Many rural millennials feel 4-H Clubs are old-fashioned. That’s how most millennial Christians feel about changing the world, especially through evangelism. And I can’t blame them.
I grew up in the ’burbs so I only bumped into 4-H when we’d visit the annual county fair. I’d see the 4-H banner. Rural kids pledge four resources: their head, heart, hands and health to make their club, community, country, and the world a better place. Those are four good things.
But not good enough to stem the decline of 4-H Clubs. Not a surprise, as America’s rural population is declining. But a bigger contributor to the decline is the perception by millennial rural kids that 4-H Clubs are old-fashioned. What was effective in 1921 isn’t in 2021.
Which brings us to a topic near and dear to fewer and fewer Christians: changing the world, and in particular by doing evangelism. I’m not an evangelist. But I do share my faith and have seen lots of folks come to faith. It’s partly due to coming to faith in the ‘70s when it was generally understood that evangelism is important.
We hear less of that today. We hear about justice, community, racism, flourishing, discipleship, and so on. All have their place. But less about changing the world. This corresponds to a declining interest in evangelism. Only eight percent of Christians who regularly attend church see evangelism as “very important.”[i] Even more troubling are surveys indicating almost half of all practicing Christian millennials say evangelism is wrong.
I have an idea why. Most church resources assume it’s 1981. They’re the result of the Silent Generation (1925-1945) pioneering them, Baby Boomers (1946-1964) building on them. Gen-X (1965-1980) hasn’t added much, largely because they’re suspicious of elders and have proven to be weak leaders (example: seeing mentoring as peers banding together[ii]). So as Boomer influence peaked in the ‘80s, their resources froze like fossils trapped in amber.
The problem is the year is 2021, not 1981, the year the first Millennials were born. They grew up in a post-Christian world filled with friends who are religious “nones,” an experience few Boomers and Gen-X know firsthand. This makes the Boomer’s four resources look old-fashioned, like a 4-H Club. I define them as heroic, ham-fisted, handbook, and hired guns.
Take heroic. In this model, we’re told to boldly witness. But most folks, including Christians, are not bold by nature. And most religious “nones” aren’t drawn to bold religious statements. But it seems Millennials are most in touch with this, making boldness look old-fashioned.
So do our ham-fisted transitions. Here’s one: “If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain where you’d go?” This is awkward as most “nones” believe in an afterlife but don’t believe in the biblical heaven and doubt anyone can know for certain where we end up. Millennials seem to be most in touch with this.
And then our third resource: Handbooks, or tracts. I’m familiar with this as I taught college students this method when I worked for a campus ministry. But I began to notice hardly anyone uses tracts after graduation. It’s awkward to pull one out over a business lunch.
That leaves us with our fourth resource: hired-gun. This is when Christians feel like they’re not educated enough, or sufficiently erudite, to share the faith. So they bring in the Big Guns, evangelists and apologists whose elocution exceeds the average individual. This model is popular with Boomers and Gen-X, but not with Millennials who know religious “nones” are rarely drawn to our apologists and evangelists.
I saw this firsthand when we lived near two colleges in town. Students generally weren’t drawn to evangelists. I saw this in India a year ago. I was part of a group that included Indian nationals asking why the gospel is not impacting urban millennial Hindus (it fares well in rural India). The problem is they only have 4-H Club resources that Americans have sent them.
So what can be done? Two things.
First, recognize reality. Charles Taylor writes that our current resources are ineffective, so “Christians in a world which less and less reflects God are thrown back on their own resources.”[iii] Other than writing a check, those resources are pretty much zilch. Our plan is to develop delivery systems for resources we’ve developed that have proven to be effective. If you want to help in this, please get in touch with Glenn Bryan, Clapham’s director.
Second, Taylor suggests we return to the “background” of 500 years ago, including recognizing a “real tension” between our sex lives and holiness.[iv] But this requires becoming comfy with talking about our bodies, our sexuality, and how they tell God’s story. I don’t see a lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers ready to do this. Perhaps Millennials are. I recommend they read Christopher West’s new book, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story. You’ll love it.
[i] “What America Really Believes,” Baylor Religion Surveys, Baylor University, 2007.
[ii] Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002)
[iii] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2007), 143.
[iv] Taylor, A Secular Age, 645.