(Author’s Note: This post is part 3 of 3 in a series exploring evangelism in the next generation. To really understand the context here, please read the first two posts by clicking here.)
Matt Metzger (@mcmetzger) is the college pastor at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s also a childhood friend of mine whom I’ve looked up to since I was 12. We still chat occasionally and I’m always blown away by his creativity and his passion to see young people follow Jesus. A while back he shared with me about some of the ways they engage people through their ministry. Here in Part 3 of my series on exploring the depths of relational ministry, I want to share Matt’s creativity and paint a portrait of what “creating an experiential framework” really looks like.
Like a lot of ministries geared towards young people, Blackhawk is actively engaged in overseas missions. In one particular case, they’ve been traveling to Honduras for a few years now, building houses and playgrounds in a specific neighborhood. About four years ago, the trip began to evolve into something much bigger.
One of the older leaders in his church decided to go back to school, enrolling in the College for Landscape Architecture (LA.) He quickly developed some meaningingful relationships with his professors, perhaps because he was closer in age to some of them than the typical student at University of Wisconsin. As those relationships grew, a conversation started about the Honduras trip. They discussed what it would look like to bring LA students on the trip, along with the Blackhawk college ministry students. After exploring the idea together, the professors not only supported it, they even offered study abroad credits to the LA students who went.
For this to work, there could be no ‘bait and switch’ type attitude. The church promoted the trip ‘as-is,’ disclosing the underlying reasons and Christ-centered purpose for going. Despite this, LA students signed up quickly. Their job in Honduras was to design playgrounds for the Blackhawk students to install. Many of the standard missions trip elements were present–daily Bible study and worship–but none were mandatory. Instead of preaching, the experience of serving families in Honduras began to reveal the Gospel to these young people. Over the course of the week, many began to sit in on the Bible studies, and many found themselves engaged in deep conversations about spiritual things with the Blackhawk students. Matt tells me there was no ‘us and them’ mentality at all. The students were in this together, and their relationships with each other grew quickly and in a very short period of time. This summer, Blackhawk will head down to Honduras with LA students and students connected in the ministry for the fourth year. Many of the LA students from past trips are going again.
Matt shared with me some of his observations about the students and the trip that I believe can help all of us see the massive value in approaching outreach this way. Firstly, he described the role of relationship. This wasn’t about the church first asking, “With whom can I be intentional about building relationships, and then how can I share Christ with them?” The whole endeavor was built upon existing relationships. Remember that the conversation began when an older leader from the church enrolled in the LA program. His friendships with his professors grew over time, and out of that came the idea to serve together. They never used ‘relationship’ as a technique or mechanism to reach people. The sanctity of the relationships was revered and preserved because there were no pre-existing expectations placed on them. The trip was a partnership, not a tactic.
Secondly, he noted that most of the LA students seemed to be ‘predisposed’ to serving. They were excited enough about doing good that they were willing to deal with their ‘evangelical’ counterparts as bunkmates. A lot of these LA students had some interesting, if not defensive, attitudes about the church. In other words, you would be hard pressed to find them attending a weekend worship service because a classmate extended an invite. Yet, when invited to serve through the church, they jumped at the opportunity. From a generational standpoint, Millennials are innately service-oriented. Giving, serving, welfare, civic-mindedness; these are all concepts found deep in the heart of the Millennials. The last generation to be wired like this is the GI (Veteran) generation, born 1901-1924. For most people alive, the idea that a generation is others-focused is quite foreign. But this is how the Millennials see the world. And this is why the approach works so well with them.
Matt leveled with me, “Adam, if your goal is to see as many people pray a prayer in the shortest time possible, this model is not for you.” The reality is that many of our evangelistic strategies are failing because our metric for effectiveness is out of step with Scripture. Thinking back on our Biblical reference in John 6, we have to remember that Jesus didn’t finish His work with the disciples right then and there. He spent three and a half years with them, providing experiential framework over and over before they really got it. Matt doesn’t do an altar call on the last night of the trip. He allows those conversations to naturally develop long after the students come home.
If we subscribe to the Great Commission, then some of us need to recalibrate what we want to see as a result of our efforts. It’s so easy to feel good about seeing people come forward after a Gospel message. I’m not even questioning whether this can work or not–it does work! Countless people have come into relationship with Christ through hearing and responding. The problem is that because it works for some, we can tend to rely on this as our primary means of evangelism. If it worked for everyone, could you imagine how many people would be in our churches? I know of churches who see hundreds come forward every weekend, but the community isn’t getting any bigger. Where are those people? What happened after they came forward? Despite our best efforts to follow up, the fact is most of these people were caught up in an emotional moment and because there was no experience with which to match the message (or any relationship that an experience would cultivate) the person walks away. At best, they’re a little more open to Jesus… at worst, they go on believing that they’ve secured a place in heaven–they understand Christianity as a religious afterthought rather than an old life transformed into a new life by the Holy Spirit.
After listening to Matt tell me about the LA students who have submitted to Christ through their experience in Honduras, and the students who haven’t, it became quite clear that while this approach is highly effective, it is no magic bullet. If that’s what you’re looking for in your ministry, I think you’ll be looking for a long time. Matt isn’t looking for THE way to reach young people with the Gospel. He has found a Biblical way that makes a lot of sense to the Millennial Generation. Isn’t that what we should all be looking for? The cool part of this is that you don’t need to go to Honduras to do it. My primary focus as a servant of the church is to develop this model in the local context. I would venture to say that we have many more opportunities to do this in our own backyard. It’s reproducable in that we can do it in Nebraska, New York City, Africa; anywhere. It’s contextual in that it’s built upon what’s happening right where you are.
Thanks so much for reading these posts. As I said earlier, we’ve arrived at a very important and special moment in history. Our choices and strategies today will have a trajectory-shaping impact over the next hundred years. I am grateful that you would engage in this exciting conversation! Please post your insights and ideas in the comments below. Also, I would LOVE to serve you. If we can work together to create evangelistic movement through your ministry, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blessings-
Tags: Blackhawk Church, church strategy, college ministry, discipleship, evangelism, GI Generation, great commission, Matt Metzger, millennial generation, Millennials, outreach, relational evangelism, relational ministry