It’s official. They are coming for us. At least if ‘the us’ refers to the assorted collection of Gen Xers and Boomers who were born before 1980. According to the latest figures from Mark McCrindle, the majority of Australians were born long after the Universe was introduced to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, World Series Cricket had changed the game forever and colour TV was still a novelty. And that really does make a difference.
Changing the Church
Like many of my generation, I was heavily influenced by student ministry, and set off to theological college ready to take on and change the world—or, to be more accurate, to change the church. It wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do. I did long to see people become Christians, for example. But I also wanted church to be ‘good’. I wanted to do everything in my power to see the Bible taught well; to make sure that the cringe factor was eliminated from what we did when we were together.
I did long to see people become Christians. But I also wanted church to be ‘good’. I wanted to see the Bible taught well; to make sure that the cringe factor was eliminated
I dreamed of singing songs that were (a) singable if you couldn’t sing in parts and (b) were comprehensible to anyone born after the middle of the seventeenth century in a palace somewhere in England. Oh, and I passionately wanted to get rid of the ‘dresses’ and the plastic collars. Along with my friends, I wanted church to feel real, authentic and vibrant. So we set about ‘fixing it’. And, in many ways, I think we did a pretty good job. In general, in evangelical churches in Australia today, the Bible teaching is better, the music is better, the language is more accessible and the seats more comfortable than thirty years ago (and more churches have aircon too). So what’s the problem? The problem is that the world has changed.
The Changed World
Back in the day, the much-needed task of making church ‘better’ had the decided advantage that it overturned people’s expectations. At the risk of generalising, most people had some contact with church growing up—the problem was that it wasn’t very good. The two words most associated with church were ‘boring’ and ‘hypocrite’. So we fixed the experience of coming to church, and we worked hard to strip away any hint of pomposity. We made it more real. That meant if we could get those who had been vaguely connected to a church to step inside the door, they were, more often than not pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, they were genuinely shocked to find that we were ‘just like them’. Lots of people came to Christ like this, and it was marvellous. Except that sometime in the last decade, this approach seemed to stop working quite so well.
If we could get those who had been vaguely connected to a church to step inside the door, they were, more often than not pleasantly surprised. We were ‘just like them.’ Lots of people came to Christ like this
No-one ever articulated it quite like this, but I think it’s fair to say that this basic approach—showing people that church isn’t as bad as they thought—has undergirded much of what we’ve done in the past few decades. The problem is that it for Gen Y and Gen Z (for those under 38), many of whom have had NO meaningful exposure to church at all—trying to tell them that we are ‘just like them’ turns out to be a pretty weak ‘unique selling point’. Because the problem isn’t what they think of us. It’s that they don’t think about us at all. (Unless, of course, issues of sex and gender come up—in which case most people who aren’t Christians think of us as intolerant bigots. And it will take more than a guitar, bass and drumkit, soft seats and functional air-conditioning to overcome that one.
So what are we to do? I had a conversation with a friend a few months ago who said for 20 years of ministry, every time there was an infant baptism in his church, he had worked out to make sure that people with unbiblical or superstitious notions didn’t think that more was happening than actually was. Now he said it had dawned on him that all those people were long gone. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone who shows up in church that baptismal regeneration might even be ‘a thing’! Now, he said, the need was to celebrate the precious that God had done in bringing this new life into the community of God’s people, rather than making sure that churchy people had understood the gospel. That’s quite a turnaround. It is a real gamechanger, particularly for those of us who are over 40. The world, it seems, has changed. It may be that we need to change with it.
Ultimately, the gospel itself is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of Christianity. God in Christ has made it possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection for people like us to know and enjoy him forever, as part of his family. I suspect that we need to throw ourselves into, not just proclaiming the gospel, but also demonstrating its implications with fresh enthusiasm. Because of the gospel, church really is different kind of community. Through the gospel, we have been reborn into a community marked by love, joy, peace and hope. The gospel announces that in Christ we really aren’t just like everyone else, but have been brought from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Perhaps it’s time to start proclaiming that with a renewed confidence. Because that really does set us apart from the ‘competition’.