Why Ministry With the Next Generation Matters – Part 3: The Christian Message in a Pluralist Society

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, August 17, 2023

Why Ministry With the Next Generation Matters – Part 3: The Christian Message in a Pluralist Society

Introduction: Narratives.  We all have them, and we all live our lives according to them.  In this week’s newsletter, Brian unpacks how the understanding of the Christian story as a narrative offers a window into engaging the next generation in the midst of a pluralistic society.

In my first two installments in this series, I’ve given an overview of the value, the unique value at that, that the church provides for children and their families.  What I haven’t done is ask a bigger picture question: In the midst of the pluralist society we find ourselves in, how can we articulate the Christian message in a way that is relevant and accessible to those who have little to no understanding of religion, let alone the Christian faith.

I will concede at the outset that many others have tackled this question, many of whom are better trained and equipped to address the question.  However, my answer to this question has been formed by 20 years of working with teenagers (who became college students and then young adults), and, in that time, I’ve come to believe that there is a way of framing the Christian message that allows us to engage in conversation in the society and culture we find ourselves in.

Webster defines a narrative as “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series or events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values.”  This definition can be extended and applied to several situations, but for this article, I want to boil the definition of narrative down to this: an explanation of why things are the way they are.

There are countless narratives that we all assume to be true and live our lives by.  For example, when you go to bed, you assume that Annie had it right: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”  (Sorry, science geek moment – the sun technically doesn’t come out – what we actually believe is that the earth will keep rotating).  Likewise, you believe the narrative of gravity – that gravity will continue to work the way it’s worked.  You get the point.  There are certain things about the world that we rightly assume will continue to be that way and live our lives accordingly.

While these narratives relate specifically to the natural world, countless narratives are being told in our society.  Companies, for example, work very hard to shape the narrative around their specific brand.  Politics basically boils down to shaping the narrative around a particular group of people, candidates, or issues.  As individuals, there are narratives that we believe about others and even ourselves that shape the way we live.  You have core beliefs, many of which lie within your subconscious, about who you are, whose you are, and what you’re good at, and these core beliefs shape every moment of your life.  For example, I have a narrative regarding my sense of balance and coordination that shaped my choice of sports, away from gymnastics and towards running.  I have narratives around my family of origin, my current family, my role as a husband and dad, a Pastor, a friend, and so on.  These various narratives combine to shape my attitudes and behaviors.

From this framework, the Christian story, specifically the concept of discipleship, can be seen as a narrative that explains why things are the way they are and how they shape our attitudes and behaviors. In a pluralist society, it’s foolishness to try and claim that one narrative is the only narrative one needs to live by, and I actually believe that to be true.  After all, one should continue to acknowledge the narrative around gravity while being a disciple of Jesus.  But, what we must not do is not back away from sharing the narrative that we’ve been entrusted with.

I’ve heard parents say that they don’t want to teach religion to their children but rather let them grow up and make their own decisions.  In my view, that’s unwise.  After all, no one else in our society is worried about shaping the narrative of the next generation too much; in fact, they’re actively trying to do it.  Do you think Apple, a company I am beholden to in more ways than I want to admit, is worried that they might be influencing teenagers and shaping their narrative around which tech products to buy, wear, and use?  Of course not.  In fact, they’re actively trying to do it.  Likewise, colleges spend an enormous amount of money shaping kids’ views of their particular school and the opportunities they offer, with zero regard for not wanting to “influence them too much.”   And let’s be real, plenty of people, including parents are passionate about ensuring that the next generation of Steelers fans is ready to spend money on the black and gold.  And we’re worried about influencing teenagers with the message of Jesus?  Seriously.

In some conversations I’ve been in, people raised the issue of church trauma and the history of abuse within the church as the reason why we shouldn’t try and engage the next generation with the message of Jesus.  To be clear, church trauma and #churchtoo are real, and as someone who has spent 20 years in youth ministry, I am painfully aware of how real and relevant those things are and how the lessons learned from those experiences need to shift how we do ministry moving into the future.  But, we have a message that is identity and purpose shaping.  We must learn the lessons, no matter how painful they are, from the past, while remembering that we are a community that, at its best, can do something nothing else can.  In a world where narratives extoll the importance of self over the common good and where loneliness and a general sense of disconnectedness run rampant, will we sit back and worry about influencing teenagers too much?

I’ve been connected to the youth ministry world long enough to see just about every possible outcome for a kid who grows up in church.  Some of my former youth group kids are in full-time vocational ministry, others are actively participating in the life of congregations, some have walked away from church but hold dear to a sense of the divine/spiritual, and others have come to resent and reject much of what the church stands for.    It runs the full spectrum.  And, if I’m being honest, there is a lot looking back that I would change – things I said, ways I approached things, etc.  But, at the end of the day, the narrative of Jesus, the lay down your life, come and follow me, and die to self message of Jesus?  That’s a message that burns deep within me.  I’ve known the transforming and renewing effect it had on me in my formative years and it has had on others.  We’ve been entrusted with this narrative, and we’re charged to tell the next generation about the wondrous deeds that God has done.  I pray that we never grow weary of doing that, offering a life-transforming narrative that is a solid rock in a world of sinking sand.

In Christ,


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