Win the Next Generation with Love

Win Them with Love

The evangelical church has spent far too much time trying to figure out cultural engagement and far too little time just trying to love. If we listen to people patiently and give them the gift of our curiosity, we will be plenty engaged. I’m not arguing for purposeful obscurantism. What I’m arguing for is getting people’s attention with a force more powerful than the right lingo and the right movie clips.

We spend all this time trying to imitate Gen-Z culture, and to what end? For starters, there is no universal youth culture. Young people do not all think alike, dress alike, or feel comfortable in the same environments. Moreover, even if we could figure out “what the next generation likes,” by the time we figured it out, they probably wouldn’t like it anymore. I’m now old enough to remember when Gen X was the thing, and then targeting Millennials was the holy grail of ministry. Count on it: when the church discovers cool, it won’t be cool anymore. I’ve seen well-meaning Christians try to introduce new music into the church in an effort to reach the young people, only to find out that the “new” music included “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and “Shout to the Lord.” Few things are worse than a church trying too hard to be fresh and turning out to be cringeworthy and dated. Better to stick with the hymns and the organ than do “new” music that hasn’t aged terribly well or do the new music in an embarrassing way. Singing good new songs well is one thing. But if they’re bad or can’t be done well, don’t force it.

The (Not-So-Secret) Secret to Reaching the Next Generation

Kevin DeYoung

This booklet presents 5 Christlike ways to effectively communicate the Christian faith with the next generation—grab them with passion, win them with love, hold them with holiness, challenge them with truth, and amaze them with God.

The evangelical church needs to stop preaching the false gospel of cultural identification. Don’t spend all your time trying to figure out how to be just like the next generation. Tell them about Jesus. And love them unashamedly. I think a lot of older Christians are desperate to figure out what young people are into because they are too unsure of themselves to simply love the people they are trying to reach.

Jesus said it best: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Jesus did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by how attuned you are to new trends in youth culture.” Or “They will know you are my disciples by the hip atmosphere you create.” Give up on “relevance” and try love. If they see love in you, love for each other, love for the world, and love for them, they will listen. No matter who “they” are.

Talk to people. Notice visitors. Invite new people over for lunch. Strike up a friendly conversation at the greasy pizza joint. Let your teenagers’ friends hang out at your house. Love won’t guarantee the young people will never walk away from the church, but it will make it a lot harder. It won’t guarantee that non-Christians will come to Christ, but it will make the invitation a whole lot more attractive.

Hold Them with Holiness

Let me make this clear one more time. I’m not arguing that thinking about music styles or paying attention to the “feel” of our church or trying to exegete the culture is sinful stuff. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be asking questions related to cultural engagement. What I’m saying is that being experts in the culture matters nothing, and worse than nothing, if we are not first of all experts in love, truth, and holiness.

Look at what God says in 2 Peter 1:5–8:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with selfcontrol, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you pick up on the promise in the last verse? If we are growing in faith, virtue, knowledge, selfcontrol, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love, we will not be ineffective ministers for Christ. If ever there was a secret to effective ministry, these verses give it to us. Grow in God and you’ll make a difference in people’s lives. If nothing of spiritual significance is happening in your church, your Bible study, your small group, or your family, it may be because nothing spiritually significant is happening in your life.

I love the line often attributed to Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”1 I’ve given that advice to others dozens of times, and I’ve repeated it to myself a hundred times. Almost my whole philosophy of ministry is summed up in M’Cheyne’s words. My congregation needs me to be humble before they need me to be smart. They need me to be honest more than they need me to be a dynamic leader. They need me to be teachable more than they need me to teach at conferences. If your walk matches your talk, if your faith costs you something, if being a Christian is more than a cultural garb, they will listen to you.

If they see love in you, love for each other, love for the world, and love for them, they will listen. No matter who “they” are.

Paul told young Timothy to keep a close watch on his life and his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). “Persist in this,” he said, “for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Far too much ministry today is undertaken without any concern for holiness. We’ve found that changing the way we do church is easier than changing the way we are. We’ve found that we are not sufficiently unlike anyone else to garner notice, so we’ve attempted to become just like everyone else instead. Today’s young people do not want a cultural Christianity that fits in like a Baptist church in Texas. They want a conspicuous Christianity that changes lives and transforms communities. Maybe we would make more progress in reaching the next generation if we were making more progress in holiness (1 Tim. 4:15).

Remember, the next generation is not just out there. They are also in here, sitting in our churches week after week. We often hear about how dangerous college can be for Christian teens, how many of them check out of church once they reach the university. But studies have shown that most of the students who check out do so in high school, not in college. It’s not liberal professors that are driving our kids away. It’s their hard hearts and our stale, compromised witness that open the door for them to leave. One of our problems is that we have not done a good job of modeling Christian faith in the home and connecting our youth with other mature Christian adults in the church.

One youth leader has commented that how often our young people “attended youth events (including Sunday school and discipleship groups) was not a good predictor of which teens would and which would not grow toward Christian adulthood.” Instead,

almost without exception, those young people who are growing in their faith as adults were teenagers who fit into one of two categories: either (1) they came from families where Christian growth was modeled in at least one of their parents, or (2) they had developed such significant connections with adults within the church that it had become an extended family for them.2 Likewise, sociologist Christian Smith argues that though most teenagers and parents don’t realize it,

a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.3

The take-home from all this is pretty straightforward. The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians. Granted, good parents still have wayward children, and faithful mentors don’t always get through to their pupils. Personal holiness is not the key that regenerates the heart. The Spirit blows where he will. But make no mistake, the promise of 2 Peter 1 is as true as ever. If we are holy, we will be fruitful. Personal connections with growing Christians are what the next generation needs more than ever.


  1. Iain H. Murray quotes M’Cheyne along this line: “ ‘Above all things, cultivate your own spirit,’ he wrote to a fellow-minister. ‘Your own soul is your first and greatest care. Seek advance of personal holiness. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.’ ” Murray, “Robert Murray M’Cheyne: Minister of St. Peter’s, Dundee, 1836– 1843,” Banner of Truth, December 1955, Banner of Truth (website), November 12, 2001, -murray-mcheyne/.
  2. Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry: Reaching the Been-There, Done-That Generation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 63.
  3. Christian Smith, with Melissa Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 56.

This article is adapted from The (Not-So-Secret) Secret to Reaching the Next Generation by Kevin DeYoung.

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