One of my college professors was famous for asking only one question in his final exam. Of course, the question was broad enough so we’d have to know everything discussed in class. Still, trying to guess that one question became an interesting parlor game in my fraternity house.
One year, one of the brothers was sure he had it figured out and studied hard to be able to answer that one question. He guessed wrong. So there he was—all prepared to answer the question no one was asking.
As preachers, we run that risk weekly. Sometimes, we preachers get profoundly interested in areas of biblical studies no one else cares about, such as the ongoing debates on Pauline authorship of his various letters. While this may be an interesting debate for us around a table in our favorite coffee shop, most of our listeners don’t care.
As pastors, not only are we called to be faithful students of the Word, but also are called to be faithful students of our congregations. We have to exegete our people just as we exegete passages of Scripture.
If we’ve been paying attention to our people lately, we understand the questions are changing. Correction: The questions have changed. For a long time, as we preached to Boomers, the questions were practical and self-centered.
• How can Jesus help me be a better person?
• How can Jesus help me be a better parent?
• How can Jesus help my marriage?
It was all about what Jesus could do for the individual. Our sermons and books reflected those questions. Think about all the “Three Steps to a Happy Marriage” or “10 Steps to Raising Happy Children” sermons preached in the past decade.
Millennials are changing those questions. Instead of seeing Christianity as a divine self-help program, they are asking much more existential, much deeper, more meaningful questions. Instead of asking how Jesus can help them live a better life, their questions are:
• Why am I here?
• Who am I?
• What’s truth?
• How can I find it?
One reason the questions have changed is that the metanarratives offered by our secular culture have not proven to be deep or strong enough to provide a foundation for a meaningful life. Atheism, for all its noise, hasn’t made a substantial dent in the faith of most people. While there is a loss of confidence in the institution of the church, the loss of faith in church comes from a disconnect between what the world knows about Jesus and what is seen in His followers. The economic downturn has caused many to lose faith in the American dream, and consumerism—defining life by possessions—has proven to be an empty promise.
As a result, most millennials are trying to work it out for themselves. They take bits and pieces from various religions and worldviews to create their own religion. The only test is that their self-assembled religion has to work—for now. When it stops working, they’ll figure out a new worldview.
This is the void into which the preacher now enters. It’s not all that different from the setting in which Jesus first taught and the gospel was first preached. The gospel was successful then for the same reason it continues to be successful. The story of Christ provides the best opportunity to understand reality and our own lives. Jesus is the best answer to the great questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here?
This means our preaching must be bigger, connecting our stories to the great salvation story of God. We are called to help our people understand their discontent is a gift from God. He’s not allowing us to be satisfied with anything or anyone but Him.
Millennials know something’s not right in their world. They know some things must change. They just don’t know when to start. This is where our preaching begins—with the brokenness of sin and the grace of a God who provides for our salvation in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
Jesus is the answer to the deepest longings of this generation. Preach with that confidence.