What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…

…empty churches.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…


What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

So many have commented on this post in the last month that I did a follow-up: O Yeah! And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”


1,209 thoughts on “What’s so uncool about cool churches?

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  3. My kids didn’t spend a lot of time in ‘youth group’ during their teens, merely going to regular church service with us instead. I didn’t really mind, b/c lots of youth groups I’d seen didn’t really meet the needs of kids. My kids love going to church now, in their 20’s and don’t look to be wanting to stop any time soon. It’s totally true that the church needs to give people what they ‘need’, not what they want. Focus on that, b/c too often that isn’t happening. Where it does happen, great transformations occur. And that’s fun! That’s the kind of christian walk most of us would like to have. May it be so with our churches.

    • Hi Monterey,

      Thank you for sharing your families’ story! My kids are still in church as well. It is encouraging to hear of your children’s love for God and his church.

      Meeting needs over wants seems both critical and difficult in an era of “what have you done for me lately?” The LDS bishop in my pointed this out in the evangelical world quite powerfully.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!


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  5. The biggest hinderance in the church today are the leaders in it , they pray at the beginning of the service lord have your own way here today , they proceed to do there preplanned ritual they do every week and there pre planned sermon , usually the worship time is pretty noisy , the substitution of being led by the spirit anointed worship ,for entertainment based worship , is not an offering that the lord can inhabit , for I donot hear the noise of there songs , when anything is not led by the Holy Spirit , though yielded vessels , it’s led by another spirit , many desire to build their own kingdoms and make a name for themselves , using the lords name for their own gain , it becomes a business , when issues arise ,they are swept under the rug , rather than deal with the issues and fear of offend a good tithe payer becuse of more concern about their pocketbooks and wallets than the state of the souls who come there , and the end of the service having an alter call ,people come up and go back in the same condition they came up in , the quick fix doesn’t work, the 1 minute prayer dosent work , for who cares enough to pray through Untill there is a break through , today prople only want a quick fix , they only want a little bit of God they donot go fully or give themselves fully to the Godhead . When you have a congragations of those who continually resist the Holy Spirit ,error will come in , every denomination and sect has its own exclusive error , in proverbs it warns continually about the prostitute , the harlot , if you dig into these words and the warning is toward false doctrine and deception , even though there are millions of sermons preached every Sunday morning , but to no effect , the word of God will divide soul from spirit joint from marrow and reveal the motives of the heart , a dead word is preached , not a living word , the living word has conviction ,many hate conviction and flock to feel good ,law of attraction services and but justifies them in there sin and reinforces materialism refusing to instruct those how to live a godly life in Christ Jesus , for those who superficially follow and leaders who superficially lead ,only a superficial word can come forth ,not giving the people the kind of word they need to grow spiritually , God will send strong delusion , having eyes that see not and ears that hear not reveals the hardness of their hearts and a word that comes from the head and not from the heart ,a hard heart can be broken , a broken and contrite heart he will not despise and flickering flame and a smoldering wick he will not put out ,Revival will not come through professional ministers , because they will exploit it for their own gain , revival will tarry as long as people refuse to yield there vessels fully to the Holy Spirit to bring forth the travail nessessary to move the principalities and powers in high places and the strongholds that keep the Holy Spirit from truly having his way ,as long as people accept the strongholds and the way things are And like to play church and pretend the Holy Spirit is there in this powerful way , and pretend they possess what they donot have , it will go from bad to worse , And for those who donot resist the Holy Spirit , they will not be able to remain in it because they will not be received by the majority and driven out though false accusation , and the lord will move them on from these places , For the carnal workers will continually abuse the spiritual workers the Holy Spirit sends to them , and on judgment day many pastors will say lord I didn’t have any help , then He will remind them of all those in whom he sent to help but where rejected and sent away ,It was never ment to be a one man show but a body that fully functions each part operating in the measure of faith it has for the building up of the whole in love toward one another as they seek the highest good for each other continually making supplication to the father through the Son as the Holy Spirit gives utterance as they have the members of the body continually on there hearts daily lifting them up to the father and serving them as Christ loves the church so they can become more than they ever could be empowered for service coming up to the fullness of sonship and a a representation of the Godhead ,in all there relationships and in all who’s paths they come across in season and out of season prepared and ready to give account of the great hope that is in them and the Gospel of Jesus Christ .

    • Hi John, thank you for your passionate reply. I am not opposed to set liturgies, every church has them in one form or another. I am opposed to the inability to deviate if the Holy Spirit leads.

  6. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better!

    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I’ll
    send this post to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a very good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Wouldn’t it be amazing if the “holy spirit” actually showed up in an unambigious fashion at churches (and this applies to all 33,000 denominations as well as all other religions) and spoke directly to the congregation so there would be no confusion about what his message was? But instead all anyone gets are human beings who claim to know what “‘he” wants. The Great and Powerful Oz is not real and the man behind the curtain, i.e. the one in the pulpit, is the one doing all of the talking. This is the 21st Century, not the Middle Ages, and people need to grow up and face reality.

      • ” The one in the pulpit, is the one doing all of the talking.” I couldn’t have agreed with this observation more… as it so true. This is one of the reasons why I like the Home Church Model where a small group “Lets God’s Word Do The Talking” and we just discuss the ramifications, to whom it was addressed to, how is the same message is relevant today, and how we can apply it to our lives. Since it is an open discussion there is a bit of turmoil by the different views expressed, but despite the chaos I feel that we eventually are lead to see and come to a more meaningful conclusion…. The pulpit example is just one person’s view and it should be tested if it is watertight in in accordance to what is said in the Bible.
        However, I am just a layman and what I have dared to voice should be taken with a good measure salt and not taken too literally…

    • It is a question. I think that people stay when they change the questions to, “Does this help me grow?” And “does this help others know Jesus?” Rather than, “do I like this?”

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