“O Yeah!” And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002Years 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…

the-world_s-top-10-best-ties-for-nerds-101. 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.

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The Church is Christ’s Bride, Not His Baby Mama.

man-cheating-unfaithful-boyfriend-talking-to-ex

In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with.  In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.[1]

If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?

I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.

I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ –  for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
  • Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
  • Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
  • Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
  • Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
  • Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.

For the love, have we lost our ability to pick something and stick with it!

The church has played right into our preference driven world by featuring ever-hotter, better packaged versions of itself.[2] And, as with a baby mama, after we have used her, we stand back and mock that she is hurting from our lack of commitment and fidelity. It is the height of fashion to stand close enough to the church to criticize it…sort of like standing close enough to a fire to urinate on it. …and just like people who have had too much beer on a camping trip, everyone laughs and no one asks the obvious question, “Helping or hurting?”

I get that the church has earned its negative reputation. We have often behaved badly. I get that the church has been irrelevant, unloving, unhelpful and invested more in carpet than cast-offs. Surely the church has often behaved as Hosea’s harlot wife, but even so, she is still Christ’s bride and the mother of believers. To quote Tony Campolo’s misquote, “The church may be a whore, but she’s my mother.”[3] Even gangsters have their mother’s backs. It is why “mama” jokes don’t play in the ‘hood. But the church isn’t a baby mama, even with her all her problems she is the spotless bride of Christ.

Bridal imagery, by the way, is all over the New Testament.[4] The church as Christ’s bride was a common image in the early church and remains such to groups with higher ecclesiologies (like Catholics, Orthodox and Anglican). The other feminine image of the church, the church as our mother, is largely from the early Christians, although it too has  roots in Scripture.[5]

What we have done, perhaps as an unintended consequence to the Reformation meets American pragmatism and individualism, is created a religion of me, by me, and for me. Our most holy Trinity of me, myself and I.

The historic vision of the church universal (catholic) is the Church as agent of salvation (proclaiming the Gospel), mediator of salvation (baptizing us into new birth in our spiritual mother, the Church), and means of sanctification (Word, Sacrament and service). It is also this bride for which Christ will some day return.[6] As Cyprian said, “If one is to have God for Father, he must first have the Church for mother”[7]

The motherhood of the Church, showing her as a birthing and nurturing institution, bearing fruit in many “sons of God,”[8] and the bride-hood of the Church, portraying a union with her bridegroom, are not just nice metaphors.  They are necessary to understanding our right place in the cosmos as God’s children.

The Reformers may have removed the direct mediation of the church from salvation, but they still had a very high view of the church. John Calvin, for example, wrote, “The Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”[9]

The church needs us. It needs us to repent of our philandering and commit to her. It needs us as insiders, not as onlookers; As her children, rather than a cheap and unfaithful lover ever looking to move on to his next conquest.


[1] There is a name for people with the most baby mama’s: Big Poppa’s. Here is a website devoted to the professional athletes with the most children by the most women: http://www.complex.com/sports/2012/06/big-poppa-the-athletes-with-the-most-children-by-the-most-women/ Enjoy watching New York Jets, Antonio Cromartie try to remember all of his kids names.

[2] A friend, Dave Wright blogged about this recently at fusionmusing.blogspot.com The posts are under “Youthministry and church” 3 posts about a field trip to an exceedingly cool church sporting 1970’s psychedelic secular rock and very funny preaching.

[3] Wrongly attributed to Augustine by Tony Campolo in Letters to a Young Evangelical.

[4] See, for example: 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:21-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17.

[5] Passages such as Galatians 4:26, 2 John 1,4 and 5 and Revelation 12

[6] Rev. 21:22

[7] Cyprian, Letter 74.7.2, in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation

[8] Gal 3:26

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vols. 20-21

Youth Ministry after “Cool Church”: Sample Youth Teaching on Genesis 1 & 2

Youth leaders always want to know what theory looks like in practice. Here is an example of one component of a youth group meeting: the teaching time…

Our church plant has a small youth group (usually about 25 students) with 6 very committed young adult volunteer leaders. They recently began a semester of working through the Old Testament.

For Genesis 1 and 2, instead of a sermon or video, the group was divided into two groups by gender. In one room the boy group read Genesis 1 together several times. In the other the girls read Genesis 2. Each group took notes and discussed what the text said and emphasized for the hearers. Then they outlined the chapter. The leaders gave guidance in the form of questions to take the students back to the text when they started reading into it. On a large poster board with colorful markers, each group drew a graphical/artistic representation of their chapter. Then they came back together and the students taught their chapter to the other group from their poster. Having students teaching one another engaged students in the learning process in a way that was wonderful. By the end, each group knew the contents of both chapters.

Then one of the leaders did a wrap-up to help students get the “big picture” and think theologically about their lives – a 7 minute mini-message on “Have you noticed that the first two verses of Genesis One say exactly the same thing your biology teacher taught you?” After reading Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, the leader gave a message that went like this:

Did you notice that both Christians, who think God is the author of life and truth, and scientists, who observe life, have the same version of what happened in the very beginning of the universe? Does that surprise you? More subtle though is the enormous difference between the two narratives. Science, not as a discipline but as an “ism” (called materialism) follows a very different narrative. BTW, We are not anti-science here, but materialism is a philosophy of life that what you see explains everything that is. When you know what materialism teaches you might choose to reject it.  For the materialist, time and chance explain everything. For the Christian, the hand of a loving Creator is the ultimate explanation. For the materialist, because they believe only in time and chance, all of life is an accident. For the materialist, you might be “unique,” but you are a unique accident.

On the other hand, for the Christian, all of life is a gift. Life was made on purpose, with a high and holy purpose. So, in the Christian narrative, you matter. What you do matters. What you don’t do matters. Everyone around you matters to God too.

Think of the difference the narrative you believe about your life makes: Can you see how what you do with your life gets shaped by the narrative you believe about who you are? What choices do you make with your life when life has no purpose? (Discussion)

How does it change your choices if you are absolutely convinced that you and everyone else was created on purpose, with a purpose? (Discussion)

If the materialist story is true, nothing you do matters. You don’t matter. If the Christian story is true then everything you do either spreads our Creator’s beauty and redeeming love or shuts it down.

Which narrative do you see being played out around you? What might life look like if everyone you know, new God’s love for them in Christ? You see, both the Christian and the materialist see the same events, they just interpret them differently.

Which narrative would you rather follow with your life? Thinking about what you said in our said in our discussion, why is it important that your friends know “the hope that is within you”?

As a result of the teaching time students left with the ability to tell us what Genesis 1 & 2 actually says…and what it doesn’t say. They learned something about exegesis: letting the text, rather than other’s ideas of the text speak. And more, they left with a powerful doctrine of Creation and can tell you why that doctrine is important. They went to small groups and prayed passionately that God would help them stay clear on who they are and whose they are…and that they would have boldness to share with their friends the Good News of God’s love in Christ-because of how desperately their friends need a different narrative on which to base their life.

Life After “Cool Church”? A New Vision for Youth Ministry, Part 1.

One of my assertions in the “cool church” post that went off last week is that the abandonment of the church by twenty-somethings is precisely the outcome that the youth ministry methods we have used the last twenty years should  have been expected to produce.

Many wrote to express the opinion that the problem lies with the “message” in youth ministry. It is too political or too weak or too strong. Since there are churches that have retained their youth whose message has been too strong, some that have had almost no message and some whose message was too off-topic, I do not think the message is the primary issue. I have a different take. As I see it, the issue, for the most part was not the message but the method. Many youth ministry’s had a clear, Christ-centered message and youth leaders that had great friendships with young people. The issue is that we had all of that in the youth room. We never bothered to connect the youth program with the parents and the larger body of Christ meeting in the main sanctuary. We created an affiliation bond with the youth program but not the church

Youth Leaders, pastors and parents, does that resonate with your experience at all?

It took me years to notice the results of what we were doing. I had to see the data to have the “aha!” It is a problem faced by both the parachurch and church youth programs: We created affiliation bonds with us, the church in mission, rather than the church local that would sustain their faith through life if they did not stay with us into leadership.

The data is undeniable: we can preach an uncompromising message, but if we do it ghettoized from the larger church we end up with students who never have a reason to cross the sidewalk into the sanctuary. As the Mormon bishop said in my “Mormon Bishop” post, “We make givers. You make takers.” He was so spot on it made me cringe.

What if instead of doing youth “services” at the same time the adults are meeting, evangelism based on getting students to come to our really cool thing rather than going to them and turning our youth program into Nickelodeon shows with a Jesus message attached – with far too much effort in the light shows and technology that no longer impress kids anyway. What if instead we gave our youth pastors a new job description:

1) Partner in ecumenical evangelism-taking teams of evangelists from our local church to the high school in partnership with the other churches in the community.

2) Train your people called to youth to make them phenomenal discipleship leaders-those ecumenical evangelism ministries are freed to stay in their sweet spot- evangelism, and the church goes back to what we used to be great at: Christ-centered disciple-making.  

3) Resource parents to help parents become the front line of spiritual formation in the home that Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78 say they should be.

4) Integrate students into the main service. …Students on the usher list, the music team, hospitality, greeting, reading scripture, leading congregational prayer, giving testimonies…for the right ones, even preaching. 

5) Organize multi-generational “soul friendships” where the older pray for, read the Bible with, and care for students.

6) Participate in multi-generational service projects with students and adults…not just youth leaders, the whole church.

Those things that foster students owning the church as their own. They happen by necessity in the tiny churches without youth programs…the ones who keep their kids at twice the rate of those of us with our expensive programs.

David Kinnaman is brilliant, but “You Lost Me” is about getting back the 20-somethings who left. As Kinnaman says, “We lost them.” They are gone. And we will keep losing more young people by perpetuating our errors on further generations of youth.

Now is the time to make important changes. The evangelical world has 35-50 year olds in church to connect with. In the mainline we have 70-90 year olds. That is a much harder gap to bridge. The evangelical church can start now…or you can wait twenty years until you are where the mainline is today.

Anybody up for a challenge?

Is the way we are doing youth ministry emptying the church?

My “Cool Church” post has become a love it/hate it item on the internet. One critique is that I am simply wrong in the premise students drop out of church when they leave our youth groups.

What does the data say? Back in 2009 Brett Kunkle gave a good summary of what is now undeniable: 7 separate studies say the same thing – Youth abandon the church after high school. http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/how-many-youth-are-leaving-the-church If you doubt him, how about David Kinnaman’s new book about 2o somethings abandoning church, “You Lost Me.”

Youth worker: Cowboy up! We have to face the facts. It is easy to blame the church, the parents, and the culture. But look at the data carefully:

-61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back. (Time Magazine, 2009)

-78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church. (Lifeway, 2010)

Think about it: All students leave church at 61%. Students in youth programs leave at 78-88%.  Implication: Students attending a church with NOTHING for them attend church at a 50% higher rate in their 20’s than if they went to a church with one of our youth programs!

Youth pastors, we might actually be harming the numbers for churches without youth programs. We are giving our lives to students and it turns out that NOTHING might have been better for their participation in the body of Christ as an adult. If that doesn’t make the hair on your neck stand up then nothing will.

Please hear me: I am NOT saying we should fire youth pastors and disband youth groups. We know from history and common sense that unled things die. I am also not one of those saying that youth ministry is “unbiblical.” Greg Stier wrote a good rationale for why YM is both biblical and vital; http://www.youthministry.com/articles/leadership/defense-youth-ministry.

However, if we have integrity we will look honestly at way students are leaving the church when they leave our ministries. We need to look at…

-The unproductive segregation of youth away from parents, the larger body of Christ and leadership in the main worship service-something most of us who are pastors would never risk because “excellence” would suffer. We need to help our students become participants, “givers” to the community of faith; not just “consumers” of religious services.

-What we count. Do you count “decisions”? “Attendance?” When I was on Young Life staff I kept a copy of all of the numbers our national organization gathered from us: clubs, campers, and conversions. I noticed that there was a fourth number that actually accounted for the other three: the number of leaders we had that went into the world of students. I found a ratio in effect: For every leader that would go to the campus to meet students in September, we had 7 students in “club” by December, 4 campers in June and 1.5 “commitments” by July. Our stellar Regional Director, Marty Caldwell, looked at several years of this data and immediately pointed out a truth: We become what we count. We need to count disciples who make disciples. We need to count the right things if we wish to develop the right things.

-Our failure to resource parents – the ones God has actually given “our” students to. Two resources: Steve Wright: ReThink and Rob Reinow: Visionary Parenting.

We can do better. We can teach our students to love doing the things Christians have spent 2000 years loving doing: To read the Bible, study it, live it. To love and serve their friends, and talk about their life and their faith…their convictions and even their doubts. We can model for them participating in and building real faith communities. We can build students who know how and why to pray…who worship and walk with God. We can make students who live grace-filled lives towards others and make different decisions for themselves than they would have because they are amazed at God’s goodness and mercy and love for them. There are good resources for this out there. Ken Moser’s, Programs to Go will give you 18 youth group meetings to get you started. http://www.effectiveyouthministry.com/programs-2-go.html. I have a “What we do in a discipleship group” that I can email you.

To quote Paul, there is “a still more excellent way.” It is an ancient way. A rooted way. A connected way. A way that resources parents and makes leaders “soul friends” to students and helps them live lives of faith and love as they walk with God and serve the church and the world.

Big changes take a great deal of courage and effort. But the fruit will be eternal. And that will be so worth it.