by Fr. John A. Peck
Millennials: America’s largest generation.
The largest mission field in American history. Plugged in, turned off, and almost dropped out of what used to be regular society, millennials are nonetheless more than interested in faith, religion, spirituality and how they affect and impact the world (that is, themselves) in day to day life.
First, a healthy dose of reality, and it doesn’t taste good. Millennials love joining the crowd, but hate commitment in the traditional sense. They are the most demanding consumers in history. Do not expect much from them in terms of ‘joining the team’ early. You’ll be disappointed.
For many of us, we know many souls who ‘circled the drain’ of Orthodox Christianity before finally coming in, sometimes for many years. There’s a lesson there for us. God’s time in conversion is not always ours. However, that is a sword which cuts both ways. Sometimes God’s time takes more time than we wish. Sometimes, God’s time is lightning fast, and we aren’t ready to believe it happens so quickly.
What I am offering here is basic, but worthy of remembrance, and loosely follows our instructions for how to read the Bible the Orthodox Way, which is the AAA method of Bible reading:
Aloud – read the Bible aloud. The Bible is literature, and was written to be heard
Apply to Self – When we apply what we are reading, we apply it to ourselves and only ourselves. Otherwise, nothing gets done
Act Immediately – Once knowing what we are supposed to do, we do it quickly, before the time is gone
So likewise, we translate this, in preaching terms to;
- Read the Verse to them (proclamation of Christ)
- Tell them what it means (explanation of problem & solution)
- Tell them how to do it (call to action)
Preaching the Word
I’ve been very happy to see an increasing number of clergy return to serious expository preaching in their parishes over the last five years.
Statistics do tell us what brings people back to church. The music may be glorious, the people friendly, the food fantastic, and the sanctuary celestial, but if the sermon is bad, they don’t think about returning. Preaching from the Scriptures is a foundational focus of Christianity. As Fr. Hans Jacobse puts it,
“People hear truth before they see it.”
And the Bible echoes this,
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the preaching of Christ.” – Romans 10:17
When we want people to hear good news, let’s make sure the news is good. No need to ‘craft’ an idea out of the Bible. Take what the Bible says and deliver it.
But how to do it?
St. John Chrysostom’s Way
Chrysostom often reread or repeated the lectionary reading before launching into this homilies. This can be annoying or enlivening. Let me explain, because I’ve been as guilty as anyone in this. When I have sometimes done this, I have done this…
“In today’s Gospel, we see (insert almost word for word the Gospel reading) blahblahblah…”
Yawn. Sometimes it took me 5 minutes to get to the beginning of my sermon. That little stroll through the emptiness of my head cost me in the minds and hearts of my listeners. Once I realized the price I was paying, if I felt I had to repeat the part of the reading I was going to preach on, I made a conscious effort to be sure to speak with dynamis, with energy, verve, strength and passion. Yes, passion. Nothing wakes you out of lethargy like strength in your speech.
St. John Chrysostom gives no such introduction. When Chrysostom restates the lesson, he goes right to the text and repeats it. It is not a prologue to his sermon points. It is the foundation of his sermon. Often, he then points out that it it not some mundane topic that is being discussed, but one of the highest importance. Sometimes he would link the reading to the reading from the day before, sometimes he would simply dive into his exegesis, explaining the text verse by verse, and drawing in the meaning and application in the lives of the men and women who lived in his day in his city. His audience frequently applauded him as he spoke, but guffawed him just as often.
Verse by Verse
Expository preaching is powerful. There is no getting around this. If your desire is to ignite in the hearts of your listeners a spirit of love for God, understanding the Scriptures and living according to, and in, the Spirit – this is the place to begin.
The Bible was written by scribes, physicians, priests, accountants, fisherman and shepherds. It is the written account of revelation, and don’t forget – a revelation is supposed to be revealing! While it does not take a Ph.D. is Biblical studies to read the Bible, there are places where simple explanations can help immeasurably with comprehension. This is what our listeners want. They can read an overview or survey of the Bible anywhere, anytime. What they want to know is what it means. In Biblical interpretation, we call this the ‘historical’ or ‘literal’ interpretation, that is
what did the author write, and what did he mean by what he wrote.
Sometimes, these things aren’t clear to the reader at first glance, who may not understand the design and pattern of Scripture well, or see clearly enough with the mind of the Spirit. A short and simple explanation can open the doors of perception on the most obscure things in the Scriptures, Take this example of explanation to a young mother about why Samson is lauded in the Bible.
From Mystery to Meaning
If it seems sometimes that the Bible is too heady or intellectual for mere mortals to comprehend, we Orthodox can jettison that idea from the get go. One of the reasons we have daily readings is not simply so that people can ‘understand’ the reading at their first try, but so that they begin to be formed by the reading, and over time, by the eye, ear, and design of the Holy Scriptures themselves. The Bible, properly understood, is its own language. It is the language of God speaking to mankind. It reveals the activity and vision of the Holy Spirit. It reveals Christ and His Church.
Reading the Bible more and more itself becomes revelatory. Preaching from it accelerates this process of formation.
When, in our mission settings, we have inquirers or catechumens who hunger and thirst to learn more about God and the Church through her theology, we always recommend one activity above all others. It is the most formative activity in our Church. To chant and sing with the choir. The highest form of theology is hymnography, and by prayerfully reading, chanting, and singing both the Scriptures and the hymnographical theology of the Church the soul begins to be formed by it in invisible and unexpected ways. The harmony and design of the Scriptures becomes more and more evident. One begins to perceive things with the mind of the Church. That is Orthodox spiritual formation.
And it all begins with preaching from the Scriptures, hearing the Scriptures verbally proclaimed, explained, and enacted. Nothing satisfies the starving, but sugar-stuffed soul more than the solid food of the Holy Scriptures.
A Little Confirmation
Too often, young and/or immature Christians simply do not know involvement with a local body of believers can deepen their faith and enable them to grow in Christ with others. They do not know
They do not know the ancient Christian saying,
Unus Christianus nullus Christianus
“One Christian is no Christian”
Living in an intractably materialist worldview, these millennials nevertheless still yearn for hard, cold reality. It may be harsh, but everything else is fluff. Everything else is virtual in their lives.
In his article, 7 Ways to Draw Millennials To Your Church, Thom Rainer tells the following story:
When Brentwood Baptist Church failed to connect to millennials with their Kairos worship service, they asked what went wrong and were told they needed to preach the Bible more. Finally, a young man spoke up for the group about what they really wanted: the Bible. He told [Pastor Mike] Glenn: “Read it to me; tell me what it means; and tell me how to do it.”
But Glenn protested, “That’s not creative.”
But he said again, “Read it to me; tell me what it means; and tell me how to do it.”
Then he added what Glenn called a heartbreaking truth: “We’ve never heard this before.”
In every generation, every person needs to hear the Gospel and be taught the Bible. But for many millennials, even those that grew up in church, they’ve never really heard it before.
When it comes to your audience, whether it is at liturgy, vespers, some festal service, or seated at Starbucks – don’t assume an Orthodox foundation. Don’t assume a biblical foundation. Don’t even assume a Christian foundation!
Preach the Gospel, tell them what it means, and then show them how to go and do likewise.
That’s how to preach to millennials.