“Tonight, I believe Christ is calling many of you to embrace the childward journey. Christ is calling you to become the good you long to see in the world by first coming to Him and allowing Him to cleanse your heart. Tonight can be your high definition moment, the moment you become a true follower of Jesus.”
With these words at the end of my 25 minute message in a crowded and overly lit room on a Southern California campus, Maria, a beautiful Latina student, burst into tears. Many responded to Christ for the first time. My personal interaction with Maria afterwards demonstrates the bifurcated reality of evangelistic preaching amongst Millennials. There is a tremendous freedom and open door in the United States right now to preach Christ and call for a response but there are also deep-seated difficulties and complex, embedded competing values attached in the messy work of evangelistic preaching. My encounter with Maria has some powerful lessons for what it means to preach to Millennials.
“As soon as you started talking about the God who sees the suffering of the oppressed, I knew that this was the God who was calling me. I knew from your words that this was the real God.” This was Maria’s response to me when I asked her why she was choosing to follow Christ that night. Maria’s initial response is telling. She referenced God’s interaction with her and her awareness of him prior to meeting me and hearing my message. The non-churched in America are often very aware of God’s divine presence and are looking for external confirmation and cues for a deeper engagement with him. Maria’s ability to hear God’s voice in my message revolved around her care for the marginalized and oppressed in the world.
For many non-churched listeners, a religious message about God’s love for the poor and his commitment to global justice helps with the ‘believability factor’ of the gospel. In the same way that previous generations hungered for apologetic proof for the historicity of the Bible or evidences of the resurrection, Millennials base the believability of the gospel on its ability to engage systemic evil and global injustices. In fact, I believe that for Millennials, unless Christ can be demonstrated as having global relevance in the area of justice, he will not likely be seen as personally relevant.
The invitation to a ‘childward journey’ also appealed to Maria as she continued, “I want to follow Jesus, you know!?!? If he can see that child in the brothel and knows her name, he must see me too. He saw me when I use to cry alone in my closet as a child.” Maria shared of a deeply painful and personal event of abuse as a child. This shows the Millennial longing for a better narrative of power, healing and hope. Preaching out of Mark 10:13-16 where Christ blesses children and teaches us the centrality of embracing what I referred to as ‘the childward journey’ as a prerequisite of Kingdom living connected with my Millennial audience for three reasons:
A Better Narrative: The invitation to a childward journey appeals to Millennials longing for metanarrative. Despite what many have tried to argue concerning the postmodern resistance to a larger arc to the story of the world, in reality, Millennials are merely questioning the current Judeo-Christian metanarrative. The longing for new narratives in our overarching understanding of the story of the world can be seen in many ways amongst Millennials. Providing a motif in evangelistic preaching that helps them self-interpret their role in the larger story of God is imperative to emotionally and intellectually connect with postmodern audiences.
Authentic Wonder: Millennials value authentic wonder which is reflected in what is unique to childhood. To embrace a ‘childward journey’ is to embrace wonder, to let go of a jaded perspective on life, and to reconnect with hope and joy. For Maria, this was synonymous with her longing for a power to heal her from her childhood trauma. These are strong motifs that appeal to Millennials at an almost invisible level, connecting with an area of their soul that seems off-limits but nevertheless screams for attention. Jesus’ invitation to a childward Kingdom is able to meet with a power that heals and provides hope.
Interpretation of Spiritual Reality: Millennials long for an interpretive lens for their own ‘micro-narrative.’ Maria had suffered and she needed an ‘interpreter’ for her story. Evangelists are almost always in the business of interpreting, not merely providing new information but helping people grasp what they’ve already encountered. I don’t know what motivated Maria to connect her trauma to the gospel but what is important is that she did. In the passage, Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them and that night, Maria experienced this same personal embrace and blessing from Christ. The micro-narrative of her story was interpreted through the lens of the story of Jesus-his care for the children in Mark 10.
Helping Millennials connect with the gospel story is helped as evangelists understand their strong desire to change the world for good. To Maria, I responded, “Maria, I believe that you came into this auditorium with God already walking within you. Your passion for the world and your desire for better things shows me how powerfully God has already been at work in your heart. Tonight, you are taking the most important step possible-allowing God to work in your life from the inside-out. Tonight, you are beginning a journey with God at the center and your passion and burden for God’s world is only going to grow.”
Most Millennials want to engage their world and as interpreters of spiritual reality, evangelists need to help them understand the work of God within them and invite them to respond to that work by faith in Christ.
R. York Moore (@yorkmoore) came to faith as an Atheist Philosopher at the University of Michigan. York is the National Evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He is also the author of Growing Your Faith by Giving it Away, and Making All Things New: God's Dream for Global Justice. York is also the creator of an innovative new approach to campaign-oriented evangelism called “Justice Invitationals." Invitationals bring together cultural leaders from business, medicine, sports and entertainment, academia, law, government, and the community around social justice issues with an integrative proclamation of the gospel. For more information on York's ministry, visit tellthestory.net.