Shortly before my twenty-fifth birthday my wife and I started a non-denominational church in the living room of our rented duplex just off the campus of Syracuse University. Eleven people attended our first service.
Twenty-three years later we have the privilege of pastoring a church of over 3,300 members that enjoys the distinction of being one of the most racially diverse congregations in the America.
When our church first began, we wanted to be a part of a revolution.
We wanted to reach the un-churched twenty-somethings of our generation.
We wanted to build a church that would transcend the barriers of race, economics, and social status.
We wanted to change the world.
So, we built a new kind of church designed to bring the timeless message of scripture and the presence of Jesus to our generation.
We built buildings designed to reach families and accommodate crowds.
We built a coffee shop and a bookstore in our lobby, a café for our young adults, and Disneyesque programming for our children.
We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to feed the hungry in our community, provide job programs for urban youth, and operate a medical center in an impoverished region of Western Kenya.
I think it is fair to say that our ministry has had a transformational impact in our community and made a difference in the world. It came as rude awakening to discover that my transformational church might need some transformation itself.
As a “revolutionary” it just never occurred to me that my very cool church might not connect with my own kids.
I recognize in my millennial kids many of the same frustrations that I felt as a twenty something about the evangelical churches I grew up in.
It is the same hunger I saw in my twenty-something parents that motivated them to leave the mysterious rituals of the old European cathedrals for a vibrant contemporary faith that made sense of the world they lived in.
As a witness to the charismatic renewal of the 60’s, the rise of Evangelicalism in the 70’s and 80’s, and the media/mega-church movements of the past three decades, I have a perspective that allows me to both critique and defend. I have watched the dance between church and culture – sometimes holding each other tight and dancing slowly, while at other times behaving as rivals in a hip hop dance off.
The church will always face this conflict. After all, we are called to both love the world and change the world. We are called to embrace all people while simultaneously calling them to abandon sin and live a better life.
The church is assigned to carry a message that calls everyone to transform, to live above the shifting preferences of culture, the rebellion of youth, and the prejudices of the aging.
I am fully persuaded that it is the message of scripture itself that heals, delivers, confronts, and transforms, not the methods we employ to deliver it.
Our evangelical and charismatic churches have grown because of the power of our message.
While our churches have experimented with countless methods of delivering the message of the Bible, we are at our best when our methods demystify, clarify, and connect people with its message – not obscure or apologize for it.
The Gospel comforts and convicts. It exposes the lies that our culture teaches while calling us to responsible living.
Its teaching about human sexuality is just as important and relevant as its teaching about materialism, justice, the stewardship of the earth, and peace.
What is says, it has always said. And it’s the church’s job to explain it, not change it to make it easier to swallow.
While each generation must apply its teaching to the challenges they face, the church does not exist so much to reflect the ever-shifting preferences of culture, but to speak to them in fresh ways. It is not the message of the church that must change, but the methods and manner employed to deliver it—clutter free—to each generation.
Our current twenty-somethings are indeed a special lot. But after talking with hundreds of them and listening to their desires and fears I am convinced that they are not so unlike the generations before them.
They are looking for more than a church that will affirm their lifestyles and approve a particular political agenda.
They want to be challenged to think, live, and experience a power that is greater than themselves.
We became evangelicals because the spontaneous worship, confrontational preaching, and calls to sacrificial living felt real, authentic, and relevant.
We wanted to hear the Bible taught and experience the presence of Jesus for ourselves.
Our church is working on a quiet revolution. We are talking to our millenials, understanding their passions and making room for their gifts and service contributions.
My sons want to see more of their generation reflected in leadership, in our worship, and at our planning table. They want to be seen, understood and useful. And frankly, we need them.
So, we are opening our hearts in new ways and discovering new methods to call this generation to live the Gospel, without apologizing for what it says.
I don’t know how many millennials will return to our church. My experience tells me that many of them will show up sometime in their early 30’s – somewhere between marriage and the birth of their first child. When I pray I hear their imminent footsteps.
But we are not waiting. We are adapting. We are preparing to hand the church over to a generation of revolutionary twenty somethings.
These much-studied millennials will inherit the Earth as well as the Kingdom of God. And someday, sooner than they could ever imagine, they will be confronted with the challenge of how to deliver a revolutionary message to a generation of children who will be looking for a revolution of their own.
John Carter is the founder and Senior Pastor of Abundant Life Christian Center in Syracuse, N.Y. He also ministers internationally and speaks at church and leadership conferences throughout India, Africa, Eastern Europe, and North America. Pastor John may be heard through a weekly TV broadcast, "Coming To Life." He is the author of "The Transformed Life: Discover How to Live from the Inside Out."