Preaching A Christianity Worth Believing In | Reaching The Next Generation
“If that’s your vision of faith,” I responded, “then your vision of faith is too small.”
Speaker, Author, Leader, Evangelist
[Parts of this article were previously published in Sermoncentral.com (2008)]
My evening took an interesting turn. It was supposed to be a leisurely dinner with a friend from out of town. Instead, he brought his brother along and left midway through to go on a blind date.
Thankfully, the conversation with my friend’s brother came easily. As a professional poker player with some serious winnings, he told stories of what it was like on the gambling circuit. And as the night went on, given that I’m a professional minister, our talk turned to spirituality and faith. He said that he used to go to church. I asked him why he left.
He rattled off a list, counting on his fingers, “I’m happy. I love what I do. I’m enjoying my life. What else do I need?”
When he first started going to church, he was told that life without Jesus is miserable and glum, but life with Jesus is peaceful and filled with joy. So he gave Jesus a try. But he didn’t find himself that much more fulfilled or happy. He actually felt worse. He felt like a fraud. And when he left the church, his happiness level didn’t go down either. He concluded that he didn’t need Christianity, because he was happy enough as it was. Then he shrugged his shoulders, as a final comment on the state of his faith.
“If that’s your vision of faith,” I responded, “then your vision of faith is too small.”
His eyes went wide. It’s true—a vision of faith has to be larger than what it can do for us. It has to be more than an incantation that can make us healthy, rich, fulfilled, or in my new friend’s case, happy. A Christianity worth believing in has to be about more than what we can get out of it. It’s inherently about what God is doing in us and the world.
Recapturing Jesus’ Message For Today’s Generation
Today’s college students of the Millennial generation are optimistic, civic-minded, and globally-conscious. They want to know if faith has any role in making the world a better place. If not, they’ll turn their attention somewhere else. And the following generation, the iGens, want to know if the gospel can point to something transcendent and worth our every devotion. To reach younger generations, we need to present a faith that isn’t merely good news for us but also good news for the rest of the world.
A Christianity with the ultimate goal of only avoiding hell, entering paradise, and finding our purpose won’t connect with younger people. It sounds escapist, selfish to them, emphasizing only our own emotional states or eternal destinies with no concern for our neighbors. The Millennials and iGens need to hear about a faith that will actually make a difference in the world.
Jesus’ gospel did just that. In Mark 1:14–15, Jesus “[proclaimed] the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” This was Jesus’ good news, which is the exact same word for gospel. The kingdom was a community where everything God truly wants to happen actually does.
It’s not just about the afterlife but also about life now. As N.T. Wright says so fondly, the kingdom is where “heaven intersects earth.” Sometimes we want faith to be about one or the other, as either those of a liberal or fundamentalist persuasion do, but it’s about both. It’s about what Jesus has done, and what he is doing in the world, and what he will do in the future. It’s a faith, to twist a quote, that’s both heavenly-minded and earthly-good. And this message is one that younger generations are aching to hear.
To offer a Christianity worth believing in for rising generations, we need three movements. It doesn’t mean that the old ways aren’t true, but any preaching needs to include these three movements to be relevant today.
From Decision To Transformation
It’s easy to major on decisions. They’re concrete and visible—people stand up in our pews or raise their hands in our seminars. Of course, decisions are necessary, but they shouldn’t be ends in themselves. Decisions should point to a life of transformation, and they should build on top of each other to help us become more like Jesus. By the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, we need to continue to be transformed into his likeness with increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In this way, Christianity isn’t just about what we get out of it. In part, it’s about who we are becoming. Our faith helps us reflect our namesake—that we become more and more like Christ. We love out of his love, we serve out of his heart of service, and we live out of his power. As we become more like Jesus, our heart reflex will be to bring glory to God by allowing our good deeds to shine before others (Matthew 5). We become people who know how to love and serve in Jesus’ name. Every time someone allows Jesus to be the leader of their lives, that is good news for the world because someone has joined the kingdom of God and has also begun to love their neighbors as themselves.
Every three years, InterVarsity calls this generation of young adults, longing to make a difference in the world, to the Urbana Student Mission Conference. It’s a tangible step as they move from the decision to follow Jesus to living transformed as they join God’s global mission. It’s bringing Jesus’ Great Commission and command to love our neighbors to a practical level as students use their God-given passions, whether it’s for business or healthcare or Bible translation, to serve and encourage others.
From Individual To Community
Our faith isn’t just about me either. It’s about what God is doing through us. Almost every “you” that Paul wrote in the New Testament is plural. His letters addressed communities living in Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi for starters. For Paul, it was not only important to have individual witnesses but to have a community of followers who could share about Jesus’ death and resurrection that ushered in the kingdom of God.
It’s not that the individual ceases to be important, but younger people also want to know how faith is lived out in a wider context of relationships and the world’s systems. They want to know: how does our faith helps us overcome racism or sexism? How does our faith encourage us to participate in the fight against the AIDS pandemic or the trafficking of children? How does trusting the gospel allow us to live a more beautiful life? Answers to these questions will be compelling to younger people.
We’re all interconnected. If we preach a gospel that wasn’t only directed to the motivations of individuals but also to the lives of our families, communities, country and, ultimately, world, we will be preaching a message that has world impact. Yes, it starts with one soul at a time, but it also goes ways beyond that, as God will be redeeming individuals, relationships, and systems into a “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 65:17).
At Urbana, thousands of students are invited to gather together to model this communal life and witnessing community. The conference also calls students to see our faith as a global one that connects us to the Jesus-followers around the world. It helps them recognize we are all truly one body in Christ, unified across generations, cultures, and distances as we all serve in his kingdom mission.
From Afterlife To Mission-life
Our faith is about more than where we go when we die. Let me be very clear: the afterlife is very important. Our eternal destinations have a significant impact on the way we view the power of death and the importance of life. At the same time, our faith isn’t just about receiving a ticket into paradise. It’s about the kingdom of God here and now, as well as in the future, and how the community of faith is participating in God’s work to bless individuals, relationships, and the world. Faith isn’t just about the afterlife; every Christian has also been invited to a life of mission.
When Jesus first invited his disciples in Matthew 4:19, he said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you . . .” And though many of us who grew up in the church know exactly what comes next, let’s think for a moment what Jesus could’ve said. He might’ve said, “I will make you happier than you’ve ever been” or “I will make you feel satisfied with life.” Or perhaps even more crassly, “I will make you richer and healthier than you’ve ever known.” But he doesn’t say any of these things.
Instead Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” From the outset, he invited his disciples into a life of mission. And yes, this life of mission does come with the side benefits of joy and satisfaction (though not necessarily the riches), but they’re not the main point. Jesus’ definition of faith wasn’t merely about personal gain but rather about being put to work for God’s kingdom, to help people be enraptured by its wonderful message and outworking in the world, to be ambassadors for this kingdom, to love the poor, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, release the captives, and love God and neighbor with heart, mind, soul, and strength. In a world created for good but damaged by evil, Jesus restores all people and things for better, and now, as a part of their mission, Christians are being sent together to heal. It’s a beautiful kind of community in Christ’s name.
This is our mission and the kind of gospel today’s younger generation longs for. The daily news reminds us that we live in tough times, and the world is ready for some good and beautiful news. By recapturing the truth of Jesus’ gospel, we then begin to share good news yet again with a world that desperately needs it. And Jesus’ message is the only one that will help us turn from our selfishness into a life of transformation, community, and mission.
This December, thousands more will gather in St. Louis for Urbana 18. Students will study the book of Revelation and hear its message of hope that frames our present reality, that reminds us God is on the throne, the battle has been won, and we are called to live in victory. Revelation’s inspiring glimpse of the new heaven and earth calls students not to say yes to Christ just because of personal benefits but because they have seen God’s amazing work in and through his people and are excited to join him through their passions and skills. Students will be sent out from Urbana called to a missional life starting now on their campuses.
The kingdom of God is here and now, and the call to be a faithful witness goes out to every follower of Jesus. We say yes to this call because joining God’s global mission is a privilege and joy. We don’t live with hope only for the afterlife but also for the present, expecting to see God’s kingdom work making all things new to continue through us.
Rev. Dr. James Choung has been released by Vineyard USA to serve as Vice President of Strategy & Innovation — overseeing evangelism, discipleship, planting, growth, missions, and multiethnic initiatives — at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He has written both True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In and it’s follow-up — especially if you want to learn more about generational differences in spirituality — Real Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out. For fun, he likes to travel with his wife, tease his two sons, spoil his daughter, bask in Los Angeles’ endless summer, and swing a racket in hopes of playing something like tennis.
Encourage the young adults in your life to visit urbana.org and consider attending this eye-opening conference to help them embrace Christ’s call to share the good news and carry on his world-changing, kingdom work.