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Pastors Reaching and Ministering to Today’s Generation

In order for pastors to effectively minister to the younger generation in China, we must first unpack postmodernism’s influence; then we can talk about practical ways to minister.

Postmodernism’s impact on China’s is mixed with Western cultural values coming from globalization and is slightly different from what is taking place in the West. Western postmodernism is a rejection or reaction to a rational movement, a history of ideas. China’s history did not go through the Enlightenment period, so its experience is more an embracing of the consequences of Western valuesboth modernism and postmodernism. Modernism, with its scientific and rationalistic worldview, has created a secularization of society in which religion and the supernatural are pushed into the private sphere. Although communism has taught and enforced atheism and evolution from the top down through education and political power, Western modernism is reinforcing a form of secularization from the bottom up, through the grassroots of contemporary culture.

Along with secularization, Western consumerism has also come to China. Pop culture (movies, television shows, pop and rock music) is creating a thirst to experience Western contemporary culture. Many Chinese are creating their local versions of these. Young people are embracing the world of globalized luxury and fashion and are experiencing firsthand the liberation of society, individualism and personal moral standards that have come from the Western sexual revolution.

However, unlike Western church history (and Korean church history), there has not yet been a post-Christian era in Chinaa point in history when the church has risen to a place of influence in society and then lost its influence, relegated to the private sphere. In addition, the church in China has not yet gone through a loss of witness in society due to its own wrongdoings as in the West. The institutional and dead orthodoxy associated with the traditional church, church politics and abuse of power, along with legalistic judgmental Christians, have created a negative perception of God and Christianity in the West.

By God’s grace, Christianity in China today is viewed as a positive that interests young people. Since Christianity is associated with Western culture, young people are flocking to Three Self churches to learn more about it. However, if church leaders are not prepared to lead the church well, they could lose a great opportunity for witnessing and impacting the younger generation. If church leaders fumble the ball, as the Western and Korean churches have, society will become post-Christian very quickly as has happened historically. How wide an open window with China’s youth do Christians have? No one knows for sure. However, the pressing question today is, how can pastors and church leaders minister to the younger generation at this opportune time?

First, be incarnationally engaged with the global and local culture of young people.

When pastors approach the younger generation, they must have the loving, humble attitude of God: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus came to us first as a baby, lived among us, learned the local language and culture, then died on the cross for our sins. This example of incarnational love, along with a clear gospel message of sin, repentance and salvation, needs to be proclaimed and lived out among them.

We can learn to minister to the younger generation in China from Hudson Taylor’s approach to missions 150 years ago. He went to China and contextualized the gospel to the local culture and language. He embraced the good in Chinese culture while rejecting the bad. He learned the Chinese language and wore Chinese clothes. Why? He did this not as a means to an end; rather, his love for China and Chinese culture compelled him to identify with them as deeply as possible. As God gave him opportunities and people’s trust, he uncompromisingly preached the gospel. Can those ministering to China’s younger generation demonstrate the same love towards those in contemporary culture?

What does it mean to enter the younger generation’s culturetheir art, music, movies and so on? How can church leaders be a part of contemporary culture and embrace the positives but reject the negativessexual immorality, greed and consumerism? How can the church be in this culture but not be of the world? This tension of learning to be a missionary to the younger generation may be a key theological and practical challenge for the church, a church tied to many traditions of the past. The church needs to wrestle theologically with its identity as a missional church in its global and local culture while remaining biblical and gospel-centered.

The first step needed is a heart of love, an incarnational entering into the life and experience of the younger generation. As pastors gain credibility and acceptance, they can win a hearing and the opportunity to boldly proclaim the salvation message of Christ. Does that mean a pastor must have a rock band for worship, dress casual on Sundays, listen to Justin Bieber and watch “Big Bang Theory” on TV? Not necessarily. However, when pastors have God’s love for these young people, they will come to love what the young people love. God will show each pastor and church how to “incarnate” themselves into the global and local culture in order to identify with the younger generation and “be” (Emmanuel) with them. This kind of identification will give pastors opportunities for deeper levels of relationship, mentoring and discipleship training.

Second, disciple gently towards a theology of suffering, patience and godliness.

The consequence of modernization, consumerism and the digital age (internet, social media) has created a “me-centeredness” in young people. Their attention spans are getting shorter, impacted by a multimedia culture. They want immediate gratification and expect instant results. This has caused young people to have a “me-centered” form of spirituality and discipleship. To counter this type of spiritual mentality, pastors need to train the younger generation for godliness, to have them grow deeper in character and perseverance. One way to accomplish this is to help them embrace a theology of suffering and patience. This theology will help people to not immediately run away from problems in life but to faithfully depend on God to persevere through difficult times.

A theology of suffering can be learned from the Chinese church history of persecution. Learning about the heroes of faith such as Wang Ming Dao, John Sung, Watchman Nee and many others from the rural house churches is an important part of young peoples’ spiritual formation. However, the way in which they learn about suffering and sacrifice must be done with gentleness and kindness. Many times overbearing church leaders pour guilt on the younger generation as lazy and non-committed. This shame-based, reprimanding approach to discipleship is not only unbiblical (more from Confucius tradition), but it also turns off the younger generation. Along with creatively teaching biblical passages on suffering such as the Lament Psalms, the Gospels and 1 and 2 Peter, pastors need to walk alongside them, be filled with grace, and allow young people to make mistakes along the way. Pastors need to be a gentle, wise and, at times, stern shepherd to guide them towards godliness. It is God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).

Third, model vulnerability and show compassion in dealing with sin.

As young people are exposed to consumeristic culture, they are also exposed to many temptations. The entertainment industry and internet have created a contemporary pop culture which has both good and bad elements embedded in it. This makes it hard for young people to discern how to live in a world filled with materialistic values and sexual freedom. Many young men are becoming addicted to sexually explicit images and pornography. Homosexuality is becoming more prevalent and acceptable. In order for young people to overcome sexual temptation and deal with complex sexual issues, church leaders need to be respected for their authority and known for their authenticity; they need to provide a safe place for young people to share deep inner struggles. However, all too often traditional church leaders are good at judging both the sin and the sinnerlike the Pharisees did with the woman taken in adultery. Pastors and church leaders need to learn to be like Jesus who dealt gently with the women caught in sin. The delicate use of authority and authenticity is an important balance pastors need to find in order to help young people break free from deep, shameful sins.

Creating a safe place for sharing in a shame-based culture is a top priority for a pastor. This means the pastor himself needs to be vulnerable and approachable. When young people find the courage to approach a pastor to confess a shameful sin, the pastor must also be compassionate. This compassion is necessary because the sin confessed may be attached to more complex spiritual and psychological issues. Pastors who have a judgmental attitude or provide overly simplistic or spiritualized answers may hinder rather than help the healing process. The fragile hearts of the younger generation are in the hands of pastors and church leaders who must deal compassionately and wisely with them.

Fourth, break down doctrinal concepts to enable them to live out the gospel practically.

Pastors spend a lot of time preaching, teaching and counseling. The expectation of quality preaching is becoming more challenging today as young people are exposed to quality production entertainment. Their attention spans are becoming shorter needing “commercial breaks” after every four or five minutes of content. On the one hand, young people need a deeper spiritual understanding of God’s word; yet, at the same time, they want teaching that engages their hearts and emotions.

Missing in the scriptural and doctrinal teaching of many pastors is how to help young people live out the gospel in a practical manner. For example, rather than just saying from the pulpit that “God is holy and premarital sex is a sindon’t do it!” pastors must teach why it is wrong and how it will damage the relationship between God and man. While teaching and counseling, more time must be spent unpacking the consequences of sin. The connection between premarital sex and the long term consequences it will have for future trust and intimacy in marriage, along with unhealthy values it sets for future children must be taught. Premarital sex goes against godliness, the relationship with God as well as his design for marriage which is to be a model of a covenant relationship between God and his people. Unpack the beauty of the marital union of “one flesh” that God has designed. The more a pastor can break down doctrine into everyday life issues, the more people can live out the gospel without a burden of guilt on their shoulders.

Fifth, lead a church toward a visionone that is God-sized and God-anointedso it can contribute to a kingdom adventure.

Nothing is more demotivating for a young Christian’s faith than when he or she hears a compelling vision and sees a well-led company such as Google, Microsoft, Apple or Samsung while serving in a church with a small vision, dysfunctional leadership, unnecessary church conflicts, stagnant growth and a holy huddle mentality. The church has a bigger calling and vision than any secular company! (See Matthew 28 and Acts 1:18.) Therefore, it should be well led towards a God-sized vision. This does not mean we uncritically adopt secular or business principles to build the church; rather, pastors need to see a distinction between leading a business organization (financial profit) and leading the church (spiritual and evangelistic growth). However, they can grow as leaders and learn from proven leadership principles and skills since all truth is God’s truth. As pastors gain more knowledge and experience in leadership, they can lead and mobilize the younger generation towards a God-sized and God-anointed vision for their church.

Pastors need to prayerfully discern which kingdom vision resonates and rallies their young people.

Young people need to feel they are contributing to something bigger than just what is within the four walls of their church. They want to be part of a kingdom movement that is macro and strategic such as joining a city-wide evangelistic initiative to reach migrant workers, transforming their neighborhood by serving the poor, joining a nationwide church planting movement or partnering with Korean ministries to send missionaries to unreached people groups and so on. Finding ways to help young people contribute their gifts and talents, networking them with realistic opportunities and encouraging them to make a difference in their world for Christ go a long way toward spiritually energizing young people.

Image Credit: ChinaSource

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Jon Lu

The Reverend Jon Lu (pseudonym), PhD, Professor of Missions, researches contemporary issues and the church in China.View Full Bio