We start a new series where we asked several OPC Millennials to talk about reaching Millennials. We provided 4 broad categories of questions, which you will see summarized, to prompt our respondents. These were simply prompts, and we gave them broad leeway to talk about important matters related to the OPC reaching millennials. A millennial is most commonly defined as born between 1981-1996, or currently 22-37 years old. We basically used that definition with some looseness on the bookends of that range.
Our first respondent is Ben Ward. Ben is 27, recently completed an OPC church planting internship under Eric Hausler in Naples, FL. He grew up in a liberal Presbyterian home but became an “evangelistic atheist.” After becoming a Christian, Ben was a member at Covenant OPC in St. Augustine. He is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Seminary and is in the process of accepting a call in the OPC.
The rest of this post is a summary of each question we posed followed by Ben’s answers.
Question: There is a lot of talk in the culture about millennials. Some say they are snowflakes and soft. Some say they are cause driven more than other generations. Some say they are irreligious; others religious. Some say the religious ones want church to be free and fun; others say they want deep liturgy and tradition. In your experience how would you describe this generation? What makes them unique and in particular what should we (OPC/Reformed people) know about them when thinking about reaching people for the gospel in that demographic?
Ben: Like any large group of people, there is variation between the different individuals within the group. However, I think a couple of things can be said about this group of people (of whom I am a part) as a whole.
Phoniness and inconsistency are big turn-offs to millennials. This was a huge factor to me in my conversion: when I found Christians who actually lived like the Bible was true and practiced all its implications in their lives, I was moved closer to Christ by the Spirit. For the most part, millennials have not grown up surrounded by a culture of conservatism and Christianity. Rather, they have grown up in a mostly secular culture which had a Christianity in name only. They have little patience for a Christianity which is only a cultural veneer to cover up pettiness and bitterness and unbelief (in both conservative and liberal churches). Even while most millennials have an instinct to dislike biblical Christianity, for the most part they can understand and respect someone who really owns and believes their faith in an articulate, thinking way. Therefore the only people who can really reach out to millennials are the “real” Christians, not the cultural ones.
As far as the religious millennials are concerned, free/fun liturgy and life versus deep/traditional liturgy and life matters less than whether the millennial in question is allowing truth to move them, or aesthetics. What I mean by that is that the same millennial can love contemporary church and worship or traditional church and worship for the same reason. When my wife and I were in seminary, we noticed that a lot of students there made a transition from a contemporary free church context to a more traditional (usually Anglican) context. The reasons for this were usually the same: people from churches that were free and fun couldn’t stand up against the things they were learning in church history or systematic theology or exegesis courses; their churches seemed shallow and they wanted to make a change to something “deeper.” Often the reasons they went to Anglican churches were because these churches felt deeper and more connected to history (smells and bells, robes, highly structured liturgical practices), but often the theology in these churches was just as flexible as the broadly evangelical churches which they had left. And they didn’t mind. Sadly, most millennials, having been raised in a culture dominated by images and “experiences” rather than truth, is not moved by truth claims as much as by aesthetics. Does it feel right? Does it have a compelling story behind it? The first step, in my mind, is not just to try to convince them of their need for Christ or the truth of the Bible, but of the reality of truth in the first place. Only when millennials realize that they believe in objective truth and then are confronted by the Bible and Jesus will they start to be reached for the gospel.
Question: Technology and digital communication is a seemingly ever-present topic when talking about this generation—especially for churches of varying stripes. Millenials are YouTubers, FB is so old, etc. What would you tell (OPC) people 40 and older about this generation’s media and digital habits that help churches better communicate to them? Will using new mediums of communication and media (video, podcast, current social media platforms) help churches communicate to AND hear from this generation? Any specific ideas or recommendations how churches could be more effective in this area?
Ben: Most millennials have grown up surrounded by digital technology of one form or another, in such a way that it makes us hesitant to detach from it. This much is pretty obvious to people interacting with millennials and perhaps is even mystifying to other generations (though I’ve seen plenty of Boomers addicted to their phones, too!). I have even seen some in older generations write off millennials completely because of the fact of their obvious phone/technology addiction. Don’t do that. Reformed people, and older people in general, have a tremendous gift to give in terms of experiences in person that millennials lack. But building trust has to take place. They will not open up to you if they don’t trust you. Offer your help and service to millennials in their lives. Encourage them to have real-world experiences and conversations. Invite them into your home and life to play board games and offer good food. Yes, they might still be on their phones a lot, but as they get to know you and feel less awkward they might open up yet and put down their phone.
Should older people use new mediums of digital communication to try to reach millennials? It depends. It is important to let people know about your churches and perhaps even be involved in online discussions about important theological issues from time to time. But millennials will only respect older people’s opinions on social media if those older than them know what the heck they’re doing. If the church or older person has an awkward Facebook page or responds to comments with only capital letters, the millennial will instantly disregard at some level that opinion. What is more important than an internet presence for a church or a person is being in the community and engaging people directly. Yes, have a church website with updates about what the church is doing. I have met plenty of people who have come to their Reformed churches because they discovered them online. But must you engage in Twitter and all the rest? In my mind those social media platforms do more harm to discourse than good. I say this as a millennial who gave up all of his social media in 2013. The important thing is: –whether you or your church engage in social media or not– continue to be informed about these platforms and how they work. Don’t criticize them from a distance with uninformed opinions about their use; that will not earn you any respect. Even though I have no Twitter or Facebook, I still go onto these platforms from time to time and read articles about them to stay updated on their use. It is very important to know the terms millennials are using even when you yourself do not participate in the things being described. For example, the “Facebook is old” mantra comes from Generation Z, not millennials. Most millennials I know still have and use Facebook. Most Gen Z people I meet, don’t. Whatever our engagement with digital technology, the most important thing is being an informed conversationalist about these things.
Question: There seems to be a sense that strongly Reformed churches aren’t always asking and answering the right questions for this younger generation. They engage with sources the older generations don’t even know about. They are engaged in cultural conversations many in the OPC are unfamiliar with……What do you think about the types of questions younger generations are asking and whether the church (as in OPC) is interacting with those questions? Biblical truth is of course timeless, but how we engage with the cultural moment–its institutions and ideas isn’t…..any specific examples of questions or categories of questions millennials are asking that the church (think OPC) isn’t engaging or isn’t effectively answering?
Ben: The only thing I can think of with this is that the OPC is discussing things that many millennials don’t care about because those millennials are not Christians. But that would be true for any generation. I think the OPC should just continue to proclaim the gospel, and her pastors and theologians should continue to develop wisdom in all areas of life. As a denomination, we have engaged with heavy political topics (abortion, illegal immigration, race, etc) as well as theological ones. Making people aware of those decisions and pointing people of any age to them and the biblical reasoning behind them is the most important thing. There will absolutely be helpful to millennials and others who think the OPC a dinosaur. But that has more to do with our theology than with our engagement of certain topics.
Question: Are there particular challenges that strongly Reformed churches face in reaching millennials—whether cultural, theological, relational? Obviously, there may be challenges over things we would never change or want to change, but others may be things we could work on. Either way, we’d be interested in your thoughts on what challenges we, in particular, face in reaching this generation and any ways we might work on overcoming those challenges.
Ben:Don’t be any weirder than the gospel already makes you. Being a faithful Christian will already make you weird in lots of people’s eyes. So other than that, try to be a normal person. If non-Christians see that a “normal” person with regular interests, fashion sense, and odors can be a faithful Christian, they will be much more likely to hear the claims of Christ from that person. Christians just need to be real people. They shouldn’t be self-righteous or isolationist. They need to be involved in the community and well-informed (as much as is possible) about contemporary political, cultural, and theological issues. Lastly, Reformed people need to be servants of others. That is the greatest way to exalt Christ to any individual or group of people: worship, be faithful, serve.