Monday, August 3, 2015

Evangelism and Millennials: Why the Atonement Matters

Three years ago, I was teaching a two week class for the Doctor of Ministries students at Nashotah.  It was on congregational development.  Almost all the students were clergy in small congregations.  They were eager to hear what I had to say on attracting and making new members.  In the middle weekend, I traveled to eastern Michigan to visit friends who were once members of my church in Seattle.  They insisted and I was glad to attend their new church that Sunday. 

Victory Fellowship was located in the next town.  It had an interesting history.  The founding pastor was a Pentecostal and had recently retired.  He was replaced by a younger pastor in his mid-30s.  My friends told me he was a great pastor and good preacher.  When the new pastor arrived, the church began to grow and changed its name to Victory Fellowship form The Pentecostal Church, Assemblies of God.  For Episcopalians who do not know much about the Assemblies of God, it is one of the three major “old line Pentecostal Churches of North America.   

My friends told me that the Pastor was a former drug addict who had experienced a miraculous deliverance and sobriety from his addiction and had eventually gone to seminary.  They also explained that he had introduced small group fellowships (they led one) and the church had a huge youth ministry with lots of young adults attending.  They were very excited that on this Sunday a young twenty year old member of their home group was going to be baptized.   

I knew the moment we pulled into the parking lot that I was in for a lesson on reaching millennials.  Everyone seemed to be in their twenties and thirties with a few of us older boomers mixed in.  Also, as we parked, a tattooed biker pulled up next to us with his wife riding behind him.  I noticed that there were lots of motorcycles in the lot.   

I was not surprised to see a theater type modern facility.  I also found that it had a welcome center that served Starbucks Coffee and lots of friendly greeters including the biker and his wife.  The building had two worship areas and a state of the art nursery and education section.  Parents signed in their children and were given a pager in case of emergency.  The two worship centers were for the adults and teens.  The teen area was already rocking with contemporary Christian music led by a youth band.   We made our way to the main worship center.  A music group was playing on the stage which had only a stool and a large screen behind it.  After an opening announcement, the worship began.   

I had been to this type of service before and stood as the music group led by a twenty something “Worship Pastor” led the opening music set.  It contained at least six songs.  I sat down after three songs and noticed that several of the older folks had joined me.  The service contained special prayers, music, scripture, and announcements about planned mission work.  The Worship Pastor was commissioned because he was leaving to start a new church in a nearby community.  Then there was a special song about Faith that led into one of the best teaching sermons I had heard on the biblical subject of Faith.  The theme was Faith what is it, why we need it, and why faith without works is not true faith.   

The pastor started his sermon sitting on the stool.  He was casually dressed and carried an IPad.  It was linked to the screen and, as he made his points, scripture verses and pictures appeared to amplify his message.  His sermon ended with a transition through the offering and offertory music by the band into an introduction to the baptism.  

At the front of the auditorium just below the stage was a large water tank much like you see on the farms in central Michigan.  The young lady was introduced and then the pastor asked her if it was her desire to be baptized into Jesus Christ.  He handed her the microphone and she proceeded to explain how she had “come to Christ.  Now her family, who were not Church Members, watched all this.  Wearing jeans and a top blouse she climbed into the tank and the pastor baptized her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then after she emerged from the water and was wrapped in a large white towel he anointed her with oil and prayed that she would be filled with the Holy Spirit.   

The pastor turned to the congregation.  “Perhaps there are some of you here today who want to follow this dear sister and receive baptism too. You too may feel that you are lost and need a new direction and a new life.”  To the family’s surprise, the woman’s younger sister stepped up and said she wanted to be baptized too.  (I found out later that she had never been to the church.)  She explained to the pastor and to her family and the congregation that she had seen the change in her sister and wanted this life.  Ultimately three other members of the extended family and two other congregants received baptism that day. 

While all this was going on, I stood looking at the members of the congregation.  So many were clearly not the kind of people you see in typical Episcopal Churches.  Many were Millennials, and remember this was the older service.  It was clear that the Church was racially and economically diverse.  I kept asking myself why we Episcopalians have so few examples of churches like this.  I knew that many of the clergy in my D. Min. class would be eager to reach such people.  I also knew that few would. I think that I know part of the reason why we will not. 

The Episcopal Church aims at two kinds of people.  We aim at the “already churched” and the “de-churched.”  We seldom aim our efforts or activities at the unchurched, especially the Millennial Unchurched.  If we are going to evangelize the unchurched youth of today, we will need to change, and I don’t mean style.  You see behind this church’s efforts lies a different interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or as we call it, the Atonement.  It is not the progressive view that Jesus gives us a model of how to live a life of love.  It is not the Evangelical view that Jesus’ death saved us from our sins.  It is the classical biblical view expressed by Gustaf Aulen’s in “Christus Victor.”   

These young people did not need to know that they are sinners.  Everyone knows that.  They needed to know that there is a Savior who can deliver them from the power of sin, evil, addiction, dysfunctional families, broken relationships, despair, hatred, and death.  The Christ presented at Victory Fellowship is the one that Paul said “nailed to the Cross the Principalities and Powers of this world” and won for us the victory of a new life in his Kingdom.  Who better understands this than the Pastor who was delivered from his addition?  No wonder the name of the Fellowship was VICTORY.   

Here is my point.  The more secular our culture becomes and the more it moves from its Christian heritage, the more Churches will have to discover the full Doctrine of the Atonement.  Surely, Jesus is the model of God’s love for us to follow.  We also find forgiveness in his Cross and a new life.  But we also have a power in this new life that is able to deliver us from the Powers of this world.  This last expression of Atonement will take on much more importance in the coming years, and we had better figure this out as a Church or we will not reach Millennials in any significant way.  We can also consider recruiting from such Millennial Christians those who will plant new congregations.  We may not call them “Victory” Churches because we are after all Anglicans, but we will learn to explain that the Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, and other such folks all represent followers of Jesus who experience the triumph of Christ’s victory over the Principalities and Powers of this world.  The more secular the culture, the more relevant this message.