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

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

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

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

How Did We Get Here?

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

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time

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

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

Segregation: The Drug Of Choice

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

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

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

An Assembly Line To Build the Self-absorbed

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

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

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

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

What now?

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

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

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

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

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Why the big-box church works for the over 35 but not the under 25.

Last year the church that kicked off the California suburban-megachurch movement, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold to the local Catholic Diocese. The decline is being seen in an attendance drop off among 20-somethings in most suburban model churches…and many leaders in those churches report that they are nervous…

Church for the over 35.

Church leaders have spent a decade wondering why the Seeker-Relevant-Saddleback-Mega-church model that works so well for upwardly mobile people 35 and older, is not working for people under 30. I believe the answer is deceptively simple: The world changed.

Ask yourself, “What world-shaking event occurred when today’s 25 year olds were early teenagers?” The answer: 9/11.

On 9/11 our fundamental understanding of what life was like changed. Forever.

Put yourself in the mind of an over 35 year-old: In the formative years of those over 35 the world was a pretty nice place. A safe place. We knew that if we worked hard and got an education we would have a good job, make money in the market, move up the social and economic ladder, and retire comfortably on our 401k, the appreciation of our homes and Social Security. We were confident. Our viewpoint: The world was our friend.

Take a 25 year old today: In their formative years the world was not a very nice place. They do not remember an America that was not at war. People they have never met want to bomb their buildings and crash their airplanes. If they work hard and get a good education, they may work at Starbucks and will spend 20 years paying off student loans. The market is a risk and home ownership might be a loser. How can they risk being tied to a home with fluctuating value when they will have to change careers and locales multiple times? There will not be a pension. Their 401k is a crap-shoot. Social Security will be bankrupt. Will they ever retire? Their viewpoint: The world is not their friend.

The “Seeker” movement works for the 35 year old specifically because it is based on the premise that the world was our friend. On that premise we built churches modeled on the best the world had to offer – it was the church as Christian subculture: a shinier, happier version of everything secular. Think of what we imitate in our “relevant” church models: coffeehouse, concert hall, comedy club. They are all based on the idea that the secular world is a friendly place. Since, for 20-somethings, the world is definitely NOT their friend, we really shouldn’t be surprised when that secular model is not a big winner for them as “church.”

Author Dan Kimball noticed the beginnings of this cultural shift ten years ago in “Emergent Church.” In an attempt to reach the unchurched in Santa Cruz, California he assembled focus groups. He took them to different church environments. He found consistently that young adults wanted a church that was “churchy”…Ancient. Quiet. Solid. Holy. A place unlike the world. A place of “otherness.” Those things whisper stability in an unpredictable, ever-changing world. Kimball’s young adults were actually surprised that the older crowd preferred “relevant model” churches. Their take: “If I wanted to go to the mall, I’ll just go. I want church to be church.”

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.

Next up: The PhoenixOne experiment-what they are doing that is working.