I recently had the opportunity to interview with River Region’s Journey Magazine about Millennials (aka: Generation Y) and faith. They interviewed 3 other pastors and published pieces of each interview, here.
What I have posted below is the entirety of our correspondence.
(If you are a Millennial (18-35), or even know a Millennial, I would love your feedback. Whether you think I’m onto something or you think I’ve slipped and bumped my head, I’d love to hear from you so leave a message in the comment section below).
JM: There are a lot of definitions of “Church” … how do you see the Church? Why is it important to have a firm understanding of what it is and isn’t?
PC: The way in which we understand church is crucial to our very mode of being as Christians. It affects the way we view and act within the wider world. Personally, I believe that the church is God’s new language in and for the world. To make more sense of what probably seems like s strange answer to your question, I think all of history can fall under one of two competing biblical stories. The majority of history looks like Babel — a story of a disintegrated world, divided by language, agenda, and race and constituted by conflict, war, and selfish gain at the expense of others. The second story, that of Pentecost, is God’s answer to the problem of Babel. At Pentecost, God creates a new language, but it is a language that is more than words, it is, instead, a community shaped and formed by the memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We call this new creation church or ekklesia (the called out ones). The church, so understood, does not have a message; it is a message. The primary posture of the church, then, is a corporate calling to be a certain kind of community — a sanctified presence, living a certain quality of life, in plain view of those in the world who are still living under the dehumanizing effects of Babel. Put differently, the church is a distinct, called out community of people whose otherworldly mode of life loudly proclaims and embodies the story of God’s redemptive purpose for the world. This message is reinforced all throughout the New Testament.
JM: Talk to me about young people and the Church. What is it about Church that has “turned them off”? What do you believe can turn them back on to Church?
PC: Last summer, Rachel Held Evans wrote an opinion piece for CNN on this very question that generated a lot of conversation in our office and I agree with her premise that, “What Millennials really want from church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” Millennials are not “turned off” by the gospel but by the way it’s being presented. This manifests itself in several ways. When young people do show up to church, they are not there to see a knock-off version of a Coldplay concert, they are there to meet with Jesus. They don’t care if their preacher is trendy, they care that she or he points them to Jesus. They didn’t wake up early on Sunday morning to be handed a latte from the coffee bar, they are there to receive the body and blood of Jesus at the Lord’s Table. Growing up with the Internet, Milliennials have had access to more information than any generation before them. So, understandably, they have a lot of questions – questions about things like science and the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism. This means that they also want to find, in church, a safe place to ask hard questions and they certainly don’t want shallow, pre-packaged answers that dismiss their questions, either. In short, if they don’t meet Jesus there or they feel like they have to check their brain at the door, Millennials will probably not be at your church.
JM: As a young person pursuing ministry, why do you have hope for the Church?
PC: There has been much discussion on the news and on the Internet about the end of Christian America. While, on the surface, this seems like a bad thing, I think a distinction must be made between Christianity in America, which is growing, and Christian America, which clearly is not. With this distinction in mind, I don’t think we should be all that troubled by the demise of Christian America – seen most clearly in the dissolving of ties between the church and the political powers. In fact, I think being part of a religion that is socially or politically acceptable can be, in many ways, bad for your soul. Therefore, I don’t see our current cultural situation as a defeat but rather an opportunity. We need to be reminded that for the first 350 years of the church, Christians were not privileged people. As Stanley Hauerwas (recently retired Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity) likes to say, “Prior to Constantine it took courage to be a Christian. After Constantine, it took courage to be a pagan.” While the tectonic plates of culture are shifting, I believe that when they resettle, the church will find herself in the unique position to be, once again, a prophetic minority instead of a moral majority. If I am right, that will leave the church in America in a position in which it has nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, all that you have left is the truth. I think this could be a great boon for the faith, and it gives me hope.
JM: Do the people in the community you serve see Church as “relevant” to their lives? What ideas of Church do they hold that you hope to see change or be challenged?
PC: An entire movement toward being “relevant” has run amok throughout much of American evangelicalism, but I think that day is coming to an end. Churches and ministers who have grown frustrated with their loss of credibility in the public square or are experiencing declining attendance see relevance as their method of bridging the gap. Admittedly, everyone wants to be liked, but when you attempt to be “relevant” you become cultural followers rather than cultural leaders. You end up always playing catch-up with whatever is popular in culture and you find yourself constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel. This is a problem, not to mention it’s exhausting. Most of the people that I run with aren’t looking for a church that is relevant; they are looking, instead, for a church that is countercultural.
JM: There is this idea floating around that people don’t “need” church because they have a “relationship” with Jesus apart from it. Tell me why you do or do not agree with this idea. Is there a danger in this? How do you believe we show people that they need the Church?
PC: This is, perhaps, the conversation I find myself having most frequently with our college students and young adults. Preaching, as evangelicals have for so long, about a “personal relationship” with Jesus is not without value. However, over time, I fear that “personal relationship” has been interpreted by many young Christians to mean “private relationship.” Add to that modern societal pressures that cause career and success to take precedence over deep, committed friendships and you’re left with a generation of Christians who increasingly live their lives in isolation. Working with college students, I have discovered that it is not hard to convince them that they need Jesus. That is, college students are around enough sin and destructive behavior to know that things are not as they should be. Given this, Jesus is not a tough sell. Church, on the other hand, is much more difficult — try convincing these 20-somethings that they need church when they have been trained to believe that Christianity is a direct, unmediated relationship between God and the individual. For Millennials, the church is a secondary reality to their perceived immediate relationship with God. Put differently, many Millennials view church as a tacked on extra to a personal relationship with Jesus. For them, church is ideal but unnecessary. Thus, some go to church in order to express their salvation, but because they believe that they do not have to, the overwhelming majority does not. This is dangerous because we don’t get to make Christianity up! It is received through the tradition, sacraments, and witness of the church. As I like to say, “No church, no Jesus!”
The Bible shows us in its very first pages that life alone with God is not the divine plan for us. In fact, the very first thing that God says is “not good” is for humanity to be alone. In Genesis, Adam’s pre-fall communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not enough. In order to be fully satisfied as a creature made in God’s own image, he needs fellowship with other humans. Many Christians were taught at an early age that there is a God shaped hole in their heart that only God can fill. But St. Augustine also spoke of a human shaped void that only other people can fill. This is part and parcel what it means to be made in the image of God. That is, God is not a single-individual but a community of three distinct persons bound together in absolute oneness of love and fellowship with one another. For humanity to accurately image this kind of God requires us to live in Christian community that can only be found in the church. The church, however, bears the burden of modeling to the “un-churched” the kind of unified, self-giving community that exists within the Trinity.
JM: How have you seen Frazer work to serve young people?
PC: If you want to serve young people, give them opportunities to serve! Increasingly, young adults are captivated by the vision of Jesus who began his first sermon saying, “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind and to set the oppressed free.” 20 years ago there wasn’t a cell phone or the Internet and people did not live in a global context. Today’s young adult, however, is a student of the world and the needs of the world are visible to them. Millennials are far more engaged, causal, and provoked to action than the previous generation. Therefore, they want a church that will come along side them and help them to integrate the gospel into every facet of their lives. At Frazer, two of our seven core values are (1) Everyone matters, everyone ministers; and (2) how we treat the poor and powerless is how we treat Jesus. So one of the things that we focus on is motivating and equipping our young people to participate in cross-cultural mission experiences. Frazer has been challenged by its pastors to pursue God-sized projects – projects so big that only God can do them, so that only God can get the credit when it’s done. Frazer has made long-term investments toward holistic transformation with our Transform Haiti and Transform Montgomery projects. Most recently we have launched a partnership with Hands and Feet Project – a mission organization run by Mark Stuart (former front-man for Audio Adrenaline). The objective of this partnership is to provide sustainable jobs for orphans and at-risk families and by jump-starting economic development, being a catalyst for renewal in the whole nation of Haiti. Projects like these excite our young people and they know that when they pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” they aren’t jut giving lip service but at Frazer they are able to actively seek the renewal of all things.