My friend and I were sitting in an outdoor patio of a French café. Our mouths were full with toasted sandwiches, and the setting San Diego sun cast a warm glow over our enjoyable evening. We hadn’t known each other for long, but we were already starting to talk about spirituality and faith. I learned that he used to go to church, so I asked him why he left.
He started to rattle off a list: “I’m happy. I love what I do. I’m enjoying my life. What else do I need?” His church had explained that life without Jesus is miserable and glum, and life with Jesus is joyful and peaceful. It seemed a bit of an oversimplification to me, but I kept on listening.
As a result, he said, he gave Jesus a try. But he didn’t find himself feeling that much more fulfilled or even happy. He actually felt worse: he felt like a fraud. And when he left the church, he wasn’t particularly miserable at all. So he decided he didn’t need Christianity; he was happy enough as he was. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
“If that’s your vision of faith,” I said, “then your vision of faith is too small.”
I’m thankful that God gave me words to say in that moment. And it’s true: a vision of faith has to be larger than what it can do for us. It has to be more than an incantation that can make us healthy, rich, fulfilled, or in my friend’s case, happy. The Christianity worth believing in is about more than what we can get out of it; it’s inherently about what God is doing in us and in the world.
Recapturing Jesus’ Message
The faith can’t be about us, but sometimes we talk about it as if it is. Here’s what you can get out of it: you’ll avoid hell and enter paradise. You’ll feel peace and joy to the full. You’ll find your purpose. And though these things are true in themselves, saying them disgusts our younger hearers—as it should. We seem selfish to them, caring only about our own emotional states or eternal destinies without concern for our neighbors. From this angle, the faith sounds self-serving. To reach younger generations, we need to present a faith that isn’t merely good news for us but also good news for the world.
Younger generations are asking fundamentally different spiritual questions than they did years ago. For Boomers, the driving faith question was: Is it true? Thus, our strategies in communicating our faith focused on making rational arguments to prove the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. If our truth-claims could be validated, then it logically made sense that all must follow this God of truth.
This logic breaks down in younger generations. Xers like me ask a different question: Is it real? We want to know if faith can be authentic, tangible and practical in our everyday lives. And college students of the new Millennial generation are asking yet another question: Is it good? They’re an optimistic, civic-minded, globally conscious generation, and they want to know if faith has any role in making the world a better place. If not, they’ll keep looking.
So if we share our faith as a bunch of truth statements (for the previous generation) or as something that helps us merely be honest with ourselves and others (for my generation), then we’ll lose the soul of the next generation. They need a faith that will actually make a difference beyond themselves.
Jesus’ gospel did just that. In Mark 1:14-15, Jesus “proclaimed the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!’ ” This was Jesus’ good news, the gospel. The Kingdom is a community where everything God truly wants to happen actually does. It’s not just about the afterlife but also about life now. It’s where, as N.T. Wright says so fondly, “Heaven intersects earth.” Sometimes we want the faith to be about one or the other, but it’s really about both. It’s about what Jesus’ has done and what he is doing in the world and what he will do in the future. It’s a faith, to twist a quote, that’s both heavenly-minded and earthly-good. This is the message that younger generations are aching to hear.
We need to adapt the way we preach to offer a Christianity worth believing in to future generations. It doesn’t mean that the old ways aren’t true, but shifting the spotlight in these three areas will help pastors remain relevant.
From Decision to Transformation
It’s easy to major on decisions. They’re concrete and visible. We clearly see when people stand up in our pews or raise their hands in our seminars. Of course decisions are necessary, don’t get me wrong. But they shouldn’t be ends in themselves; they should point to a life of progressive transformation. Decisions should build on top of each other to help us become more like Jesus. By the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, we need to continue to be transformed into his likeness with increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In this way, Christianity isn’t just about what we get. In part, it’s about who we’re becoming. Our faith helps us reflect our namesake as we become more and more like Christ. We love out of his love, we serve out of his heart of service, and we live out of his power. Our heart reflex develops to bring greater glory to God by allowing our good deeds to shine before others (Matthew 5). We become people who know how to love and serve in Jesus’ name. Every time someone allows Jesus to be the leader of their lives, it is good news for the world, because someone has joined the Kingdom of God and has also begun to love their neighbors as themselves.
From Individual to CommunityOur faith isn’t just about me either; it’s about what God is doing through us. Almost every “you” that Paul wrote in the New Testament is plural. He addresses communities that lived in Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi for starters, and he communicated with many more throughout the New Testament. For him, it was not only important to have individual witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but to have a community of followers who together participated in ushering in the Kingdom of God. The individual continues to be important, but younger people also want to know how faith is lived out in a wider context of relationships and the world’s systems. How does our faith help us fight racism or sexism? How does our faith encourage us to participate in the fight against the AIDS pandemic or the trafficking of children? Answers to these questions will be compelling to younger people.
We’re all interconnected, so if we preach a gospel that isn’t only directed to the motivations of individuals but also to the life of our families, our communities, and our country, our message has world impact. Yes, it starts with one soul at a time. But it also goes far beyond that as God redeems individuals, relationships, and systems into “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17).
From Afterlife to Mission-lifeOur faith is about more than where we go when we die. Let me be very clear: the afterlife is very important. Our eternal destinations have a vital impact on the way we view the power of death and the importance of life. But our faith isn’t just about having a ticket into paradise; every Christian has also been invited to a life of mission. It’s about the Kingdom of God here and now and how the community of faith is participating in the work of God to bless the world.
When Jesus first invited his disciples in Matthew 4:19, he said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you…” And though many of us know exactly what Jesus said, let’s think for a moment what he could’ve said. He might’ve said, “I will make you happier than you’ve ever been,” or “I will make you feel satisfied with life,” or perhaps even more crassly, “I will make you richer and healthier than you’ve ever known.” But he doesn’t say any of these things in this moment. Jesus does say, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
From the outset, he invites us into a life of mission. And yes, this life of mission does come with the side-benefits of joy and satisfaction (though not necessarily the riches), but they’re not the main point. God puts us to work for his Kingdom to captivate people with its wonderful message and outworking in the world. As ambassadors for this Kingdom, we love the poor, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, release the captives, and love God and our neighbors with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. In a world created for good but damaged by evil, Jesus restores all people and things for the better. And now, as a part of their mission, Christians are being sent together to heal that world in his name.
News broadcasts remind us that we live in tough times; the world is ready for some good news. By recapturing Jesus’ gospel, we begin to share good news in a new way with a world that desperately needs it. Indeed, Jesus’ message is the only one that will help us turn from our small visions of faith into a life exhilarated with transformation, community, and mission.