Can We Speak Their Language?

By Dave Keehn

Associate Professor, Christian Ministries Department, Biola University/Talbot Seminary


The church I grew up in is no more.  It was small when I was a child; my youth group was 5 teenagers – 2 of which was my sister and I… slim pickens for potential dates.  And now the church is a shell of what it was – a few older people I knew from childhood, systematically opening the doors each Sunday for the “faithful” who still come.  So what happened?  Sinful revolt?  Apathetic attendees?  No, the community’s culture changed and the church failed to reach out to the new language speakers.  So a church closes its doors because it can’t speak the language of the new culture.

We have an emerging culture in most of our communities, but it will take many of us by surprise.  Yes, some churches allow the new language-group to use their facilities “off hours” in hope of staying relevant to the culture; but few are embracing the new language within their worship gatherings.  The new culture I am speaking of is the emerging culture of today’s youth.  Those who are currently in middle school through college.  This generation is known as “Gen Y” or “Millennials” and they are different from the Gen X baby-busters that have given young people a bad name in many church circles.  Many churches are not aware of the significant cultural differences between the current church structure of Baby Boomers and these mostly un-churched young people.  While some want to make this a “generation gap”, citing the major difference as musical taste, they “solve” the problem by adding drums and a few up-beat choruses to the worship set.  However, I would beg to say the major difference is a language barrier. 

I live in Southern Orange County in California.  All around me are people who speak only Spanish.  I would not assume my English-only worship gathering would connect with these individuals.  While I could provide a translator or some high-tech “ear piece”; to truly reach the Spanish culture I have to take into consideration their different values of time and relationships, of family and traditions.  My fast-paced, success-orientated families of the South OC would not want to slow down and change our worship gatherings to be relevant to the Spanish-only crowd. 

This youth generation may look like and sound like the older generations of the church, but they truly speak and value different things.  Tony Jones, in his book, Postmodern Youth Ministry, offers the following differences between the generations (p. 30-37):

Modern Value (Baby Boomers and older) 

Postmodern Value (Today’s Youth)

1) RATIONAL: Pursuit of the comprehension of God through reason. Learn through study and reason, sermons are vital. 

1) EXPERIENTIAL: Desire to know the supernatural through the intangibles. Image-driven: learn through video and stories. Sermon through pictures, stories, exploration not just study of God’s word.

2) UNANIMITY: Most grow up knowing only one “culture”; strong ties to “neighborhood.”

2) PLURALISTIC: Value the differences of the cultures they have been exposed to, desire options.

3) FUNCTIONAL: Value things that work and that are relevant and industries

3) BEAUTY: Value art for beauty’s sake; value creation and are more environmentally minded.

4) INDIVIDUALISTIC: This generation gave us the self-help movement. Decisions are based on what’s best for my family.

4) COMMUNAL: Seek “family” in all environments. TV’s “The Real World,” “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Laguna Beach” are hits because they show this generation dealing with life in community.

Resist the temptation to label either side of the value continuum as “good” or “bad”; both have beneficial qualities.  Think of them as just… different.  While there are exceptions to the rule and its dangerous to categorize any generation broadly; these differences result in the generations valuing different things, looking at life and truth differently and ultimately speaking a different language from each other.

While we may feel comfortable allowing a Spanish church to share our facilities, even funding this church with our tithes, I doubt many churches would be willing to take the same approach to the young people of their community.  We value young people being a part of our worship gatherings.  We value the “whole” church worship side by side, yet are we speaking their language? 

The longer we assume our young people should become like the adults in our church, the less we will seek to speak their language and the more they will not connect with our churches.  While we may have some young people who have been raised to speak the language of older church attendees, the longer we fail to speak their language the more we become increasingly irrelevant to the un-churched youth.  If this trend continues our churches will close their doors too.  Some churches hire “language specialists” to reach this emerging culture; they call them Youth Pastors.  In many ways, youth workers are truly missionaries reaching a new language community.  Churches rely on these specialists to attract, develop and answer all questions relating to the emerging generation.  While these language specialist have had some success developing a community of young people, we scratch our heads at the exodus of these same young people from our church at the time we expect them to leave the care of the Youth Pastor and enter the larger, older church family.  While the Youth Pastor may have understood the language difference, most churches do not and thus don’t connect with the generation as it emerges into adulthood and leadership in the world.

Instead of getting depressed or frustrated with this generation, or the situation, or the author of this article.  I want to instead suggest ways the entire church can begin to speak the language of this new generation.  Youth pastors will have to lead the way in this endeavor; we must think of ourselves as bridge builders between the generations, helping each generation learn to speak the language of the other.  Let me suggest 3 bridges that I have found to be effective in connecting the generations.

First, Creation:  God’s creation is enjoyed by all generations, although differently.  The older generation may enjoy creation in an RV, while some younger families enjoy creation through tent camping. God’s starry canvas at night can bring together generations that marvel at God’s power.  I live at the beach in South Orange County and I have found it is true, “Old Men Rule”… when it comes to surfing.  I have been able to build bridges amongst the generations of my church by having the older generations surf alongside, and even teach, this young generation.  Our church sponsors beach nights during the summer, where all generations enjoy the beach differently, but gather alongside each other to eat. As a bridge builder, each youth pastor should look at what creation is around him or her and figure out how to connect the generations in creation.  It is during these experiences that each generation will begin to learn the language of the other.

Secondly, Mission Trips:  This past year our youth ministry sponsored a mission trip to Costa Rica, but instead of filling the trip with only teenagers and youth mentors, we opened the trip up to the entire church.  Half of the team was non-youth people.  We had a young family join the team and several others who were “graying”.  We spent 4 months building the team dynamics by having them work together to raise the funds for the trip.  Even though the older generations could pay for the trip out-right, we required them to brainstorm and serve alongside the youth.  During the trip, they served side-by-side, doing different jobs.  In the evening, they would sit and share stories of what God did through them that day and end the evening in prayer.  The short prayer times went into the late night every night as the generations prayed for each other.  They had learned to speak each other’s languages; they had learned what each other valued and needed and they prayed fervently for each other.  This team continues to be very close months later, because they have learned to speak other’s language – a bridge has been built.  Youth pastors need to resist the urge to only allow youth to participate on their mission trips.  While not all mission trips will appeal to older generations, seek to have at least one trip per year in which the generations are mixed.

Lastly, Stories:  The underlying foundation to the previous two ideas is they are experiences in which people will have time to tell stories.  Too often, we are rushing to get some where at church.  We are rushing to find a seat, we are rushing to our classroom, and we are rushing to the parking lot… Stories take time and, more importantly, a reason to tell the story; as the Youth pastor I have to find ways for the generations to share stories naturally.  That is the key: you can’t force this.  We had a fund-raiser for one of our mission trips in which we “hired” out the youth to help at many of the older generation’s homes for donations.  However, we talked to each older person and asked him or her to not only assign work for the young person to do, but to also take the time to intentionally be with the young person.  For example, when they offered something to drink, drink with them and ask them questions.  These questions became stories to share.  We also talked to our students and told them as they worked, to ask questions of the people they were serving, once again allowing stories to be shared.  Another idea is we have asked the older generations to become “prayer partners” with our youth.  We assign a teenager to the older person, supplying them with monthly prayer requests from that student.  Then around Christmas time we sponsor a brunch on Sunday morning when both the student and the older person would be there; this becomes a time of great story telling as the student is able to give up-dates to the prayer requests.  These stories become great bridges between the generations.

We have two options: continue to assume the emerging youth generation will eventually become like the adults and thus our churches can continue as is – dieing a slow death; or come to terms that this generation, especially those from an un-churched background, speak a different language and we must seek to reach them that way.  While this may require unique worship gatherings targeting the un-churched youth generations (that’s another article waiting to be written), and while this will impact ministry to a family (again, another article); one solution is to focus on building bridges to this generation, learning to speak some of their language and valuing all that this generation’s culture has to offer.