This is installment 3 in our series. You can find the other posts here: (Millennials Talk Millennials).
This week, we hear from Everett Henes. Everett is the pastor of Hillsdale OPC in Michigan. He’s 43 (yes we know that’s not a millennial), but he’s had extensive ministry opportunities with millennials for the past decade at Hillsdale College so we wanted to include him in the discussion.
The rest of this post is a summary of each question we posed followed by Everett’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?
Everett: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to chatter in place of exercise.” ~ Socrates, 5th century BC. It’s easy to talk down on any generation. As we grow older, we tend to forget that we were young at one point. We forget what it was like to fall in love for the first time, or to wonder whether anything we hope and dream will come to pass. We forget agonizing over things that, later, we wouldn’t agonize over.
I have been privileged to work with young people over the past 20+ years, with the last 11 of those years being in the OPC. There are certain differences that I have seen. Technology shapes young people more than we’d like to admit, even within our homes. In particular, most of the current younger generation has had social media for as long as they can remember. They follow accounts, interact easily, and respond quickly. This has shaped them even as it has shaped the culture around us. I have found this generation to be passionate and caring, but also willing to challenge boundaries and ask hard questions. To be honest, I don’t think there really is that much difference between this generation and the ones who have gone before it, all things like media being equal. What should we know? We should know that they are people who deserve our love and respect. We should expect to spend time with them, caring about the details in their lives and inviting them into ours. We should have them in our homes as well as in our worship. Our preaching should be willing to tackle hard questions and proclaim hard truths winsomely. I can’t stress, enough, that what they require most is your time and respect. Take them seriously and talk with them about serious things. They are not interested in worship that is catering to their supposed wants. Sure, it is true that many will go to the megachurch down the street and prefer a rock band and laser light show. But so many of them are looking for worship that is historically rooted that seeks to take seriously the moment and matter of worship.
In this way, the OPC/Reformed church is well-placed to minister to these young people. We have a tradition of those who have drunk deeply of God’s word and spoken and written widely. We have the catechism that can give Biblical answers to some pressing questions. I remember, in my first year at HOPC, sitting with a student and talking about our catechism. She asked, “Why does the OPC catechize their kids?” I responded by asking, “What is God?” She thought for a second, stammered a bit, and said, “I don’t know…he’s God.” I smiled and said, “That’s why. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” She was intrigued and took a shorter catechism back to her dorm and came back, wanting to understand more.
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?
Everett: Every generation better handles the technology of the previous ones. I remember my grandparents fumbling with the VCR time, when I could adjust it in seconds. My parents don’t text, but I do easily. Even still, I can’t keep up with the media and technology habits of the younger generation, and I don’t try. I know enough to get by and to talk with them. I think we need to understand, first, that technology is not inherently evil. We see young people on their phones, during church, and jump to conclusions that they weren’t paying attention. In my congregation, it’s more likely that they’re following along on their digital Bible. Older generations can someone looking at a screen is rude, or that they’re uninterested. It is true that the younger generation likely looks at screens too much, but that shouldn’t cause them to be written off. I’ve found that they respond well to being able to text me if they have a prayer request or a question. While they do not use Facebook the same way the previous generation did/does (sharing every detail of their lives), they are still on the platform and follow people. I like to put up quotes for an upcoming sermon I’m working on, maybe something that won’t make it into my sermon but will help them to be thinking about the topic or text. Quality video and websites will always be better and if we are able to afford those things, then great. Our church has not been able to do so, but we still use technology to communicate and it has helped us to stay in touch with young people. How do we do this? We publish a directory that includes cell phone numbers, and I make sure students know they can text and/or message me. We have also made good use of Facebook, with our church page and livestreaming our morning worship services.
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?
Everett: It’s impossible to ask the right questions if we aren’t hearing what their questions are. This is where spending time with them comes in, getting to know them and understanding what their questions are and why (the second part being just as important and sometimes more important). Young people are asking questions about issues of the day: abortion, gay-marriage, LGBTQ+ issues, how should politicians act, what does a Christian family look like, what does it mean to live a faithful Christian life, what are ways that the church has adopted cultural values without thinking or realizing it…they want to know how best to glorify God in these various areas and more!
I think the first thing we need to do is work on our poker face. What I mean is, our answer to their question (or shock at it) shouldn’t be the first thing we show. If we want to know what they’re thinking about or wrestling with, we need to be ready to hear it without overreaction or simply writing them off.
Beyond this, I think the large majority of their questions will only be heard as we engage with them outside of church. Hospitality is a big way to reach young people (well, all people really). Our homes are not ours, but given to us by the Lord to serve him. We try to get all the young people into our home throughout the year, at least twice. This is a real challenge with schedules, but it’s always worth it.
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.
Everett: I honestly cannot think of challenges particular to the Reformed church when it comes to reaching young people. They value serious engagement in theological questions. They want a robust worship that is historically and Biblically grounded. Churches that try to be hip and get them with coffee shops and smoke machines will be less appealing. Churches that take their history seriously and honestly embrace the mystery that is the Christian faith will be appealing to many.