The evangelical church has spent far too much time trying to figure out cultural engagement, and far too little time just trying to love. If we listen to people patiently and give people the gift of our curiosity we will be plenty engaged. I’m not arguing for purposeful obscurantism. What I’m arguing for is getting people’s attention with a force more powerful than the right lingo and the right movies.
We spend all this time trying to imitate Gen X culture or millennial culture, and to what end? For starters, there is no universal youth culture. Young people do not all think alike, dress alike, or feel comfortable in the same environments. Moreover, even if we could figure out “what the next generation likes” by the time we figured it out they probably wouldn’t like it anymore. Count on it: when the church discovers cool, it won’t be cool anymore. I’ve seen well meaning Christians try to introduce new music into the church in an effort to reach the young people, only to find out that the “new” music included “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and “Shout to the Lord.” There’s nothing worse than a church trying to be fresh and turning out to be a little dated. Better to stick with the hymns and the organ than do “new” music that isn’t new or do the new music in an embarrassing way.
The evangelical church needs to stop preaching the false gospel of cultural identification. Don’t spend all your time trying to figure out how to be just like the next generation. Be yourself. Tell them about Jesus. And love them unashamedly. I think a lot of older Christians are desperate to figure out what young people are into because they are too embarrassed to be themselves and too unsure of themselves to simply love the people they are trying to reach.
Jesus said it best: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Jesus did not say “They will know you are my disciples by how attune you are to new trends in youth culture.” Or “They will know you are my disciples by the hip atmosphere you create.” Give up on relevance, and try love. If they see love in you, love for each other, love for the world, and love for them, they will listen. No matter who the “they” are.
Talk to people. Notice visitors. Invite new people over for lunch. Strike up a friendly conversation at the greasy pizza joint. Let your teenagers’ friends hang out at your house. Love won’t guarantee they young people will never walk away from the church, but it will make it a lot harder. It won’t guarantee that non-Christians will come to Christ, but it will make the invitation a whole lot more attractive.