While the church should never “pander” to anyone, 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 has been a perennial challenge to churches. Many congregations 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, the first point offers 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.
Bland moralism 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 and others 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.
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, church-going 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 e-mail and singing only from the hymnal, for example?
Yes, I am sure they can, but why let the culture of previous generations dictate your strategies today?
Getting a Twitter account and providing free wifi at your church is not going to win the adherence battle for you 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 and, ironically, it does not work to recruit and retain young people.
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.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and is a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of several books, including “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots” (2011) and “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution” (2010). A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter: @ThomasSKidd.