Churches “Pandering” to Millennials?

Churches “Pandering” to Millennials? April 15, 2014

Over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog, my friend Mark Tooley gives some historical perspective on why changing theology to suit the perceived preferences of the younger generation is always a bad idea. While the church should never “pander” to anyone, the church does have a responsibility to “cater” to those who might be making decisions about faith and the church. Such lifelong decisions are most often made in one’s late teens and early adulthood, sometime in the transition between high school, college/career, and (where applicable) marriage and parenting. Reaching and retaining that rising generation has been a perennial challenge to churches. Many churches have died because they failed to meet the test.

Reaching the rising generation involves three main factors. Liberalizing one’s theology is not one of them – in fact, point #1 is the opposite strategy.

1. Offer the transcendent, compelling message of the gospel. Ordering one’s life around faith and the church requires considerable sacrifice. Therefore, people have to see why church is so compelling that they would bother to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Moralistic pabulum and vague niceties don’t cut it. Pastors and teachers need to constantly trumpet the shocking claims of the gospel. Our sin has put us in jeopardy of hell. God became incarnate as a man, Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross so we could be forgiven. He rose again bodily to defeat death. He reigns forever now with the Father. These and others are historic, bracing truths of Christianity, and they compel a response of adherence, for those with ears to hear.

2. Bolster the families of the church to woo the rising generation. The healthy church has a missionary mindset, but the church’s children are its number one God-given mission field. In spite of dire warnings to the contrary, children who grow up in functional, church-going families are quite likely to embrace and practice their parents’ faith as adults. Parents must learn to model the Christian faith, and to talk about it intelligently and lovingly with their kids.

3. Don’t sanctify the cultural manifestations of Christianity of a bygone era. Christianity is incarnated into specific times and places, and it can and does adapt to the culture of rising generations. (We can argue later about whether the qualities of certain cultures are less hospitable to genuine Christianity than others.) Can churches today succeed who insist upon 1950s methods and styles (no e-mail! 1st and 4th stanzas from the hymnal!)? Yes, I am sure they can, but why let the culture of previous generations dictate your strategies today? Getting a Twitter account and providing free wi-fi at your church is not going to win the adherence battle for you alone. But refusing to adjust methods and style can become an additional barrier to reaching the rising generation. Churches should adopt a generous, outward-focused attitude toward young people who are making faith and church decisions, and “cater” to the forms of communication that speak to them.

“Pandering” to the rising generation suggests modifying the historic message of Christianity to suit contemporary ideology. As many churches and denominations have found out to their peril, doing this is not faithful, and ironically it does not work to recruit and retain young people. But as long as the compelling message of Christian orthodoxy remains in place, there certainly is justification for “catering” to the rising generation. “Catering” implies serving, and serving is a Christian virtue.

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  • Melody

    Great points!

  • Randy

    Catering isn’t quite as terrible an image as pandering, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the passive nature of the recipient in catering.

    Can we add – serve good coffee to the list? If I have to listen to a tax lawyer on the bongos because that constitutes contemporary music and “its the 21st century,” then I should also be able to get a drinkable cup of coffee with some real cream.

    Where I am (a Chicago suburb), we also deal with the residential divide that can complicate matters – many twenty-somethings live in the city and therefore go to church there. And then the senior age at the church amounts to 35 (at the oldest), at which point (upon the birth of their second child) they move to the suburbs. Some churches have almost no one over the age of 35 and others have few between 18-35 (though this may be a big city thing).

    And, as you know, I still like many hymns (though I’ll sing them to a guitar and with some contemporary music).

  • Hilary

    My question regarding these three ideas is this: what do you tell those Millenials about their non-Christian friends, family, and neighbors? So, to convince a twenty something Millenial that their sin is putting them in danger of hell . . . . how will you respond if she asks about her athiest coworker who volunteers every week to tutor children and takes care of her aging parents?

    Or his Jewish classmate from college who takes time out of classes, rearranges his schedual every fall for the High Holy Days, and cares enough about the Torah to learn the actual Hebrew? How many Christians have to take time off for their holidays or learn to read their scripture in the original language?

    Or that gay couple next door who adopted a sibling set from foster care and is giving them the first loving, stable home those children have ever had?

    Or my cousin who’s wiccan, wears cool jewelery, and helped me move from my college dorm with his pick up truck when everybody else bailed on me?

    How do you tell a generation of people who have grown up in a very diverse environment that everybody but people who worship Christ exactly the right way (your way) are destined for eternal torture, no matter how good, average, or just human they are?

    Why should they chose Christ when he condems their family, friends, classmates, neighbors, and coworkers to hell not for being evil, just for not being the right type of Christian?

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, some ‘catering’ is just a matter of good hospitality, which should certainly include decent coffee!

  • ortcutt

    “Pastors and teachers need to constantly trumpet the shocking claims of the gospel. Our sin has put us in jeopardy of hell. God became incarnate as a man, Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross so we could be forgiven. He rose again bodily to defeat death. He reigns forever now with the Father. These and others are historic, bracing truths of Christianity, and they compel a response of adherence, for those with ears to hear.”

    So, if you soften up the listener with outlandish lies, they’ll be more willing to believe the usual ones?

  • Al Cruise

    “Moralistic pabulum and vague niceties don’t cut it.” Ok don’t be vague here and don’t pander. Post on Patheos on your blog who’s saved and who is going to hell. Tell us where will Muslims go?, where will Mormons go?, where will billions of Buddhas go? where Hindus go? All other faiths that do not believe in Christian theology. Don’t pander with vague niceties, tell us, Heaven or Hell. Show us how strong your faith is. Don’t use any vagueness, that would show you are weak and you wrote this post out of your own personal pride, trying to show how tough you are to your peers. We want your answer as a blog post naming faiths by name.

  • Antiphon411

    I don’t know whether the author wants to answer this one, but as a Catholic (by the Grace of God), I’ll field it. According to defined doctrine there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). This has been defined many times and constitutes de fide teaching, viz. it must be held by all those who profess the Catholic Faith.

    So for particulars–as you requested–Hindus, Buddhists, Mahometans, Jews, schismatics (the self-styled “Orthodox”), heretics (Protestants, Adventists, Mormons, etc.), atheists: none saved. Of course, many within the Church who live and die outside the Grace of God (so-called dead members of the Church) including sinners and the excommunicated also forfeit salvation.

    Don’t think that I rejoice in this, indeed it causes me pain and makes me more zealous to save souls. It also has the effect–never strong enough of course–of making me grateful for God’s putting me on the one path of salvation and giving me the Grace and graces necessary to travel it. I am also grateful to Our Lady the Mediatrix of all graces for her constant support. And we have a great devotion to the Saints in our family as well.

  • Al Cruise

    Thanks for your honest reply. I however, as a Christian, disagree with that doctrine. What you are saying is that every Catholic living today has ancestors {grandparents so to speak} that are burning in hell because they were born before Catholic theology originated.

  • Anand

    Two observations.
    1. Preaching the Gospel. No disagreement on the basic strategy. But when the parental generation talks about “pandering” to the millennial generation we often mean “letting up on the sins that we are worried about our kids falling into (primarily sexual).” But we’re often not willing to hear our pastors preach on the sins that we as parents fall into (pride, love of mammon, exaltation of our own culture).

    2. Kids as a mission field. Again, no disagreement in principle. But in my observation, those who are most effective at reaching the younger generation are those who challenge them to live out the Gospel in service to others. Entraining our kids in works of faith, and the struggle with human nature that implies, is just as important as giving them the “head knowledge” of the Bible.

  • The same can be asked of people born before the evangelical denominations emerged.

  • KRD

    As another Catholic, let me quickly correct Antiphon’s gross misreading of this doctrine.

    Indeed, there is a doctrine that says there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church


    This does NOT mean non-Catholics are doomed to hell. The Catechism states: “How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).

    In essence, a Muslim, atheist, or any non-Catholic CAN be saved through Christ’s headship of the Body of Christ – which we Catholics profess is the Catholic Church.

    If someone, through no fault of their own, does not come to fully know Christ and accept Him, yet still searches for truth and goodness in the best way they can, they can still attain salvation. Not through their own works, but through ignorant cooperation with Christ and his Body.

    Antiphon, I suggest you re-read your Catechism and stop spreading harmful lies about what the Catholic Church truly teaches. We do not presume to know if any one person is in hell, and to do so – especially in a public, ecunemical forum – is a serious sin.

    For anyone else interested in reading a much better synopsis of this issue than I could have done, please follow the this link:

  • Al Cruise

    Yes you are correct. Evangelicals are even more restrictive as far as timelines go, which makes salvation based on timing rather than doctrine. I would suggest that basing salvation on a doctrine that has a specific starting point by date in history and excludes billions of others because of their culture and does not consider the nature of peoples hearts is heresy. The real irony in all this, is that the writers and supporters of the doctrines are the ones who are putting their ancestors into the fires of hell. Something Jesus never did.

  • Antiphon411

    “What you are saying is that every Catholic living today has ancestors {grandparents so to speak} that are burning in hell because they were born before Catholic theology originated.”

    Regarding grandparents, on a strict application of this doctrine, all four of my grandparents would be in hell. That is a sobering thought for me. Imagine thinking/knowing that four people who loved you and were integral to so many happy childhood memories are now suffering eternal punishment. I can hardly think of them in some childhood memory without realizing their fate.

    But is sentiment to dictate divine justice? Looking at their cases objectively, they were guilty of many sins apart from their not being Members of the Catholic Church. Had they been members, they could have availed themselves of the sacraments of penance and extreme unction and have washed away their sins.

    Are we to allow human emotions to dictate doctrine? Wouldn’t we wish that everyone be saved? But hell is real and sinners go there.

    Finally, we must remember that no one deserves heaven. Israel was God’s Chosen People and now the Catholic Church (the Mystical Body of Christ) fulfills that role. I cannot fathom why God operates that way. I am most grateful that He helped me to respond to the graces that led me to membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.

    I am also filled with feelings of unworthiness when I see others who call themselves “Christian” living better “Christian” lives. Then the mystery of the Church’s sole salvific efficacy becomes nearly impenetrable. Why should I be given the grace of membership in Christ’s Church when other more worthy men are not? But we must again reflect on Our Lord’s words about the narrowness of the gate.

    When I think about the likely future punishment of my parents–if things don’t change–and the likely present punishment of my grandparents and other friends and loved ones, I remember Our Lord’s admonishment to let the dead bury their own dead–hard words.

    I also think of His demand that we love Him more than father or mother. Surely this means, among other things, that we cannot let our love of family members lead us, through sentiment, to doubt His very teachings. I also think of His definition of family: whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.

    All very hard words. And bittersweet: they cause so much pain and yet offer so much consolation.

  • Antiphon411

    [My apologies for the long reply, but it is sufficiently important to be clear.]

    It is not I who misrepresent the doctrine, but rather you who—I will not say misrepresent—distort it through placing undue emphasis on an exception that can be very difficult to understand.

    The doctrine, as formulated by Ludwig Ott (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma—an indispensible
    reference for anyone who would study Catholic dogma): Membership of the Church is necessary for all men for salvation (De fide). It has been defined and promulgated many times, by the Councils of Lateran IV and Florence and by Popes Innocent III, Boniface VIII, Clement VI, Benedict XIV, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius XII.

    Now, as you rightly point out, there are exceptions. As far as I understand it, there is very little controversy about the extension of salvation to cases of baptism of desire (for catechumens) and baptism of blood.

    The exception for those in “invincible ignorance” is much, much trickier. How does one ascertain the invincibility of ignorance? Surely a pagan living in deepest, darkest Africa, who has never met a Christian missionary and has never heard the Name of Jesus Christ would be ignorant. Would a Presbyterian living in Dallas? Would a Baptist married to a Catholic woman?

    For what it’s worth, the discussion in the Baltimore Catechism No. 4, determines that it would be very, very rare for a Protestant to be in such ignorance. Not only would he have to be in ignorance of the Catholic Church’s claim, but he would have to live a life devoid of mortal sin from the time of his baptism till his death—if
    he committed a mortal sin, he would have no access to the Sacrament of Penance. The commentator thinks this would only be possible for small children who die
    after baptism and before attaining the age of reason. The commentator wisely refrains from entering into a discussion of the invincibility of the pagan who has never heard of the Church or the Lord.

    Pope Pius IX admonishes against putting too much stock in the “invincible ignorance” exception. He states in his allocution Singulari quadem: “For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains ‘we shall see God as He is’ [1 John 3.2], we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but, as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is ‘one God, one faith, one baptism’ [Eph. 4.5]; it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.”

    In other words, it is best not to put too much stock in the invincible ignorance exception simply because we cannot really determine its extent and it might have the unfortunate effect of dulling our missionary zeal. Reading your comment makes me think that this is the case, for what is more charitable in an “ecumenical” setting then being completely honest about our faith?

    When someone—like you—says, “If someone, through no fault of their own, does not come to fully know Christ
    and accept Him, yet still searches for truth and goodness in the best way they can, they can still attain salvation,” one might think it means: “If you didn’t happen to be born Catholic, and grew up thinking that Catholics are wrong, that’s okay: you’ll still go to heaven because you are a great Lutheran!” This opinion is wrong.

    Finally, I might observe that you should look a bit beyond the new Catechism for understanding the Faith. I must say that I am very troubled by the passage you quoted on the doctrine of salvation outside the Church. CCC #846 which states: “How are we to understand this affirmation [viz. ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation.’], often repeated by the Church Fathers?” There is, then, a footnote directing us to St. Cyprian. This is disingenuous! The notion that there is no salvation outside the Church is not merely the opinion of this or that Church Father; it is defined doctrine (as I noted above)!

    I would recommend the following works as your primary sources for understanding the faith (all available from TAN):

    1) The Roman Catechism (The Catechism of the Council of Trent)

    2) An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism (Baltimore Catechism No. 4)

    3) Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma

    4) The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Denzinger, trans. by R. J. Deferrari)

    On the doctrine “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” see Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation (repr. 2006).

  • Antiphon411

    “…writers and supporters of the doctrines are the ones who are putting their ancestors into the fires of hell…”

    I am not doing so. It is beyond my power to consign anyone to hell. Indeed, I would pray for any soul, no matter how heinous its actions on earth, that in the end it be saved. Hell is no light matter.

    “…basing salvation on a doctrine that has a specific point by date in history and excludes billions of others because of their culture and does not consider the nature of peoples hearts is heresy.”

    There are, of course, different rules for those who lived and died before the salvific action of Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. As for all those who are not saved, judgement is God’s business. How and why He makes the decisions He makes is beyond human capacity to understand. I certainly pray that He will be merciful to all souls. Again, I did not make up the doctrine of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”; nor did the Catholic Church. She can only teach the doctrines given to Her by God.

    As for the Catholic Church teaching heresy, by what authority can this judgement be made? How can heresy be defined, if there is no ultimate authority to teach?

  • Phil the Reader

    I don’t need to answer this one because Jesus dealt with it already. Try the Gospel according to John as a starting point.

  • Ramarivelo Lalaina

    In a nutshell, given the muti-cultural and diverse environment we are in, we should totally change our worldview, our Christian worldview? Is that what you’re trying to say?
    That is, it’s a “them” (good and kind people by all measure, human measure) versus “us” (bigoted and tragically narrow-minded, Bible-only-interpreting-minded).
    Whichever wagon you’re in, let’s agree that either totally rejects the claim of the other. Where the first promises “openness” and “inclusiveness”, the other banks only in the “narrow” truthfulness and sufficiency of Jesus’ worth in the Bible.
    Choose your camp.. 🙂

  • Hilary

    What I’m trying to say is, ‘how will you answer a Millenial when they ask this.’ I am truly not trying to play ‘gotcha’ but actually interested in how Kidd would answer someone coming to him with these concerns. I know from following several Christian blogs and discussions that this is a serious question, and can be a deal breaker for people.
    Christianity doesn’t have to be narrow minded and bigoted, I have Christian friends and family that I love and are incredably accepting and kind people. But I have chosen my camp; I’m Jewish and I follow the Jewish belief that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. (theological prooftexts and references available upon request).

  • Antiphon411

    I’ll take a stab at answering your question. The Christian (Catholic) Faith is not about boosterism or do-gooderism. It is not about fostering children or helping your friends move. It is a revelation of truth. It is learning and knowing that God created the world and man, that man sinned, and that Jesus Christ through His death atoned for the sins of man.

    You present the truth to those who desire it. Many will assent to it and many will not. Our Lord warned that the gate is narrow. Many will be called but few will answer.

    Ultimately it is not about nice gays or Jews taking days off work or wiccans adopting dogs. It is about truth, the Truth. That is how you present it–and there are many who hunger for it. Questions about who is saved are secondary.

  • And here I was thinking hyper-calvinists were the heartless ones.

  • Antiphon411

    Heartless?! It has been precisely this doctrine that has fired the great missionary zeal of the Catholic Church. Thence comes the great desire to save souls. Thence the burning charity that has fired the Catholic missions. Google an image of St Francis Xavier sometime; notice that he is usually depicted with a heart on fire (similar to images of the Sacred Heart That burns with love for men).

    Why do you think that there are 1+ billion Catholics in the world rather than Presbyterians? The Catholic missions were on every continent. To this day why is there a Catholic hospital and school in nearly every town throughout the world?

    Unfortunately, it is the sentimental I’m okay you’re okay ecclesiology and ecumenism of the past half century that is blunting this zeal for souls. Now most Catholics have more concern for feelings than souls.

  • Andrew Dowling

    So apparently Catholic teaching for you stopped pre-Vatican II? Read its documents . . .explicitly, it states non-Catholics can get to heaven. The Council of Trent? LOL. there have been quite a few councils since then . . .

  • Andrew Dowling

    As a Catholic, I will flatly state the hyper-conservative Catholics and hyper-Calvinists deserve each other’s company . . .just peruse the Crisis website . . .scary, scary stuff.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “we should totally change our worldview, our Christian worldview?”

    Sorry, a “Christian worldview” does not necessitate believing that all non-Christians burn in hell for eternity.

  • Antiphon411

    The Church has continued to teach since Vatican II. In so far as modern teachings are in agreement with per-conciliar teachings, I accept them. Where there is a conflict, I side with Tradition, because doctrines cannot simply change.

    There have been two councils since Trent: Vatican I and Vatican II. The latter was not a dogmatic council, but a pastoral council. So far as I know, no “new” doctrines were defined. Some rather murky quasi-doctrinal statements were made. Trent, I would say, remains the fullest expression of the Church’s teaching in an ecumenical council–much of its teaching is especially relevant to the errors of today.

    Again, it is my understanding that the Church has always taught that non-Catholics can go to heaven, but it is hard to define the limits of the invincible ignorance exception to the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Perhaps you should re-read the long quotation from Pope Pius IX that I included in the comment you are responding to.

  • Antiphon411

    “…hyper-conservative Catholics…”

    Isn’t the very nature of the Catholic Church to conserve and preserve the teachings of the Lord? Have you ever heard the term “depositum fidei”? Have you ever heard the term “Tradition”?

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well I know, based on your post re: Vatican II, you are following the long-held Catholic “tradition” of picking the Church doctrine you agree with and tossing what you don’t like (Protestants do the same thing with the Bible).

  • Antiphon411

    “…you are following the long-held Catholic “tradition” of picking the Church doctrine you agree with and tossing what you don’t like…”

    How ridiculous. I assent to every teaching of the Church. Every defined doctrine and every moral teaching (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus).

    There are certain novelties of the past few decades whose status has not been clearly defined. I am suspicious of these things and cling to what is sure.

    There are other things, fashionable teachings of recent popes which seem to me to contradict previous clearly stated teachings.

    Let us take the example of religious liberty. Popes over the course of nearly two centuries condemned this error. Recent popes and Vatican II seem to embrace it. What do *you* do with that? Were previous popes wrong? Then what else were they wrong about? Can truth change?

    I humbly submit to the teachings of the Church over the centuries (that’s the quod semper part). I am uncomfortable with the dissonance of the past few decades. Things are not clear. I stick to what is secure. You prefer flux and flexibility, perhaps.

  • Preston Garrison

    In other words, love has nothing to do with it?

  • Antiphon411

    Well, love is a second-hand emotion…

    In all seriousness, though: love (charity) has everything to do with it. God loves men so He sent His Son. Our Lord loves us. We love Him and His Father. We love truth, because He is Truth. We love our fellow men and try to i form them of the Truth.

    I guess I don’t really see where your question is going. Are you suggesting that we should allow some sappy, sentimental pseudo-love to undermine the truths that the Lord, Who is love, taught us?

  • Andrew Dowling

    “There are certain novelties of the past few decades whose status has not been clearly defined. I am suspicious of these things and cling to what is sure.”

    Who defines what is sure? Seems like you do . .I completely disagree of the “uncertain status” of Vatican II statements.

    “Let us take the example of religious liberty. Popes over the course of nearly two centuries condemned this error. Recent popes and Vatican II seem to embrace it. What do *you* do with that? Were previous popes wrong? Then what else were they wrong about? Can truth change?”

    I don’t even know where to start . . .are you aware of how several popes in history were nothing more than corrupt, power-hungry butchers and rapists? Of course popes can be wrong. Can the truth change . . the very status and power of the pope himself has certainly changed through the centuries, often because of political considerations.

    You say below God is love, but a God who would make billions of people burn in hell because they didn’t join “His” church is not loving at all . . that God would be a petty child, incapable of true love. The God revealed in Jesus points to how we treat and respond to others as the ultimate measuring stick for salvation, not what church someone happens to belong to.

  • Antiphon411

    “I don’t even know where to start…”


    I would recommend the book list that I included in one of my other comments.

  • cajaquarius

    A being who rules through fear is unworthy of worship. I will choose hell over serving evil. It is what my conscience demands.