Research suggests that trust in the church is rapidly declining, and that millennials – roughly those in their 20s and early 30s – have trouble connecting to church today.
They don’t feel free to ask real questions and express real doubt in our faith communities, and they don’t bring the same familiarity with the Bible and basic Christian beliefs that we could expect from earlier generations.
I happen to be at the upper limit of the millennial generation, so when people are talking about millennials, they’re talking about me, my friends and the people with whom I grew up and went to school.
Christmas is an especially challenging time for the church to connect with millennials.
So many of us have known the basic truths of the Christmas story since we were toddlers that we don’t quite know how to approach millennials who are searching for truth at Christmas and are grappling with what the Christmas story really means for the first time
What they want is honesty, transparency and a willingness to speak openly about both our doubts and our faith experiences.
They need the space to discover for themselves that the stories of our faith don’t always make rational sense, but that there’s good reason to believe them anyway.
So, here’s the truth about Christmas:
- We do not have an eyewitness account of Jesus’ birth. Two of the four gospels (Mark and John) don’t mention it, unless you also count John 1:14, which says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
- The accounts of Jesus’ birth were written long after Jesus died by people with a bias toward the faith.
- We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, although it almost certainly was not on Dec. 25.
- The wise men didn’t show up at the manger with the angels and the shepherds. In fact, in the only account that mentions them (Matthew), the star they were following led them to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.
- The virgin birth – that is, that Jesus is the son of Mary and of God, not the biological son of Joseph – is central to the gospel message and church tradition. Yes, it’s hard both to understand and to believe.
- It’s OK to have doubts.
- Details about how, when and where Jesus was born – and who was or was not present – are not the central components of our faith.
- Finally, the gospel accounts were not written as historical narratives and wouldn’t pass modern standards for historical accuracy.
But, Christmas and the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth are important to believers and to the Christian story because they teach us several truths about God.
- God has a plan for our salvation and intends to take an active role in it. The story of our redemption begins at Christmas with God’s action, not our own.
- God is alive and active in our world. The incarnation, God in skin and bones, teaches that God is near and present and tactile and active and caring and with us.
- God understands the human condition. In Jesus, God knows what it’s like to walk around down here on earth. To love, hurt, laugh and cry. To be lonely and sad. To be overflowing with energy and hope and excitement. To disagree with friends and family. To lose someone you love.
- Jesus is for everyone. He’s for shepherds in Judea, scholars from the east and everyone in between. God is willing to be born into a feeding trough to communicate that everyone has a place in the story. No one is too humble and lowly or great and exalted for God.
- God gives himself to us as a gift. In Jesus, God was born to us. And everyone who heard about it was excited and amazed.
- God is love. In the gift of Jesus as Teacher, Savior, Messiah and Lord, we have new evidence of God’s love and great reason to celebrate.
So, what do we tell my millennial friends about Christmas? We tell them the truths in the story. And we tell them we believe because the truths of Christmas are born out in the rest of the story.
What we learn about God at Christmas is confirmed and reinforced through Jesus’ life and ministry, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through the individual experiences of Christians across the centuries and all over the world.
We also tell them that the truth about Christmas is confirmed through our own experiences.
That’s what I’d like to tell my millennial friends. But I also know that sometimes, when they walk into church with all kinds of questions and doubts swirling in their heads, they just want someone to smile at them and say, “Merry Christmas.”
Matt Sapp is the minister of congregational life at Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared on Wieuca Road’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp.