Last night, during my “Ministry to Young Adults” class, one of my students, a young adult himself, asked: “How do we do evangelism with a ‘woke’ generation?” I had heard the term “woke” before but I googled just to be sure.
Definition of woke (chiefly US slang): aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)
The question captured the heart of the discussion we were having in class. While all acknowledged the need to preach the gospel, and the fact that the main components of the gospel message do not change, we grappled with the fact that the spiritual sensitiveness of our audience had shifted. We are now having to do evangelism with an emerging generation that is concerned with social justice and, therefore, the difficulty of sharing a gospel that focuses primarily on individual salvation with no concern for the brokenness of a fallen world.
I am particularly indebted to an article by James Chambers that points out how our usual pitch for the gospel may sound to today’s young.
Let me ask you two questions that reframed the way I approach reaching millennials. First, what are the most common components of the gospel message you hear when it’s preached?
I asked this question to evangelists while leading a seminar on “The Gospel & Emerging Communication,” and they responded with the components you’d expect: “God will forgive my sins; I will not go to hell but to heaven; God will make my life better; God wants to change my behavior; I can be individually reconciled to God.”
The follow-up question I asked next is the second question I’d like you to consider: “If a millennial (holding the seven values mentioned above) heard you preach these gospel components, what thoughts, questions, and responses might be elicited?”
Just then, the evangelists had an epiphany about how the common gospel message could be interpreted by millennials. Here were their responses:
This gospel is selfish. It impacts people on an individual level, reconciling them to God and improving their personal lives. This gospel is naïve. We’re portrayed as escapists who just want to get to heaven, producing no earthly good beyond moralism. This gospel is impotent. It doesn’t acknowledge the needs of our society or offer any solutions.
Let me say upfront that the primary problem of human kind is that we are sinners estranged from a holy God and that the only solution to the problem of sin is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23–25 NIV)
In his excellent little book on ministering to millennials, Chris Martin writes about the danger of pursuing social justice without proclaiming the gospel.
Justice is a noble, worthy pursuit, but it addresses a temporary problem, and one worth addressing. However, social justice without the gospel is incomplete because it doesn’t tell the whole story. When our hearts stop beating in our chests and our bodies start decaying in our graves, the injustice of the world will give way to the justice of God. Face to face with the justice of God, we have but one hope, and that is the grace of God. (Ministering to Millennials [Spring Hill, TN: Rainer Publishing, 2018], 152)
But Chris Martin goes on to say that preaching the gospel without pursuing social justice is also inconceivable.
When a Christian has been radically changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, a desire for peace, shalom for everyone is a natural outcropping of gospel transformation. (Martin, 154)
Martin also points us to a quote by Andy Crouch:
Because idolatry and injustice are the twin fruits of the curse, the work of evangelism and the work of justice are one. (Playing God: Redeeming The Gift of Power [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 84)
Maybe Crouch overstates the point a little but it is valid to ask what kind of humanity our gospel produces. If we are trying to persuade people to embrace the gospel, they have a right to see what sort of humanity our gospel produces. The products of the gospel should be a people marked by the twin loves of God and neighbour, and therefore a people who are concerned for the broken in society.
So how do we preach the gospel to a “woke” generation? I don’t think this is first and foremost a question about methodology. It is first and foremost a question about what sort of people we should be so that our gospel will be taken seriously. And if we are a people who desire that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, then surely we are a people who are concerned to meet desperate human need in the name of Christ.
The friend who asked the question about evangelising a “woke” generation has a ministry that is committed to feeding the homeless. He and his team are also aware that people need the Lord and they have brought a number of people to follow Christ through the preaching of the gospel. In many ways he demonstrates the answer to his own question. I hope the church at large also gets it and gets it soon.