Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Preaching to the Unchurched Millennials

Reaching the next generation by 'talking Jesus.'
Preaching to the Unchurched Millennials

I'm Miriam Swaffiled, a 27 years old Student Mission Leader in the UK for Fusion, a charity that helps local churches and students connect, and is actually working to link the two all over the world now (check out www.studentlinkup.org). We also exist to catalyze students to share Jesus with their friends and that's the vision I've spent the last nearly five years serving, since graduating from university. I have just finished a two year road trip in a bright orange 42 year old VW camper van called Benedict, travelling to every university location in the UK to visit, serve, and work with hundreds of local churches looking to reach this generation. I've therefore ended up spending a huge amount of time either on the streets alongside students sharing Jesus with students, or in local churches preaching and helping mobilize the body for mission.

However shiny and branded your church is, however Twitter-friendly your preaching is, if you aren't a real person with vulnerability and courage on display for us to access and make friends with, then we can only follow so far.

My big message? While on the road my foundational passage was 2 Corinthians 5, exploring what it really looks like to be an ambassador for Christ, in your lectures, the sports teams, night club dance floors, across the kitchen table over a cup of tea, at home, and in church settings. I've been talking authenticity, being Jesus' representative 24-7, not just when you feel like it or when other Christians are watching. My heart has been to encourage Jesus' church. To in-fill with courage the people of God, praying for the Holy Spirit to empower his church for his work of making disciples. Because we have everything we need in the Holy Spirit to share Jesus; our issue isn't ability, it's the courage to actually begin to speak about him, to live distinctively, and to invite others to follow the Way too.

Assessing our unchurched world

As I've traveled across Great Britain and other parts of Europe I meet many people who know nothing about Christianity or church. For instance, I recently met a German first year university student who told me he had never met a Christian before. He'd never experienced church before. So it took him by surprise to discover the bunch of students and twenty-somethings on the streets of York at midnight, handing out water bottles, offering prayer, and sharing glow-in-the-dark face paint to those on the night out, were all there as a local church.

"If this is what Christianity is, then this looks like a really good thing! If this is what church is, I am very interested in it!" He was blown away. He had only been in the UK a matter of weeks, settling into his degree and meeting his new housemates. He was the first person in a while I'd talked to about Jesus for whom the whole faith conversation was completely brand new information. I love those conversations to be honest. It's like God presents you with a blank piece of paper, and with the stunning pallet of painting colors already in your hands through the Holy Spirit, God invites you in that moment to paint something of his presence and glory onto that person's blank page concept of faith. What a privilege. What an opportunity.

Pointing to Jesus

But it isn't that unusual to meet people who have no experience of church or active Christianity, on the streets of England, or Europe, in fact. When trying to gauge whether the person in front of me has ever heard of Jesus, I usually start by asking whether they've ever been to a church service or a met a Christian before. Some remember the odd school assembly or special service in an old parish church building if they went to a Church of England school. Now and again a guy will mention attending Sunday school, possibly taken by grandparents, until he reached the age of seven and started playing Sunday morning football instead. This at least gives me somewhere to go, some kind of common ground even if my follow-up comment is "Ah, well I actually see church less as an old, cold building and more as a bunch of people who really love God and love others."

When I talk about being a Christian or being part of a church community, the classic follow-up question goes something along the lines of , "Are you religious then?" and the tone isn't hugely encouraging. So, in response to this, I'll either ask "What do you mean by religious?" because there's usually some very negative misrepresentations of the word and that's an interesting chat. But my favorite response to "Are you religious?" is to reply with "I follow Jesus."

That turn of phrase usually presses a pause button briefly on the conversation whilst I'm met with a confused or inquisitive stare. "What do you mean, 'You follow Jesus?'" The label of "Christian" is one thing, but to name-drop Jesus in the way you describe who you are, well now that's intriguing, that's different, that's asking for more interaction. It's all around describing who this Jesus is and why I follow him. That's where it gets really life-giving, and that's where people's attention gets captured, because most of them honestly haven't been told about Jesus before, not in the knowable, present, and active person of God kind of way. So let's talk Jesus.

'Talking Jesus'

Some new research has been published from the Barna Group called "Talking Jesus," the biggest research of its kind into perceptions of Jesus, Christians, and evangelism in England. The emerging generations, the 18s-30s, came out with some remarkable results.

Good news is nominal Christianity is dying out fast in younger adults. Basically we don't have cultural Christians anymore. Which is no bad thing I reckon. Anecdotally I could have told you that just from growing up on the playgrounds of England. To still be actively following Jesus and admitting to it by the time you get to university probably means it cost you something. You've signed up to being in a minority through your teens when it's pretty painful not to fit in. No doubt you've also had to sacrifice engaging with all the stuff your mates are experimenting with at parties, in relationships, and in how they do socializing. You've also had to go against the flow in the first 24 hours of arriving at university when getting drunk becomes the default to numb the social anxiety of starting student life and straight away the Christian in the room feels the call to shine something different.

Any self-confessed Christian in their early twenties in the UK is likely to be the real deal I reckon. Chances are they've actually met Jesus, because it's not like our friends are all in the same boat, we're the ones in our culture who stepped out of the boat in fact and it will have cost us to be walking on the water. Brilliantly, the research also shows the young-adult practicing Christians who do remain, are the most likely to be sharing their faith and engaging with evangelism. Those of us who still follow Jesus post eighteen and into our twenties seem to be grasping the opportunity to share our faith with our friends more than at any other life stage. Good news.

To be fair, we need to be sharing our faith with our friends more than ever. Because the stats also have some scary reality checks for us. Like only 57% of 18-34 year olds think Jesus was a real person who actually lived. In fact, 25% of the 18-34 year olds believe Jesus is a mythical or fictional character. So we have some serious work to do when we meet people, like that student on the street who had no idea what Christianity was at all.

Preaching to Millennials

I were to give you some top tips, some things I'm learning from spending my life talking Jesus to my generation and equipping the church to be the missional body of Christ, here's what I'd say to preachers around the globe:

1) Be real. Although my generation appears to live multiple lives, online, offline, on a night out, and on a Sunday morning, we actually crave authenticity. We may not always achieve it in ourselves but we are drawn to real people, real life, a real God, who has real dirt under his fingernails because he got involved with the messiness and beauty of humanity. However shiny and branded your church is, however Twitter-friendly your preaching is, if you aren't a real person with vulnerability and courage on display for us to access and make friends with, then we can only follow so far. Be authentic. Be real.

2) Be our friend. We are such a relational generation that we crave connection. We actually love being parented and invested in by people of different ages and stages to us. We don't always have a great picture of family but please help create a better one in God's church for us to learn from and be part of. We feel lonely, despite being the most connected generation yet thanks to the Internet, so face-to-face, life-on-life discipleship, and conversation has increased in value for us. Let's get to know one another.

3) Be a storyteller. This also relates to the authenticity tip and the relational tip. Tell us stories of God, real stories, people stories, and invite us into the story. Capture our attention with Scripture, but don't expect an hour of you talking at us to do the job. Invite us to wrestle and engage with the living Word of God through how you draw us into all your wisdom and insight. Leonard Sweet the theologian and pastor said "The future belongs to the story tellers and connectors" and we are the generation who want to connect and are captivated by story. Tell us Jesus' story and don't hold back in your creativity and passion when you go for it!

I love being an evangelist in the UK and I love working with and for the sake of the student world. I think we have incredible opportunities to represent and present Jesus to the world, at a time when people are open to the spiritual but probably didn't realize God was so knowable and that he has a name. The stats don't scare me, but I do cling onto the truth of Ephesians 3 that God "is able do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine," but I also remember the rest of the sentence … that he does this immeasurably more through us, "according to his power that is at work within us." So we press on, we keep name-dropping Jesus, we keep inviting people to meet their maker, and we genuinely love the person in front of us as we go.

For more information about how your church can be equipped for student mission go to www.studentlinkup.org, check out www.fusion.uk.com and email hello@fusion.uk.com. Miriam can be found on twitter @miriamswaff or via the Fusion website.

Miriam Swaffield is the student mission leader for Fusion, is passionate about equipping people to share Jesus with their friends, loves the church, and dabbles in spoken word poetry.

Related articles

Riveting Sermons

How to Get and Keep Listeners' Attention

Delivery: Introduction

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?

Delivery: Part 1: Workshops

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?