An observation frequently made by historians is that generals are always preparing to fight the last war they fought in. The next war when it comes, however, is never like the war that went before. As a Church, we are often planning and preparing to minister to the society of the past rather than the one that is to come. As a Church, we need to leave behind the preoccupations of the past and look to the future. In a fast-changing world, it simply cannot be ‘business as usual’.
So, what about our ministry to today’s generation? Millennials, that is, those born between 1981 and 1996 get a bad press. But it is to this generation that the task of wrestling with the changes and challenges facing us all is going to fall.
What, Synod, do we have to say to them?
Let me make it more personal. What do we have to say to the Girl with the Tattoo having coffee in Starbucks. Let’s call her Milly.
Milly is in her twenties. She is bright, well-educated, with a professional career. She isn’t married, and has no intention of having children any time soon. She does have a boyfriend, who, of course, she has sex with regularly. She wouldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that. Just as she doesn’t understand why I still get excited about ‘skyping’ with family and friends.
Now you may be thinking that Milly is western and that perhaps the Starbucks is in New York or London. But no, we are in Festival Walk, and Milly is Chinese. She went to Heep Yunn – or was it DGS? She does not go to Church, and has no interest in going.
What, Synod, do we have to offer Milly that may make her interested in going?
It is no good telling her how we are ‘for the City’ or how we run schools and welfare agencies. That’s all very nice, but it is unlikely to interest her. After all, if we didn’t, others would. They already do. Please don’t misunderstand me. These are all important, but what makes us different? What can we offer Milly that she can’t get elsewhere?
I was ordained the year that the first millennial was born. During my ministry, the Church has striven to be relevant. It still does. This desire to be seen as relevant, however, hasn’t attracted people to our Churches. Quite the reverse. And the quest for relevance has been at the cost of our message. We have failed to see the difference between speaking in a way that is relevant and changing our message in the hope of making it seem relevant. The desire for relevance has been at the cost of who we are. In our desire to be relevant, we have sacrificed being authentic. The terrible irony is that millennials like Milly are more likely to be attracted by authenticity than they are by an institution that changes its message in the hope of gaining popularity.
Now I am not suggesting that we should be authentic to be relevant! We will, however, never be relevant unless we ourselves are authentic with a message that is authentic – whether people believe in it or not, like it or not, or are attracted to it or not.
And what could be more authentic than God, the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’? Surely, we in the Church should be able to offer Milly God? But can we?
Part Three: We are All Atheists Now