the man spoke, George Gillespie prepared a rebuttal in the same room. As they watched him write furiously on a tablet, all in the assembly knew the pressure on the young man to organize a response while the scholar delivered one telling argument after another. Yet when Gillespie rose, his words were filled with such power and scriptural persuasion that the haste of his persuasion was not discernible. Gillespie’s message so impressed those assembled as the wisdom of God that the opposing scholar conceded that a lifetime of study had just been undone by the younger man’s presentation. When the matter was decided, the friends of Gillespie snatched from his desk the tablet on which he had so hastily collected his thoughts. They expected to find a brilliant summary of the words so masterfully just delivered. Instead, they found only one phrase written over and over again: Da lucem, Domine (Give light, O Lord.)

                Over and over Gillespie had prayed for more light from God. Instead of the genius of his own thought, this valiant Reformer wanted more of the mind of God. His humble prayer for God to shed more light on the Word is the goal of every expositor. We pray that God will shed more light on his Word through us. We know that what we say must be biblically apparent, logically consistent, and unquestionably clear if we are to be the faithful guides God requires. It is not enough for our words to be true or our intentions to be good. To the extent that our words obscure his Word, we fail in our task. To the degree that our words illuminate the pages of Scripture, God answers our and our listeners’ prayers.

–Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, pp. 126-127

“Give light, O Lord.” May that be the prayer on the tongues of our people in the pews, and our preachers the pulpit.

Soli Deo Gloria

My Blog Is Holier Than I Am

arrivalI don’t think I’m an intensely autobiographical writer on this blog. I write with a personal element, of course, but I don’t engage in a lot of existential, self-reflection on here, where I arrive at some personal insight leading to enlightenment that I can share with others. I’ve realized that because of this, I might come off in digital print as a better person than I actually am.

I started thinking about this because I’ve been listening to Paul David Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling, on pastoral ministry, lately and it’s been good. Well, more like “hurts so good” kind of good. At one point, Tripp goes into the problem of pastors feeling like they’ve spiritually-arrived because of various factors like theological knowledge, ministry experience, technical efficiency, or the praise of others. It’s very easy for a pastor who is experiencing some ministry success or getting the praise and thanks of parishioners who only see their public ministry persona, to start believing their own press. People don’t always see the petty thoughts, the fires of pride just stoked by their well-meaning comments (which you shouldn’t necessarily stop, because plenty of pastors do need it), the dozens of shady words uttered away from hearing ears. In any case, it’s pretty easy for a pastor to be blind to their spiritual condition.

Of course, when I started to think about it, this easily applies to bloggers too. It takes little effort to convince yourself that because you can write well, communicate gospel truths effectively, and happen to have gotten a few breaks as a writer, that you’ve arrived. As the positive comments, shares, or tweets start up, you can quickly start thinking “Yeah, that really was a good post. Man, I really did help people. I do deserve this attention. How nice is it that people are noticing the great work I’m doing?” You might not even think this consciously, but that sense of pride and accomplishment creeps in and starts to rob your sense of gratitude toward the God of grace who called you and gave you whatever gifts and accomplishments you have.

I know that I’ve had to catch myself recently in this. I’ve caught a couple of breaks here and there (big for me, but still, it’s not like I’m a big deal), little bits of God’s grace towards me, and it’s amazing how quickly that can start turning into the sense of having arrived. Write a few posts paraphrasing Calvin and other smart people, get some nice feedback, and you start to feel like you earned it–like those insights are signs of deep wisdom and spiritual maturity. I can fool myself into thinking that because I know what to say about growing in sanctification, or engaging graceful polemics, I’m actually good at those things.

The funny thing is that this kind of pride is so wily, it can even apply to those bloggers who make a regular habit of ‘vulnerability’ and honesty about their weaknesses and foibles. Kinda reminds my of this mewithoutyou song, “WOLF AM I! (AND SHADOW)” where Aaron Weiss sings:

Oh, there I go showing off again.
Self-impressed by how well I can put myself down…
and there I go again, to the next further removed
level of that same exact feigned humility, and this
for me goes on and on to the point of nausea.

Even ‘humble’ self-confession can become a substitute for actual brokenness and repentance over sin.  Being ‘confessional’ in a setting like this can easily become an opportunity of self-aggrandizement and a way of reinforcing your false sense of spiritual maturity. I won’t even try to say that there isn’t a level at which that’s at work in this post itself. I wouldn’t put that past me.

That said, I figured it was worth the risk of sharing this little reflection in digital-print as a caution to a few people:

  1. Readers – If you’ve got particular writers you look up to for their spiritual depth, insight, and knowledge, don’t forget they’re just as sinful and in need of grace as anybody else. Even if they’re particularly gifted in talking about holiness and grace.
  2. Other Bloggers – Don’t be suckered into believing your own press. You might have tons of great readers, have writing successes, gotten pretty good at your craft, and actually are blessing people through your work. Don’t for a minute forget that you’re only used because God is gracious, not because you are entitled to it, or have somehow ‘nailed’ it. Constantly bring your work before Jesus and ask him to keep you honest and humble, even in the face of your writing successes.
  3. Me – I mean, I’m the one writing this, but it’s just too easy and too important to forget. As spiritual as my blog might read at times, it’s probably holier than I am.

Well, that’s it for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

Your Preaching Ministry is Only As Good As Your Praying Ministry

Another awesome beard.

Another awesome beard.

Young ministry-types like myself, especially in the Reformed tradition, are usually pretty concerned about the quality of their preaching. We study, we prep, we exegete, we outline, and practice, making sure that our sermons are sharp, sound, and culturally-relevant (well, some of us on that last one). There’s one key piece that’s often lacking in our zealous preparation–an area that God’s been convicting me about recently–the prayer prep.

J.C. Ryle has some convicting comments on that oversight. Commenting on Mark 6:30-34, here writes:

These words are deeply instructive. They are a bright example to all ministers of the Gospel, and to all laborers in the great work of doing good to souls. All such people should daily do as the apostles did on this occasion. They should tell all their work before Christ, and ask him for advice, guidance, strength, and help.

Prayer is the main secret of success in spiritual business. It moves him who can move heaven and earth. It brings down the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, without whom the finest sermons, the clearest teaching and hardest work are all alike in vain. It is not always those who have the most eminent gifts who are most successful laborers for God. It is generally those who keep closest communion with Christ and are most constant in prayer. It is those who cry with the prophet Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). It is those  who follow most exactly the apostolic model, and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Happy is the church that has a praying as well as a preaching ministry! The question we should ask about new ministers is not merely “Can they preach well?” but “Do they pray much for their people?” –The Gospel of Mark, pg. 90

Pastors, preachers, laborers for the Gospel in all forms, the message is clear: pray. Study, prep, practice, and strive as best you can to develop yourself as a minister and counselor of the Gospel. Don’t abandon the very necessary disciplines it takes to grow into the call God has placed on your life, but realize that without prayer, you’re trying to accomplish a spiritual work by purely human effort, trying to minister the Word in a way that effectively denies the Gospel of grace you’re supposed to be preaching. Let’s be blunt and say that this is folly. Remember, salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”(Rom. 9:16) Instead, pray and seek to “move him who can move heaven and earth”, and wait expectantly with faith, looking for God to breath life into dry bones. He’s done it before.

I mean, you’re here aren’t you?

Soli Deo Gloria

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later (Or, 3 Tips On How Not To Talk With Someone About Jesus)

evangelism

Some of us are scared we look like this. Others of us should be.

Some of us don’t talk about Jesus because we’re scared we’re going to screw things up. We don’t think we know what we’re doing, so we timidly hold back and hope someone else will step up to the plate with the person sitting next to us. Some of us realize we are that “someone else”, but screw things up because we’re not scared enough–or rather, we have a zeal, but it’s not a zeal in accordance with knowledge. We mean well, mostly, but for some reason when we try to share Jesus friendships end, restraining orders get filed, and we end up wondering where it all went wrong.

Believe me, I’ve been there. (Well, not the restraining order.) I’m not a naturally quiet kind of guy, so I’ve had my share of evangelism catastrophes. I’m not an expert at this. I still fumble. I walk away from conversations replaying various missteps, thinking, “I should have said this right there and waited a bit for that.” At the same time, over the years, through trial and error, various lectures, sermons, books, and plenty of the Holy Spirit working on me, things have gotten better. I can generally walk away from conversations having said something true, sometimes even uncomfortably true, about Jesus, and not have the person hate me, or scuttle away every time they see me. Sometimes that plays out into something more like being able to hand them a book, or invite them to church.

In the spirit of helping people who want to witness to Jesus more effectively, I offer 3 tips on what NOT to do:

1. Shoot First, Ask Questions Later – Let’s be honest, we have things to say. We have a Gospel message, a Bible-full of truth to share. Great. Awesome. I’m just going to point out, that if they don’t care, it doesn’t matter. You want to say something that means something–to them. According to Jerram Barrs, Francis Schaeffer used to say, “If I’ve got only an hour with someone, I’ll spend the first 55 minutes asking questions, and only then will I try to say anything.” See, unless you know something about the person you’re speaking to, you’re just going to be speaking at them. Instead, try listening first. Hear their story. Ask them about their life, their passions, interests, personal history. Often-times it’s only after knowing something about them that the Holy Spirit will guide you to speak some Gospel truth that actually connects with their lives and renders open to hear more. It’s better to plant a seed that takes root, than to try and ram a full-grown tree down into the soil with no prep. Even if it’s only something small, you have no idea what that seed will sprout into.

Update: My friend Sean Kelly adds, “Also be ready to share yourself with the other person. Asking them questions about their life is a great place to start, but they’re not going to take you seriously unless you’re willing to open up to them as well. Even if it’s just discussing simple, unimportant, everyday happenings. Otherwise, it just feels like an inquisition.”

2. Find Out What’s Wrong First – In a sense, the Good News is only good against the back-drop of some bad news. Forgiveness is beautiful in light of a ruptured relationship, meaning and hope in light of apathy and despair, grace in light of law, so on and so forth. Aware of this reality, many of us immediately go looking for what’s wrong with a person, whether spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, pounce on it, and then move to introduce the Gospel. Instead, maybe you look for what’s right first. Try looking for those points of truth, goodness, and beauty that the person acknowledges through common grace and the Image of God and start working from those shared values towards the truth of the Gospel. For instance, work from their sense of justice to the beauty of biblical justice, or from their sense of the value of art, to the firm rooting that God gives for creative activity. If you’re a pastor, you should probably try doing the same thing in your preaching.

3. Assume the Other Person Is a Strung Out, Fornicating, Blasphemer Ready To Eat Your Babies – This one may be obvious based on the last two: don’t assume the worst about whoever you’re dealing with. Do not condescend. Do not self-righteously huff and puff about with your moral fervor. Yes, theologically-speaking, they are sinners, depraved, with a darkened heart and mind, in need of the light of the Gospel (just like you).  At the same time, theologically-speaking, they are made in the Image of God, objects of his love, mercy, and the common grace of God, and have consciences that are often-times more finely-tuned than most Christians. Realize this: you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know Jesus, but is a much better person than you by most standards of moral evaluation. It is completely possible for you to learn about loving your wife, raising your kids, studying in school, general work ethic, and general life-knowledge from someone who desperately needs to know the Gospel. When you take that into account, it changes the way you to talk to them.  Again, first stop, listen, watch, and then speak.

At the most basic level, all of these tips boil down to one: when you’re talking to people about Jesus, do it with respect. We are told in scripture to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” and yet we are supposed to “do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) Treat people with the dignity that the Gospel requires–the dignity that Jesus himself commands.

Soli Deo Gloria