How do millennials experience your church?

I asked Christopher to guest post after his comments on my “Kinnaman” post were so eerily similar to statements made by millennials in a recent Q & A hosted by one of the nations most effective ministries to millennials led by millennials, PhoenixOne.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church: A suggestion.

By Christopher Jones

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I graduated college two and a half years ago. Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t stopped attending church. I have, however, stopped being part of the church.

According to most metrics, I haven’t “left.” I still show up on Sundays. But wherever I go, I find myself almost completely ignored.

Our problem: Most American churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you.

In the modern American church, if you’re not married, you’re not an adult. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons.

It takes a lot longer to build a stable career today than it took our parents’ generation. My parents had me when they were 25. I’ll be 25 in four months. By that time, I will have been enrolled in higher education for nearly twice as long as my parents. I’m unmarried, have never been in a serious relationship, have hardly any money, and have moved regularly to pursue my education. Its next to impossible to work towards marriage in such a situation. My situation is hardly unique.

Inter-generational economic differences are another huge rift in the church that no one is talking about. At one church I mentioned to a middle-aged woman that I was likely spending the next year unemployed. She burst out laughing. For some reason the pressure and debt our generation faces to develop future competitiveness in the emerging job market was humorous.

From the minute we step inside the doors on Sunday, post-college millennials face a wall of negative judgments and assumptions. 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.” The assumption is that we are lazy and think that we are entitled. A better explanation is that those jobs simply don’t exist anymore. Married people, in both overt and covert ways send us the message that the purpose of Christian singleness is marriage (never mind that Paul said the exact opposite in 1 Corinthians 7, but I digress).

Our generation graduated into a world of part-time jobs, unpaid internships, and student loan debt. A world in which shrinking paychecks meet inflated living costs. Yet from the pulpit we still hear sermons attuned to yesterday’s economic concerns. Sermons about not working too hard and not making your career into an idol ring hollow when you’re working late hours struggling to make next month’s rent.

Whatever the cause is, it is certainly not that the church is too conservative. If liberal politics were why we left the church, then we’d be flocking to churches with liberal politics. Yet mainline Protestant churches have declined much more sharply over the past ten years than conservative ones.

No, we millennials often embrace liberal politics as a substitute to fill some of the void that the absence of religion leaves in a person’s soul. Liberal politics provides a supportive community working towards a common goal and offers a promise of an ultimate end state of justice and equality. It’s a substitute for religion, not a cause for rejecting it.

A person can personally believe in salvation through Jesus Christ without going to church. A person can feed the poor and care for the sick without belonging to a congregation. What they cannot do alone is become part of a fellowship of believers. And if our generation doesn’t find that fellowship at church, we’ll stop going.

In short, we millennials just want to be treated like adults. We don’t want to be catered to. We don’t want to be entertained. We certainly don’t want to be eyed suspiciously as some sort of dangerous element by people more interested in passing judgment than trying to understand what life is really like in your twenties in modern America. We want to be included. It’s not that hard. We’re human beings like the rest of you, and we’d like to be treated as such.

*Christopher Jones is an aspiring historian of the ancient Near East currently working towards completing his Master’s Degree in Biblical Archaeology at Wheaton College. He blogs about the ancient Near East at http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/.

I Double-Dog Dare You: The playground predicted TEC/South Carolina problems.

How does a group with so much in common: worships the same God, reads the same Bible, and orders its worship from the same Book of Common Prayer…how does that group end up in such an intractable conflict? Why did South Carolina have such a strong need to put “reactive” measures into place? Why has the national Episcopal Church been unable to tolerate their self-differentiation? The playground offers insight on why the relationship between South Carolina and the Episcopal Church soured…

If you follow the Episcopal blogosphere you have watched us catalogue South Carolina’s offenses and pile-on the snarky follow-up commentary. Harnessed to this finger pointing is a good deal of labeling – on both sides. We lampoon the “good ol’ boy network” in South Carolina…although we know they have women in leadership. In return, I have heard it said in South Carolina that, although men work in our Church Center, the Presiding Bishop, the President of the HOD, and 75% of our Church Center employees are women. But rather than engage in tit-for-tat, what if, for a moment, we give one another the benefit of the doubt and take the mutual critique at face value: Could different ways of relating with one another based in gender be a contributing factor to the current situation?

We know from experience that, when under pressure, humans tend to make reactive decisions and default to old behavior patterns. Institutionally, we are at such a point right now. But what if we rewind to an earlier time-a less polarized time…a time in which we may have learned the behavior patterns we use today? Lets, for a few moments, roll back the clock to elementary school and imagine we are in 5th grade and the bell has just rung for recess…

If you are a boy, you are running to the ballfield, heart filled with hope that you might play well in the game about to form. This is your ticket to social success. Distracting you from your quest is the ubiquitous bully all boys must watch over their shoulder for: A larger, older, kid who will eat your lunch, steal your cap, and find any excuse to harass you. What are your options? Avoidance is usually a bad strategy since a bully’s most highly developed sense is the ability to smell fear from across a schoolyard. The only real option is to act big, puff up your muscles and strut a little – out-rooster the rooster. When the fight comes, come back swinging. After you take a few punches the bully will respect you and move on to another target…usually someone who will not hit back.  At least, that is what tends to happen on the playground if you are a boy.

What happens if you are a girl? A completely different dynamic: The girls gather in complex and nuanced interpersonal activities. On the playground girls tend to be collaborative, social, and aware of one another’s feelings. Being “in” the group is everything. Within those groups the turf wars are just as ruthless as on the kickball field – social Darwinism is at work here as well. But the way it plays out tends to be very different: The socially weak are likely to be left alone. Who is the target? The ones who dare to be different: wear different clothes, talk differently, stand out or stand up to the Alpha girls. If you are a girl, being “different” is at your own peril.

Where, on the boy side of the playground, weakness is the kiss of death; on the girl side differentiation is punished, and weakness is given coveted emotional support.

These playground dynamics are hauntingly familiar. One side, afraid of being bullied plays “look strong.” The other, valuing conformity, is incensed at the self-differentiation. Now, I am not saying that what is going on between TEC and South Carolina is the “battle of the sexes.” Surely this is not a male v. female argument. But it does feel as if a conflict between values with some basis in gender is playing out its script.   Under pressure, when we are all most likely to do what we have previously learned, the group with one set of values is using the strategy they learned for self-defense in conflict. Under pressure the group with feminine values is using our very different collaborative, relational, “conform” strategies that we learned on our side of the same playground.

To the national church, a group in which collaboration and social conformity are the highest values, differentiation and bluster are the ticket to sanction by the larger group. To South Carolina, defiance was just the opposite – their strategy to stay in. Could South Carolina have chosen a strategy that could have caused them to be seen in a worse light by the rest of us, a group whose highest value is playing well with others? Probably not!

But put yourself in the shoes of a priest, parish vestry, or diocesan Standing Committee member living in Charleston five years ago: They are nervous that the faith they have known is being redefined by us…afraid that we have an incrementalist strategy to push a creeping redefinition of both the faith and human relationships on them. (A fear they felt confirmed in, by the way, this summer at General Convention when we added the “transgendered” category to the clergy non-discrimination canon with surprisingly little fuss.) They are afraid that outsiders want to come in and force them to be someone they are not.

So time comes for them to elect a new bishop. And we tell them, “We don’t like your choice, pick another.”

Still walking your mile in their Southern moccasins, imagine the ways their deepest fears are being confirmed: They have theological fears. They have social-order fears. Now we give them a fear of a new Northern aggression to add into this volatile mix.

So they do what most of us would have done: They re-elect the same person.

And that was just the beginning. From there the playground games of dare, re-dare, and “the vaunted double-dog dare,” to quote the classic movie, A Christmas Story, began in earnest.

1. In 2008, after the novelty of making them elect their choice for a bishop twice, Mark Lawrence was made to sign affidavits and theological statements by Diocesan Standing Committees…an unprecedented action to take when consenting to a bishop’s election.

2. At the 2009 General Convention we revised Title IV, the clergy disciplinary process. South Carolina saw it as aimed at giving us the legal cover to attack their bishop, so they change their clause acceding to the canons of the national church (but not the constitution)…putting them in the same boat as (what I have read is 12) other diocese’ – including, strangely enough, the diocese’ of several of those on the disciplinary board charging South Carolina with “abandonment” based on non-accession.

3. In 2010, TEC & SC together lost the Pawley’s Island lawsuit. South Carolina’s largest parish, St. Andrew’s, left on the heels of that decision. SC had other churches asking to leave. The bishop, in an action  to respond to his own people (not us) in 2011 distributed quit-claim deeds saying, “Here, this is proof that we are together out of relationship rather than law.” Since no churches have left since that time, it is a strategy that worked.

4. In 2011 the Title IV Board went forward with nameless/faceless charges against their bishop – they responded with putting into their canons a disaffiliation clause to prevent more of what they saw as “meddling.”

5. In 2012 We tried their bishop on essentially the same charges as the previous year. They activated their disaffiliation clause.

As my brief chronology points out, the actions the diocese of South Carolina took were always in response to what they perceived as threats on our part. Did South Carolina “poke the bear”? Absolutely. Was it in order to quit?  Who can say for certain. But as someone who has been in regular relationship with South Carolina-with their people, at their camp, in their diocesan offices, I too could see what was going on and asked the obvious “departure” question. I asked it a hundred different ways: I asked on the record, off the record, by phone, in person, via text, over beer. You name it, I asked it. And I never once heard, “We want to leave.” All one hundred times I heard, “We have powerful voices who want to leave, but we are trying to do two things: hold ourselves together and stay in the church.” Should you believe them? Ask yourself why Mark Lawrence, the most notoriously traditionalist bishop did not have his name on this summer’s amicus brief’s filed in the departing diocese’ court cases defending the traditional view of the role of the national church. What other reason than he didn’t want to be involved in something to further irritate the national church? It was a perfect opportunity to goad the national church to attack South Carolina. Why not take it?

Sadly, we all acted in very predictable ways. In the end, we did what we know: asked people to prove they desire to be a part of the group by acting like part of the group. South Carolina did what they know: tried to out-rooster the rooster to keep their place on the playground. It has all the makings of a Mars/Venus moment, doesn’t it?

Or as Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

What can we do now? I would hope we could ask South Carolina to the ice-cream social and playground mediation before conventions start being held and lawsuits start flying. Any takers?

I double-dog dare someone.

Case Study: PhoenixOne. Bursting at the seams with young adults.

How do we engage the post-modern 25 year old? Certainly it isn’t easy. They are very conflicted. On one hand they distrust large events. On the other, they flock to things with momentum -in Phoenix that is PhoenixOne, a gathering of 20-something “young professionals.” In existence for 18 months, it is now attended by more than 1000 young adults.

What is PhoenixOne doing to gather the crowd?

First, they use technology well. All 1000 of them facebook and tweet the meeting. It is very organic in it’s invitation.

Second, they are relational. They work very hard to connect with people and help them connect with one another.

Third, they are in a place of “otherness.” They meet in a 100 year-old church-ancient by Phoenix’ standards. It is quiet. Solid. It feels stable – like a church.

Fourth, they bring in communicators who speak to their experience. Most of them are known names who have an audience already. They go for high content/good presentation over low content/great presentation. They have thoughtful speakers rather than uber-motivational types.

Francis Chan

Fifth, they have ditched the really big band for a guitar, piano and drums. It is actually quieter than the 40 year-old’s “relevant” church.

Sixth, they use technology, and they experiment with ancient liturgical forms. Chant, candles, confession, contemplation have as big a role as slick graphics. Young adults are rediscovering mystery, symbol and narrative…artfully done.

Ancient liturgical experience explained.

Seventh, they get people to work in the world for good. While the over 35 world is busy saying young adults are selfish, PhoenixOne has them active doing things for good. Young adults actually do want to do things-just not like we do them. We want to make church like the world and work in our churches to avoid the world. They want to make church churchier and then work to take Jesus into the world.

Eighth, and this one is important, they work to work together through difference rather than ignore difference. The mega-model ignores history and denominational backgrounds, to the point of hiding denominational affiliation, they engage in thoughtful dialogue around being blessed by the fullness of Christian tradition.

Are you noticing the relationship between the cultural realities of 25 year olds and how effectively reaching them includes both connecting them to one another and the world, and artfully adapting classic Christian worship practices and disciplines to connect them with God? 

The leader of PhoenixOne is my friend, Jeff Gokee. He is a student of his culture who is not afraid to innovate. When young professionals fill out “connections” cards, he reports, they list two or three different “home” churches:  One church  for music, one for teaching, one  for small groups…and PhoenixOne. Jeff says, “that is a crazy fact that is shaping how we do church in the future.”

Jeff confirms my two over-arching points: a “go” rather than “come” starting point and relationships blended with authentic ancient-future worship when they do arrive. About relationships Jeff says, “I believe the local church is truly is the hope of the world.  I have spent most of my life as a pastor trying to get people to come into my church context instead of going into theirs…I believe in order to re-engage this generation we have to be incarnate in their culture the way Jesus did 2000 years ago.  He goes to the women at the well…He visits Zaccheaus in his home…and he comes to all of humanity on the cross…we need to have a relational revival, because this generation wants to be known.” Worship, says Jeff, “is not just about singing and doing…it’s about being with God.  Sometimes that happens with a big band, sometimes that happens in silence, sometimes it happens when your clapping and don’t know the words. We don’t have to create worship…it’s all around us, we just get to join in wherever it’s happening.”

It is a new day for the church and the culture. There is an old expression from biology: Adapt or die.

Hopefully we will learn to listen to our young adults, read the tea-leaves of our culture and relearn what the early church knew – How to live in the world as a distrusted minority that prayed the Scriptures, worshiped with life-giving narrative and sacrament. They ventured forth from that rich transformed community to serve the world and spoke of the power of God in Christ everywhere they went. We can do this. We have done it before. We can do it again.

Mormon bishop to the Mega-Church: “Thank you!”

“You have no idea what a gift you are to us.”

Several years ago I overheard a conversation in a restaurant that was so provocative I could not help first listening in and then eventually horning in.

It was late on a Sunday morning. In the booth over my left shoulder was a man who said he was a LDS bishop and his friend. They were discussing the service they had just attended at the largest church in Arizona. Fascinated at his viewpoint, and being aware that the Mormon church is still growing while Protestant numbers are waning, I turned around and engaged him in conversation over coffee -mine, not his.

He said, “I think the mega-church will be the best thing to ever happen to the LDS. If that is the best you have to offer, you are in big, big trouble.”

I pointed out, “Tens of thousands are flocking to those types of churches. They seem to be very effective.”

His insights on the mega church stopped me cold:

“They may have a lot of people coming in the front door but they surely will have a big back door with people escaping out. People will eventually want more than they are offering.”

The biggest problems?  He said…

-You make takers. We make givers.

-You are entirely focused on the individual. We focus on building a community.

He then described our churches as market-driven and led by focus groups rather than convictions. He called out two things in particular: Segregating our age groups and catering to people’s preferences.

Segregating: “What are you thinking putting all of the youth in a separate building and not letting the parents in? 16-year old Jenny needs to be sitting next to 80-year old Mrs. Jones in church. When Jenny shows up in her modest clothes, Mrs. Jones tells her, “Good job!” When Mrs. Jones needs help getting groceries out of her car, she calls Jenny. We make communities. You make people whose whims are catered to. What are you doing to actually help families?”

Catering to preference: “And another thing. You do music people like, with bands. We do bad music, sometimes on an out of tune piano, led by a retired music teacher. Our music is weird. It teaches people that they are part of something different from the world.

We make people who give rather than take and who know they are different and are part of a set-apart community. You blur the line between the church and the world. We emphasize it. 

Finally he said, “In thirty years, you guys won’t exist. We will be the only game in town.”

Was he right?

Surely he had very little expectation that the gathering of Christians is to worship the triune God and bring him glory. But does the mega-church? Is there a back door wide-open filled with people inoculated against the very Gospel our mega churches work so hard to communicate? Have we created a cult of the individual rather than a community of givers?

Please do not read my critique as an indictment on motives or on size per se. There are large churches working hard to be about others (see: www.mission68.org). The mega-church people that I know want to honor God and reach people for Jesus Christ. However, I fear we have embraced an ethic of short-term pragmatism. The mega-church has embraced a biblical message divorced from biblical and historically Christian methods. This is dangerous territory.

Next up: Why the “Saddleback movement” works for those over 30 but not for those under it. And, Potential ways forward for both the church and the youth program.