A few weeks ago I asked a group of young people who all follow Jesus to come have dinner with my family. I asked those who were scattered around my house if they attended the church I was working for at the time.
They all responded with a hesitant, “No.”
I asked if they attended any church service anywhere on the weekends.
Again, they responded with, “No.”
This conversation could be repeated in living rooms and coffee shops around the country with similar responses. Our culture has gone through a paradigm shift over the last century from Christendom into Post-Christendom. At one time we might have been a Christian culture but all research points to the new reality that we are post-Christian.
This means that we cannot expect the church to be the central gathering place for local communities. We cannot expect people to agree with the teachings of the Bible or the way of Jesus, simply because “the Bible clearly states…” Due to the influence of postmodern philosophy we exist in a culture that is skeptical of institutional houses of worship, rejects coercive metanarratives, and seeks knowledge from within a lived community.
Given the culture that we currently exist in and that we are called to minister to, our practices must reflect this new reality. To use tools, resources, and methods that were utilized and successful during Christendom would be counterproductive in our post-Christian reality. As our culture has shifted our practices must as well. Here are three practices I have found helpful while engaging our post-Christian culture with the Gospel:
1. The Practice of Being Sent
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.
- Luke 10:1-4
In our current context we must begin to understand youth ministry as a missionary endeavor. We can no longer expect student to flock to incredible buildings and flashy programs. The students are “out there” and we must adopt the practice being sent to where they already live, play, and work.
Being sent means we enter into a culture as a guest. We go to where people gather and learn the culture and the practices. We do not go to win a culture. We go reveal Jesus in the midst of the already existing culture.
I have made it my practice to go to RabbitFoot Records and Cafe every Friday and set up my office on a cafe table. RabbitFoot is this quirky hybrid of a coffee shop and a vinyl record store. It serves as a sanctuary for marginalized communities, punk rock kids, and the LGBTQ+ community in my city. In this small store I am the guest entering into a foreign space. As I am sent to this place, I go ready to discern what God is doing in and amongst the people who walk through the doors. These people have no idea who Jesus is. They would never set foot in an institutional church no matter how great the programs. Without the practice of being sent, these people would never have the chance to know Jesus.
2. The Practice of Being Present
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
- Luke 10:5-8
If being sent is the start of doing ministry in a post-Christian culture, then the practice of being present naturally follows. When we are sent we take up the responsibility of being present with and amongst those we are sent to. This is the way of Jesus. In his incarnation, Jesus is sent to our world and remains present in and amongst us. By being present with us, he hears our stories, mourns while we mourn, rejoices while we rejoice, and our lives are integrated into his and his mission of reconciliation in the world.
When Jesus sends the 72 on mission, he commands to them stay, eat, and drink. He is calling them to be present amongst those whom they are sent. Just as he has been sent to and is present with the world, he calls his followers to be sent and then to practice being present with those in the world.
As I have been sent to a quirky record store and coffee shop I have begun to bring people from my church with me. We have made the decision to intentionally be present with the people who regularly frequent the shop. We have learned their names, listened to their stories, been challenged by their beliefs, and have become part of their community. We didn’t come with a program to fit people into, but with the intent of being present in the culture that already exists.
When we choose to be present in a post-Christian community and culture, we can begin to see what God is doing. Through the acts of listening, sharing stories, and sharing a table we discern the presence of Christ amongst us and reveal him through our faithful presence to a world that does not know him.
3. The Practice of Hospitality
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
– Luke 10:38-42
Over time, often months, of being continually sent and faithfully present we begin to transition from being the guest to becoming the host. At some point in our engagement with a post-Christian culture and its people we have to begin to invite our friends and neighbors into our homes and to share our tables. We never lead with invitation. Invitation happens after we have been sent and present for a good amount of time.
When people begin to enter our homes and share meals around our tables, we are practicing hospitality. As we enter into this practice it is important to understand that hospitality and entertaining are not the same thing. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha is focused on entertaining while Mary is focused on hospitality. Martha wants the house and food perfect while Mary wants to spend time with Jesus.
Hospitality is the practice of inviting people into our lives and stories. It is a messy and inefficient practice. Inviting people into our homes, lives, and stories is vulnerable act of love for others. People will see our mess and our weaknesses are quickly exposed.
But isn’t this where Jesus is? Isn’t this where he is best revealed to a watching a world?
Jesus is the God who enters into the mess of the world to reveal himself. He makes his home amongst the brokenness of the world and invites people into his story.
When we practice hospitality and invite people to enter into our homes and sit at our tables, they will see the mess and shortcomings in our lives. However, in seeing this reality our neighbors will also see the grace of God manifest in our families and relationships. Through the practice of hospitality, people will see Jesus because of the messiness of life, not in spite of it.
The Painful Reality
Doing youth ministry in a post-Christian world is difficult and lacks the shine of traditional youth ministry. There is no glory in being sent to a lost culture, being present with the people there and sharing your dinner table with a student who has no desire to ever attend a church. The work is slow and intentional and will receive little praise or recognition.
However, as we embrace doing ministry in our current culture we must remember that Jesus did not call us to efficient programs or growth models. Jesus calls us to himself and then sends us to people. There is no greater work than being sent by Jesus to a people who do not know him, being faithfully present with them, and inviting to share in the story God is working into our lives. This is the way of Jesus and it is the way of youth ministry in our post-Christian world.
Jeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded Network – a network of missional churches that gather in homes, coffee shops, and pubs that engage a post-Christian culture with the Gospel. Prior to launching The Crowded House Network, Jeremy served as a student pastor and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He is also a regular contributor for www.kindredyouthminstry.com Stay up to date with Jeremy’s personal blog and ministry journey at www.thecrowdedhouse.net