Advertisement
Click here for General Assembly coverage

Investing in relationships over church programs

The church’s potential to reach the younger generations depends on our ability to prioritize relational ministry over programmatic ministry, writes Aaron Neff.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

Data shows that younger generations are becoming increasingly disinterested in institutional religion — the “spiritual but not religious” demographic. I sometimes hear pastors or other church leaders offer their opinions about the interests and values about young people: “The next generation is all about mission.” “The next generation wants contemporary worship music.” “The next generation cares most about social justice.” “The next generation wants a young pastor.” “The next generation need to ‘get something’ out of church if they’re going to come.”

Sometimes these opinions are supported by research and sometimes not. At the end of the day, however, none of these opinions matter if they lead us toward a program-driven response. In other words, I think we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that a young pastor, a contemporary worship band, or a robust mission program is going to “attract” young people to start coming into our church buildings. Research from groups like Barna Group and the Pew Research Center alongside conversations I have with young people leads me to believe that many young people believe the church, at best, adds nothing uniquely valuable to their lives.

Why would they want to come to church to hear our praise band when they can already go to hear their favorite (and probably more talented) celebrity musician live in concert? Why would they want to come to church to participate in a mission project when they already volunteer for a different non-profit whose mission may be more closely aligned with their specific values?

If relational ministry is going be the way we reach the next generation with Christian faith, then we also have to prioritize relational evangelism.

From my perspective, the church’s potential to reach the younger generations with Christian faith depends on our ability to prioritize relational ministry over programmatic ministry. Programmatic ministry seeks to attract people to an event that usually happens in our building. Relational ministry seeks to build relationships with people, regardless of location. It seeks to know the real struggles, joys, and questions of young people. To me, if relational ministry is going be the way we reach the next generation with Christian faith, then we also have to prioritize relational evangelism.

To some Christians, saying, “We have to prioritize evangelism” is a negative statement. I have encountered three reasons some Christians think of evangelism negatively. 1) They or someone they know had a harmful experience with judgmental Christian people, and they rightly don’t want to make others feel judged. 2) They were raised with harmful theology and, after deconstructing their own beliefs, haven’t reconstructed a new theological framework (worth sharing) to replace the former one. 3) They tend toward a universalistic view of salvation (that all people – not just Christians – are saved) and think of evangelism as unnecessary.

I understand and empathize with these reasons some Christians think of evangelism negatively. However, even if we assume these reasons to be true of every Christian, evangelism doesn’t need to be a judgmental, harmful message of exclusivity. After all, evangelism comes from a word that means “good news!” We talk to each other all the time about things that matter deeply to us without judging, harming, or condescending toward them.

I love my family. I love the outdoors. And I talk about my family and the outdoors with people all the time, and not once does anyone tell me they feel judged when they hear me talk about these things. They know, “Aaron is sharing this with me because it’s important to him and he’s connecting with me by opening up about himself.” It shouldn’t have to be any different with our faith in Christ.

If you knew my family and the outdoors were important to me, yet I never talked about them with you… wouldn’t you wonder if I actually loved them as much as I said I do?

Christians sometimes like to say, “I’d rather share my faith with my actions than my words.” That’s a fair statement to make. However, if you knew my family and the outdoors were important to me, yet I never talked about them with you… wouldn’t you wonder if I actually loved them as much as I said I do? Or, wouldn’t you wonder if I was as close with you as you thought we were?

To me, in order to reach the next generation with Christian faith, we have to be willing to go to them, form organic relationships with them, and actually talk to them about our faith. Yes, of course, we need to continue to carry out all the Great Ends of the Church. But consider this: How is it that Jesus gives you hope and joy? Would it be so bad to tell someone about that?

LATEST STORIES

Advertisement