The evangelical church has spent far too much time trying to figure out cultural engagement, and far too little time just trying to love.  If we listen to people patiently and give people the gift of our curiosity we will be plenty engaged.  I’m not arguing for purposeful obscurantism.  What I’m arguing for is getting people’s attention with a force more powerful than the right lingo and the right movies.

We spend all this time trying to imitate Gen X culture or millennial culture, and to what end?  For starters, there is no universal youth culture.  Young people do not all think alike, dress alike, or feel comfortable in the same environments.  Moreover, even if we could figure out “what the next generation likes” by the time we figured it out they probably wouldn’t like it anymore.  Count on it: when the church discovers cool, it won’t be cool anymore.  I’ve seen well meaning Christians try to introduce new music into the church in an effort to reach the young people, only to find out that the “new” music included “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and “Shout to the Lord.”  There’s nothing worse than a church trying to be fresh and turning out to be a little dated.  Better to stick with the hymns and the organ than do “new” music that isn’t new or do the new music in an embarrassing way.

The evangelical church needs to stop preaching the false gospel of cultural identification.  Don’t spend all your time trying to figure out how to be just like the next generation.  Be yourself.  Tell them about Jesus.  And love them unashamedly.  I think a lot of older Christians are desperate to figure out what young people are into because they are too embarrassed to be themselves and too unsure of themselves to simply love the people they are trying to reach.

Jesus said it best: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Jesus did not say “They will know you are my disciples by how attune you are to new trends in youth culture.”  Or “They will know you are my disciples by the hip atmosphere you create.”   Give up on relevance, and try love.  If they see love in you, love for each other, love for the world, and love for them, they will listen.  No matter who the “they” are.

Talk to people.  Notice visitors.  Invite new people over for lunch.  Strike up a friendly conversation at the greasy pizza joint.  Let your teenagers’ friends hang out at your house.  Love won’t guarantee they young people will never walk away from the church, but it will make it a lot harder.  It won’t guarantee that non-Christians will come to Christ, but it will make the invitation a whole lot more attractive.

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20 thoughts on “Reaching the Next Generation: Win Them With Love”

  1. John says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Good post. Sometimes the church’s effort to be cool really turns people off. Even young folks are often looking for something different.

    My wife and I just finished reading Just Do Something and loved it. It’s reviewed on my blog. I’ve started Why We Love the Church, and I love it, too.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Mark says:

    Perhaps the next blog should be “Win them with honesty.” You touched on this somewhat when you urged us to be ourselves and stop trying to figure out youth culture. Teens are the target of more marketing than any other age group. It is tragic when their shepherds that should be a source and example of truth become another huckster trying to get them to buy.

  3. Abu Tulip says:

    Amen. There’s nothing more uncool than trying too hard to be cool.

  4. Cliff says:

    Love is relevance.

  5. Cheez says:

    Yes, greasy pizza joints are definitely the best. Particularly Bell’s, or if you have extra moneys, Pizza House.

  6. Ephrem Hagos says:

    What the next generation is rejecting is not Jesus Christ, whom it does not know but the double-misnomer of an “evangelical church” with all of its make-beliefs and hypocrisy! Otherwise, what we all need is firsthand and personal knowledge of God based on the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, “according to the Scriptures”. Only then can our own strongholds, false arguments, and proud obstacles be first destroyed before we worry about others!(2 Cor. 10: 4-6; Matt. 7: 1-6)

    In a free expression of God’s love, now restrained on our own account, can we redeem ourselves and the next generation too!

  7. G. Miller says:

    Good point love it!

  8. Jared says:

    First off, I love this blog and I read it all the time.

    I am a youth pastor in Santa Cruz CA and there is so much I identify with in this post, and I felt it convicting for myself and my ministry. I get that we should focus on love first and not knowing the culture.
    However, I have found knowing the culture to be an integral part of loving young people. I mean honestly it is really hard to have a conversation with someone that you have nothing in common with. I mean if I do go to that greasy pizza joint and strike up a conversation with a skater kid, it is gonna be really hard because we have so little in common. Sometimes knowing what young people are into can be a huge help in breaking the ice. So I totally agree with you that just being willing to love is so much more important than being “cool” or knowing all of the lingo of young people. However, I have found that sometimes the first step in loving someone different then you is trying to understand their world.

    Just my two cents, not trying to be critical, like I said I love your blog and this is a great post!

  9. Kevin,

    Wondering if you could speak into the H1N1 stuff that’s going on right now. I’m leading a youth group discussion about it this week and asking questions like, “Where is God in all of this?” and “What is the focus of our faith in this time — God or medicine or the president?”

    What’s your opinion?

    Chris

  10. K.P. says:

    “Better to stick with the hymns and the organ than do “new” music that isn’t new or do the new music in an embarrassing way.”….. Based on this logic, aren’t the hymns and organ actually “new” music compared to generations before and certainly those times when Jesus walked the earth? Aren’t many of the hymns derivatives of the Psalms? We should be careful making blanket statements like this.

    For that matter, is evangelical christianity truly a model of the way Jesus truly walked. Does discipleship actually take place or is evangelicalism its own flavored version of post-modernism?

    Ultimately, and overall, I agree with you. Loving our neighbor is what impacts those around us, not programs, catchy music, etc.

    Blessings….

  11. Sam Wilder says:

    GAH!Here we are again worrying about relevance when we have the most relevant thing in the world to offer everyone – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we will just be honest with it and obedient to it and let the Holy Spirit use us right where we are, people, of all ages, will be changed!

  12. Israel says:

    It’s what Jesus taught repeatedley and we get it wrong so many times.

    Love.

    Love like God loves.

  13. Gary says:

    I agree with Cliff. Love is relevance. If we loved everybody that we came in contact with, there would be no need to try to make the church “relevant.” It would already be.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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