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Culture Q&A

Preaching to millennials

Connecting to a longing for significance

Preaching to millennials

Trevin Wax is a book publisher (Lifeway Christian Resources) and the author of a new book, This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. Here are edited excerpts of an interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College. (For more from this interview, see “Millennial mission” and “Battering the gates.”)

Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, Augustine said. How can pastors when preaching use that insight?

Pastors should explain that God put something deep inside of us, the longing for significance, transcendence: A pastor has to connect with that longing for identity while challenging the lies of our culture about how identity is shaped: They need to figure out a way to show how the gospel tells a better story than our culture does.

How often do pastors succeed in that attempt?

Some pastors connect well with the longing but don’t necessarily challenge it, so people can just feel affirmed in whatever path they already feel they’re on: They’ve had a good pep talk for their own spiritual journey. Other pastors see the problem with that, rail against it, and emphasize obedience to God over obedience to your own desires. We need pastors discerning enough to see the longing behind the assumption. 

They are preaching to people carrying a heavy burden.

The gospel should come as a relief to people who are exhausted in trying to have their best life now, people who feel guilty because they’re responsible for their own happiness and haven’t achieved it. They’re trying to be forward-thinking, so they look deeper and deeper inside themselves wondering how they’re going to find salvation. The gospel should be freeing to people like that. 

Let’s say a pastor understands the importance of marriage, understands that cohabiting is not the same as marriage, and wants to influence the millennial members of his congregation, many of whom are cohabiting. How should he reason with them?

A pastor needs to understand why the couple is cohabiting, why they think this is the best way forward before getting married. It’s usually not simply defiance—I’m going to sin against God and I don’t care what God says—but going the cultural route and winding up in these situations. The pastor needs to understand their reasoning: Is it a hesitation to get married because of past brokenness? Then he needs to explain that God forbids this because this is sin against Him and also ourselves: Let me show you how the gospel’s vision of marriage is better than this. We need to show how cohabitation is a false vision of marriage. 

You’ve learned from Tim Keller.

He speaks of cohabitation as a consumerist understanding of marriage, a pseudo-marriage in which a man and woman are not truly covenanted. You’re willing to give your body to someone but not the rest of you. The hesitation to get married can also come across as, I’ll see if there’s a better option available. Should I limit my choices now? In that mindset, you’re always on trial. Compare that to the beauty of a covenantal relationship that rests upon the solidness of a vow that’s meant to be taken seriously, till death do we part. Pastors need to be able to say with authority, “Thus says the Lord,” and along with that to say, “God wants your joy. He wants what is ultimately best for you. Look and see how God’s way answers those deeper longings.”

With the LGBT population, should we also recognize the longing and then show how that that longing can be much better satisfied by following the Bible and trusting God?

This is complicated because identity is now so wrapped up with sexual attraction. We as Christians can step back, say certain things about the Christian perspective on sex outside of the marriage covenant, but people in our society are less and less able even to have the moral imagination to think of it that way. They think of sex not as behavioral but as my deepest feelings of who I am inside. It is more and more difficult for people in the LGBT community to see disagreement with homosexual behavior as anything less than an assault on their very person, because they see this as so integral to who they are. 

Evangelicals sometimes look for guidance in Christian books. You’ve been in Christian publishing for 6 ½ years, but with a denominational publishing house rather than one owned by a secular commercial publisher. As that last situation becomes more common, what might we expect?

There would be pressure to sell a book regardless of whether it lines up with foundational beliefs. One team right now can be rock-solid, but five years from now with the change of a few team members, it could be completely different. So it’s important to recognize that a publishing name trusted in the past as delivering content within a Biblical worldview may not do that from now on. Theological confessions don’t necessarily stop publishing houses from drifting either, so I don’t want to overstate the benefit of a confessional identity. You actually have to believe the confession, and the team has to decide to hold to it, but at least some guardrails are in place.