This is installment 8 and the final in our series. You can find the other posts here: (Millennials Talk Millennials).
This week, we hear from Charles Williams. He is 38 and one of the pastors at Bethel OPC in Wheaton, IL. While technically not a millennial, we make an exception because Charles’s ministry is committed to campus ministry. Charles was introduced to the Reformed faith through RUF ministry and he went to seminary with a specific desire to minister to college students.
The rest of this post is a summary of each question we posed followed by his answers. (As you read, you will notice he put most of his thoughts under the first question which is lengthy and the final 3 are brief).
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?
Charles: In ministering to anyone, anywhere, we must ask how sin (which is common to all mankind) expresses itself in particular ways within our respective communities, so that we know how to address specific sins and proclaim our Savior in specific, concrete ways. Regarding millennials, I think there are at least five factors we need to consider: how identity politics are shaping the modern mind; motivations and conceptions of justice; the hyper-politicization of the church; digital media and the modern mind; and aberrant doctrines of God.
One of the major issues millennials face is the question of identity – ‘Who am I?’ We confess what Scripture teaches: that ‘God created man, male & female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures’ (WSC 10). Consider the implications: we are not an evolutionary byproduct; men and women share the same dignity as God’s image-bearers; all mankind is obligated to reflect God’s character in obedience to him – in what we think, in what we do, and in how we live; and that we have been placed over creation as stewards under God. Scripture also tells us that this image has been marred by sin, though not obliterated, and that the only hope for restoring the shattered image is found in Christ alone. In other words, Scripture provides a robust ‘doctrine of identity’ that takes into account man’s relationship to God, one another, the created world, and history.
By contrast, identity politics lets millennials answer the question (‘Who am I?’), much like attending an all-you-can-eat buffet. Here you can cherry-pick evolutionary theory, age, race, gender, sexual impulses, income, education, and even geographical locale as basic condiments to construct your own personalized persona. For sure, prior generations allowed other factors to determine one’s own identity, too, such as nationalism, political ideology, and family ties. These are not all bad things – some are quite good things. But the current climate has sought to untether the question of human identity from its created and historical moorings, such that many are living in self-deluded dream worlds.
While the church proclaims that man has been created, engendered, endowed with moral virtue, and granted a vocation and stewardship over creation in subservience to God, the modern world screams that we are all evolutionary byproducts identified on the basis of skin pigment and sexual appetite. The church must ask: which worldview is the more narrow-minded? Despite opinions to the contrary, the gospel is still relevant in the twenty-first century.
There is another challenge that we face in serving millennials. Moral reasoning is now governed according to therapeutic concepts rather than notions of virtue. Where Scripture speaks of love in terms of fulfilling one’s moral duties to God (Jn. 14.15), our present culture speaks of love in terms of nicety & tolerance. Consent alone remains the sole moral absolute. This has led to a radical disorientation and redefinition of justice; and many millennials have begun to champion conceptions of justice, not in categories of right or wrong, but because it gives them a sense of purpose. Perhaps this is simply the world’s latest iteration of attempting to fill the void, of instilling a sense of dignity, the latest fallout in the wake of the West’s attempt to cut the cord with its Maker. We live in a world where feelings trump integrity and moral reasoning, even as these therapeutic anthropologies flourish under the guise of a heavily politicized social justice. That this younger generation is sensitive to injustices in the world around us is a good thing; the challenge we face is reorienting their sense of justice and grounding it in God’s law rather than passing political fads. I think the extended reflection on the Decalogue in the Westminster Larger Catechism is particularly instructive here: if anything, it teaches us to become more sensitive to the ways in which we sin against God and neighbor, in thought, word, and deed; by sins both of omission and commission. The good news with which we have been entrusted is that there is a moral order, and that life is not meaningless; but that that moral order is grounded in the created order, a creation which itself attests to the existence and power of the God in whose image we have all been made (Rom. 1.18ff).
SPIRITUALITY OF THE CHURCH:
There is a third challenge we face: the politicization of the church. One of the (many) advantages in having a confessional standard is that it helps the church from capsizing to the winds & waves of passing fads. Now I serve in the Mecca of Evangelicalism: Wheaton, Illinois. The problem we face in Wheaton is not a shortage of churches; our problem is that there are so many churches, with little to no confessional basis, which run the risk of shipwrecking the faith, and the faith of those in their boat, as we enter into the latest storm. Just as the current political discourse – be it from the left or the right – has weaponized so many individual conversations, I fear the same will befall the church if we are not careful.
One of the basic principles of our ecclesiology is that the church is not an arm of the government, but a distinct and spiritual institution – Christ’s kingdom visibly manifested on earth (WCF 25.2). We have been commissioned to preach the gospel. There are many social causes that are good, but our task is to preach sin, and salvation in Christ. No other institution has been commissioned with such a task. This particular challenge, then, lies in convincing the next generation of the importance of the spirituality of the church. What is it that makes the church distinct from other social or political organizations? In what ways should we care about justice, yet remain separate from particular political party affiliations? What makes the means of grace more important than political protests? In a world that exalts the individual and rebuffs long-term commitments, why is church membership, regular church attendance, and even church discipline healthy for one’s spiritual vitality? The doctrine of the church is not an optional doctrine: what we believe about Christ’s kingship finds its expression in what we believe about church government.
A fourth challenge we face regards internet usage. The most obvious problem is pornography. This is perhaps the most common issue we face in our churches, and not just among young people. No other generation has had such access with such ease. Recent statistics on regular porn-usage among younger demographics are near-universal. We do not yet know the effect this will have fifty years from now on relationships and the home. Consider the way in which it rewires brain activity, alters expectations, perverts appetites, fosters addiction, enables sexual violence, destroys the marriage, and contributes to the ever-growing reality of the sex slave trade in the modern world. If we are still feeling the shockwave of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, what will be the impact of porn usage a generation from now?
Yet pornography is not the only problem we face when it comes to internet usage. Technology addiction is very much a real thing. I used to teach at a boarding school before entering the ministry. One night I had to confiscate a boarder’s laptop because he would stay up all night playing video games and miss class in the morning. Though utterly non-responsive as I explained to him what I was about to do, as soon as I touched his laptop, he jumped up and threw me against the wall.
Twenty years ago, bullies were largely the provenance of the physically strong, at least among males. Now, with the advent of social media, anyone can be a bully. It takes no time to create an anonymous Twitter account and slander those you hate. Not only can one hide anonymously, one can totally fabricate their own life. How easy it is to give the impression that you have the perfect life, and how easy it is to envy those lives as we scan their media feeds.
One way we have sought to address these issues at our church is by offering a Sunday School class where we applied the Decalogue to social media consumption: be it idolatry, pornography, trolling, coveting, or the like, God’s law is just as relevant in the digital realm as it is the rest of the world. The only way to pry their eyes off their phones is to set their sights on heaven (Col. 3.1-2). Christ’s glory must still be proclaimed.
ABERRANT DOCTRINES OF GOD:
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must reclaim the church’s confessional heritage in what we think and speak concerning God. The advent of information technologies, smartphones, tablets, and social media platforms have made the world smaller; but have also altered how we understand the world around us, how we relate to one another, and most importantly, what we think of God. Everything is available at the touch of a screen. At the press of a button we can purchase and have in a day’s time nearly any item on our front doorstep. Materialism is almost a given – it is nearly assumed to be a basic human right that individuals are entitled to things considered luxury items a generation ago. More and more people have become addicted not just to stuff, but pornography. One’s entire world can be crafted and reduced to the very technologies they employ.
In light of this, the church needs to continue to proclaim the holiness of God. Every generation affirms some true things about God; but we must ensure that we proclaim the whole counsel of God, concerning the nature of God. For us to proclaim anything else is to preach but another man-made idol – a god unable to hear, unable to pardon, and unable to save. Unbelievers fashion gods into their own image; our preaching and ministry to them must shatter those idols, whatever permutation those idols take. The antidote to the selfishness, the felt needs, and solipsistic narcissism of the west is the transcendence of a holy God; to remind the world that the God who is I AM is quite unlike us, though we have been made to be like him. It is the holiness of God that rouses us from our slumber, and reorients our thoughts toward the God who does not change.
Question: Technology and digital communication is a seemingly ever-present topic when talking about this generation—especially for churches of varying stripes. Millennials 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?
Charles: We should recognize the ways in which digital technologies have shaped and are shaping the newest generation. It is true that the use of digital media is not in itself a sin: it’s merely a medium. Nevertheless, the medium itself communicates a particular message. Social media usage and identity politics have contributed greatly to a hyper-individuated culture. More and more, everything is being tailor-made to cater to the individual’s own appetites. Individual expression is now validated at the expense of a core common identity. Preaching the universality of sin and man’s need for a Savior will sound odd, even irrelevant, to modern ears; but the task of preaching is not to be relevant, but to demonstrate the irrelevance and transience of what this world deems as important.
Although appropriating digital media (such as church websites) can be a great good – most kids don’t use phone books to look up churches when they head off to college! – we cannot let the medium distort the message. Preaching is not a podcast; we should not treat it as such. How many people think it is ok to skip out on Sunday worship because they listened to an online sermon at the gym earlier that week? If we reduce a sermon to a sound-byte or a YouTube clip, then we have lost the communal nature that the sermon has in the life of the church.
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?
Charles: Theological Liberalism has skewed the Christian message. According to both newsroom & classroom, Christianity crushes diversity, is implicitly racist, and explicitly homophobic. One of the biggest concerns we face in this cultural paradigm shift is that the New Sexual Ethic can cause even the most faithful covenant children to second-guess whether or not we are simply adhering to an outmoded morality. This is nothing new: the Roman Empire accused Christians of being atheists, cannibals, and incestuous. For years there was much overlap in America between social norms and Christian ethics. That can no longer be presumed. What this means is that the church can no longer assume that our neighbors hold to the same ethical presuppositions we do. As such, we need to be more rigorous in terms of knowing what we believe, and more tender in explaining why we believe it.
Of course, every generation carries its own set of horse-blinders. Perhaps we have been too racist and too homophobic. But we need to let God’s word, not passing political fads, attune our ears and hearts, so as to be more sensitive to the many ways in which we continue to sin. We should take the time to consider our present situation, and evaluate the ways in which we as the church should deepen our repentance.
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.
Charles: We must remember that sin is multifaceted in its effects: it is forensic, corruptive, and alienating. Right now the cultural impulse is attuned to matters of alienation. With the hyper-individualization of society, there is a heightened sense of loneliness, and a longing for deepened friendships. It’s amazing how many friends or followers one can have on social media, and still feel utterly alone. Add to that the matter that as churches seem to be dwindling, it becomes harder for single Christians to find fellow believers to marry. These individuals might need particular care. I think the Reformed tradition has a distinct advantage by being able to address these cultural concerns by showing the beauty of Christianity in proclaiming our adoption and reconciliation to God in Christ.
That said, we must be careful to proclaim the whole counsel of God. This means not just meeting ‘felt needs’ of individuals, but working to retune their hearts to become more sensitive to the word of God. This means continuing to proclaim the forensic and corruptive aspects of sin as well. Scripture says that all mankind is truly guilty, regardless of how ‘guilty’ we may or may not feel. The antidote to guilt is not self-empowerment; nor is its cure found in pretending that guilt is merely a social construct. The only solution is the righteousness of Christ. Likewise, we are instructed to instruct them, that because sin is corruptive, it must be put to death. We need to be diligent in training the next generation what it means to die to sin and live to Christ. And we must be careful not to separate growth in grace, from the means of grace.