I was chatting recently with a Christian magazine editor and the subject of the “nones” came up.
The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is how to attract “nones” back to church, or at least how to keep millennials (many of whom are perceived as abandoning church altogether) in the churches.
One strategy that’s floating around is to hide, or at least not talk about, sin and repentance because supposedly millennials have no particular feelings of guilt.
This situation, so some say, calls for a new strategy on the parts of churches: emphasize what attracts millennials (whoever they are exactly) into church and save talk of sin and repentance and forgiveness for later – presumably in some kind of “discipleship” setting.
So what do people who propose this strategy suggest churches emphasize in order to attract millennials?
According to the editor, who talks to many church leaders, the needed strategy is to emphasize what being a Christian, a Jesus-follower, can do for them – give them higher meaning and purpose and connect them with a world-changing movement for the common good.
Those weren’t his exact words, but that’s the gist of what I heard others are proposing.
Supposedly, “millennials” are interested in changing the world, improving it, being part of a movement to help the oppressed, overcome environmental decline, reverse cultural forces that are anti-life.
I’m all for those things, too, but one doesn’t have to be a Christian to participate. Many charitable organizations and clubs are involved in those good works.
Churches should be, too, but that’s not the church’s first goal. Our first goal should be to lift up Jesus Christ in every aspect of who he is and what he has done for people.
Jesus is not just a “world changer.” Jesus was God suffering for the sins of the world, making possible reconciliation between people and God. But repentance is called for on the basis of what Jesus Christ did.
I’m not suggesting that we return to preaching hellfire-and-brimstone sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Far from it.
But I am saying (and I said it to the magazine editor) that we should be careful not to accommodate so far to any generation’s conditions that we lose part of the gospel or “save it for later.”
Jesus unashamedly called on people to repent; so did the apostles. I cannot see any holistic, faithful presentation of the gospel omitting the call to repent.
And repentance assumes brokenness and brokenness assumes being in the wrong, not reconciled with God, needing forgiveness and help to change.
I believe churches should be as entirely transparent about their beliefs as possible.
Of course, not every belief can be mentioned or promoted every Sunday. But to strategize to hide a part of the gospel until people already belong is disingenuous if not dishonest.
A church should make all of its beliefs clearly known – at least on its website. And no part of what it believes should be held back.
If proclaiming repentance as part of the gospel tends to keep some people away from church, so be it. Many of Jesus’ followers turned away when he preached sin and repentance as part of entering the Kingdom of God.
Of course, it goes without saying that our communication of the gospel and the church’s beliefs should be in language people can hear and understand. We have no mandate to intentionally offend people and drive them away.
So the proper strategy is not to hide the reality of sin, the need for repentance, but to come up with ways of expressing the whole gospel that connects with people, that can make some sense to them, that attracts rather than turns off and drives away.
On the other hand, if it’s simply the truth, however expressed, that drives people away, we have to accept that and not hide any of it just to draw people in.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”