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Last week’s “The church doesn’t exist to feed you” post pushed lots of people’s buttons…mainly because I put myself in the awkward position appearing to argue against the Bible. Let me morph the analogy a bit…
For most of my Christian life I disliked church. REALLY disliked it.
Not bored, as in “I would rather watch my team play.” Not, “Oops I forgot to set my alarm.” But a tension in the neck that ruins Saturday date night when I realize that in the morning my wife expects me to get up and go to church sort of a dislike.
It wasn’t a God problem. At 18 I fell in love with Jesus. Soon after I developed a crush on the Bible. I love serving others. Most weeks I would rather do ministry than go on vacation. But church? Not so much.
I found church relentlessly reductionistic: four songs, sermon, pass the hat, then off to lunch. The best part of that liturgy was the lunch. I had an undergrad degree in the Bible and a pile of master’s credit in theology. Give me the text and I could give you the conclusion to nine out of ten sermons. I was more than bored. I was convinced Sunday worship was utterly irrelevant.
Can you relate just a little? Have you ever sat in church and wondered, “What is this getting me, besides 10% poorer?”
Part of the problem was my mental image of the church: I saw it as a restaurant designed to feed me.
Think about what happens at a restaurant:
-You choose one you like
-You drive to it
-Someone seats you
-You order what you are in the mood for
-Then you eat the meal and sit in judgment on it: “I like this”, “I don’t like that.”
A restaurant is a narcissistic, preference-driven experience. Which is fine for a restaurant, but it is a certain kind of soul death when I view the church that way.
My wife and I once went to Pappadeux’s on “all you can eat lobster night.” We watched people with butter dripping down their forearms and chins, eating three and four enormous lobsters in a single sitting. It was as revolting as it sounds. You can imagine the girth of people who consume 5000 calories before dessert. When we use the church as a restaurant, and sit back waiting for someone to serve us we will either go home hungry or huge.
But what if we changed our perspective? What if we saw the church less like a restaurant and more like culinary school.
While a restaurant is a place of preference that exists to meet MY desires. Culinary school is a place of perseverance where one comes to be equipped to feed OTHERS. Culinary school is something you invest your time, talent and treasure in because you have a sense of calling.
In Ephesians four, Paul describes us as “baptized into one body,” “living lives worthy of our calling,” “in the unity of the Spirit” and THEN Paul portrays God as giving gifts “to equip the saints” to change the world …in the case of culinary school, through tasty, nourishing, healthy, well-prepared, well-presented food.
The Church does not exist to feed us. It exists to equip us.
The “church,” “ecclesia” in Greek, literally “the called out ones” have been “called out” specifically to be equipped through Word, Sacrament and discipline to return to the world and call others to the banquet table of God’s great love feast.
Think about the joy that happens over a table in a great little neighborhood bistro: Joy is made possible in culinary school. Culinary school is the place where:
-You sell your stuff, pay big tuition dollars, and move into a bad apartment, all because you are committed to a goal
-You get a set of tools – really good ones!
-You learn a new set of skills
-You are in a community of people with a vision
-It is also a place where there is tremendous conflict as you learn your craft…but a place with support and encouragement and accountability also
-They set you in front of a dangerous stove and let you play with the nobs, and try mixing stuff up and seeing how it tastes and hope you don’t blow the place up while you learn
All so your class can go out into the world with a vision for places where people will be fed and cared for and real community built.
That, friends, I would suggest to you, is what the church is supposed to be:
-Those “called out”
-Equipped with tools and knowledge
-Allowed to practice
-Giving grace to one-another, with support and encouragement provided
-A community where conflict is expected and forgiveness extended
-A community where we are playing with dangerous tools: the Keys to the Kingdom of God
-A community with a mission to change the world.
That is why the church asks people to spend valuable time seeking God, give 10% of their money, and serve others…because Jesus and his kingdom is just so important. We are all busy. But we find time to do what we want to do. What if we fell so in love with Jesus and his call on our lives that we make HIM our priority, and the culinary school that is the Church the place where we are equipped?
In the Christian life one is only truly blessed when they are in the community of faith, giving themselves to that community and giving themselves and the Gospel message away to create a different world.
What about you?
-Have you met the Master Chef, Jesus the Messiah? Have you given your life to him by faith? Have you been baptized as the public entrance into that faith?
What is your view of the Church? Have you been showing up, as at a restaurant, to be fed? Or are you coming to be equipped and move out to change God’s world?
The world awaits. It awaits the flavor and seasoning and the freshness that can only come when we step into God’s mission. It awaits the beauty and warm relationships that happen when we do our parts and dish up a big steaming bowl of the goodness of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
There is the aroma of Christ on those who serve (2 Cor. 2:15). There is the taste of the goodness of our God. There is a beauty for the eye to behold when the presentation is with grace.
Like a restaurant that hasn’t opened, the neighborhood might not know the wonderful things in store for them until they begin to smell the aroma of Christ in your kitchen and you begin to serve God’s recipes at the banquet table of the Kingdom. Are you waiting to be fed or being equipped to taking your gifts into the world? A hungry world awaits its Savior.
(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. 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
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.” 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.” 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
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. 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 preferences…like the local Starbucks.
An Assembly Line That Builds Self-focussed Christians
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. 
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.
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.
Or: Some churches I like and why megachurch pastors should be reading the cultural tea-leaves.
Even friends are beginning to ask, “Why are you so anti-mega church?” I would like to say once and for all that I am NOT against churches being large. I hope every church preaching Jesus grows. I want the Kingdom of God to be extended. I believe the local church in mission to the world is the biblical, historical, and reasonable way for that to happen.
I am also not against large church pastors. Some of my best friends are large church pastors (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). But, honestly, I don’t know a single large church pastor who does not love God and want others to know Christ. I am certain there are pastors who are shysters-there are shysters in every profession. I just don’t know of any of those, and I know a pile of pastors.
So what am I doing critiquing the dominant model of church on the American landscape? Merely raising questions about uncritically held assumptions. Why? Because EVERY good thing has a downside. Unanticipated consequences exist for every “win.” God can and does bring good out of bad…but correspondingly, every good thing has bad that can come from it. I am simply looking at our current popular ministry practices and asking, “Does anyone see the backside of this coin?” Is anyone asking, “Where will we end up if we keep driving down this road?” I have been quite surprised at the defensiveness this has caused. A defensiveness, not of core issues of the faith, but of a vision of the church less than 40 years old.
Be that as it may, I do believe big can be beautiful. I would like to list a few large churches that I really like. This is not an exhaustive list of “good” churches but a brief sample of some doing things well…
Redemption Church, Phoenix: (6000ish) They are multi-site, but each site has its own teaching pastor. They develop lots of mission-thinking preachers and leaders. Each pastor teaches the Bible in 45 minute sermons, and are packed with youth and young adults seeking “meat.”
Scottsdale Bible Church, Scottsdale: (7000ish) They planted churches and then began to do multi-site video-venues. I don’t like that part. However, they have trained and developed leaders for their own and many other churches, and they have actively given their people and money away to scads of other churches.
Mission Community Church, Gilbert: A large, fast-growing suburban church that reinvented itself as the Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” church. They have an army of suburbanites thinking about giving time, talent and treasure to create good in the world.
New City Church, Phoenix: (600) Discovering liturgy, developing young adults, trying to take people deeper. This fast growing church is riding the wave of young adults moving to downtown Phoenix.
Church of the Resurrection, Chicago: (1300ish) They have tripled in the last five years, almost all with college and young adults. Liturgy, charismatic gifts, an army of rotating musical genres, robust Christian education from Wheaton College professors, and a youngish senior pastor who might be the oldest guy in the building.
Church of the Incarnation, Dallas: (1500ish) A fast growing traditional church in the central city. Lots of different musical genres, solid liturgy, strong teaching. Decided they needed to raise double-digit millions to expand. Raised almost twice that much.
Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan’s Island: (1000ish) Great youth ministry led to great men’s ministry. A church specializing in venues of 300 or smaller for services to become the church where “everybody knows your name.” An interesting vision in a small beach town.
St. Barnabas on the Desert, Scottsdale: (700) Not a large church, but my money is on them becoming one. They have several hundred folks involved in contemplative practice, preach from a humbling level of prayerfulness (the senior pastor prays like 25 hrs a week), a group of retirees will serve anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they have a creative young staff.
There are a lot of churches that love people, have committed volunteers and want to share the Good News of Jesus. What do the churches on this list have in common?
1) They teach the Bible 2) They value young people 3) They foster relationships 4) They have a desire to take people deeper in Christ and do that by helping them engage in Christian practices and serve rather than just learning dogma 5) and more and more, they are exploring the totality of Christian history as part of those practices.
So, there are big churches that I really like. And, yeah, in light of a growing mountain of data, I do have serious questions about the way popular Christianity is doing Church and whether it has staying power. Again, I am not criticizing motives but rather methods. I am leery of the way the Church has hitched its wagon to the culture of preference. When the culture changes, and it is changing rapidly, what will a church built on being “relevant” and “just like” the culture do? Will it give up beliefs and sit with empty buildings? Or will it change its theology to remain “relevant”? For centuries large swaths of the church embraced slavery to keep the seats filled. What will this generation’s slavery be? What will pastors be willing to preach or willing to stop preaching to keep the lights on?
Pastors can defensively criticize the messengers or look at the data and try to be in front of the trends when they arrive. The failure to anticipate change in a big-box facility has catastrophic potential. If current directions continue, the donut hole of young adults will become entire missing generations.
The original mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold in bankruptcy to a new Roman Catholic diocese in 2012. The Crystal Cathedral will not be an isolated instance. That is not “hating.” It is sounding a warning before our suburban churches, built as surrogate main streets for housing tracts without town-centers, become ghost towns. Big can be beautiful. It can also be sold at auction to the highest bidder when the culture takes a left-turn evangelicalism missed.
 Including: Luis Lugo’s, “The Decline of Institutional Religion”(goo.gl/DiR6A), which describes 2008’s Pew Forum report that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009 (goo.gl/s1vnv). Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s (Time, 2009, Lifeway, 2010). Last year the Pew Forum confirmed the data in a follow-up carried in USA Today (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-4u). As did this year’s “Hemorrhaging the Faith” study from Canada.
My blog post of three days ago “When did evangelicals get popes” (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-kb) has generated more hits in less time than any post I have put up before now. Apparently, however, I don’t exactly have my facts straight…
Someone in North Point’s media team is demanding a retraction for three things: 1) They do not have a holographic Andy. 2) They do not have security for holographic Andy and 3) They actually do develop lots of preachers, as Andy isn’t the only one preaching. I do want to be fair, so let me retract each of these inaccuracies with the care I was accused of not giving:
1) No hologram: I was told by a seminary professor who sat in the front row at the North Point main campus one Sunday that the video at North Point has Andy in “a holograph so lifelike that they have security to keep people from going on stage to play with it…it took a million dollar investment from a former CNN employee.” This was also described as “holographic” on multiple media outlets (Slate, CNN, MSN). Apparently Andy is actually broadcast on a very high definition giant screen in 2D. According to North Point’s media corporation website, “It …portrays the communicator in life like proportion – literally walking back and forth about 6′ tall.” This was mistaken by my acquaintance, CNN, Slate and MSN as “holographic 3D,” …but is in no way like what they did with Tupac at Coachella, which has been described as “lifelike” and “literally walking back and forth.” Henceforth I shall refer to this technology as “lifelike, super-high def Andy.” It is interesting that this person made no mention of my million-dollar figure.
2) No security. The person demanding the retraction did confirm the North Point does have “ushers” that protect the front of the stage and prevent people from going on stage with the non-holographic but utterly lifelike, super-high def Andy. But NO security.
3) North Point actually does develop preaching leaders. Since real Andy is not the only one on the preaching rota, they are not failing in my actual argument – that video-venue is idolatrously man-centric, GMO crop-like dangerous in its lack of diversity, and fails to develop other preaching voices, making it a long-range train wreck for the Church. According to North Point’s Wikipedia article there are 41 churches and “strategic partners” in the US and abroad. From a survey of 9 of those “partners” websites, part of being a partner is video-Andy. So we have 41 facilities with “site pastors” all watching Andy (or the other select few on the rota) preach. However, I am assured, this IS developing preaching voices just as if each of those 41 churches had 41 preachers preaching their own messages each week. Yeah, that math makes sense to me.
North Point’s strength has been its ability to poke fun at itself (“Sunday Morning” parody & the ipod band). I was thinking that NP would be the video-venue church that with the ability to be self-reflective. Perhaps my critique hit a bit too close to home. At least North Point is reading stuff other than their own. I have suspicions the others I named don’t read anything not written by themselves. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we aren’t just watching Big Brother? Perhaps Big Brother is watching us too?
Whether or not andy is in 3D or 2, I still maintain that the video-venue church is like the really pretty girl with tons of issues. You know you shouldn’t date her, you know it won’t end well, but you can’t help yourself, she is just so darn attractive you can’t say no.
The big trend in American evangelicalism: the multi-site video-venue church. It promises to leverage the teaching acumen (not to mention star power) of big name preachers to extend the Kingdom of God.
Has anyone stopped and asked, “What in God’s name are we doing?”
Think about it – we started the Reformation over one man having too much authority in the Church, yet today hundreds of thousands meet in “multi-site” video venues watching preachers like Mark Driscoll or Craig Groeschel or Perry Noble in a box. The new gold standard of this movement is 3D holographic Andy Stanley, complete with security to keep people from going up on stage to play with it…or him.
Think about it while detaching yourself from your favorite multi-site, mega big-box preacher: Isn’t hitching ourselves so fully to one man’s teaching just a little odd? Doesn’t it smack, just a tad, of man-following? Even idolatry?
And, if “it isn’t about me,” as one multi-site preacher is fond of saying, then why not take your nine sites and train up eight new young preachers? Wouldn’t that be a healthier model? What happens to the church if the guy it “isn’t about” gets hit by a bus?
I am not saying that these preachers are not really, really great communicators. I am not saying that they wouldn’t be great guys to get a beer with and talk football or soteriology. But what does it say about us that we spend a million dollars to make Andy Stanley into the Sunday morning version of Tupac at Coachella?
How is this not worse than what we condemn our Roman Catholic brothers for? I don’t know a single Catholic that would be ok with the Pope being piped in for the sermon every Sunday. They laugh at the idea. I know. I asked.
How is the evangelical world embracing 7-10 brand-name preachers across the country not the ecclesiological version of GMO crops? And how are these men not evangelical popes?
Some will say, “Yeah but Mark Driscoll and Perry Noble don’t speak ex cathedra.” Really? I have heard their devotees quote them as if they do. We aren’t just, to quote mega-pastor Steve Furtick, “making Jesus famous.”
To be clear, I am not attacking large churches, or video screens. I am attacking a model of leadership. The multi-site, big personality church trades the Ephesians 4 model of equipping others and giving leadership away for a model that makes “the man” a black hole of money and energy.
Evangelicalism’s strength has always been its willingness to engage the culture to make an impact on lives. The backside of that coin can be an amazing short-sightedness. Is no one asking what the unintended consequences of our new evangelical popes might be?
So before we cast stones at our Catholic friends for man-following, perhaps we should remove the video screen from our own eye.
This is the first in a series I am calling “You Don’t Seriously Think…” about ecclesiology – how we should do church. Feel free to join the conversation. You can agree, disagree or file ideas away for future cud-chewing, which is actually a great thing to do. You do not need to agree with me, indeed, that is how “iron sharpens iron.”
Someone wrote today with a comment expressing an idea that at least a hundred people have made on thegospelside blog. Here it is…
“It doesn’t matter how the message of Christ is brought, as long as it is being spread, all glory goes to Him. God works in more ways the one, think about it, each person is different and responds differently to situations. Therefore if church is done in just one way, not everyone will respond the same way. I say do church the way God wants you to, weather (sic) that means with hymns or what looks similar to a night club. That’s the beauty of church, finding what moves on your heart and where God wants you to be.”
Thank you for commenting. You articulated the sincere, well-meaning belief of most of evangelicals I know. A belief that I once held. It is based in a positive movement toward unity in Christ. So it is sincere, but there is a back side to that coin that makes it one that I don’t think we want to carry. So let me push back a bit…
I am actually saying that how we bring a message does matter. How leaders lead matters. That if this is really about souls, it really matters. This isn’t about style at all, actually. Style is merely what you point to, like symptoms of a disease.
The message matters too.
So a mainline church that has buried the Gospel and preaches pablum matters.
A megachurch that hides the Gospel under moralism matters.
People going home without actually participating in the worship of the living God matters, regardless if that happened in a “relevant” church or an irrelevant one.
Faith as being an hour we attend and a small group rather than a complete conversion of our beings really, really matters.
I don’t just know this from Scripture and the 20 centuries of the faith, I know it from the hundreds of comments on this site about how wounded, abandoned, and left flat people have been from well-meaning Christians and the church. For a year, hundreds of people have gone to a non-media distributed blog someone linked them to on Facebook, logged on and poured out their pain. Gee whiz, it isn’t even what the post was about! These are people who should be surrounded by a community of joy and hope and love in Jesus…umbilically tied to a group that comes together to surrender their lives to the Living God, finding power as they are changed. There are communities that ARE like that, to be sure. But too many of us are buying the book and copying what church X did in Little Rock or LA or wherever instead of loving people and going to them.
The attractional model is about “coming” as a passive response. The missional model is about “going” as an active, Matthew 28 Great Commission response. That is a core difference. One that matters.
So the Church, as the body of Christ matters. And that means how we do it matters too. Because God matters and so do his peeps, both those in and outside of the church.
And, it should be said, this is not about 4 songs and a sermon vs the liturgy. “Come here our organ and choir and see our stained glass” is not any different from “Come hear our cool band and see our cool light show.”
So lets talk about how to love God and be the Church in a way that harms less people. This is not about the “packaging” a message. It could be about repurposing the Sunday gathering in order to honor God, be more biblical, uses the gifts of all Christians and reach a lost and hurting world, many of whom’s pain was caused by us!
Years ago a friend of mine went into a bar. He was a young hotshot stockbroker coming from work in an expensive tie and tailored shirt. He was trying to buy a drink for an attractive young lady when an even more confident guy walked up on the other side of the girl, reached in front of her, grabbed my friend’s tie, looked him in the eye and said, “Buddy, your tie is ugly and I’m going to take your girl.” He asked the girl for her drink order and left with her. All my flummoxed friend could muster was a tepid, “O, yeah…” He told me later, “The next day I had a whole list of things I wished I’d said. This is my “next day” regarding my “Cool Church” post…
1. The post sub-title “killing Christianity.” Obviously I did not mean that literally. Christianity won’t be “killed” by weak ecclesiology, segregating students, reductionist theology, moralistic teaching and the new cultural shifts which are rendering “relevant” irrelevant in many places already. But there will be an enormous demographic hole in the church if young adults continue to fail to connect at the rates that they are.
2. Citing statistics: I didn’t. The “Cool Church” post was a summary of a talk I did for an Urban Youth Worker’s Institute Reload Day in 2010. In that address I cited sources of those and many other statistics. They ended up on the cutting room floor in the blog. (I can provide those to anyone who would like them.) I was a brand new blogger and a friend said, “you get 500 words and they tune out.” I was at 1500. If I would have known the traffic the post would generate, I’d have kept those 100 words.
3. The original talk: The most interesting thing with the UYWI address was the audience reaction. I was the morning keynote. In 30 years of ministry I have never seen a keynote that high-jacked a day the way that one did. Those who were over 30 were visibly angry-scowling even as I critiqued their sacred cows-things that were instrumental in the development of their faith…but were beginning not to work as well any more. The under 30 were as enthusiastic as the older group were angry. They were shouting “AMEN!” “Preach, bro.” “Tell it like it is.” (It is really much so much fun to speak to an Urban audience!) After the keynote I was mobbed by the young who assembled at the front and said, “Thank you for giving voice to what we feel!” Afterwards, the over 30 (the seminar leaders) used their teaching time the rest of the morning, not to present on their topic but to disagree with my keynote. Why this reaction? I think it has something to do with the noise of our culture and young adults wanting to be part of something larger than themselves…including have the church help provide space for silence in the noise. There is a reason that I suspect may be at work here, at least in part, I blogged about it once :http://thegospelside.com/2012/10/11/why-the-big-box-church-works-for-the-over-35-but-not-the-under-25/
So the pushback of the elders, some of whom were literally the architects of “relevant,” was profound. But not nearly so much as the thanks from the young people. Point: Since the culture is ever changing, today’s relevant is tomorrow’s irrelevant. The old ways (of the last 20 years) will simply not work as well in this new cultural context of discontinuous change that we are experiencing. This generation literally has the information of an entire planet at the tips of their fingers.
4. Hater: I should say that I am not against churches being big and I want churches to grow. Not every large church segregates and panders to fill seats. But a lot do. The operative principle of relevance as a model is attraction. This is a matter of movement: Is the direction of engagement “come” or “lets us go”? At its core, “attractional” is the idea that the sanctuary is the locus of evangelism. “Missional” is the idea that the locus for evangelism is the world. Leading from that, in a missional church, the individual believer is the instrument of evangelism in the world vs primarily functioning as an inviter for the real evangelist-the senior pastor. If the time and energy are focused around the facility and the personality of the pastor, then it is attractional and must play the game of being “relevant.” Attendance numbers do not determine the ministry model being embraced. In our context there are a number of really great churches that are large (over 5000 in Sunday Attendance) and NOT relevant by model. Three because they teach the Bible strenuously, the fourth because they serve others. Both of those are good things.
5. We become what we count: What I am opposed to is relevant as a model of church and the idea that big equals effective. That is certainly an assumption in many big-box churches. I am not saying big equals ineffective. Just that it doesn’t necessarily mean effective…unless our definition of “effective” is “big.” The question is “what will you count?” If our metric is bottoms in pews then we will do anything to be full. The church might want to consider metrics that help us measure “disciple-making disciples” for instance. It would be a slower metric, but with a great long-range payout for the church. And it is a biblical metric.
6. A word for those of us who are older: I would also like to offer an idea for those of us over 30 to look for as we read what millennials are saying (and what is implied) in the plethora of articles out there right now: The opposite of relevant as a movement isn’t “irrelevant.” It is “transcendent.” Relevant means to “be like something else.” Rather than “be like something else,” what I hear millennials asking the church for something is wholly unlike them. Something that has reverence and awe and a sense of the holy. Cultural contextualization isn’t the problem. It might have LeCrae perform at it, but it must be something that also has room for silence and ancient words and actions. Not worship done rote and without excellence, but something that is done artfully with acknowledgement that we are called into something more ancient and rooted than we are in this rootless place of our culture at this time.
7. Not really. I don’t believe that most millennials actually want the church to contort its beliefs and practices to suit their whims. Some will say they do. My children also say they want us to break the rules for them. But they feel more secure when we don’t. We are all like that. It is human nature. The church should be like marriage vows: A marriage that is based on vows we make up is a bit weak. We take the vows that have worked for 2000 years and conform our relationship to something greater than ourselves, that has withstood the test of time. Several recent posts by millennials has said exactly that: First Andrea Dilley, in Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Then Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing simplistic answers and desiring greater social engagement. Then Brett McCracken wrote http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/07/31/how-to-keep-millennials-in-the-church-lets-keep-church-un-cool/ saying, in effect, conforming ourselves to some focus group opinion of what people want is as desperate as it looks.
My friend was left standing at the bar, trying to formulate a response as the girl walked away. He so wanted to be “the guy.” He wasn’t. He stood there insecurely wondering if he should ditch the tie and thinking about what he could have said to keep her. The church will never be “the guy” with whom the millennials go home until we get over with our consuming need to be “relevant.” We don’t need to ditch the tie!
In “Cool Church” I said, “What if instead of giving them what they want, we give them what they need.” The irony is that “relevant” isn’t actually what millennials are saying they want. It is the cool thing we think they think is cool. And that is so very uncool.
Along with the hand wringing over the now undeniable Millennial Bailout on the church comes a sense of desperation among ministry types. Over the last four years the tenor has gone from denial “We have lots of young adults“, to fear. The question one hears over and over is “How do we get them back?”
Perhaps a better place to start the conversation would be to ask, “How have Christians faired in similar circumstances?” Because we have actually been here before: A world that thinks Christians are narrow and bigoted. A world that thinks Christians are superstitious weirdos. A world that thinks we are out of touch with our prudish sexual ethics. That was actually the Roman world the early church was birthed in. Isn’t it odd that in 3 centuries that same empire made Christianity the state religion? (Although I am fairly certain the negatives outweighed the positives on that one.)
So a better question for me is: “How did 11 scared dude’s take over the Roman world?” The answer, when reading the early Fathers, seems to have had three touch points: 1) A multi-ethnic, multi-social class body and leadership team (Acts 11-13 was the origin), 2) Serving the least, last and lost in Jesus’ name and making sure they told everyone in whose name they were serving, and 3) worshipping in a seeker-insensitive manner that gave deep formation to those who had met Christ in the streets.
What have we done? 1) Diversity? According to Mark DeYmaz, 92% of American Christians worship in a mono-ethnic setting and the average church is 10x more segregated than the neighborhood it sits in. 2) Serving? Whereas in the early church Christians were notoriously sacrificial, most of us tithe of neither our time nor our money. 3) Deeply Formative worship? In the early church non-believers were kicked out before communion (the Orthodox still have a vestige of this when they chant “the doors, the doors” in their service for the closing out of the unbaptized). We turned our sanctuaries into revival tents for the lost. Now we no longer have a sanctuary for Word and Sacrament. We no longer have a place in which we immerse God’s people in God’s story, a locale for the forming of the faithful in the Scriptures and experiencing the power of Sacrament. Those are lost in the “seeker” model…and, as a result, passionate but immature Christians wonder why our churches can elicit emotional response but not sanctified living. Is it any wonder young adults want out!
In February a blog I read, Marc5solas, posted “Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.” It has half a million hits. Since it addresses themes discussed on this blog, people are asking what I think of it. Answer: He hit the ball out of the park. Marc probably stretched a few points to add up to ten, but that post was a home run. Why?
While the Evangelical church “wins” kids with “wow” (lights, bands, fog) and community, the Mainline is winning them with social justice and community. These are two sides of the same coin:
- Neither Evangelicalism nor the Mainline give students an articulatable ground for faith other than “God is for me.”
- Both Evangelicalism and the Mainline pander to the “me, me, me” of the age. We even do it with the most other’s-centered thing we do: service projects. Listen to people gush about serving, “I felt soooo good giving that guy a sandwich!” We neither do nor teach about alleviating the conditions that lead to suffering or “teach a man to fish”- because it isn’t about the people, it is about us and our feelings. Which leaves us with…
- Faith as a feeling.
- We reinforce this self-centeredness by segregating students away in youth rooms to entertain them, sending the message that they are a market to be pandered to. (See “Mormon Bishop to the Megachurch“)
- We give students a list of behaviors to follow for God (which are inevitably external and political).
Moralism and social justice without Salvation by grace are nice results with neither the motive behind nor the power therein. Feelings without a grounding in the nature of God or the costly gift of grace is empty emotionalism. The gospel isn’t “you can do it.” It is “You can’t do it. Jesus did. Surrender your life in gratitude to the only higher love worth reorienting your life around.”
There is one more reason kids are leaving the church that plagues the mainline: While the Evangelical church is investing untold millions in the wrong things, at least they are investing in their young. We can’t muster the energy or money to send the message that we care. The years from birth-to-20 are more than 25% of the average life expectancy. Ask yourself what your church’s total budget for people from birth-to-20 is. Is it 25%? I’ll bet it isn’t close. I know of a church whose choir discretionary budget is 100x the youth discretionary budget. Yes, 100 times! I know of a church in which the music minister makes more than the two paid staff for youth and children make. No wait, the music minister’s assistant makes more than the two full-time staff for youth and children make-and one of the staff members is ordained. If you are in the Mainline chances are good your church spends more money on custodial than children. We spend more on our trash than our kids and then wonder why families went somewhere else?
Why are we losing youth? Wrong message. Wrong methods. Wrong investment.
As my dentist says, “Ignore your teeth and they’ll go away.”