As I return from my vacation in Arizona I believe the clear skies have also cleared my mind. My wife and I loved our time away, but I return to Ohio to not only continue writing for Thinkchristiandaily, and serve the Lord as a pastor in my local church, but also with a very sober mind about who and what I am committed to moving forward as a leader in the local church for people in their 20’s and 30’s. The past week has provided plenty of time for me to think about what is of utmost importance in my life, so I am therefore sober-minded about my utmost concern for millennial Christians. My utmost concern for my generation of Christianity is that we we stay absolutely wholly committed to the Gospel for it is the “power of salvation to all; to the Jew and to the Greek.”
Maybe you read the statement above and thought, “Well, duh! All of us who are Christians are in agreement that we need to remain committed to the Gospel.” My friends, I hope your sentiment is true, but I admit I do have my doubts; let me explain.
When I was a philosophy student somebody sent me a video with an audio recording from 20th century philosopher, Alan Watts. The recording was a lecture in which he explains students asking him what they should do when they graduate college, and so he says in the recording that he asks them “What makes you itch?” He then goes on to explain the stupidity of living a life doing things daily that don’t make you “itch,” while rhetorically providing an argument that young people should move into their careers, and indeed their entire lives by doing whatever it is that makes them “itch.” You may have heard this referred to as “the thing that makes you tick.” What we are talking about is the very thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. We are talking about your chief end- your telos- your purpose. Watts was not a Christian so I don’t expect him to carry this insight, but for a Christian actually the same thing should make all of us “itch.”
All Christians have the same purpose. The Shorter Catechism explains that purpose is to “love God and glorify Him forever.” Yes, every Christian has different skill-sets and spiritual gifts, but we all have the same thing that makes us “itch,” and that is the Gospel! … But herein is where the problem lies. I believe many Christians are tempted to treat the Gospel like Taylor Swift treats country music. When Taylor Swift was younger she loved country music, her life had been transformed through country music, she was obviously singing country music, and she loved country music. But, as time went on Tswift sounded less and less like country music and more and more like the mainstream. Some people took notice of this transition from country music to pop music and they ditched her; but many of her fans remained loyal and listen to her almost religiously til this day. Now, Tswift has said publicly she still loves and totally respects country music! She still even sounds like a country star from time to time when she performs live in concert. She is forever changed by, grateful for, and indebted to country music, BUT she has moved onto other more mainstream things and the success that comes with it while simultaneously many of her fans have gone with her.
Many Christians believe in the Gospel and when that happens they love the gospel. I mean they have been absolutely and radically transformed by the power of the gospel, so they devote themselves to telling others about Jesus who loved them enough to die for them on the cross and bring them new life by his resurrection. But, as time goes on many of these Christians pull away from the radical transforming message of the gospel, and in doing so they sound less and less like gospel proclaimers and more and more like mainstream folks. When this happens there are some who notice this shift, so they keep an arms length, however a large amount of people still remain loyal to their friend and still see them as straightforwardly gospel-centered as ever before. Many of these Christians still say they love the gospel, and they all still respect Jesus and the salvation he provides for sinners, and at times they might even sound exactly like they once did when they were “on-fire” for the Lord, but in many many many ways these Christians have moved onto other more mainstream things, and maybe they’ve experienced some “success,” and simultaneously many in their following have gone with them.
What are some of these things that the above mentioned Christians move onto? Well, there are a number of new things that make these people “itch” besides the gospel. These people still wake up in the morning, but where they once woke up and lived out their purpose of “loving God and glorifying Him forever,” they now have added something to that purpose, or subtracted from it. So, maybe their chief end has really become only “loving God,” but somehow they’ve left out the part of glorifying him by “presenting themselves as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to the Lord (Romans 12).” Maybe their chief end has only become one small element of glorifying God, but they leave out important details. Maybe their chief end has turned legalistic and they still aim to glorify God, but they do so begrudgingly and with grumbling. Maybe they’ve added to the main and plain purpose of humans, so they now live with the purpose of “loving God and glorifying Him forever,” and they go about this by “spreading the gospel,” but then they add to it. So, this looks like Live for the gospel + something else. What are these something else’s? Well, there could be thousands, but let me suggest the three I see millennials being most tempted by: activism, experiences, and security.
Let me share with you briefly what it was like for me to be converted. When I was converted I hardly knew the Bible at all, but I didn’t care. I had experienced the amazing grace of God and I was coming to grips with the fact that though I once was alienated from Him because I’m a sinner, God shows His love for us in that while I was still a sinner Christ died for an ungodly person like me. In the first few years of my Christian life I honestly just couldn’t help but be solely focused and motivated by the gospel! I had experienced the beautiful reality of the salvation of God, and when a sinner recognizes their sin and turns to Christ and experienced the forgiveness of God there is just no containing that sort of excitement. Then, I went off to Bible college and I learned a whole bunch of theology. I studied philosophy and politics and quite honestly my brain grew faster than my actions. This was the first time when I was confronted with the temptation to start gradually moving into the world of activism added to the gospel. But, over and over again the Lord has graciously reminded me of the question, “Why are you here? What do you exist for?” God has put good pastors like Alistair Begg and others into leadership positions over me to constantly point me back to the Gospel, so that I don’t fall foul of adding activism to my chief end.
When activism is added to the gospel it does not go well for the Church. Let’s just think about the 20th century for a moment. The fundamentalist movement of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s began as a movement to combat the rise of Darwinism in denominations like Presbyterianism and some Baptist churches. This movement began with its founding fathers as a gospel-centered movement and all was basically peachy. Only one generation into the movement the next wave of leaders began to attach themselves to causes. An example of an activist cause from this generation would be Prohibition. So, what was once a theological movement actually became a political movement. The founding fathers existentially believed they were fighting for the gospel, but only one generation later the next batch of leaders were attaching activism to their reason for existing. Think of the many parachurch organizations who followed a similar trajectory. Think of the YMCA, or the Salvation Army, or even the broader Evangelical movement tied to Billy Graham from 1948 onward. Each of these movements and organizations began to make Christ known in their own unique sphere of influence. Each of these movements had solid leadership committed to the gospel for about a generation or so, but then each had some sort of activism attached to their movement. Today, what Billy Graham started has faded, the YMCA is only called “The y,” and the Salvation Army might as well be run by humanists.
We need to study history to remind ourselves of why we as Christ’s Church need to constantly be examining our motives and asking the existential question, “What makes us itch?” I’m not advocating the ditching of fighting for gospel causes in our world and communities, but what I am suggesting is that the mission of the church is never activism- it is always the Gospel. I see many Christians who are in their 20’s and 30’s who are following some older leaders into activism and causes that are alarming to me, because they confuse theology, and the church’s mission. I was talking to a youth pastor in his early 20’s who said he had a parent say to him, “We need to give these kids in the youth group a cause to fight for.” What this parent needs to know, and what we all need to remind ourselves of is that we DO have a cause, because we are contending daily for the faith that was once entrusted to the saints-the Gospel! Somebody asked me a question not too long ago which went something like, “Don’t you think if somebody in your church is sick that it is your guys’ (my church’s) job to pay for their care?” Now don’t get me wrong, we as Christians are called to do good whenever we are able and there are situations in which a local church can and should help with the physical care of a congregant, but caring for health needs is actually not the main “job” of the local church. The main job, task, goal, what should make a local church “itch” is “To go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I’ve commanded you.” Our work is gospel work and yes we care greatly about the implications of the gospel, but we should not confuse what is secondary with what is THE gospel. This is my greatest concern for the millennial generation of Christians, because I do believe we are a little blind to how deeply impacted we are by being raised in what sociologists have called “The Activist Generation.”
Another concern I have specifically about millennial church leaders is that we don’t attach experiences to the gospel. We are the generation that gave birth to Facebook, Instagram, Instagram stories, Snapchat, Snapchat stories, and who knows how many other “experience” based apps. So, it should not be a surprise that many Christians gradually become discontent with the local church their parents were raised in and they say things like, “I’m just craving something more; I want something new; I want to experience God in a way I have never felt Him before.” I want to give the benefit of the doubt to millennials who think and talk this way, and I want to assume they have honest intentions when they say this, but I want to rebuke any church leaders who then go and implement revivalistic tactics to help these people try and achieve this experiential religion. There are many churches, and some that are very large and quite prominent, who are currently indoctrinating many well-meaning millennials into extra-biblical answers for their deep spiritual longings. I am deeply concerned that millennial church leaders, pastors, bible study leaders, worship music leaders would not fail to remember that there is no greater place for any of us to meet with God than in the place where He speaks to us— the Bible! God has revealed Himself generally to us in nature, but He has revealed Himself explicitly to us in His Word. Therefore, when people have very real desires to experience God in a more meaningful way we should not thrust them into light shows, “supernatural schools,” revival meetings, and other contrived and event oriented Church, but we should passionately point them to their Bibles, and preach and teach it to them, and teach them how to read their Bibles in context for themselves! Of course we should lead our people to sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs to the Lord, but we should teach them that we do this for His sake because it is about Him not us! Yes, we should long for revival but we should also know that is in the Lord’s hands and only is possible by the power of His Holy Spirit. As a church leader who is a millennial and who leads a ministry of millennials I pray regularly for a future for us that is wholly devoted to God and His Word. If you want an emotional high then go to a rock concert, but if you want Gospel-centered Christianity then trust God and His Word.
Another danger for millennial Christians is that we move into the future far too concerned with security. When I say security I don’t only mean financially, but I also mean physically and culturally. There are many Christians (And I’m admitting I am one of them) who say in theory “I am willing to go wherever the Lord takes me.” But, then when the Lord is taking us somewhere we don’t like we don’t go. Why? Well, because we are sinning by elevating our own goals above what should be our main Gospel goal of loving God and glorifying Him. So, this leads us to allow pressures in regards to finances, jobs, and families to hold us back from doing what God is calling us to do. This happens in the big decisions like when the Lord calls you to move to another city far away from your family to evangelize, but you refuse because of your attachment to your home; but this also happens in seemingly small decisions like your refusal to go to Bible study on a Wednesday night because you need some “me-time,” or because you can work extra and make a few extra bucks thus helping your financial security. Security is obsessed with accommodations, so we accommodate ourselves to situations when we will never get hurt physically, we will always have good savings accounts, and we will never lose friends or social status. The worst of this is when we accommodate ourselves theologically so that we don’t lose followers on social media.
This is what Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The gospel divides because it confronts self-righteousness, and so therefore there will be times when following Christ means we just CANNOT accommodate in a way which situates us in a secure position in the culture. If we as millennial Christians are to move into the future in a gospel-centered way then we just have to know there is an inevitable conflict with the culture, and there is no avoiding an eventual lack of security in some way, shape, or form. We cannot attach security to our chief purpose, because Christ said “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” We are following the Son of Man so how can we expect better treatment? Jesus did indeed say not to be surprised when they (the culture) hate us, because the world has hated him first. Jesus didn’t tell us to “pick up our 401k’s and follow after me,” but he said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” I’m not denying biblical wisdom, and I’m not telling you to live like a fool, but I am telling you to live like a Christian which means you should hold onto true security which is Jesus’ hand, and not hold onto false security which is a clenched fist around financial, physical, or cultural security.
As I return now from vacation, I believe this may be the most important blog post I’ve ever written for Thinkchristiandaily. Maybe you read this post and you say “I don’t see what the big deal is,” but I hope you do not. I hope you see a concern for millennial Christians to commit ourselves to and not waver from the biblical Gospel as an enormously HUGE deal. God has been taking me on a journey to show me, once again, the eternal significance of the Gospel, and as I return to Parkside tomorrow I do so graciously reminded that God the Holy Spirit is sanctifying me to not “be ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of salvation to all, for the Jew first and then to the Greek.” What makes me “itch” is the Gospel that though I am a hopeless sinner Jesus bled and died for me, and by His wounds I am healed eternally. Because of the Gospel, I now live to love God and glorify Him forever. As millennials, may we all live to love God and glorify Him forever, and may our churches not subtract or add to our mission but remain fully committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.