Opening the Church to Next Generations

I attended a seminar at Calvin College this summer called “Ministry to and with The Next Generations: How Millennials and Gen Z Are Changing the Church.” I thought I would share some of my observations and take-aways. Some of my observations are more for other churches that I’m working with for the CRC in my position as Discipleship Coordinator. I’m very open to sharing more information with anyone interested.

Opening the Church to Next Generations

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 NASB

We are called to “go and make disciples of all nations” with an expectation that this will go on “even to the end of the age.” As disciplined learners ourselves, we are called to reach different cultures across generations, teaching those outside the church about God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and how to bring the authority of God and the Good News of the Gospel into their own lives. If we are to fulfill this last command given to us, we may need to learn about the cultures and generations we are called to so that we can speak of God and the Gospel in ways that they can understand. If we don’t, we may be teaching things that are true as we understand them but lose their true meaning or even communicate lies as we teach them to someone outside our cultural experience. This does not fulfill the Great Commission.

Generational differences lead to miscommunication. The truths in the Gospel are relevant to every generation, but there is a challenge to communicate it anew as language and culture shift. This isn’t about learning slang. Discipleship of younger generations must begin with genuinely trying to understand the person and the context, culture and language of their day to day lives. Only then can we accurately consider how to connect them to the truth of the Gospel. Learning ways they understand themselves and the world around them is vital. One example that challenged me was seeing that current generations think of having multiple identities that form a sense of self. “Your identity is in Christ,” may be misconstrued as “who I am doesn’t matter.” This misses the meaning of this truth of the Bible.

1 If then you have been raised with Christ [to a new life, thus sharing His resurrection from the dead], aim at and seek the [rich, eternal treasures] that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 And set your minds and keep them set on what is above (the higher things), not on the things that are on the earth. 3 For [as far as this world is concerned] you have died, and your [new, real] life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition

Relationship and study are required to discover what this “new, real life” is in the context of people who consider themselves made up of multiple identities.

In the United States and across the world, younger generations have no longer been exposed to the Bible outside the context of the church. We must be careful to not assume a basic understanding of Bible history, stories, terms, assumptions, etc. This means that as we teach and disciple, we are taking time to help them to understand things that we may take for granted. How we use the Bible in preaching and discipleship teaches them how to use the Bible in their own lives. We must challenge ourselves in the ways that we use the Bible in our own lives. Are we using it to give proof-texts of what we think? Or are we continuing to read, teach and talk about it in order to apply it anew to our lives?

As we consider how to teach the truths of the Gospel to these generations, understand that they have a shorter attention span and use visually based language. Longer text or word-based explanations and theological terms may be an unnecessary barrier to understanding. They may need visual expressions of ideas or the use of visualization to help them imagine experiences. It may also take time and relationship to communicate the truth of theological terms. [OK, this is for the other churches using an example from our Prophet, Priest and King Series…] For example, when teaching about Jesus as Priest, start with a visualization of what wholeness and holiness were before the fall – the perfect communion of the God. Imagine what it would be like to be perfectly loved and understood for who you are in the essence of your being. There is perfect valuing of your unique role in the Kingdom of God with any judgment flowing out of perfect love. This is what the one God existing in three parts (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) – the Trinity – invited us to partake of when he created people. This is standard for being “right” the perfect right-ness (holiness, righteousness) of God. Then introduce the concept of sin. Sin is not how we compare to other humans. It is anything we do that falls short of that perfect loving, just, understanding communion of God. Missing that perfect holiness. This gives a basis to understand sin in a more holistic, tangible way. Moving into the Old Testament, this understanding of sin (rather than good people/bad people or I’m only human excuses) brings a context needed to explain the system of sacrifice and thus the Cross. Without these foundations, there can be no comprehension of the office of a priest – much less the role of Jesus as Priest and the Lamb of God.

Authenticity is important, especially to the younger generations. They are accustomed to being marketed to. As older Christians we need to not just make newer generations feel important to get them into the Church, we need to understand that they are important as a part of God’s continuing formation of the Church. Since Gen Z is the most ethnically and culturally diverse generation in US history, this also includes attitudes toward racism and prejudice. How we treat marginalized people and those coming from different cultures and ethnicities matter to this generation.

Another aspect of this generation is that they have grown up with cell phones in their hands. Online social connections make it easier to hide parts of self and still have community. Although this has facilitated a greater connection to people around the globe, it has simultaneously produced a new kind of disconnection. In-person friendship time has been increasingly replaced by online interactions. More opportunities for comparison based on public images seems to have added to a sense of isolation. Newer generations are more aware and fearful of danger in the world, both real and exaggerated. Various combinations of these things have lead to a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression giving the church a new challenge as traditional platitudes ring more and more hollow.

Why should the church be concerned with generational and cultural shifts? Many young adults who grew up in church culture have lost a sense of the relevance of church to their own generation. This has led many to leave the church. Even for those who stay there are difficulties to face. Many don’t know how to reach or communicate the Gospel to their own generation that are unchurched. Also, the ability to exist in different social networks online, tempts people compartmentalize church and still engage in the secular world as though it is separate from the Gospel.

As a church that started by trying to take away church culture that is not essential to the Gospel to reach Gen X and to some extent Millennials, what generationally challenges do we face at the Village? Every generation creates its own culture. We Villagers may judge churches based on previous cultural norms (an area for our own repentance), but we must open our eyes to the cultural norms that we have created. The tendency is to criticize new generations. After all, “if those kids would just put down their phones…” Jesus gives an opportunity to each generation to understand the Gospel in a new context, to open our eyes to our cultural norms that create barriers to the Gospel, and to take responsibility for our role in producing some of the challenges next generations experience.


  1. Although I am not attributing the thoughts and opinions in this article to the speakers and readings of the seminar, here are the names and titles. If you are interested, I have powerpoints, more specific notes, and copies of the books.

    Seminar Presenters:
    Rev. Dr. Mary S. Hulst, College Chaplain,
    Rev. Matt Postma, Associate Chaplain for Residence Life,
    Rev. Joella Ranaivoson, Associate Chaplain for Upperclass Students,
    Rev. Paul Ryan, Associate Chaplain for Worship

    • iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today’s Young People – and the Nation by Jean M. Twenge Ph.D.
    • A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday by Rev. Dr. Mary S. Hulst
    • Emerging Adulthood and Faith by Jonathan P. Hill
    • Generation Change: How Gen Z Is Poised to Reboot the Modern Church
    • Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z
    • Generation Z Is The Most Racially And Ethnically Diverse Yet
    • Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z
    • Why I Want You To Invite Me Out For Coffee
    • The Hottest Thing At Church Is Not Your Pastor Or Worship Leader
    • What Is And Isn’t Happening In Students Spiritual Growth by Tod Hall
    • The Crisis of Millennial Mentorship
    • How Badly Companies Misunderstand Millennials
    • How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation
    • Invitation To LEAD: Enfolding Millennials In The Church Through Leading Worship

  2. I forget the name of the missionary or the foreign country he had returned from, but back some 25 or so years ago this guy told me and a small group of “young adult staffers” pretty much the very thing you’re suggesting here. The takeaway for me was that we need to adjust our mindset and our verbiage, and think of ministry in our community (old school term: ‘home missions’) the same way ‘missionaries’ have done their work in diverse cultures all over the world (old school term: ‘foreign missions’) for centuries. That is, learn and speak the local language, eat the local food, adopt the local customs and styles, be among the people they’re trying to reach who don’t know Christ. In America – and much more so today than back then – we live in a ‘foriegn mission field.’ Hopefully more churches are getting the news.

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