The negativism of the times we live in has created an intense hunger for a positive message. And that is not surprising where baby boomers are concerned. Boomers have always been consummate optimists anyway — a trait we somehow missed passing on to our kids. I sometimes think that boomers will go to their graves still believing in the dream of a perfect world.
What is the Church For?
People unacquainted with our church often ask if our congregation is negative or legalistic in the way we represent the Christian faith. Why do they ask that? Because unchurched baby boomers generally have the overwhelming impression that the Church is a negative, legalistic institution. And they tend to feel that way because whatever church experiences they’ve had in the past have been negative and legalistic.
Even today, boomers don’t find a bright outlook on life in many churches. Rather, they perceive churches generally — at least from the tone and content of their messages — as evidencing a high level of preoccupation with the horrors of hell and the terribleness of sin.
And when it comes to expressing their views of lost humanity, too many churches still echo Isaac Watts’ unfortunate “such a worm as I” language in referring to themselves and others. Though unchurched boomers may privately acknowledge they are flawed — and maybe even sinful — they are hardly going to sit in a public place and listen to themselves being described as worms, wretches, fallen creatures and other totally depraved types.
On TV, too, we frequently see Christian leaders critical of this, that and the other thing. And too often it seems that Christians only get in the news when they’re picketing, marching or demonstrating against something.
So what we really would like to know is: What is the Church for?
Surely, few people view legalism or negativism as a healthy feature of any church. And certainly, neither is a healthy experience for the human spirit. No one senses these assertions to be true more than do baby boomers who are now returning to church. Boomers will instinctively reject any penchant toward such attitudes that they encounter. But they respond favorably when the reality of God’s judgment is balanced with the positive message of God’s grace and redemption in Jesus Christ.
The March 1989 issue of Emerging Trends, published by the Princeton Religion Research Center, highlighted the fact that reaction against religious negativism is on the rise. This newsletter reported that bias against such negativism has increased from 11 percent in 1981 to 13 percent in 1987 and to 30 percent in 1989. The unchurched I encounter confirm these findings.
Churches that endeavor to reach baby boomers then will have to figure out how to be true to the orthodox faith while, at the same time, shedding the negative image they’ve acquired. For when it comes to religion, there has probably never been another generation as resistant to guilt motivation as boomers. As might be said in Deep South terminology, “There ain’t a whole lot of fear of the Lord around these parts.”
Crisis evangelism is not as effective with this group either. In ministering to the thirty-something crowd, my whole approach to how believers experience holiness, as translated to each individual, has had to be readjusted.
We have discovered at Eastside Church that this generation will not be forced into prescribed notions of spirituality. And one of the reasons is that baby boomers have such a high regard for individualistic spirituality. Consequently, they will thrive in churches which allow people to progress in the Christian faith at the pace each can handle.
I think another of the reasons that church life often seems so negative to outside observers is that they themselves are really quite angry with the world. And such persons are often greatly tempted to take out their hostility toward the world on those with whom they gather to worship and learn.
But I’ve also observed that some Christians are no less angry about both the state of the world-at-large and their own personal world. And though they are the exception and not the rule, they too tend to take their anger out on those gathering in their midst who are searching intensely for answers. Jesus Christ’s unique ability to love those hostile to Him is a trait that needs to be emulated much more by those in the Church who claim to bear His name.
The Power of Positive Speech
As a pastor to boomers, I’m convinced that they need to hear even negative messages presented in positive terms. It’s the grid through which we filter things. So if we can’t be positive — even when talking about negative topics — boomers will probably not listen.
We need to be very careful, therefore, about the tone we take in our services. Emotionally charged topics — such as abortion, divorce, drug use and alcoholism — all need to be handled with compassion and tact in any church that truly desires to be open to the nominally Christianized baby boomers.
That’s why I am careful never to talk about any of these emotionally charged issues, unless I can take a full hour in a midweek service to discuss a particular issue thoroughly from several perspectives. I don’t want anyone to misinterpret the positive message of Jesus Christ.
I’ve made a deliberate practice of making sure that the messages I direct to my age-group always strike a positive note. Now, I’m not backing down on the biblical premise that we are all fallen sinners and desperately need to be saved. Admittedly, we are depraved; yet the gospel also presents the premise that because we were created in God’s image, God considered us of high enough value to send His Son to redeem us.
Nevertheless, for baby boomers to give listening ears, pastors somehow need to bring this message into balance. The great challenge is how to present the reality of God’s judgment and the need for our transformation in such a way that boomers are won to Christ, not alienated from the Church.
Different Times Require Different Messages
In times past the human spirit was far more sturdy than it is now. Modernity has taken a high toll of the human spirit, as has the high cost of the American dream. The stress of modern life has had a greatly negative impact on the self-esteem of modern man.
Consequently, there is a high level of fragility in the modern human ego. Boomers particularly have been fragmented and shattered by the fast pace of modern-day development. That’s why our baby boomers today are in a very fragile state.
Have you ever taken the time to read messages by some of the great nineteenth-century preachers, such as the renowned theologian, revivalist and educator, Charles G. Finney? If you have, you will probably have noted that he — and others of his era — addressed quite a different crowd than we do today and they addressed them in a very different manner. And because of those differences, I disagree with those who say that such messages are appropriate for our time.
You see, people in our culture are truly broken and deeply wounded. They need desperately to be healed and put back together. But the process of healing, I believe, is different for every era and every generation, including this one.
Yes, different times do require different messages. Let me illustrate:
It was a beautiful fall afternoon. My old friend Ollie (not his real name) was teaching me how he’d learned to graft different varieties of apples onto one trunk. Most of that year’s apples were already picked, with some of the remaining ones already on the ground.
As we stepped off the porch, I stepped on several fallen apples, squashing them up around my new tennis shoes. To clean them off, I wiped my feet on the higher grass around the trees. Ollie looked at me half apologetically and said, “I always leave some for the little animals who often hang around. You have to leave a little food they like.”
As we walked out to the edge of his property and started down the ravine to his lower orchard, Ollie’s mood became serious. Pulling up his bib overalls and running his hand through his long, silver hair, he said, “You know, Pastor, I’ve been wanting to have you over to talk about all those young people down at our church. I sure love ’em, you know.”
“Yes, I do too, Ollie,” I replied, realizing that something of great concern to him was about to surface.
“You know, I never heard someone like you who believed the same things I do. In fact, I hold those things we believe really dear. You know, I don’t know how we agree so much, but we do, though you sure sound different than I do.
“But, I don’t think you talk about sinning enough, Pastor. Those kids need to be prepared to live in a pretty rough, sinful world, you know.”
“So you don’t think I talk enough about sin, Ollie.”
I smiled and patted him on the shoulder as we walked on. I tried not to sound condescending. Ollie had proved himself to be a faithful man. He and his wife were the epitome of a strong Christian couple.
Ollie continued, “You know, rumor has it that a lot of those kids have been divorced and are sleeping around. Do you know that, Pastor? They need to hear some stern talk sometimes. I know you’re reaching them. I just hope they’ll be healthy Christians. You know what I mean, Pastor?”
Smiling, I replied, “Yes, Ollie, I know what you mean.”
From past comments he had made, I knew Ollie’s heart definitely agreed with what we were doing.
Slowly, I responded, “Ollie, do you think that different times require different messages?”
“Yep,” he replied.
“Well, I think this is an interesting time we’re living in. Did you ever notice that most of our congregation is the thirty-something crowd?” I asked.
“You bet I noticed that. In fact, you think a lot like those kids do. And times are changing awfully fast. The people we’re reaching are living in a world that is pretty negative. Both the TV and the papers are filled with a lot of bad news.
“The reason we’re having so much fun in our church is that these people want to be around where folks are positive. On account of all these negatives — like pollution, acid rain, overpopulation, nuclear war, cholesterol — this just doesn’t seem to be a safe world anymore. So they want to hear something positive when they gather to hear the gospel.
“Actually, they need to hear something positive, Ollie. You see, I want their ear. It’s kind of like your apples here on the ground. You leave a few because you know that’s what the little animals like. You leave them so they’ll come back around.
“Well, we in the church need to leave a few tidbits around too so that folks will come back. They’re also hungry for something positive.”
How to be Heard Without Compromising
On another occasion, I had flown into Los Angeles to meet with other pastors and church consultants of varied backgrounds in a conference on the nature of the unchurched in our time. Some of those present were young and some were old, but all intensely interested in the unchurched.
The meeting went on all day with much free exchange of information and opinion. Then, in the afternoon, during the final portion of our meeting, the discussion turned to the lack of conviction of sin evident in some of the larger, growing churches in America. This isn’t a thesis that I’ve held to myself as I’ve been around the church world long enough to know that no one is doing very well in the sinless category.
One pastor commented, “What concerns me is that some of these larger, faster-growing churches are catering to a culture, rather than challenging this culture.” The atmosphere became only mildly tense over that remark, for most of us attending were used to such statements at these meetings.
Someone else jumped in. “Well, maybe in a time of heightened evangelism our churches are filled with more people who are in the process of moving toward conversion.”
This observation was my cue to add my two-bits worth. “I believe that’s true. Well have transitional people in the 1990s — people who are going to churches that identify with their language. They’re hearing something in those churches that strikes a chord in their hearts.”
One of my pastor friends from the Midwest added: “I think it’s probably true that we’re living in a missionary time. And though I dislike the worn-out term, ‘Post-Christian Era,’ we really are living in such a period. I think some of the reasons the more positive gospel-oriented groups are growing is that people do need to hear a positive message.”
The discussion then turned from that topic to another. I mention this dialogue and refer to the tension it generated only to accentuate the fact that the tension between missionary sensitivity and gospel character is always felt more keenly in a time of great growth in any church.
When the meeting ended, I prayed that those of us who are gravely concerned about the unchurched would not compromise the gospel as my pastor colleague feared. And this is a legitimate concern.
However, I hope that we’re intelligent enough and trust the Holy Spirit enough that we can permit and encourage an environment in which the uninitiated, the turned-off and the burned-out can respond to the gospel, and that churches will present the gospel in such a way that hearts will receive the healing that they so desperately need.
That afternoon exhausted me, and I’ve continued to carry the awareness of that unresolved issue that we grappled with that afternoon. It’s an issue that won’t disappear easily. In fact, it may be one of the greater conflicts that churches will face in the 1990s — how to be heard without compromising.
Are We Positive? Yes! Are We Compromised? No!
One afternoon in 1986, I was reviewing our strategy for the upcoming year. We had had an extraordinary year of growth, mostly those folks in the thirty-something range. I was astounded by how much we had grown. I knew of a number of other churches who were also experiencing similar growth in the same audience we were attempting to reach.
A number of people in our congregation have left cults. And a variety of groups began coming to us seeking for help. Sometimes it would be an influx of older people. Other times we’d have runs on drug addicts. It seemed as though people of different types and sizes came to our church in streams that year.
I was sitting in a house that we’d converted into offices across the street from our sanctuary. It was a hot summer afternoon, and I was thankful that the former bedroom I was using as my office was shaded by a large willow tree. As I thumbed through the demographics and charts of our statistical growth that year praising God, I asked myself: How can we continue to be effective?
I had jotted down notes for that Sunday’s message, the next in a series I was giving on “How to Feed Your Faith with Optimism.” These notes were on “Five Ways to Preach a Positive Message on a Negative Topic” that I needed to cover that week.
Also on my desk was a packet of materials we give couples preparing to be married in our church. I was to meet with a young couple, Matt and Linda (not their real names), about their wedding ceremony at which I was to officiate. While awaiting their arrival, I found myself thumbing through both the growth statistics and the marriage packet. The phone buzzer rang, indicating that the couple had arrived.
As they entered the room, I immediately recognized them as a young couple who had talked with me after a service several months earlier. They’d been living together for some time. He was about 30, with long, well-groomed brown hair. She was in her mid-30s and looked like Cher, the rock singer. She was wearing very high heels and was dressed in black.
When they took their seats, I glanced over their Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis that we share with all couples. Some of the other materials in their premarital packet had already been checked by another pastor on our team. When we got around to the spiritual values portion, I asked if either of them had been raised in church.
Matt answered, “No, not really, Pastor. I went to Sunday School a couple of times when I was young. But because my folks didn’t go, I didn’t stick long.”
Linda then spoke. “My aunt was Catholic. We went to Mass for quite a while, really. Most of us kids went with her. We stopped, though, because my dad was Presbyterian or something. We didn’t go much after that.”
Glancing over at Matt, Linda asked, “Are you going to tell him?”
Matt replied, “I guess so. We actually met the Lord about eighteen years ago at a Jesus People rally. However, we never found a church we could relate to.”
I asked, “Well, how long have you been coming here?”
I glanced at Matt to see if he was going to comment. He obviously wasn’t, so Linda answered. “Well, we began to get convicted about the way we’re living. We don’t know a whole lot about the Bible, but our folks are bothered by our living together.
“So we asked around about where we should go to church, because we wanted to get our lives on track spiritually before we got married. One of our friends suggested we come to your congregation. He said we’d be able to handle it here okay and you probably wouldn’t run us off.”
“Well, how have you liked it so far?” I asked.
I braced myself for the response, thinking it might be negative. Matt’s answer was a pleasant surprise.
“I can’t believe it! You’re the first pastor and this is the first church I’ve been able to relate to,” he replied, grinning from ear to ear.
Linda added, “Yeah, everything seems so spiritual. I remember church being so negative. I can’t believe the message you shared on Sunday on ‘How to Feed Your Faith with Optimism.’ It was so pertinent to the life we’re facing!” Her enthusiasm was obvious.
Matt continued. “Yeah, you know, we’ve got problems we need to get fixed up, but you don’t seem anxious to run us down about them.”
As we continued our conversation, I wrote down several of their anecdotal stories next to the message on my note pad about “Five Ways to Preach a Positive Message on a Negative Topic.” I decided then that I would speak next on “How to Focus on an Optimistic Gospel That Transforms Lives,” and penned a note to myself as well: “Be encouraged, Doug. When it looks as though it isn’t going to happen, remember Matt and Linda. It does work!”
My earlier concern had been that I would not compromise the gospel. Yet I had already been dinged a few times by people in our city who implied that I had been preaching only what people wanted to hear. But for myself, I was now utterly convinced that I was preaching the truth of the gospel from a positive angle.
Now the transformation that was occurring in Matt and Linda’s lives confirmed to me, once again, that this strategy of preaching truth from a positive angle does work in dealing with the thirty-something crowd!
I often put it this way: Don’t tell people what they’re not going to do. Tell them who they are in Christ, and the gospel becomes very inviting.
From The Baby Boomerang by Doug Murren. Copyright (c) 1990 by Doug Murren. Published by Regal Books, Ventura, CA. Used by permission.

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