Smudgy foreheads

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service.

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. I encourage you this Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Sharing your faith without feeling (much) like a cheeseball

A “catch all” seminar of quick-hits in which I touch on:

1) Newcomer/Assimilation ministry at your church.

2) A program to equip adults to read the Bible 1 on 1 with young people – works with ANY size church and needs no paid staff).

3. Two tools for sharing Jesus with others: Randy Raysbrook’s, “1 Verse Evangelism” and James Choung’s, “The Big Story.”

4. The two types of Christian spirituality: Pietism and mysticism, and why you want to encourage both.

5. What young people who didn’t leave the church have in common, and how knowing those three things can change your retention of young adults.

Evangelism Seminar: Click to go to folder of tools

Click photo to open dropbox folder of tools

Click on this pic to download slides and presenter notes

Click on this pic to download slides and presenter notes

Millennials still in the church: What do they have in common?

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I had an interesting conversation with a millennial today. This young man was part of a vibrant youth ministry in a large, fast growing church. He described the youth program as “fantastic!” It was led by a gifted and godly leader, a person I know and hold in high esteem. “Hundreds came through and at least 60 of us had genuinely transformative faith experiences in that group,” the young man told me. Then he dropped the bomb, “But five years later I only know of four of us that are still in church.”

Think about those numbers. Even if you only count those who had a conversion experience, that is still a staggering 94% drop out rate!

Survey after survey has told us this is going on in the White evangelical world, but these millennials went to a Spanish language church – churches that we are told are immune to this phenomenon.

My young friend was visibly discouraged so I changed the subject and we spent a few minutes thinking about what the four of them who “made it” have in common. Here is what we noticed:

The young adults who stayed…

1. Read: Regularly, even (gasp) daily.

2. Listen: They spend regular time alone listening to God (you know, prayer).

3. Learn: They have learned the historic answers to the basics of the faith and the church. This is not being able to argue Calvinism vs Arminianism or defend inerrancy, but what used to be called “catechesis.”

4. Reflect: They apply the Scriptures and the catechesis they have received to the issues in their lives.

5. Gather: They regularly worship with other Christians to grow in their faith through song, Scripture, sermon and Sacrament, in a format (and this is important) designed for the training of Christians.

6. Follow: They are in active relationship with a mentor who spends time with them…who loves and challenges them.

7. Lead:  They are in active relationships with people they are mentoring. People they know and spend time with…whom they love and challenge.

8. Lean: They are surrounded by a community of others who are doing the same – people they “do life” with and lean on.

These things are both internal and external: Internally the ones who remained have built up reserves of Scripture, prayer, study, and worship. They know the “whats” and “whys” of the faith, and have a method for dealing with questions and struggles in their lives.

And at least as important, Externally, they have a leader above, a community around, and a group below that depend on them.

An obvious question formed: Is there anything on our list that is different from what “built” a young Christian in 1914? 1514? 514? 114?  

As we spoke, it dawned on us that the four had received essentially what disciples in every generation have received from the church: Internal scaffolding to support them in their faith, and webs of external relationships that weave them together. Together these tend to produce people who go through life singing in the key of Jesus.

It became obvious that the ones who are “making it” are exactly the ones we would expect…the ones who learned to love doing the things Christians have loved doing for 2000 years. Wasn’t this what was going on in Acts 2:42-47? Maybe ministry to millennials really isn’t rocket science…unless, of course, we stop doing those things the church has historically done.

My guess is that if you look at the young adults who are in your church, the chances are good that they are specifically the ones who have not just had preaching and programs, but whose lives are intertwined with others, giving them these webs of relationships to go with their faith scaffolding. What would happen to millennials if the church stopped giving students “relevant” curriculums and programs, segregating them away into youth rooms, spending piles of money on lights, fog machines, and xboxes, and simply went back to incarnating the Gospel? The Great Commission is strikingly simple: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Let’s try that and see if, “lo” and behold, it isn’t just Jesus who is “with us till the end of the age“, but a generation of millennials as well.

 

By the way, the millennial was Julio Torres, our music leader. The other three are a youth director, a children’s minister, and a youth volunteer. …Which, come to think of it, validates my contention that if you want a millennial to stay in your church, give them a task

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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Hey hateful hater, big churches can be beautiful too.

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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[1], 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.Beautiful-Bodie


[1] 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.

Young Adults and the Church: Will the Mainline benefit from Evangelical Dissatisfaction?

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Are you following the hubbub in the blogosphere of the growing disaffection among young adults with all things Evangelical? First Andrea Dilley, who left Neo-Calvinism for an Anglican church, posted Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Three days ago Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing narrow, simplistic Evangelical answers and desiring greater social engagement. Yesterday Pastor Keith Anderson posted “Millennials, Consumerism and the Idolatry of God in which he suggested that millennials have been over-marketed to and are cynical of a “God about you.”

Will the Mainline see a resurgence from this growing discontentment with Evangelicalism? After all the Mainline is everything all three authors are advocating: We have always done liturgy. We have always been engaged in combating social ills. And, lets face it, we have never been very good at packaging and marketing. Even more, our churches are often strategically located in inner-cities, the very place that upwardly mobile, educated young adults are flocking. Our churches even have the sense of space and permanence they crave. We should be what Millennials flock to!

Will we be?

Don’t bet on it.

Here are three reasons:

1) We don’t have money. Most of our churches are theologically progressive. Progressives tend not to tithe. According to Barna 24% of Evangelicals tithe. Less than 1% of Progressives do. (Here) As a result, we tend to have far less money than evangelicals, for whom eternity is at stake. Related to this (as it takes money to fund leaders) is a second issue:
 
2) We don’t develop leaders. Evangelicals push toward ordination people who a) Have a lifetime of leadership (student body president, captain of the volleyball team, etc), and b) Have succeeded in a smaller church roles first. Then they c) Train them by mentoring them on the job in their own system of leadership development. We usually find someone who is young and nice and has the desired theology, and, whether or not they have ever led anything before, send them to three years of expensive seminary. They graduate and we put them in a college ministry or small church alone and then wonder why they flounder.
 
3) We don’t have momentum. In Phoenix alone I can think of 7 Evangelical young adult groups with an attendance of greater than 100 (including 2 more than 500). I cannot think of a Progressive young adult group with more than 30. I have actually heard our people say, “They have 500? What are they doing wrong?” Young adults are not nearly as numero-phobic as Progressives. In fact, since they tend to be dating and looking for social connections, larger events attract them. Unfortunately, we tend to fear large.
 
Until we solve these three hurdles, most of the crowd will run past us…probably back to Evangelical churches, who are pretty resilient and entrepreneurial. Not surprisingly, Evangelicals have begun to regularly ring my phone to talk about liturgy.
 
One thing we do have going for us: Some of those disaffected Evangelicals are leaders and some of them join us. When they do, they bring the leadership skills they developed elsewhere to bear in our world. In the Episcopal Church, two incredibly gifted Evangelical crossovers come to mind: Gil Stafford, former national champion baseball coach and college President and Julia McCray-Goldsmith, a former missionary. In our diocesan office, of the five clergy mission-staff, NONE of them was raised in the Episcopal Church. Each came to the church in adulthood from other traditions.
 
Let me say what non-Episcopalians regularly point out: We have a leadership identification and development issue. And until we address that issue many of those running from Evangelicalism will run right past our door.

Why Blog? Because ideas engaged can catalyze change.

I received this email yesterday from a friend in Indiana…

Thanks to the encouragement of your latest blogs I sensed God leading me to talk to our pastor about a gap in our church: The gap post-high school until family life. We asked our pastor about starting a 20’s something group, he gave us his blessing and now we are assembling a team and resources to begin ministering to young adults this spring. I trust God will provide great resources like these (blog posts) to help us to start something God inspired and put a big smile on God’s face!  Thanks, Matt

Nate Hitson

Note: I have known Nate for 25 years. I was his 6th grade teacher. As a young adult Nate and his wife, Cindy, did Young Life with us in Central Phoenix. We later were blessed to support them on the mission field. Now they are living in Indiana. I have some great “Nate & Cindy” stories that I love to share – they are one of my great models of people who seek God and will give anything to follow. 

Is God asking you to start something? Is God asking you to join something to serve and give yourself to it? If not you, who? If not now, when?