Reaching the next generation

By James Merritt

One startling statistic speaks volumes about the importance of reaching the next generation: The average age of conversion today in the United States is 13.

Both experience and common sense tells us that the earlier a person can be reached for Christ, the longer they can live for Christ, the more tender one’s heart is, and the easier it is to reach them with the gospel. Incidentally, many, many people are saved after age 13, but go to any church and ask how many people were saved before that age, and the vast majority of hands will go up.

If you owned a business, and you knew the average age of the customer who would buy your product was 13, then obviously, you would gear all of your advertising, the vast majority of your financial resources, and build your organization around that age group. The sad fact is, many of our churches talk a good game when it comes to reaching the next generation, but they are not seriously in the game.

When I left the pastorate of a very successful mega-church to plant a church with a core of 200 people, one of my major driving forces was to build a church that would be geared to reaching the next generation. Frankly, I had to begin to think differently and to use a tired cliché — “outside the box” — in order to begin making my dream and vision come true. From the style of worship, to the staff we began to build, to our ministerial philosophy, to facilities, we unapologetically made it plain that we were going after the next generation. One thing a pastor must do if he is going to lead his church to reach the next generation is to constantly use the bully pulpit to state that objective, to state the philosophy behind that objective, and then to lead both strategically and tactically in making that happen.

Now, some compromises do not have to be made. The first is strong biblical preaching. I am convinced that simply preaching the Word is sufficient to reach any generation. Of course, that statement must be nuanced. Messages must be real, relevant, and reproducible. What I mean is our preaching must engage life where life really is, it must be relevant in showing knowledge of the current cultural trends of the day, and then it must be reproducible, in the sense of giving practical truth that can be applied to people where they live, work, and play.

Another thing that doesn’t need to be compromised or jettisoned is a clear presentation of the gospel on a weekly basis and some type of invitation, whether it be a come-forward invitation, a come-backward invitation, or something in between. But, everyone should hear the gospel on a weekly basis and be given the chance to respond.

Then, for our church, we put the vast majority of our financial resources into providing first-class facilities for our preschoolers, children, and students. Millions of dollars need not be spent to do so. Whatever you have to work with, your very best should be invested and put into providing an atmosphere that would be conducive to young people wanting to come. That also means your very best people should be recruited and trained to lead your next-generation ministry, from preschoolers to children to students.

We constantly say to our people, “We will not apologize for doing everything we can to reach your children and your grandchildren for Christ.” It is a touchy subject, but I do believe that must take into account the style of worship we provide. The cold-hard truth is you can do hymns (and we do hymns) and older songs (and we do sing older songs), but if you are going to reach a younger generation and even their parents you cannot have a church where the sound and the style are from the 1950s.

It is sad that “worship wars” go on in churches. This is my counsel: No one style of worship is ever going to please everybody at the same time. It is just impossible. Frankly, we discovered at our church that a blended worship service is a service where nobody is happy! But I’ve also found that once you begin to do worship in a quality way and you do some of the great old songs of the faith — but in a contemporary fashion — that even the “older” crowd will begin to even love the songs and participate gladly in worship, because they understand your philosophy and that worship is about God, not them.

Finally, we literally built our staff not from the top down, but from the bottom up. We have always tried to look for the best people to lead our preschool, children’s, and student ministries. Our ministers go to schools and high schools in trying to reach the next generation. Relationships are key with students, children, and their parents. This must always be kept in mind.

Reaching the next generation is doable, but it can be difficult. It is obtainable, but it can be agonizing. It can be compelling, but it can be costly. When you put your money where your mouth is, and you take strong action to reach the next generation, you will find out who truly wants to and who truly doesn’t.

In the end, I ask, “What choice do we really have, if we are going to fulfill the Great Commission?”

Published May 30, 2018

James Merritt

Pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia.