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Reaching Different Generations

With an audience ranging from Builders to Millennials, preaching has changed—or has it?

I cannot adopt a single approach to reach people today. Things have changed — the generation behind me, often called Generation X, tends to trust feelings over facts — but there's still a place for rational apologetics in our preaching. Many mid-life seekers still connect with the "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord" approach. They want historical evidence for Jesus.

Although I am not an "in your face" preacher, I am more direct than I was a few years ago.

The young adult seeker, however, tends to ask different questions. He or she says, "I want to know there is a spiritual reality. I could live with it being myth, but I want to know it touches my soul."

I'm finding I have to use more "spiritual" terms in my preaching now. Twenty years ago pastors tended to stay away from such language because we were afraid of sounding churchy. Many non-Christians feel comfortable with spiritual language, although not knowing the reality behind it.

Recently, for example, a woman asked if she could have lunch with me and one of my associates. She said she had an important question she wanted to discuss: "Can I become a member of the church without becoming a Christian?"

She had been attending church because she loved the spiritual aspect of our ministry — she apparently sensed the presence of God and enjoyed learning about prayer. She also liked our children's programs. But she was struggling with the role of Jesus. At lunch, she told me she had difficulty believing Jesus was the Son of God, so we talked about the uniqueness of Christ. We have continued to talk, as she explores the truth of Christianity. I speak to her out of reason and logic, but what initially drew her into our church was its appeal to her heart and soul.

Even with the advent of emotion over reason, I've discovered younger people are much more confrontational today than they were when I was growing up or than they were even 15 years ago. Many in my generation, while they might have disagreed with a pastor, would not likely challenge his or her authority publicly. They might have disagreed with the pastor, but they didn't say so to his or her face.

But today young people will say openly, "Pastor, I don't agree."

My style, which in the past honored diplomacy, has mildly changed. Although I am not an "in your face" preacher, I am more direct than I was a few years ago. At one of our contemporary services recently, I spoke on the issue of homosexuality. I strongly stated that homosexual behavior is wrong. But with equal directness, I said that too many Christian teenagers feel justified in harassing and even beating up homosexuals, and this is as offensive to a holy God as homosexuality. In fact, I said, both the homosexual and the one harassing him stand stained before God.

When I finished, some of the older people said to me, "You came down harder on those ridiculing homosexuals than you did on homosexuality itself."

I responded, "How many homosexuals do you think we had here tonight?"

"Hopefully, we didn't have any, Pastor."

We probably did, but I let it go and said, "How many people here do you think have ever ridiculed or harassed a homosexual?"

"We probably had several."

"Well, okay," I said. "They were my target audience."

Apparently I hit the mark: a number of the young people I talked with after the service gave me positive feedback, and one 19-year-old college student said, "I needed to hear that. I knew it was not right to harass homosexuals, but you said it was a sin."

Generations differ, but I'm finding I still need to preach to the head, to the heart, and to the will. What changes from group to group is the emphasis.

Gary Fenton is pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of Your Ministry's Next Chapter (Bethany).

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