Reaching Millenials – A Contrarian Perspective

1contrarianReaching Millenials – A Contrarian Perspective

My office was the quietest place in the building until four millenials walked in for a conversation. What started with an agenda to plan our annual Soccer Camp soon was injected with emphatic vitriol. All I did was briefly mention (since they actually asked) that one of the hot button issues in church ministry these days was reaching out to millenials. Little did I know that I was soon to get “both barrels.”

“Robin, I don’t want to be reached.” “Yeah and I don’t want to be targeted.” “Tell me about it, I don’t want to be talked about and analyzed as if I, my friends and my generation were organisms in a petri dish. We know what the Church is really after. We are the subject matter of numerous conferences, books and studies all for the purpose of solving the Church’s issues. The Church needs people in their auditoriums and dollars in their dwindling offerings. All I know is that I feel like we are being used. It is SO aggravating to be talked about as if the Church was even really interested in us. We know what’s really up…”

To say the least, I was taken aback by those tirades. I had called these young people, people who actually follow Jesus, for a simple conversation about a neighborhood connecting ministry that we had done for four years running. These young people were whom I regarded as partners. After the initial emotional blast, one of the young people, who just so happened to be Hispanic, expanded the conversation;

“I am just so offended…whether it’s millenials or Hispanics or blacks, we ALL know that we will NEVER have a place at the table in a meaningful way. It’s racist and ageist. We have to fit their box…their container…their ways of doing church…they just need us for the bottom line.”

Friend, it is trendy to talk about millenials. You cannot read a major church leadership website or blog or even peruse a book table as a conference without running into a speaker or seminar or keynote about reaching millenials. It is true, they are the “missing generation” in organized religion. It is also true that everybody wants to reach them but, you know what, they do not want to be reached. They don’t want to be targeted or dissected. They want a relationship with NO strings attached.

“The idea of a church trying to market to a group of people, trying to get into their heads to figure out how to reach them so it can sell CHURCH to millennials, however well intended, feels very commercial and not relational at all. Make the connection and have it be genuine and personal. Speaking for myself, there is always the question of "what's this person/organization trying to sell me or get out of me with this pitch?" Creating genuine relationships can remove that.” “

If I’m in a relationship with you, don’t try to get me to come to your church. I don’t want to be there. Now, if you are interested in helping me start a church, some form of faith community that engages me and my friends in a manner that actually takes our lives and concerns seriously, then we’ll talk.”

If you are attempting to reach millenials, check your motives. If you want a KINGDOM WIN you may have to give up your desire for millenials to boost your attendance and giving statistics. If you are ready to “turn over the keys,” then there might be some common foundation from which to talk.

The REALITY is that millenials have been birthed and steeped in a different way of looking at life than most of contemporary church. In academic circles we would call this a “worldview.” Millenials adhere to a worldview that is secular, materialist, humanistic, and steeped in naturalism. Yes, they may be people of faith but faith issues are so tangential to real life for these individual. What is apparent is that worldview shift is what can actually be seen in many of the generational behaviors that we are witnessing. Actions proceed from a person’s worldview. A worldview is the lens in which a person interprets life and acts in the world. So as you take a good look at the actions of new generations, you would be hard pressed to NOT acknowledge that the world has changed. You have to conclude that the worldview that affirms cohabitation, relational and ethical expediency, polyamorous paradigms, faith as “hobby” (a form of spiritual dualism that has not been seen to this extent in centuries), profane language, and a form of hedonism that is underscored and lived out in culture is one of divergence from what many churches consider the “norm.” Millenials have a decided clarity in how they actualize a lifestyle has as its foundation a humanistic and “closed system” of reality. If spirituality is a concern at all, it is a form of supernatural existentialism which affirms individualistic desire for meaning and purpose that is disconnected from traditional forms of faith and theological category.

The REALITY is that this generation is a product of their parents. Christian Smith’s groundbreaking research in which he coined the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” demonstrates and illustrates repeatedly that millenials are by-products of past generational narcissism. Yes, in many respects, you can blame the parents (most of US) of these young people for the state of their disposition toward church. For there was never an opportunity (whether soccer, academics, karate, etc.) that was denied to these young people. When you grow up knowing and seeing how issues of faith are simply one part of a tapestry or smorgasbord of options that a person has in life…when parents paid more attention to traveling team sports and recreational activities and less attention to spiritual formation and faith community connections, you can understand why we face our current predicament.

When leaders, speakers and authors outline the characteristics that distinguish millenials the implication is formulaic. In other words, to utilize a brief outline I heard recently at a conference, IF a church provides vocational discipleship, doesn’t focus on “hipsterism,” and capitalizes on the generation’s longing for spiritual connectedness and transcendence, you will see a Newtonian formula in action. A + B = C. Do those things and the millenials will come. It is interesting to me how USUALLY boomers are the ones lecturing about millenials. Again, you can’t be MORE “boomish” than adherence to process, systems, and guarantees. Unfortunately, millenials don’t fit nor do they want to fit in anyone’s formula.

In the town where I live we have a state prison. Recently, I met with the prison chaplain about what was happening in prison ministry. I’ll never forget what he told me when I asked him about how “we” could reach out to the prison population. He said, “Robin, do you want to minister to prisoners? Don’t reach a prisoner from the outside in. Commit a crime, be one of the prisoners and then talk to me about doing ministry with them on level ground. “

I believe the same dynamic is true for millenials. Build relationships with millenials….invite them to your home, have dinner and conversation. Build a discipling, a mutual discipling relationship with them. Empower them to speak into your life. Talk about Jesus (they have opinions about Jesus), share life and live out your faith. Don’t bring up church but rather be the church whether or not they ever darken the door of our congregations. For millenials KINGDOM wins are more important than Christendom or Organized Church wins. You want to be on a mission WITH millenials not FOR millenials. Be wary of formulas and resist the temptation to put the entire generation into a box of predictabilities. Remember, if you engage with the expectation of church participation, you are bound to lose. Rather, have a redemptive relationship. Walk through their life with them on THEIR terms. And by all means, drop the “reaching millenials” language or maybe you will be the one who ends up hearing and experiencing the next barrage of millennial religious angst.

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How a Disciple LIVES Jesus!

Disciple.Main_1Here's where this is all coming from…many of us have seen people come alive in Jesus Christ. Without training, extensive study, without commissioning or titles or degrees, many of us have witnessed disciples supernaturally discipling others. We have seen people transformed from being dead bystanders to being active and alive, passionately sharing the life of Jesus with all who come in contact with them.

For many of these people, being a disciple is not what they are aspiring to be or trying to pull off in the habits of their life…rather, it is something they know they are because they know the life of Jesus. In this instance, the Holy Spirit is producing fruit…they are not trying to be better people, attempting to be moral and upright and loving…they just are because of the power of God residing in their lives. If you were to type their blood, they would bleed Jesus.

For a disciple, Jesus is not a cause to be understood and/or represented…Jesus is their life, pure and simple. Why have many of us missed the boat? Why all the discipleship ministries and programs and studies in the local church and few actual disciples? Why do we have to do hand stands and heroic efforts to convince people to share their life, tell their God-story, live out their faith with Kingdom courage? Could it be that we are a bit confused when it comes to being a disciple? Could it be that we are finding it extremely difficult to paint a compelling picture of the experience of being a disciple? Could it be that we have succumbed to drafting a legalistic, "doing" vision of what a disciple is that has actually not brought life to people who desire to follow Jesus? Could it be that all of our efforts have led people more into sin management and shallow spirituality that remains an addendum to an already busy and culturally defined life (through narrowly defined spiritual exercises like the infamous "10 or 20 minute quiet times) than into the very life of Jesus in and through them?

I think we have gotten discipleship wrong and it is time to regain and then unleash the Disciple that lives within YOU! When some people talk about discipleship, they define it in primarily "privatistic" terms…as if being a disciple of Jesus is epitomized in a person's life as "private territory". Some describe discipleship as something that emerges out of a person's belief system, or that which is seen in an individual's devotional life (prayer, bible reading, quiet times, etc.)…for others it has to do with what a person "learns" about Jesus via doctrinal, apologetic, or theological exploration as if the more knowledge one has about God the more of a disciple they become. There is a problem with that though – cognition, mental assent, and doctrinal sophistication where never meant to be measurements of discipleship. Trust me…there is nothing wrong with knowing more about God and knowing God more. That should be one of the prime passions of every Christ follower. Rather what did (at least biblically) define discipleship was how the follower of Jesus responded in and through their lifestyle to the invitation to participate in the movement of God’s life in the world.

Make no mistake about it – there is a difference between being a "believer" and a "disciple"…they are not synonymous. Belief does not necessarily mean action…belief can lead and should lead to action. Discipleship assumes belief but primarily means action. Because of that, discipleship is best clarified in our lives by how much of the life and passions of Jesus are imitated in our daily experience. Jesus defines the disciple’s existence as we share in his divine nature and lifestyle. Below are some "ideas" of what discipleship can "live like" in someone who claims Jesus as Lord: "So then, you will know them by their fruits" (Jesus in Matthew 7) – what are the FRUITS that should mark our lives? James 1:22 says we should not just be hearers of the Word but “doers”. What does that mean? How do we live that? Jesus said (John 14:15), “If you love me, you will obey me.”

What does that mean for daily life for a Disciple? Here are some other realities that shape a Disciple’s lifestyle:

• Disciples don't necessarily just have principles that they are willing to die for…they also have a list of practices that mark their lives – what are those practices?

• Disciples see each moment as one with an opportunity to be filled by Jesus – they sacramentalize each moment – who do we do that?

• Disciples receive with a thankful heart and know what it means to worship God by giving things away – how do we apply that?

• Disciples are gripped by the things that are gripped by grace – what does that mean for daily living?

• Disciples live out the significance Jesus placed on the gathering/community of His people, what is called the Body of Christ, as being the hope of the world – how do we do that?

• Disciples know the difference between a "please, God" and "please God" prayer – do you pray that way?

• Disciples approach living for the Kingdom of God not as obligation but as an adventure – are you living the adventure?

• Disciples know the difference between their effort, knowledge, experience, and energy and the potential that fills them when they are able to tap into the ultimate power-source, gift-releaser – the Holy Spirit – how does the Spirit manifest Himself uniquely in your life?

• Disciples are not into volunteerism because they know that Jesus calls them into servant leadership and dedicated, humble service to God – what are ways we can live as a servant?

• Disciples understand the mystery of God and knowing that only by living the mystery will they understand what life is all about – what are some of the “mysteries” of God?

• Disciples know that having "eyes to see and ears to hear" has to do with being on the lookout for the movement of God in every moment of life – how is God moving in and through you?

• Disciples know that Jesus calls them to be the Church more than He does to go to church – how can you BE the Church to others? What does that mean?

• Disciples know that God is not through with them yet and that their life would be best lived with a sign around their neck, "under construction" – what is God doing in you now?

• Disciples know that listening and loving is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than sharing their faith – do you find it hard to “listen and love”? why is that?

•Disciples realize that prayer has more to do with their transformation than it does with getting God to do something – what is God transforming in you?

• Disciples know that when they are in the presence of one or more other disciples that the power of God is waiting in the wings – when does that happen in your life?

• Disciples know that there is a difference between being hearers and doers of the Word – what IS the difference?

• Disciples know that in the midst of every human contact there is the potential of a Divine appointment – when was the last time you experienced a Divine Appointment? Why don’t we experience them more often? Is there anything we can do to make them more prevalent in our lives?

• Disciples live out the reality that discipleship for them means discipling others who will in turn disciple others who will in turn… In other words, Disciples understand that every person they come in contact with is "fair game" for discipling – who are you discipling?

• Disciples love expressions of worship but understand that true worship is embodied in the phrase, "living sacrifice" – what does it mean to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2)?

• Disciples know in their heart the cost of discipleship and that discipleship continues to cost – what is the cost of discipleship? Is following Jesus “costing” you? How?

• Disciples know that when they follow Jesus they are not just joining the fellowship of “blessings” (Ephesians 1:3) but also the fellowship of suffering (Philippians 1:9) – what does that mean to you?

Some thoughts on a big word, “Contextualization”

1you-can-contextualize-the-gospel-in-the-language-of-honor-and-shame-19-638When I was in Japan a few years back, I had an opportunity and honor to imbed myself into the culture. While I was there I lived with a Japanese family…I didn’t spend much time at all visiting the sites of Japan…I simply lived with the family, ate with them, worship with them…lived a normal, Japanese life (albeit as best I could for only 2 weeks). I would have done some things differently if I had been a tourist…I would have been in the country to see what I could see. As a tourist, if I met a local person or family, that would have been a benefit…but not the goal.

Being imbedded is different from being a tourist. A tourist is someone who skims for the sake of personal entertainment. Now, don’t get me wrong…there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. But everyone has to admit, when you are a tourist you are interested in getting a feel of a specific place or site…you want to see what you want to see and move on. You might take a picture but you won’t walk away with any in-depth knowledge or affinity or identification with where you visit.

Contextualization is more about being imbedded than being a tourist…for many of us, we don’t understand life outside of our personal experience or context. We see life pretty much through the lens of who we are and what we have experienced in the sum total of our lives. To “contextualize” means that you enter the world of another…you start to care about their lives…you come to understand what makes them “tick”…you stop the tourist life and become a resident.

That’s why this is an important topic in terms of life living for Jesus. If we are just “passing through” this world, then why care? Why build relationships? Why do any of the things we do as a faith community with a passion and/or vision for God presence/power to impact people’s lives? Those who don’t “contextualize” build bunkers and fortresses to keep the rest of the world out and wait until the battle is over. Unfortunately, that’s not been the way God has acted in history. God is not a detached God…He has infiltrated human life at every intersection. In fact, one of if not the most powerful and history-shaking aspects of God’s work in the world is undoubtedly the incarnation – and please understand, the incarnation is all about contextualization – for the ultimate expression of contextualization is “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

Here’s a couple of questions – Is this world YOUR home? Are you a tourist or are you a resident? Are you at home or are you just “passing through”? What are the implications of your answers? Where does a follower of Jesus belong? Church or Culture?

If our belonging is in the Church, culture can be seen as the “enemy or adversary” and that which we need a subculture formed to protect us! If our belonging is in the Culture, then the Church has a redemptive presence in the midst of real life and then gathers one aspect of its identity in becoming a necessary support for followers of Jesus in discipling and equipping for life and ministry…a subculture might come into existence but only as a provider of life resources.

Let me put it this way – is there such a thing as a Gospel or Good News without a sense of it being connected to reality and the real world? If you think about it – you will answer as I have – NO! The good news of God is that God came to this world…that He not only interacted with the world but that He “imbedded” Himself in the world through Jesus and the incarnation. The Good News of God must always “wear the clothes” of culture because it is experienced by people who are enculturated, it is lived out by people who are enculturated, and witnessed by others who are enculturated, through the medium of culture. Confused? Don’t be! God’s story is a story of His work IN human history…He doesn’t send detached missives from eternity…He doesn’t sit on some celestial cloud and hope we discover Him…He is not separated from the human experience…God is intricately imbedded into this life…besides the incarnation, God still fills our lives, relationally engages us in numerous ways and desires to live this life in and through us. It would not be a stretch to say, “no incarnation, no imbedded God = no good news/Gospel.”

“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3:2-3

Followers of Jesus are called by Jesus to “Go…into the world” (Matthew 28:18). We are not supposed to watch the game because you ARE the game. The fact is, there is no game, no life without you…another word for this action in the follower of Jesus’ life is to be indigenous or an infiltrator.

Contextualizing the love and passion of Jesus isn’t something that is optional for all of us…the Spirit of God lives in and through us. Christ is alive as He is alive in and through you. Contextualization is a purposeful and deliberate action of a person who loves Jesus. We are a light IN the world…the salt rubbed into the fabric of real life. Here’s an image that is helpful…where do you expect to see a lion? A zoo, right? If you saw a lion in the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store that would be surprising wouldn’t it? In fact, a lion in a grocery store would be dangerous. That is why for followers of Jesus we are called to be imbedded into the world…when people who don’t follow Jesus know that all Christians are in “church”, they can marginalize the faith community and feel justifiably safe. But when Christians are “out of the box”, contextualized, imbedded in real life that is inherently dangerous.

Question – what does all that mean? What does all this mean to you?