David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation.

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(A letter to youth pastors, senior pastors, parents, and church boards)

David Kinnaman is really smart. He writes good books too. However, I question the title and premise of his book, You Lost Me. Did the church “lose” our young adults, as Dr. Kinnaman asserts, by being fearful, anti-science, controlling and hostile? I would like to suggest an alternate theory:  The church didn’t “lose” the millennials at all. They were simply never actually in church to begin with.

At this point it is axiomatic that millennials are in an unprecedented exodus from the church.* Books are being published, “You Lost Me” conferences held, and churches are going to great lengths to address the issue of young adults distancing themselves from evangelicalism.[1] These efforts usually result in passionate appeals for market-driven changes to the practice and theology of the church. There is a danger here: If we start where Dr. Kinnaman does, with what young adults say without first examining the context that led them there, we will only perpetuate our problem.

How Did We Get Here?

Young adults in Barna’s qualitative studies have compelling stories to tell about the church being fearful, controlling, anti-science, and mean to the LGBT community. Surely those stories need to be listened to. But when we stop and ask ourselves, “What was the last ministry those millennials were a part of?” For most, the answer is the youth ministry. And when we consider that the 15-year-old youth group member of a decade ago is the 25 year-old non-attender of today, a question starts to form:  Did something happen in the youth room that might have caused this?  Follow my line of thought through the dots of what we did in our youth rooms and see if the millennial abandonment doesn’t seem a natural, if unintended consequence…

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time

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In the 80′s and 90′s, while mainline churches disinvested in young people, evangelicals began imitating successful parachurch ministries to “attract” students with games and activities. But what the parachurch did in neighborhood living rooms with careful evangelistic purpose was a bit less purposeful (even if “Purpose Driven”) in most church youth rooms. Regardless, evangelism was in. Rigorous discipleship was out.

As we moved into the 2000’s, bands, fog machines and light shows became the youth room rage. Tim Elmore dubbed today’s young adults, “the overindulged generation.”[2] The church gladly played along, “wowing” them students with noise, technology and millions of pizzas. Students were segregated away from the grownups on Sunday morning in a new idea: the “youth service.” The model of removing youth from the sanctuary, was dubbed early on “The One-eared Mickey Mouse.[3] The youth service essentially turned the “student ministry” into a parachurch ministry on the church property – perhaps Christ-centered in its message and developmentally appropriate, but segregating youth from the larger faith community in order to do programs “attractive” to students.

Segregation: The Drug Of Choice

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The entire church embraced this paradigm shift. It was the drug everyone wanted: Parents wanted their kids to like church. Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth Pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band and shorter message. On top of that, donors were excited to write large checks to build expensive facilities with the promise of reaching lost and hurting kids. And if our metrics are seats filled and satisfaction surveys, it looked like it was working. But what are the long-term effects of segregated, program-driven student ministry?

Many students graduate from high school…without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church.

In the new model, students develop the crucial affiliation bond not with the church or its leadership, but to the youth pastor and youth program. Because youth pastors have high turnover, new youth pastors have to continually “win” over the last youth pastor’s group. Students get used to being “won” and begin to expect adults to cater to their desires and preferences. The One-Eared Mickey Mouse, led by entrepreneurs with little theological training, becomes what the market demands: the great show kids desire and the teaching parents require: just enough “God” to motivate kids to avoid risky behaviors like drugs and sex.[4] Because youth pastors are generally people of spiritual passion and commitment, many students graduate from high school having had a real experience of spiritual transformation but without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church. In this model, older adults no longer have a role in the formation of the young, parents, who have outsourced their children’s spiritual formation, often oppose a rigorous transformational faith, and the young have no interest in taking their place in the concerns and councils of the church…so students graduate from the youth group into the next thing that will cater to their preferenceslike the local Starbucks.

An Assembly Line To Build the Self-absorbed

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In fairness, this didn’t start in the youth room. The church shuttles our young down an assembly line from the nursery to the children’s rooms, then to the junior high room, then the high school “youth service.” Then we graduate them to college groups. No one seems to notice that nowhere in that system did we bother to connect our young people to the church at all. 

We have treated students as a market to be pandered to in order to fill youth rooms. And, now that it is time for young adults to take their place in extending the Kingdom of God through the life of the Church, they are, as one would expect, wondering what we are going to do next to woo them. Should we be surprised that they are failing to become mature Christians, participating and leading in the body of Christ? Rather than “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” we have infantilized them. [5]

How did we not see this coming? How did we fail to connect the dots? Instead of connecting them to God and his church, we, with Pavlovian discipline, conditioned our young to jump from church to church as consumers of glitzy religio-entertainment. We systematically taught those with the most to give how to take and take and take.

Are there other factors? Of course there are. For one, parents have largely stopped passing on the faith in the home. For another, the evangelical church has lowered its ecclesiology to something akin to “we exist to be entertain you.” However, right between those two polarities stands a ministry that could bridge the gap: the youth ministry. How? To start with we can drop the misshapen narrative – the narrative that we “lost them” by giving the young too rigorous a theology and by being hostile and negative. Although problematic, fear, negativity, and rigor simply do not tell the whole story at thousands of churches. And trying to un-lose a generation by again pandering to whatever the latest market research says millennials want to hear is not only to fail to be faithful stewards of both the Gospel and them, it is to repeat yesterday’s mistakes.

What now?

The exodus of young adults from the church is a reality caused, not primarily by cultural change or negative message, but by ill-advised leadership decisions by youth pastors, senior pastors, parents and church boards. We did this to ourselves by investing in segregationist youth ministries that proved ultimately unhelpful. What we can do in response? We can repent of where we failed them in their youth rather than by again pandering to where we have left them as young adults.

Then, Youth pastors, pastors, parents and board members, lets put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Reclaim rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church. Challenge and equip parents to spiritually lead in their homes. Re-invision youth ministry as youth who DO ministry, pursuing and extending the faith connected to the entirety of the community of faith, the church.

Together lets make sure the next generation of young people does not leave the church when they leave our youth rooms.

*A followup post by a Millennial: How do millennials experience your church?

(Material in this article appeared in “Renewing the Youth in Youth Ministry” published in last month’s edition of The Living Church Magazine: http://www.scribd.com/doc/164325436/Renewing-Youth)

 

*In 2008, Pew Research reported that 20-30 year-olds attend church at ½ the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents.[a] Depending on the researcher, between 60% and 88% of churched youth will not attend church in their 20’s.[b]

[a] Lugo, Luis. “The Decline of Institutional Religion” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2013/03/25/Editorial-Opinion/Graphics/Pew-Decline-of-Institutional-Religion.pdf Aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, January-July 2012.  Brett Kunkle lists 7 such more such research reports in 2009: http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/how-many-youth-are-leaving-the-church

[b] Time Magazine, 2009, Lifeway, 2010.

[1] Book: Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me, Baker Books. Grand Rapids, 2011. Conference: Donohue Forum: Nov. 15-16 “The Future of the Church, Exploring What’s Wrong and Dreaming What’s Possible. Innovative Ministry Response: PhoenixOne, an ecumenical young adult ministry that is very friendly to liturgy and mystery is an example of the best of these attempts. www.phx1.org

[2] Elmore, Tim. Generation iY. Poet Gardiner Publishing, Atlanta, GA. 2010

[3] Stuart Cummings-Bond in a 1989 Youthworker Journal article.

[4] What Christian Smith calls “moralistic, therapeutic, deism” in his groundbreaking 2005 book, “Soul Searching.”

[5] Ephesians 4:12

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73 thoughts on “David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation.

  1. Well, Matt, here you go again. Some people just can’t leave well enough alone. Whaddawegonna do? First, I’m gonna tell you I love this. I’ve not read Kinnaman’s book, so I’m responding primarily to your prescription. I think you’re right on. From 1 year old to 101 years old, we are called to make disciples. That’s never easy. And I add, as I commented on a previous post, I think we need to make disciples whose Jesus makes sense in and of a very large world. Parochial Christendom seems not to be standing the scrutiny of the university and of questioning adults. So before we send them to be scrutinized, let’s equip them.

    • Thanks, Jimmy. You do know that I blog to entertain you, don’t you? Kinnaman’s book actually has much to recommend it. He is also a Phoenix guy.

      You have accurately seen through my true agenda…and the subject of part 2: The church isn’t discipling. Discipleship is walking with people prayerfully for a long-time, helping them take risks, loving them and never leaving them. About the praxis. The real “doxi” the “glory” is in hearts wildly in love with their Savior who walk in joy and gratitude and share that joy simply because those in love just have to tell folks. We both had great models of discipleship in our own lives. We don’t necessarily want to adopt all of the theology, but certainly do want to imitate the way they love and give.
      I am enjoying being with your new priest up here.

  2. Matt, what about the identifiers like “post-Christian”? Are you saying that these have been environmentally conditioned, and as such are largely distractions from what’s really going on? ;)

    • Hi Ron,
      I think I understand your question but may be way off. Here is my stab at it: Have you seen Taunton’s article on “atheists” in Atlantic Monthly last spring? It was fascinating. He interviewed a bunch of post Christians. He just said, “Tell us the story of your journey out of the church and into atheism.” The overwhelming response was that they lost their leader for one reason or another. The church has made it about program and message. Discipleship was always about life-on-life and love rather than information. I think we are programming them out.

  3. Matt, this is a very insightful and telling account of ecclesiological malpractice. The problem, as you noted, has been program based, age segregated ministries. And that’s not all! It’s a bad ecclesiology. We made church a synonym for congregation and ignored the church of the home and the church of the synagogue (such as camps, cross-generational interaction in many settings etc.) The youth ministry “industry” made a business of this false ecclesiology and reinforced the whole whacky business. In my denomination of the ELCA it continues today. And we were asking the wrong question. We were asking, “How do we get kids to church (aka congregation)? We should have been and should be asking now, “How do we form faith and make disciples?” When DAvid Anderson and I wrote FROGS WITHOUT LEGS CAN’T HEAR, back in 2005 this is what we were trying to get at . And we had only one research study to work off of. Now we have hundreds. And they all say the same thing…bad understandings of ecclesiology lead to malpractice in faith formation. Keep up the great blog. You nailed it today my friend.

    • Amen! I really appreciate your camp/parish/denom perspective on this, Paul! I wish there was an easier way to let this comment add to conversation. Many of my evangelical friends don’t know what we are talking about when we say “ecclesiology.” …much in the same way many of our folks don’t understand the need for a transformational experience that they provide. One without the other leaves a hole in our Gospel. Any ideas? I wonder if anyone would do a fb page? I want to find a way to have people discuss different topics. My “cool church” post had two or three profound but very different conversations going on. We need a way to separate them.

      • I’m afraid that many of the ELCA leaders realize that we have no consensus when we say the word “ecclesiology.” When the ELCA came together in 1988, one of the major issues that wasn’t really worked out was an ecclesiology. We are now reaping what we sow around our lack of theological understanding and one of the ways it has gotten us in trouble is around this very issue. Add to this that many of the “mainline” traditions are so fractured right now that I actually think it is impossible for us to come to any sort of agreement around this important word!

        • Hi Russell,
          You might be right. One would hope that Christians could rally around the big rocks of the faith. In the Episcopal Church, a body that in theory is united around the agreement to pray the same words rather than hold the same theology, that has proven most difficult.

          When we unite around the wrong ecclesiology (like, for instance, the church existing to save itself) that is (and should be) catastrophic as well.

          Do you have any wisdom to offer the conversation in this regard?

  4. Great article Matt! We must quit focusing on “losing them” and start looking for long term solutions to the why we lost them. You’re right a major reason in we catered to them and programmed them right out. We need a return to strong one on one discipleship that builds relationships that don’t allow young people to disappear without someone recognizing they are gone.

    • Hi Mik,
      Great to hear from you, old friend. I love when you put “relationships” in “discipleship.” The church has had a hard time not seeing discipleship as merely the transfer of information rather than the working out of the Good News of grace in a new community of people walking together.
      …I like when people refuse to let people leave, not compulsively but “I love you, and I am your friend regardless of where you sit.”

  5. Matt,
    Your article echoes material published in a book by Professor or Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, Kenda Casey-Dean, in her book “Almost Christian.” She suggests one solution to this is for the church to help youth (and adults) understand we are called to a greater mission of changing our world. Thanks for your thoughts

    • Thanks for chiming in. Dean’s book was a great followup to Chris Smith’s Soul Searching. I think there are a lot of voices saying the same things these days. The faith as a discreet experience of Jesus in a vacuum and the church as a provider of “worship experience” won’t have long term staying power for many sociological and economic reasons even if we cannot muster the theological clarity to move from it.

  6. We do not separate our kids out of the sanctuary. However, we still are concerned about keeping the youth in church. Once they are confirmed its like they have no reason to keep attending. I think it’s so important to give kids a solid foundation, but, myself included, isn’t it common to walk away from church after high school? I was blessed with a foundation but also given freedom and my own choice as I got older. So when I got married and started a family, I then chose to return. I think we can mentor and encourage our youth, but isn’t it ultimately a personal decision?

    • Hi Tara,
      Thank you for commenting. You are most correc that people make up their own minds about church attendance in college. I am not sure where you are located, but in the west parents allow kids to make their own decisions in jr and sr high. At our church we do not have patents asking kids to get confirmed. I wish we did. In our context the student is the onramp into church for the parents. Our biggest issue is transience-in an urban area of poverty people move or run into immigration issues.

      If Faith has been personal (a conversion), communal (a peer group AND a multigenerational group), missional (a task to do in the world), and relational (life on life mentors who walk with kids) they generally don’t want to leave when they graduate.

      In a personal anecdote, my daughter loves the college she is at 2 hrs away, but we have to continually encourage her separation because she loves the community of our little church and the fellowship of youth leaders and students and the blessing of being used of God in other’s faith formation.

  7. Matt Marino, I appreciate much of what you have said. You are on target when you imply that we have entertained rather discipled youth, etc. However I am not without my concerns. It is true that many youth went to their youth groups because they were jazzed up and entertaining. But many went to their youth fellowships because they were starving for authentic and meaningful relationships. What is your answer to the dwindling numbers of youth on Sunday morning? You state: “Let’s repent where we failed them…and put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning.”

    You seem to identify the pivotal decision that made the church-train jump the tracks was the decision to segregate the youth from where “real” church–the sanctuary–where you imply only the true church can be found. After all you say that youth who spent years in youth ministry “never actually were in church.” That is to say you imply that such segregated youth were never part of the church since they were meeting…hmmm…I guess in the wrong room of the building? Since I don’t see any mention of a physical “sanctuary” in the N.T. and only see references that the old wineskin of physcial temple/sanctuary has been replaced by a temple/sanctuary made up of LIVING stones, then I think we need to give both your analysis and your proposed solution pause.

    For starters I believe the ultimate reason youth leave “the church” after they graduate youth group is because they just spent years experiencing church as true community and dynamic relationships. Then when they graduate from the “youth group” they are told they have graduated to “adult Christianity” and must now move into the big room. And is “adult Christianity” in the sanctuary? Sitting as a passive spectator week after week hearing sermons where the extent of MOST people’s interaction with other Christians is when the paster says, “Now take a minute to greet your brother and sister in the name of the Lord.” Perhaps they steal a few more minutes on their way out the door walking to their car. Then they try to live the rest of the week on a max of 5 minutes of Christian fellowship! No wonder there is so much dysfunction in the body of Christ today. Most adult Christians are NOT experiencing the church at all! They just heard a sermon and walked out the door. But since the greek word for church (ekklesia) speaks of a “relational gathering of people” and has nothing to do with a physical sanctuary or building, can we really say the majority of adult Christians are experiencing a life-giving gathering of people? Hardly.

    The reason most graduated youth don’t bother to come back to the sanctuary–the only place where you think true church is taking place–is because they rightly discern that graduating to “adult Christianity” is to enter a dead-zone where they become spectators instead of relators. They are given a place in a pew and told to stand when they are told to stand, sit when they are told to sit, read when they are told to read, and listen when they are told to listen. Fine–but that is a service. That is not church.

    Most youth leave the “church” because adult Christianity revolves around attending a service, rather than engaging in real relationships. I would argue that an individual who has spent 40 years listening to a sermon and then quickly walks to his car saying nare a word except “God bless you” hasn’t been to church in 40 years.

    To your credit you do say that we need to incorporate youth into “rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church…[and] connect them to the community of faith.”

    That sounds good. But what does that mean? What does that actually look like? I dare say if the church is ever going to create such an environment as you suggest, it is going to require that we radically alter our current perception of the church as a sanctuary, a service, or a building–instead of a people actually DOING life together.

    • Hello Strider,

      Thank you! Most excellent thoughts.

      I think most of us would agree with you that there is something inherently passive about the 4 song and sermon model…and that the “Body of Christ” as 90 minutes of attendance rather than living life together is life-sucking.

      I am in no way advocating giving up age-appropriate meeting and teaching. I am merely saying that when we build affiliation bonds with the youth pastor and youth ministry (in another building with another name and other leaders) that we never connected them to the church. That has an effect on the youth (who do not connect), but it has another, more dangerous and more insidious effect: the effect it has on the adults, who never allow young people an active role in the church. If young were in the sanctuary…and reading scripture…on the greeting team, giving testimonies, on the prayer team, and (dare I say) preaching on occasion, then their voices would be heard.

      When you describe it as needing to look like life-on-life, I am right there with you.

      What I would love to see it look like is the subject of a future post. This is, after all a blog post. The length of the post just outlining the idea that “they didn’t leave the ‘church’, they were never a part of it” took more than most will endure.

      I think radical re-orienting is going to happen. I don’t think people will sit still for anything less…in fact, I think they aren’t sitting still already. I think they have already started building community other places. For example, I just got back from a 3 day clergy retreat. We were sharing the camp with 50 young adults in something called U and Improved. It was sort of a non-religious youth group for 20somethings. It was bizarrely familiar. It appeared to be providing community, friendship, leadership development…many of the things that youth ministry provides without God. One of them said they started a year ago with 10 people and now have a few hundred and are working on a national rollout.

      • Thanks for the follow-up thoughts. I don’t think we are very far apart at all :) The church does indeed need each other–young and old and I think we agree that that need must transcend sitting next to each other in a pew. In many ways I think our flaw is trying to “do church” all in one day…actually in one hour. Worship, prayer, preaching, teaching, fellowship…we try to squeeze it an hour service in what has become known as “church.” I think the Sunday service ought to be a time of celebration and public teaching that reinforces church life that has been taking place throughout the week. But that would require that Christians are actually coming together, sharing meals, praying for each other, talking over coffee, a beer…whatever. Just get together and be vulnerable and transparent with each other.

        • Funny! You could preach my sermon (on article 31 of the Anglican articles of Religion: What happens when we sin? It is from Hebrews 10:11-18 and Matthew 26:17-29). I end with the Eucharist, not as a re-sacrifice, but as a family celebration of God’s victory over sin and death in the once-for-all sacrifice of the cross and the family meal of the people of God…one that would happen day after day (acts 2:42-47).

          I do love the “that would require that Christians are actually coming together”…I would merely add, “and inviting the unchurched to join us in God’s goodness.”

  8. Beng the parent of two young adults, the challenge they present the church is keeping it relevant. My wife and I kept both of our kids in the sanctuary for worship. Actually, our church did not have a separate youth worship service, but even it did, we would have kept our kids in the sanctuary. But now that they are out of the house, they do not attend church because they simply don’t see its relevance in their lives now. The over arching strength of today’s cultural and societal issues that, to them, the church appears to be intolerant of leads them to believe in a hypocrisy of Christianity. We talk with them a lot to show them that Christianity loves the sinner but is intolerant of the sin. Both of my kids are good kids. But, I believe (hope) that as they continue to mature, they will return to the church as it see its relevance. That’s what I did. Thank you for your insight. I truth in what you have said.

  9. The Book of Judges starts with a sentence (2:10) that we usually gloss over, “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” This is a terrible indictment, especially when we understand that there are not enough years on the timeline for this generation to have been more than grandchildren or great-grandchildren! The wording is important…they did not know…they had not been introduced. it doesn’t say they chose to leave! Somehow, the grandparents and parents had not demonstrated that their God was worth serving and living for.

    I wonder if this is what Matt is seeing? A younger generation that looks at their parents and grandparents and doesn’t see a generation for whom their service and dedication to God makes a difference. They are not living victoriously. Their work ethic is no different from the Philistines they work with. Their divorce rate is the same as the non-believers. Their church involvement is…not. They live lives of depression and defeat. Why would the kids choose their God?!

    This is manifested in age segregation…a few dedicated individuals trying to save the next generation…and unwillingness of the older to engage the younger.

    If so, then the key to saving the “leavers” is to revive the “stayers”. They must be taught to live victorious, righteous, shining lives that attract others for Christ. We need to review our advertisement…our own lives. We need to “parade” these examples in front of the younger generation instead of closeting them.

  10. Excellent points. I have two thirty-something children and one is actively involved in church and the other is not. We went to two very different churches when they were growing up. One was a small church and the other was a mega-church with a Christian school. I thought we needed the larger church so that my children could connect with youth programs, but in retrospect it was not the answer and the programs offered were only entertaining my kids and not discipling them. The smaller church has much to offer but they need to see the teens as active participants in the life of the church and not ignore them.

    • Hi Pam, thank you for writing. I am very interested in your story. Could you share more?

      There is some inferred evidence that churches with no youth minister retain students at the same or higher rate as those who do. I have reported that on other posts such as “cool church.”

  11. I have something positive to say: you’re both right. You and David Kinnaman are each right. If you weren’t right, there would be no exodus. If he weren’t right, there would be a return. Changes need to be made on both fronts.
    On the bright side, you’re completely right — he’s just not wrong. That’s all.

    • Thanks, Javier. That made me smile. :-)

      I think Dr. Kinnaman is right about many things. Just not that they were “lost” by the church. I think that the generation of the segregated youth programs never had an affiliation bond with the church but rather with the youth program.

      …actually I also think the methodology of changing what the church does after the methodology of having changed what the youth programs did in response to opinions back when they were in HS then creates an insecurity in attendees and the appearance of desperation on the part of the church…neither of which works toward the desired results.

      I am not sure that there is a return that comes from pandering to focus group-think. The group doing the best with young adults in Phoenix (which is where I assume you are from your screen name) is PhoenixOne. They are value driven/data supported. They do lots of surveying, but it is for the benefit of partner churches rather than to change their own practice or theology.

      Thanks for commenting! Are you in Phoenix? If so, what church?

  12. It is interesting that several people that go to my church posted this article on their facebook. About a week later, the editor of our newsletter posted that we shouldn’t bicker about service styles or approaches but be submissive to the Holy Spirit and go with the program.

    • Interesting.

      Since a bunch of folks are talking about it, the things in the article might be part of where the wind of the Spirit is blowing for your church. It would be interesting if it were the body that was being submissive to the Spirit, wouldn’t it. :-)

      It seems that the Lord is raising up voices asking for a church that is more in love with Jesus and helps us to learn to walk with God and love others rather than following models that amount to licking a finger and seeing which way the wind of the culture is blowing.

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. I appreciate your taking the time to write.

      Blessings,
      Matt

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    • Hi Jay,
      Thanks for the kind words, and great question!

      In blog posts you are either trying to say a lot about such a narrow topic that you miss a bunch on the sides or a little about a broad subject, in which case you miss a bunch in the middle.

      When I think discipleship I am thinking about helping someone be able to walk with Jesus in such a way that they experience intimacy with God and can, when led by the Holy Spirit, help someone else to faith and maturity in Christ.

      When I think of discipleship I think: relational (life on life) and missional (results in the desire to give Jesus to others). How to get there is generally done least well with a curriculum, and best when we teach people to love doing the things Christ-followers have spent 2000 years loving doing: Scripture, a life of prayer, serving others, worship, sacrament, community, and sharing the hope that is within us.

      I’m not sure if that is less than or more than you were asking for, but those are my starting points anyway.

      Thanks again for the question!

      Blessings as we draw near the celebration of the Savior’s arrival.

      • Thanks Matt. I appreciate your definition. I usually find if you ask 10 church leaders their definition of discipleship you get 10 answers. I see Jesus walking with a group, closely and intimately, teaching with words and by modeling the way of Love through Christ. This partnership seems to be what is missing. We keep trying classes, 40 days of purpose, whatever but not the long-term, life-on-life work that discipleship calls us into. I wish i had this as a young person but am finding it now. It has been life-changing. I pray for the same for our young followers today.

        • Hi Jay. That is a nice definition. love, long-term and walking together. The one thing I like to make sure to include is to do those things around a shared mission.

          Thanks for asking us to clarify. It has enriched the conversation.

          Advent blessings,
          Matt

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  15. so, what.

    dead serious, here. SO WHAT if they aren’t attending church?

    are these people following the teachings and commandments of jesus? shouldn’t the actual test of a believer in jesus (as god, himself) have a better test of a person’s merits than putting butts in pews and dollars in baskets?

    maybe, just maybe, this generation is actually living closer to “love each other. as i have loved you, love each other. by this, i will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”? and take jesus seriously at his word to care for the poor, disenfranchised, vulnerable, outcasted (by the “holy” church)?

    my agenda is crystal clear: bemoaning church attendance is (in my opinion) worshiping the institution and mechanisms over the living gospel. “preach the gospel everywhere. use words only when necessary.”

    • Hi Just John Boy,

      I am not disagreeing with you at all, but that isn’t the point of my article which is a response to the question “Why aren’t the 20-35 yr olds coming?

      The article is not about how we should evaluate spirituality.

      Whether or not young adults not attending is a good thing is another question. Whether or not all experiences of being in a church are created equal is as well. And whether or not orthopraxy is better than orthodoxy is yet another.

      Those are great questions for another blog post!

      Thanks for commenting.

  16. The day when young people are to be seen and not heard is long…….gone. Young people want to be a part, not onlookers. Young people should be on church councils, should teach Sunday School, should be made a real part of the congregation.

  17. Hey Matt- first time reader, followed the link from the “Kissing Fish” page on Facebook. I was heavily churched as a kid- baptised Catholic as a baby, parents found Christ when I was 2 and raised fundamentalist Baptist along with Christian school until high school- my parents wanted to send my brother & sister to a different (bigger, better) school which was Lutheran, so we became Lutheran. I liked that a lot- I’m a big history geek- and appreciated the idea that I was worshipping with more history behind the service than a church built as part of suburban sprawl in the 1970s. After high school, though, I got out into the big world and realized how overprotected and sheltered I was from what was happening out there. I learned about other denominations and other beliefs. I learned that atheism wasn’t the same thing as devil worship. And I just didn’t go to church. College programs or not, I wasn’t interested in sitting there for a couple of hours on Sunday. Between working my way through college and having a social life, I just didn’t want to spend the time.

    I went back to church because my husband and I had moved to another state and I had started seeing a therapist. My most frequent complaint was that I just didn’t know how to meet people and I was lonely. She suggested a church, and that’s how I became Episcopalian. I discovered that those were my people all along. It didn’t hurt that I really wanted my young son to learn about church stuff and the Bible. The church we went to welcomed us and took care of us, even feeding us daily when I was put on bed rest when I was pregnant youngest son after only having been part of the church for a year.

    Fast forward to now- we’ve moved again, and we went church shopping. That was the most awkward thing ever- some churches trying really hard to get you to stay, some not even noticing that we were there. We found a church, we go some of the time- we’re pretty inconsistent. We’re not really invested. The rector and assistant rector are very nice- the assistant moving to our town right after we did and she’s been wonderful. But there’s not many people there like us. Not many young people with kids. My oldest son is too old for kids programs, too young for youth group so he hates going. It’s a small church, so my kids go to regular service in the regular sanctuary. They hate it, they don’t get it, and they don’t listen, but they are there.

    What would honestly get us invested is someone who isn’t paid to be there caring about whether or not we are there. A church mentor, if you will. The bottom line is that people want to see people like them. They want people in a similar stage of life. They want their ideas to be listened to and not discounted. They want to be valued as part of the community. But first, they want to feel like part of that community.

    • Hi Lyndsey,

      Now I am going to have to look up “Kissing Fish.” :-)

      Thank you for sharing your story!

      It is amazing to me that people will say they want people x in a church and yet do nothing to welcome them when they visit.

      It is really hard to be the first investor in an idea, isn’t it? Having lived in a small town for a bit in which we were THE young couple in church I can relate with the weirdness of being in that place. I hope your new church will love you and your children and value them. If they don’t then move to Phoenix and come to our church plant. We would love to have you!

      blessings,
      Matt

  18. While I think this article is a good diagnosis of the problem, I think that it is incomplete.

    I haven’t stopped attending church since I graduated college 2 1/2 years ago. I have, however, stopped being part of the church.

    I still show up on Sunday mornings. But wherever I go, I am almost completely ignored.

    Churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box like this article so astutely described. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you.

    If you’re not married, you’re not an adult. That is how the modern American church sees things. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons.

    It takes a long time to build a stable career as a millennial in modern America. Much longer than for our parents’ generation. My parents had me when they were 25. I’ll be 25 in four months. At that time, I will have been in higher education nearly twice as long as my parents. I’m unmarried, never been in a serious relationship, have hardly any money, and have moved several times in the past few years to some new corner of the world while pursuing higher education. It’s impossible to work towards marriage in such a situation. And I know I’m not alone.

    Inter-generational economic differences are a huge rift through the church that no one is talking about. In one church I told one middle-aged woman that I was likely spending the next year unemployed and she burst out laughing. I just about screamed “IT’S NOT FUNNY!” in her face. Instead I just walked away.

    Post-college Millennials in the church face a wall of negative judgments from the minute we step inside the doors on Sunday from people who don’t know any better. Those with successful careers wonder why we can’t just “work at a factory or a newspaper like I did when I was your age” and consider us lazy and entitled (Hint: those jobs don’t exist anymore). Those with successful marriages see fit to prod us to get married at every turn, because in the modern American church marriage is the ideal and singleness is something to tolerate if you must (never mind that Paul said the exact opposite).

    Whatever you do, don’t blame liberal politics. If liberal politics were why we left the church, we’d just flock to churches with liberal politics. Yet mainline Protestant churches have declined more sharply than conservative ones.

    No, we millennials often embrace liberal politics as a substitute in the void that church has left in our lives. Liberal politics provides a supportive community working towards a common goal and promising an ultimate end point of justice and equality. It’s a substitute for religion, not a cause for rejecting it.

    In short, we millennials just want to be treated like adults. We want to be included. It’s not that hard. We don’t want to be catered to. We don’t want to be entertained. We’re human beings like the rest of you, and we’d like to be treated as such.

  19. Pingback: David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation. | the gospel side | Wired Jesus Podcast

  20. Loved the original post – and loved the following comments even more. Thank you Matt for posting and hosting. I especially liked the comments from StriderMTB and cwjones. They point out the disconnect between much congregational culture and the culture Millennials are living in. Most denominational structures are built on a solid middle class economy and mind-set. Those are disappearing in the western world. And the rule of evolution is: When the environment changes, the organism must change its form to draw sustenance from what there is more of in the environment – or die.

  21. Pingback: Guest post: How single millennials experience your church | the gospel side

  22. Very well-written. I think in the midst of the “show”, the church forgot about the hearts and souls of teenagers who were hurting and needed a Savior. So when the show was over, the kids left the building feeling empty, and they didn’t have the ties that made them want to return. Meanwhile, the liberal media was bombarding them with continual messaging and acceptance for their differences.
    While I agree that the church needs to tackle difficult issues (LGBT, for instance), the real issue is that people need to know that they are cared for in every dimension, and that God has a plan for them.

  23. I am not entirely in agreement with this for two reasons.

    The conversion rate in modern times has declined but society is different, religion in schools, poverty, basic needs challenges etc. We can not expect the past to be the model of the future otherwise the conversion could be a lot lower.

    Secondly we should not be arrogant to think that a single service is appropriate for all. I’ve seen stale services drive away everyone but the aging congregation as it did not want to consider the growth or just become lazy. The fact our churches has youth is something to celebrate regardless where they are in the church. Better they are here to work with than not.

    Without the youth rooms would they still be in church?

    • Hi Nik,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I am a bit fuzzy on what you are arguing for in your first comment. I think you are arguing that cultural change affects conversions in the church. I am not sure anyone would argue that point. Could you clarify, though, just so I am sure?

      I am making the case that segregating youth from the rest of the church sets up a dynamic where students have no affiliation bond with anyone but youth leaders, which leaves them disconnected as adults.

      I am also making the case that this sets up a secondary problem, that of making students see the church as something that exists for them, rather than they for it – becoming consumers of religious “experiences” rather than producers of Kingdom fruit.

      I am also not sure we are talking about the same thing here. You mention youth rooms. I am not arguing against youth rooms or against age appropriate youth groups. Just against youth WORSHIPPING in separate rooms from the adults. The issue isn’t arrogance at all-it is core values (a faith for life rather than just high school) and data (the data seems to indicate that churched students with NO youth program attend church at a higher rate than those with youth programs-i.e. youth programs may have a negative effect on future church attendance, raising the huge question of why?).

      I would agree with you that a “stale” service without life is certainly a problem! However, the answer to that problem does not need to be to sow the seeds of students later disengagement through segregation. The answer does not have to be “big church is dead, lets protect kids from it.” We can imagine multiple solutions to that problem. One might be, “Big church is dead, lets help them have a more passionate faith.”

      What I am arguing for is connecting students to other adults and pastors. The problems caused by segregating are, at this point, clearly demonstrated by the data and far and away worse than the problems they solve. If we put a bandaid on a femoral abrasion and send the soldier back into the field, we shouldn’t be surprised when the patient bleeds out a few hours later. I am trying to stop the bleeding.

      Do write back and straighten me out on what you are trying to say in your first point!

  24. As in most situations, they are always more nuanced than we can articulate in one post but I’m not sure your comments are entirely accurate. Some questions/thoughts:

    1. Does this mean that you think that denominations/congregations that did not have this segregated youth policy are not experiencing an equally high drop out rate as those that did?

    2. Using the title ‘David Kinnaman is wrong…’ is somewhat misleading. Whether the youth you mention were in a segregated youth group or not, whether they had made some profession of faith or not, whether they had been on a mission trip or not – they WERE part of a church body and we (the church) DID lose them. To be fair to Kinnaman he does mention that there is a need for intergenerational discipleship.

    3. I absolutely agree with you that we should not have segregated youth to the extreme that we have done and continue to do. I am certain the church as a whole would have changed for the better if we had actually engaged and listened to these youth through some kind of intergenerational discipleship. But maybe our churches would be a little more like Starbucks but not from a consumerist point of view. We can learn a lesson here. When the ‘lost’ go into Starbucks they probably feel more instantly accepted (albeit that it’s in the guise of ‘tolerance’) than when they attend a church for the first time. Maybe if we exhibited more Godly ‘grace’ in the church we might be hanging on to more Millennials – and have the lost wanting to hang out with us.

    4. The rapid change in culture due to technology has resulted in a cultural shift akin to industrialization in my view – I am certainly not a historian (nor a theologian). Do you disagree that the factors that Kinnaman mentions are not viable and critical factors to youth/young adults now distancing themselves from the church?

    5. It sounds like you are inferring that if the youth HAD been engaged and discipled they would be involved in the church as we have it now. I would disagree, as I say in #3 I think the church would look very different in structure and attitude. More principals less rules, challenging but inviting, more engagement with our communities and less programs, etc. So ‘yes’ they would be in the church, but the church would look very different to what it is right now (generalizing ‘church’).

    I agree with the underlying intent that you have to point out that we made a mistake along the way in not engaging all generations in discipleship. This is obviously a vital emphasis within the church right now – thanks be to God. But we should not, and cannot, ignore the impact of cultural shifts that have changed the landscape of church and discuss how we should respond.

    My 5cents. Thanks for reading. Peace

    • Hi Andrew,
      Sorry it has taken me awhile to get back to you. A few thoughts:

      1. First off, I am fairly sure this is more about congregational practice than denominational practice. Mega churches have much more in common with other mega churches than with other churches of their own tradition. Second, the data does seem to indicate that students in churches without youth programs retain a significantly higher percentage of students than do churches with youth programs. The data has been reported in my “What’s so uncool about cool churches” post. The data is from two different surveys. I am actually going to make that very question the study of a doctoral program.

      2. I am really just saying that his title is wrong. My premise is that we created an affiliation bond with a youth pastor, a youth program (usually with another name than the church’s name), and then put them in a second room. When they graduate or the staff moves or the student ages out, students often have no affiliation with the larger church, no relationships in the rest of the church and have been taught “this is a cool thing to be a part of as it gives to me…i.e. we have made consumers rather than servants (the subject of my “Mormon Bishop to the megachurch” post (http://thegospelside.com/2012/09/30/mormon-bishop-to-the-mega-church-thank-you/).

      3. I totally agree with you! A place of grace, that loves well and teaches people the scriptures and helps them to live it beats a place of rules for living any day, in my book. Jesus didn’t like sincere but self-righteous pharisees much. We seem to have a hard time remembering that.

      4. As I recall Kinnaman interviewed “drop outs” and asked “why?” I think that methodology has limited value. More interesting to me is Alex Taunton’s narrative interviews (in Atlantic Monthly, April 2013) that had drop outs share their “journey.” When drop outs talk about “why?” they share the stuff that is in the cultural water. When they shared their journeys they said 2 things: 1) they don’t really want Christians not to believe their stuff. 2) When they left their was almost always a leadership disconnect-staff left, were fired, they aged out…some sort of loss of relationship with “their person”. I think that is much more interesting than people leaving over theology. In 30 years of youth ministry almost no one joined over theology and almost no one left over theology. They joined and left over relationship, love, respect, challenge, acceptance, etc.

      5. Your number 5 sounds pretty beautiful to me. I’m all for that! That sounds like the body of Christ: the love and humility to listen to everyone and trust the Holy Spirit to move in even, dare we say, the young.

      Thanks for the really solid push-back. You have some great things to say and are obviously thinking about the health of Christ’s body.

      Thanks for joining the dialogue. Stick around and bring more!

  25. Pingback: Why do we gravitate to segregate…? | john.a.lawson

  26. Very truth not forgetting the fact that trying to entertain them with games n equip them wth intentions, good manners, politeness etc.and not with what Jesus told us, the word, the Bible so when the solid foundation is not build then the whole house will fall sad but this is what most churches r experiencing or how about the new ‘age’ of churches not having Sunday school n Bible studies during the week only a Sunday service so when the church is being fed once a week then their member r spiritually weak……time to go back to the Biblical pattern that God stablished!!!!!

    • Hi Al, Surely we have very weak formation in many churches. In other’s we have rule based formation. Both of those seem destructive. A 1 Tim 1:5 (“The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart a clean conscience and a sincere heart.”) approach seems much more productive, Christlike and helpful for the world, the Kingdom and the individual.

      Thanks!

  27. Hey there,

    Have you read “Sticky Faith”? That’s a good book that also evaluates many of the same issues. But my comment is about a statistic you referenced. The 2008 Pew statistic about students attending church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and 1/4 the rate of their grandparents. This would essentially mean students are leaving church at the same rate as their parents left church, right? Because their parents were staying in church at only 1/2 of the rate of their parents.

    I don’t say this to dismiss the issue. Cutting the rate of Christians in half every generation is a huge issue that needs to be looked at and addressed. But I’m not sure that blaming modern youth ministry per se is fair, since the 50% per generation decline started before a lot of today’s youth ministers were even born.

    Again, not trying to say change isn’t needed. Just trying to broaden the perspective of the issue.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I should let you know that in criticizing modern youth ministry I am engaging in self-reflection – I am a modern youth minister. I have led in youth ministry for 30 years this year, in suburban, rural and urban contexts…including starting them from scratch and building my last one from 40 a week to at one point more than 500 per week. So these are faithful wounds of a friend.

      I also should say that I like Sticky Faith. I also like Kara personally. She is a first-rate youth minister, educator and human.

      You have implied a really good point: There is data to be gathered that has not been yet. I am hoping to do just that in a project.

      The critique on modern youth ministry is from data that is clear and from scriptural, historic and logical principles that we disengaged ourselves from for easy results. We would all agree that the data on drop off and drop out is clear. The “why?” is the part that needs more research.

      Any thoughts?

  28. I love all the conversation about our youth and young adults. Additionally, like so many I have been praying for a long time how to engage both the tried and true adults of our body of Christ with the young in the body of Christ. One of the most exciting things I am seeing while somewhat uncomfortable for the tried and true is the interactive parts of worship. Times when we are challenged to talk with each other about matters of faith, discipleship and our spiritual journey. Celebrating what God has done, is doing and will do.

    I am thankful to many of the wonderful ideas from David Lose and other colleagues on this journey into a more transforming style of worship where all are invited into Salvation History and sent to invite others.

    • Hi Christi,
      Thank you for commenting. I am familiar with David Lose’s name from a website that I have great appreciation for: working preacher. What is his work on “interactive worship” of which you speak? How are you using it in your worship-community context?

      • Hello again Matt:

        At the very website Working Preacher there is a tab “Craft of Preaching”. Usually once a week David remarks theologically on the text coming for the new week. It is there I have found several opportunities to not only challenge the congregation but myself. Some of the things I have experimented either following the exact challenge from David or building on it based upon the community I currently serve.

        One week in the middle of the sermon I had the congregation pair up with someone either older or younger than they are. They also could not be related to that family member. This meant getting up and moving around the sanctuary during a worship (Heaven forbid in a Lutheran Congregation) LOL Once they were paired they were asked to share about a specific prayer concern they had and then actually pray for that person need.

        One week during Advent the congregation was given a plain piece of paper. During the sermon time, they were asked to make a list of all the things they needed to complete prior to Christmas Day in order for it to be the best Christmas ever. Then on the back side of the list they were encouraged to daydream about what they hope Christmas will be like? What kind of day they wanted to have. List their hope and dreams for the world. The final step was to return to the other side and circle the items that would contribute to their hopes and dreams for a blessed Christmas. David Lose tied it together with the theme of re-orientation – bearing the fruits of repentance.

        For the High Festival of Jesus Baptism, David suggested lifting up Baptism as the day to celebrate more than our own birth dates. He suggested giving everyone a candle and asking them to light it in remembrance of their Baptismal birth date. From David’s inspiration and God’s, this it what transpired during service. Instead of the usual Affirmation of Baptism at either the beginning of the service or immediately after the sermon. I was inspired by God to turn the service upside down. We began with announcements, Call to Worship, Gathering Hymn and then went directly into the Gospel Lesson. The sermon was given with a focus on Baptism and God’s word as being enough because that’s where our identity comes. Then after the sermon, the congregation(including all children) was invited forward to gather around the Baptismal Font. At the font they were given candle holders (like on Christmas Eve) with new candles and a copy of the Affirmation of Baptism service. The Affirmation was said by all, then the candles were lit. They were invited to remember their Baptism but also to celebrate Christ’s Baptism. We sang Happy Birthday to Jesus, blew out the candles. They were encouraged to take the candles home to light frequently in remembrance of their Baptism and then as they were returning to their seats, with a Boxwood branch, the members were sprinkled with the Baptismal waters from the font. The service then continued with the other lessons, prayers and offering. At the offering they were reminded that God gives them everything they need but wants every good thing for them, so after the offering plate had been passed, each person in the congregation received a card, business sized from God to say everyday, “I am God’s child, deserving of Love and Respect. God will use me and is using me to change the world.” The Holy Meal was shared and then all were sent to love and serve the Lord. It was probably one of the longest services any one of our Lutherans had experienced, but from the comments I have received it didn’t seem long and it was meaningful.

        One other thing I try to do as an inspiration from God is whenever possible I have all of the children in the church assist me with specific parts of the worship. I.E. – Shoebox ministry – during the children’s message we spoke of ministry but then all of the children laid their hands on the boxes and repeat prayed a prayer God gave me over the boxes. The congregation always is invited to pray along with the children.
        or
        Noisy offerings for the Kangeroo Kids Backpack ministry. The children collect the offering in metal pails (like the old lunch pails) and then they bring it as an offering before the Altar and again we pray a repeat prayer.

        While none of this is perfect, it is interesting. I have four young men in a three year Confirmation program. They have been given a rigid program of things they must do in Confirmation but it is also understood that as their pastor, I am willing to entertain any question, to pray for them and walk with them throughout this important part of their Christian Education. I don’t believe I have ever had so much fun as I am having with these young men.

        Additionally, the Young Adults are bringing to my conversation many things they would like to see in worship as a part of the body of Christ and I am encouraged.

        We do live in a time of Great Emergence as Phyllis Tickle would say but it is exciting. I am blessed that God has called me to some interesting ministries. One of which includes praying on FB with real prayers when someone asks for prayer and another that God has challenged me to do by putting a daily devotion on FB. I am no writer or great Theologian but each day God gives me something to say and there are some who say they are benefiting from it. What can I say, but Thanks Be to God!

        Sorry for the length of this post, but as you may be able to tell, the Holy Spirit of God is moving and I am so thankful to be a part of it. If you would like more information, let me know and I’ll try to supply accordingly. These experiences in my life are nothing less than a miracles.

        Peace be with you and all pastors who seek to accomplish God’s work with their hands, feet and voices. God bless you!

        • Hi Christi,
          It sounds as if God is moving in powerful and gracious ways in your life and in your parish.

          I will go to the “Craft of preaching” tab and check it out. Lots of good ideas out there between you and David.

          Blessings to you, Christi, and thank you for sharing all of the creativity going on in your parish. Give us the name and town, then if any readers are close they might come worship with you.

  29. Pingback: The Mainline and Another M-Word | There's So Much Left To Know

  30. Very deep and thoughtful perspective. While I do agree that this fault within the body fits students transitioning within the walls the church, there is another unique dynamic of post moderns who have absolutely no connection to the church outside of say a youth ministry or small group. As a youth pastor, I have personally experienced hundreds of teens who’s only real connection to the gospel message was through the youth ministry, and while efforts are maintained to acclimate and assimilate these students to the greater body many feats are encountered 1. Many of their parents are not Christians so they don’t want them there on Sundays and don’t take youth groups seriously 2. Many of the students have limited transportation to say a Sunday service, and I’m sorry this is not the age where students just travel anywhere 3. The church at large does not make enough of an effort to maintain the purity of the message while shifting the uniqness of the methodology and approach. Some ways I’m trying to get these particular students assimilated is 1. building the bridge of relationship between the senior pastor 2. Inviting them out to church functions and events 3. Church small groups and courses 4. Also participation in the greater aspects of the body (worship, technology, etc). The church cannot maintain a standard of who gets to assimilate and offer their talents and who cannot based on who your parents are and are not in the church. We must grab them now, raise them, and empower them as they rise up

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