Having conversations with young people

Meredith Flynn —  February 27, 2014

Eric_Reed_blog_calloutCOMMENTARY | Eric Reed

We need to learn how to talk with young people.

I must have entered some stage of fogey-dom if I feel the need to make this topic a course of personal study. But I do. We all do.

The millennial generation is making important adult life decisions now: marriage, family, and faith. So many of them have eschewed the church, but they are the generation who will turn the tide and secure the future of our denomination, if it is to happen.

But how will we bring them into the kingdom, and into the church? More specifically, how will we bring them into Southern Baptist life?

Some fresh insight on this comes from an unexpected source, a Catholic professor who studies and teaches about contemporary religions. Patricia O’Connell Killen was a conference speaker at the February meeting of Baptist newspaper editors. Many of her observations of the American religious landscape were good summations of things we’ve already heard:

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults claims “none” as their religious preference, with people under age 30 leading the exodus.
  • Fewer than 50% of U.S. adults claim to be Protestant, making Protestantism the minority religion for the first time in our national history.
  • The resulting “open” religious environment means people are very willing to experience without the pressures of cultural and family expectations; the choices are up to individuals as never before.

But when the professor spoke of the students in her classroom, most around age 20, I heard something I think we all need to hear. Here’s my interpolation:

Today’s young adults aren’t all looking for churches that are always adapting to the latest cultural trend. They don’t want a lot of the so-called “relevance” their parents sought. They want something in their faith and in their experience of church that is solid, unchanging, immutable.

Why? Things that change too much are untrustworthy, her students have said, and they want something they can trust. (One of Dr. Killen’s observations is especially pointed: “What is tradition for children who have negotiated three-to-five sets of parents since the age of two?”)

The professor contends that this emerging generation struggles to make decisions. The millennials had more options than any generation before them. (Which of 100 channels do you want to watch on TV, baby? Which video game do you want to play? What do you want to wear today, princess? Which toy do you want in your Happy Meal?)

The parents let the kids make the choices. And the kids – by chat, text, and tweet –consulted their friends. An entire generation with nothing but options was always testing the winds to see how their crowd was leaning.

That produced a lot of indecisive people who are always changing and, ironically, are suspicious of change.

The application to church life is counter-intuitive to me. I thought a generation of choice-addicts would want churches that offer lots of choices. But the professor says, not so. The church or denomination that is always changing for the sake of relevance doesn’t meet their needs, but instead feeds their deepest fears: There’s nothing I can really hold on to.

We who have preached against “tradition” in previous generations will bless a future generation if we point out the value of some biblically sound traditions. For Southern Baptists to have meaningful conversations with young people today, we must focus on the unchanging aspects of our theology and missiology: We are people of the Book, we preach salvation in Jesus Christ and there is salvation in no other, and everyone needs the opportunity to hear that Gospel.

This is not an excuse for our churches to get stuck in the old ways. Methods may change, because methods wear out and need to be replaced. And styles may change to fit communication needs and technologies. But worship is more than singing nothing but ditties written last Thursday, discipleship grows in relationships that endure for years, and faith is based on the unchanging God, “…the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

In today’s conversations, our starting point may not be what’s new, but what’s not.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist, online at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.

Meredith Flynn

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Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.