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Message for 1-19-14 OUTREACH TO THE NEXT GENERATION

“OUTREACH TO THE NEXT GENERATION”

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

 

            The secret of MTV’s success was their incredible devotion to research.  MTV used to test the daylights out of every piece they broadcast.  They used to constantly listen to their target audience by holding focus groups to hear what kids were thinking.  MTV saw their mission as being much more than music.  They said their mission was to change the culture, “to shape the political and social attitudes of this generation.” “How could we do that,” they asked, “if we weren’t constantly surveying our audience, if we weren’t in constant touch with the kids we want to reach?”  When it comes to reaching young people’s hearts and minds, MTV has taken its mission seriously.

            Paul’s approach to the non-Christian world of his day was a lot like MTV’s approach.  Paul was determined to begin where his listeners were.  He was willing to bend over backwards to make his message understandable to his audience, to put it in a form they could absorb, to meet them where they were at, as far as he possibly could without compromising the truth he was trying to share.  Paul gives us 3 principles to operate by in our outreach to the next generation: intelligibility, sensitivity, and integrity.

            Paul was involved in cross-cultural missionary work.  He had to target groups 1 by 1.  He knew that different people had to be reached in different ways.  Slaves were not like Roman citizens.  Jews were not like pagans.  In the synagogue, Paul used Hebrew law and teachings as vehicles to present Christ. But that was the wrong way to reach Greeks and Romans.  For them, Paul had to use language and ideas they understood.

            For the crowd of idol-worshippers in central Turkey back in Acts 14 who mistook Paul and Barnabas for the gods Zeus and Hermes, for them, Paul had to go back to the rock-bottom basics.  For the high-browed philosophers in Athens who did not believe the Bible, for them, Paul had to use Greek philosophy as his starting point.  But he did all this, without altering or distorting the truth he was trying to get across.

            Paul’s approach to ministry is a model for us today.  Like Paul, we, the church in the 21st century, are living in a cross-cultural missionary situation.  We are living in a post-Christian world, a world that has changed dramatically since the 1960’s.  Our music has changed, our thinking has changed, our values have changed, our habits and lifestyles have changed.  Gone are the days when the church commanded people’s time and attention.  People today say, “Church?  Who needs it?  I’ve got better ways to spend my time?”  No longer do people feel any obligation to support an institution that does not meet their needs.  In some places, the church is viewed as nothing more than a leech on the local tax base.  Today, we must earn the right to be heard.

            People today don’t respond to nagging, shaming, or pleading for them to come to church.  They go where they believe their needs will be met.  Some people feel that the bar, the bowling alley, or the ball game can meet their needs better than we can.  They may be wrong, but it’s up to us to prove otherwise.

            In order to reach today’s world, we the church need to start where they are, not where we are.  Like Paul, we will need to employ those 3 principles of Intelligibility, Sensitivity, and Integrity.  First, we must be willing to bend over backwards to put our message into forms that can be easily understood.  Unless we do so, our message may fall on deaf ears.

            Second, we need to be sensitive to the culture of those we wish to reach.  We must be willing to design our worship and our programs to meet people where they are today, whatever their age. Take a cue from Rush Limbaugh. Here’s a guy who’s promoting a lot of old-fashioned ideas (which you may or may not agree with).  But notice that he doesn’t us the language or music of yesterday – he packages his show for today’s generation. 

            Churches that specialize in reaching the next generation use cutting-edge music, movie clips, more audience participation, more interaction.  Can we, or should we, try to be just like them?  Not necessarily – we need to play our position on God’s field.  But we can watch for better ways we can do what we do with the next generation in mind.  Keep in mind that even traditional worship has changed greatly from what it used to be.  Does anyone remember the hymns back before “The Old Rugged Cross” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”?  Does anybody want to go back to the 55-minute hellfire sermon of 150 years ago?

            Think: What kind of music do we hear at the shopping malls, or in TV commercials?  Whom are they trying to reach?  If a mall plays music from the 80’s and 90’s, it’s trying to appeal to people 10-20 years younger than me, to make them want to stay and spend their money.  If they play music from the 70’s, they’re trying to reach me.  We don’t need to make church sound just like the radio, but churches need to think about what kind of message we want to send by the music we use in worship.

            Sensitivity to the culture we’re trying to reach is the second missionary strategy we need to employ.  And yet third, we must maintain our integrity.  We cannot sell out the heart of what we believe for the sake of being fashionable.  We can’t throw the Bible away and say that nothing is wrong as long as it’s done in love.  Nor can we throw away the Bible’s teachings about sin or about hell simply because they’re unpopular.  Nor can we cave in to today’s belief that Christ is only one of many valid ways to God.

            Being “all things to all people” has its limits.  We can’t compromise the Good News itself.  There are some parts of our faith that are so absolutely crucial to who we are and what we believe, that we cannot change or throw them away without destroying the very faith we are trying to communicate.

            We believe that Jesus is God in human flesh.  We believe that Jesus died as the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.  We believe that Jesus really and truly rose from the grave.  We believe that the Bible is our ultimate authority for faith and practice.  We cannot trade these away without fatally compromising the very faith we’ve trying to proclaim.  Paul doesn’t mean that for the Buddhist we are supposed to become a Buddhist, but to become like one, to present Christian truth in familiar terms that can be understood and embraced by them.

            We can’t afford to be so “customer-driven” that we throw out the core of what we believe.  No, we do not exist to cater to every fickle whim of the consumer.  But it is our job to be responsive to the real needs of the potential follower of Christ, and to remove any unnecessary barrier that keeps them from placing their faith in Christ.

            That’s how Robert Schuller built his church.  Schuller went out on the street and asked people, “What are the needs you struggle with each day?  What are the barriers that keep you from seeking God in church?”  He did a lot of listening.  He operated by the strategy: if they’re not interested in God, find out what they are interested in, and then leave a trail of corn leading them back to God.  Today, the church that succeeds in carrying out God’s mission will be the one that learns how to listen.  If we can meet people at their felt point of need, we can point them to the One who can meet their very deepest needs.

            Paul says his strategy is to be all things to all people, so that he might by all means save some.  Obviously, no church can be all things to all people.  Can you imagine a radio station that plays heavy metal, Bach, disco, country, and polka all back to back in the same half hour?  Who would listen to it?  You’d probably wonder, “Who in the world is their target audience?  Who do they think their listeners are?”  Radio stations know they have to have a clear specific target audience in mind.  Likewise, churches need a clear picture of exactly whom they are trying to reach, whose heart we’re aiming for.

            Keep in mind that the folks we would like to reach may not be the people God designed us to reach.  Churches tend to attract people who are the most like us.  We need to think about what kind of person our church is best prepared to reach.  Let’s give that person a name: Terry.  Who is Terry?  Man or woman?  Single or married?  How old?  What does Terry do?  Has he or she been to college?  What does Terry believe?  What are Terry’s dreams and frustrations?  What are Terry’s top concerns?  If Terry is married, we need to ask the same questions about Teresa.  Who is she?  What’s on her mind?  Should we aim for Terry’s heart first, or for Teresa’s?

            If we take the trouble to listen to Terry or Teresa, they’re probably not looking for fancy programs so much as they’re looking to be loved.  Feeling loved counts for far more than the number of programs we offer.  People have to know that our motive for wanting them is not institutional survival.  They’ve got to know that we’re not looking for more bodies in the pews or more dollars in the offering plate.  The most overlooked way to grow a church is: We’ve gotta love the people we want to reach, the way that Jesus did.  How do we make them feel loved?  You get to fill in the details!

            Paul says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to penetrate any cultural barrier, as long as he’s not defeating his purpose.  Paul was so passionate about Jesus, that he was flexible about almost anything else.  Paul was willing to do whatever it took to be heard and understood.  He says, “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel” – the Good News that Christ died for our sins.  Like Paul, we need to be passionate about Jesus, and flexible about the rest.  We need to be willing to do whatever it takes to translate that precious Good News into a form where it can be heard and believed by today’s generation.

            Let us pray.  Lord, help us learn to listen and respond to the needs of those whom we desire to serve.  Help us be willing to do whatever it takes to reach out to a world of need with the timeless message of what Christ has done for us.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.

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