A Voice for the Emerging GenerationCE Interview, LEADERSHIP Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
By Rez Gopez-Sindac
Since 2011, John Mark Comer, 33, has been the lead pastor of Bridgetown: A Jesus Church, which is a part of a family of churches in the Greater Portland area. Half of the congregation is in their 20s — and, as Comer explains, it’s not because the church is designed for millennials; it’s because it values opportunities other churches might consider less important.
Raised as a pastor’s kid, Comer says he saw church — and his generation’s experience of it — from an interesting vantage point, which has helped shape how he reaches out and ministers to young people today.
“We’ve always been a church that really feels called to invest in the emerging generation,” says Comer. “They aren’t the future of the church — I hate it when people say that. They are the church, right now.”
Prior to co-planting the family of churches with his father in 2003, Comer served as a megachurch college pastor in Southern Oregon and played in a band signed by BEC Recordings.
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How do you attract and engage the millennials, especially those who have no church experience at all?
Well, “attract” is a nebulous word. That said, there are some values that I think God has used. The first is the millennials themselves. When we started 10 years ago, we looked at the topography of the church in America and saw a missing generation. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but one is that a lot of churches don’t value college students and 20-somethings. They don’t tithe — and if they do, it’s not enough to run a church. They’re transient and don’t stick around long-term. They can be a tad flaky. So, a lot of churches just write them off, which is devastating for millennials and for the church. So, from the beginning, we wanted to be a church that valued what other churches maybe didn’t value all that much.
How do you reach out to young people who grew up in church but ended up walking away from their faith or from church?
People come to church from all sorts of places. But, as a general rule, millennials reach millennials. Part of that is like attracts like, but also because millennials are a hyper-relational generation. We want to be together. A church with millennials kind of feeds off of its own kinetic energy. They invite their friends, who invite their friends, and so on.
That said, when they show up, there has to be a church that makes sense. We see a ton of kids who grew up in traditional, conservative evangelical churches; but when they came of age, they said goodbye. So, we work really hard to right the mistakes of the previous generation. Every generation has strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure we have a ton that we’re blind to. But, I think the generation before me made some mistakes that really hurt us. It merged American conservative culture with kingdom culture; it thought of God as a Republican; and it had a high view of the Bible, but a semi-low view of hermeneutics. (To clarify, I’m all for the first part of that, but we also need a high view of hermeneutics.) So, we want to be a good, healthy, biblical church, one that’s wrestling with the Scriptures — what they say (and don’t say), and what it means to be Jesus’ people in our city and our time. Our church doesn’t have it all together. But, I think there’s an authenticity and, hopefully, a humility that millennials are drawn to.
What do millennials want in a church?
They want Jesus. I think they want a vision of the kingdom that’s as wide and large and expansive as Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. A lot of us grew up with a truncated gospel and, therefore, a truncated understanding of the kingdom and the church’s role in it. We know deep down that there’s more, but we don’t always know how to put a finger on what it is that’s missing. We’re rediscovering all sorts of values that aren’t “new.” They’re rooted in apostolic faith, and they date back to the first century and the writings of the New Testament! Stuff like family-level community, justice, radical generosity, the life of the mind and the place of theology, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. None of this is new; it just got drowned out by some other stuff over the years.
What are some of the well-meaning but bad strategies churches do to attract the millennials?
I think sometimes we try too hard to be “cool,” which isn’t all bad; but, often churches do it without the input or leadership of young people. Thus, it ends up being what the older generation thinks millennials think is cool! And it just comes off weird.
For starters, the church isn’t all that cool. And, second, if you’re going to shoot for cool, make sure you let young people speak into the culture of your church. Give them a loud voice.
But, the fact is, young people want more than cool music and coffee shops. They want the same thing all followers of Jesus want — a church that’s at least close to what Jesus had in mind.
As the lead pastor, how do you connect with the young generation in your church?
I’m a millennial myself, so that helps. Also, I try to spend time with them. The older I get, the more I have to make sure this doesn’t slip. Simple stuff like having coffee with a college student can really help me feel the pulse of my church. And, I always try to involve them in decision-making and vision stuff. I want to know how a decision or idea will hit a 22-year-old, not just a mid-30s young dad like me.
How can church leaders invest in the spiritual growth of the millennials and build deeper relationships with them?
One of the best things church leaders can do for millennials is to have a church that has all ages. We’re a fatherless generation. I grew up with a great dad and healthy family, but that has become odd now. Most of our millennials are craving for spiritual parents — people who can teach them how to follow Jesus and to be a good person; how to get a job and keep it; how to get married; how to handle money. The family in the U.S. has disintegrated to the point that we need to go back to the basics. We need to re-teach people (not just millennials) how to be good humans. For this, a church needs scores of older, wiser men and women to mentor, parent, love, serve and walk with the emerging generation.
What can churches do to help their 20-somethings step up to leadership roles?
Yes! I’m so glad you asked this question. Getting millennials into leadership roles is one of the first and most important steps that, I think, every church needs to take.
But, young people don’t usually nail it the first time. They will make mistakes. They will misspeak. They need mentorship and a rebuke or two. They need lots of encouragement and freedom to grow up on stage.
Jesus modeled this so well. Most of the disciples were probably teenagers. Jesus himself was 30 years old or so. The image of Peter, James and John as 40-year-old men with gray beards is so misleading. I imagine lanky kids with scruffy beards trying to figure it out. And, they made mistakes — a lot of them. But, Jesus spent a ton of time with them, taught them, sent them out, let them fail, corrected them, and encouraged them. He gave away power and authority to people who couldn’t do as good of a job as he, but, in the end, could carry his kingdom work forward.
How is your church making a positive impact on the millennial generation?
Hopefully, the same way we’re making a positive impact on Gen X and Baby Boomers: by teaching and training them to follow Jesus in the city. If all we do is give people a pep talk every weekend, and get lots of millennials to come, that’s really not much to write home about. My hope and prayer is that, as a result of a few years in our church, people learn more of Jesus and his teachings, become more like Jesus in how they live and work and love, and carry on Jesus’ work in the world. That’s how I would define discipleship.
What’s heavy on your heart for the leadership of your church?
I really want to see us break the chains of consumerism and its hold on the American church. All generations have been deeply entrenched in a culture of spectatorship, a culture that’s built around sex, shopping and entertainment. We carry this messed-up worldview over into the church. If we don’t change how we come at church, we will die. We have to stop thinking of God as a commodity and the church as religious goods and services. We’re not consumers. We’re disciples of Jesus. And we’re family. My hope and prayer is to call the church to repent of consumerism and become the people God created us to be … to become a “great” church, as defined by Jesus — a church of servants.
Theology of love
In his new book, Loveology (published by Zondervan), John Mark Comer talks to 20-somethings about what God says about marriage, sexuality and romance. When asked why it’s important for young people to have a biblical theology of love, Comer explains:
Love, marriage, sex — this is the thing that most young people think about 24/7. It’s all-consuming for a lot of singles. The Scriptures have so much to say about all of the above, but sadly, the church has said so little. The church has done a great job of saying, “Don’t”!
“Don’t have sex before you get married. Don’t move in together. Don’t download porn.” All that is true, but we haven’t done a great job at giving young people a theology of love and marriage and sex, and a way to think about this from God’s vantage point.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has done the exact opposite. Its propaganda is loud and ubiquitous. It screams at us everywhere we go. So, the church has got to step up, tackle the hard questions, and help people to think about marriage and sex from the Scriptures, and in line with Jesus’ vision for human flourishing.
My prayer is that Loveology is a voice into a much larger conversation.
Bridgetown: a jesus church
Year established: A Jesus Church family of churches is 10 years old. Bridgetown (the one Comer leads) is four years old.
Number of full-time staff: 45 across all three churches
Yearly budget: $5.8 million
Number of locations: 3
Combined weekly attendance: 6,000 adults and 1,000 kids across all three churches