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Should churches change for the sake of the rising generation? This is a perennial debate. At the Juicy Ecumenism blog, my friend Mark Tooley has given some historical perspective on why changing theology to suit the perceived preferences of the younger generation is always a bad idea. While the church should never "pander" to anyone, however, the church does have a responsibility to "cater" to those who might be making decisions about faith and the church. Such lifelong decisions are most often made in one's late teens and early adulthood, sometime in the transition between high school, college/career, and (where applicable) marriage and parenting. Reaching and retaining that rising generation is a constant challenge to churches. Many churches have died because they failed to meet the test.

Reaching the rising generation involves three main factors. Liberalizing one's theology is not one of them--in fact, point #1 is the opposite strategy.

1. Offer the transcendent, compelling message of the gospel. Ordering one's life around faith and the church requires considerable sacrifice. Therefore, people have to see why church is so compelling that they would bother to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Moralistic pabulum and vague niceties don't cut it. Pastors and teachers need to constantly trumpet the shocking claims of the gospel. Our sin has put us in jeopardy of hell. God became incarnate as a man, Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross so we could be forgiven. He rose again bodily to defeat death. He reigns forever now with the Father. These are historic, bracing truths of Christianity, and they compel a response of adherence, for those with ears to hear.

2. Bolster the families of the church to woo the rising generation, including the up-and-coming “Generation Z.” The healthy church has a missionary mindset, but the church's children are its number one God-given mission field. In spite of dire warnings to the contrary, children who grow up in functional, churchgoing families are quite likely to embrace and practice their parents' faith as adults. Parents must learn to model the Christian faith, and to talk about it intelligently and lovingly with their kids.

3. Don't sanctify the cultural manifestations of Christianity of a bygone era. Christianity is incarnated into specific times and places, and it can and does adapt to the culture of rising generations. (We can argue later about whether the qualities of certain cultures are less hospitable to genuine Christianity than others.) Can churches today succeed who insist upon 1950s methods and styles (no email! 1st and 4th stanzas from the hymnal!)? Yes, I am sure they can, but why let the culture of previous generations dictate your strategies today?

Getting a Twitter account and providing wi-fi at your church is not going to win the adherence battle alone. But refusing to adjust methods and style can become an additional barrier to reaching the rising generation. Churches should adopt a generous, outward-focused attitude toward young people who are making faith and church decisions, and "cater" to the forms of communication that speak to them.

"Pandering" to the rising generation suggests modifying the historic message of Christianity to suit contemporary ideology. As many churches and denominations have found out to their peril, doing this is not faithful. Ironically it does not work to recruit and retain young people, either. But as long as the compelling message of Christian orthodoxy remains in place, there certainly is justification for "catering" to the rising generation. "Catering" implies serving, and serving is a Christian virtue.

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An earlier version of this post appeared at the Anxious Bench blog.

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4 thoughts on “Pandering to Millennials?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    Since I am not sure whether point #3 covers my point, I will write it here. We need to be careful of the cultural and political associations we have made with the Gospel. By embracing or failing to criticize certain aspects of culture or certain political approaches to issues, we have associated the those items with the Gospel. And when a generation sees fault with that association, it is a temptation to use that faulty association as a reason to discredit God’s Word either entirely or on a challenging teaching.

  2. Joe M says:

    “By embracing or failing to criticize certain aspects of culture or certain political approaches to issues, we have associated those items with the Gospel.” Agreed here, but then the pendulum swings the other way, and now we see the younger church doing the same thing and ardently embracing certain political approaches on another side of the spectrum. All in the name of justice and pro-social change. Maybe the church should realize politics involves prudential judgements and stick to acting on what it knows and not associating the gospel with politics so much. Overly pietistic? Disrespectful to the spirit of Wilberforce? An open question, but we seem prone to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

  3. John Myer says:

    I’ve been involved with youth practically all of my 30 year vocational ministry. To their credit both back then and now, I notice young adults do respect consistency, truth telling with Scripture, and no soft pedaling, as long as it’s all served with doses of personal care and thoughtful insight. Maybe those who won’t respond to such things are simply not ready for the Christian life, and no amount of frantic reordering will make it otherwise. While I like the points addressed here since they’re reasonable, I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a silver bullet that might trigger a “Millennial Movement” to Christ and the church.

  4. Belzile Michel says:

    Much of what we currently do in the contemporary evangelical church and megachurch with respect to worship, programming and church facilities flows out of 25 years of “pandering” to the Boomer generation. “Catering” to the millennials would be a welcomed change.

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Thomas S. Kidd, PhD

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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