Millennials, like the rest of us, are human beings. I know that’s not a terribly surprising thing to say, and I haven’t actually heard anyone deny that fact. But with the coming of age of each new generation, it seems there’s always a flurry of books and articles competing both for the honor of naming that generation and of describing what’s unique about them. And of course, so long as we’re okay using sweeping generalizations almost to the point of absurdity, each generation does tend to exhibit characteristics setting it apart from those who came before and will come after. Usually that has to do with the historical and cultural context in which they came of age. So one generation was deeply affected by the post-World-War-II world, the next by the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, the next by the Cold War, and on and on.
I’ll leave it to the professionals to do the work of describing exactly what affected millennials and how it affected them. As a Christian pastor, my task is to do the even harder work of reminding people — including millennials themselves — they’re not that different from the rest of us. The world has been around for a very long time, and the deepest problems that plague millennials today have plagued every generation throughout the history of mankind. What’s more, the greatest solution we can offer millennials is the same as it’s ever been. That doesn’t change.
My church, Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky is located right next to the campus of the University of Louisville, an enormous research institution and, of course, athletics powerhouse (Go Cards!). Because of that, I am constantly talking with college students — the heart of the millennial generation. Those students come from a thousand different spiritual and intellectual directions, too. Some are Christians, some are Muslims, others are agnostics or humanists, and a majority identify as none of the above. This new category of religious affiliation, “nones,” have never even given it a moment’s thought.
But you know what I’ve noticed about all of them, regardless of their intellectual and religious leanings? And you know what ties them together with the students from my own generation that I started college with 20 years ago, and also with the generation before that, and even the generation before that? When you get to the bottom of it, they’re all sinners, and they need to be saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Here’s why that’s so important to remember: In our excitement to figure out what makes each generation unique, it can be very easy to think the gospel that saved many in the last generation simply isn’t going to have the same power in this new one. But of course, the differences we can identify between generations are just the tops of the mountains. Are they important? Yes … sometimes. But what’s more important are the metric tons of commonality that exist between all of us as humans: We are all made in the image of God, we all have rebelled against him and gone our own way, we all need the grace of forgiveness and a substitute to stand in our place. Death stares us all in the face and eternity stretches out before us. So maybe the first and most important thing we can do as we minister to millennials and nones is to remember that we’re ministering to human beings. And the same gospel of Jesus Christ that’s saved millions through the ages will, by God’s grace, continue to do so in this generation and every one that follows.
Even with all that said, though, my experience pastoring millennials has shown me that this generation does arrive with a special set of presuppositions, ignorances, and (perhaps most importantly) attitudes that we as Christians need to know how to address. That’s not to say that any of those are unique to millennials; we Gen X’ers had many of these same things, too (It’s like I tell my 13-year-old son: You think I don’t understand you, but I do. Oh, I do!). Unique or not, this is the millennial moment, and since we’re therefore surrounded by millennials, it would do us well to be aware of what makes them tick. So let me offer four pieces of advice that might be helpful reminders to you as you go about pastoring and sharing the gospel with this rising generation.
Assume they share nøne of your Christian presuppositions
It used to be you could pretty much count on most people holding some residual, back-of-the-mind biblical presuppositions. That was good because it gave you something to work with. They might not believe in Jesus, but at least they’d respect the Bible and generally believe that God created the world. The trouble is with nones, you can’t really assume those presuppositions anymore.
In conversation after conversation, I find myself having to burn through layer after layer of my own assumptions because the person I’m talking to simply doesn’t share them. I can’t start with Jesus because they don’t think he existed; I can’t start with God because they don’t think he exists, either; nor with the Bible because they don’t even think it’s trustworthy at the most basic level. Time and again, I find myself going all the way back to the beginning and building up a rationale for my faith from ground zero — defending it against skepticism and questions every step of the way. In some ways, that’s actually a very good thing. It’s forced me over time to know precisely what I believe and why I believe it, and now — hundreds of conversations into this thing — I know the superstructure of my faith backward and forward. A Christianity that begins and ends with, “Well, you just have to have faith,” simply doesn’t cut it with a generation that shares none of your presuppositions. You have to bring them, step-by-step, to a confidence that the Bible really is trustworthy, that Jesus really is reliable, and finally that the gospel is true.
Frame the gospel of Jesus in its epic biblical storyline
Don’t just give people four spiritual laws or three important truths. Help them realize that Jesus is the culmination of a vast and sparkling epic God has been working out in the world since the very beginning. If millennials think Christianity is just about three or four sentences that can fit on a napkin, it’s going to seem shallow and flimsy compared to the myriad other philosophies and religions that are competing for their attention. Teach them about kingdom and priesthood, fall and death, sacrifice and atonement. Show them how King Jesus the Resurrected identifies with his ruined people, takes up the sword from the hand of King Adam the Fallen, succeeds where he had failed, and exhausts the curse that God the Creator had pronounced over him.
Christianity rests on a spell-binding story about the history and future of the world — a story of kings and conquests and failures and redemptions that, when once you understand it, makes Jesus breathtakingly awesome. Tell them that story in all its glory.
Be confident about your faith in Jesus
To have faith in Jesus doesn’t mean you believe in him even though you don’t have any good reasons. To have faith in Jesus means you’ve sized him up, you’ve come to the conclusion he really is who he says he is, and so you rely on him and ultimately bow your knee to him as king. Faith isn’t flimsy; by its very definition, it is immovably confident. I’ve learned over the years that having that kind of confidence in the truth of Christianity is crucial and surprising in conversations with millennials. For whatever reasons, skeptics will always begin a conversation assuming that I’m going to be on the defensive.
Therefore, I go on the offensive. Instead of just trying to show why it’s okay for me to believe in the Bible, I press my conversation partner to prove why it’s okay for them not to believe in it. Instead of being satisfied with proving that it’s reasonable for me to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, I try to convince them that it’s unreasonable for them not to believe in it. Just that bit of attitudinal change — from worldview defense to gospel offense — is usually enough to change the whole tenor of the conversation. It communicates to the young skeptic that maybe he doesn’t in fact have the Holy Hand Grenade that has the power to take down the whole superstructure of Christianity in a single blow: “Listen, Sparky, we Christians have been thinking about these things for about 2,000 years now. So I promise, you’re not going to take it all down with your freshman response paper on the problem of evil. Maybe you should think a little deeper here with me.”
Keep your eye on the tomb
Christianity rises or falls on the resurrection, full stop. If Jesus really did get up from the dead, then something extraordinary has happened, and we had all better listen to him because everything he ever claimed about himself — that he’s the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God — has been vindicated. On the other hand, if that didn’t happen, well then never mind on all of it. Not only does it all not matter, but everything we believe as Christians and stake our lives on is false. As Paul put it, we are of all people the most pitiful. That’s why it’s so important, in conversations with millennials and any other non-believer for that matter, to keep your eye on the tomb. Don’t get sidetracked into long conversations about this or that peripheral issue. The question is, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Answer that, and then we can talk about other things.
One characteristic of this generation of nones is that they seem to be very much aware that there are certain things about Christian ethics and doctrine that they simply don’t like. “I don’t like how Christians are anti-science,” they say, “or anti-evolution, or anti-gay, or whatever. I don’t like complementarianism, and I don’t like Christian sexuality, and I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I don’t like the doctrine of hell, and you’re intolerant, too!” Essentially it amounts to a smokescreen of objections and negative impressions. And in the face of that, there’s a great temptation to take each of those objections on, one-by-one, usually in the spirit of removing obstacles to faith. Don’t take that bait. Instead, talk for just a bit about one or two of those issues and questions; show your friend that you really are thoughtful about them. But then, as quickly as you can, head to the center: “Look, we can continue talking about these things, friend; I’m happy to do that, and I hope you can see that I’m not being unreasonable about them. But you need to understand that you’re really just picking around the edges of Christianity with these things. If you really want to get at the center of it, if you really want to understand it — or make me doubt it, for that matter — we’re going to have to talk about whether Jesus rose from the dead. Because what you decide about that question affects all the others; in fact, it pretty much decides all the others. So let’s aim for the root: Did Jesus rise from the dead or not?”
In the end, there’s no magic formula for convincing millennials and nones to believe in Jesus. There’s no special key that will unlock their hearts. And that makes sense, because there’s never been a magic formula or special key for any generation of humans. What’s needed is the same thing that’s been needed in every generation — a smart, confident, resurrection-grounded explanation of the astonishingly wonderful thing God has done in Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Greg Gilbert is pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church and a Master of Divinity graduate of Southern Seminary (2006). He is the author of What is the Gospel? and Who is Jesus?, as well as the forthcoming Why Trust the Bible?, which releases Oct. 31 (Crossway 2015, $12.99).