Mean people suck. But that’s not why millennials dropped the church.

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An open letter to Lead Pastors.

Do you hear that sucking sound? It’s the sound of young adults walking out the back door so fast that you can feel the breeze from the pulpit way down at the front of the sanctuary.

Young adults have always been a bit shaky in their church attendance during college. But then a new trend emerged: They stopped coming back. No one worried much about it at first. But as the return rate continued to plummet, the Millennial abandonment of the church became the stuff that keeps pastors up late at night. Millennials are, after all, the ones whose attractive fresh young faces make people say, “Oh, this place is doing really well!”

A few churches are still doing really well with young adults, of course. But multiple studies, such as this one from Pew Research, show that young adults now attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents at their age. One in three young adults now characterize themselves as  “nones” – religiously unaffiliated.  If you haven’t noticed your church greying yet: fear not, you will.

What is going on with those Millennials? 

According to the narrative, the church is full of narrow, nasty, fearful, bigots. If you are smart, hip, or have a pulse, you should drop the church like a hot rock for something more helpful to your life…like spending Sunday morning playing games on your iPhone at Starbucks, or puttering in your garden, or just pulling your covers up over your head and grabbing another hour of shuteye.

David Kinnaman, in his interesting book, “You Lost Me,” provides a stark articulation of this meme. His team conducted research with more than 1200 young adults. According to the compelling stories he recounts, young adults dropped out because they found the Church to be:

Shallow, with easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans.

-Overprotective and repressive: Sexual mores feel stifling to young adults.

Exclusive. Christian claims to exclusivity are a hard sell in a pluralistic culture.

Doubtless. The church is fearful and dare not risk allowing them to express doubts.

Antiscience.

In other words, the church is mean. 

If you talk to folks between the age of 20 and 35 about the church you have probably heard all of the above statements. However, these don’t necessarily paint a complete picture as to why Millennials left. They tell us why they SAY they left – how they have interpreted their experience. So, although Kinnaman’s book has become the “Bible” on Millennials, there is…

Another piece of the puzzle…

It appeared in last April’s edition of Atlantic Monthly: “Listening to Young Atheists.” Alex Taunton interviewed college students who self-identify as atheists and asked them to “tell the story of your journey into atheism.” What he heard was not what he expected – which always makes my ears perk up. To his surprise, young atheists did not wax eloquent about their intellectual difficulties with Christianity – the anti-science, anti-gay, theologically rigid, “easy believe-ism” stuff we all hear about (apologies to my more progressive friends). Neither did they talk about a desire to engage in sinful, frowned upon by the church, lifestyles (apologies to my more conservative friends). Here is what young atheists told Taunton…

1. They had attended church The number one source of college atheists is, wait for it, Christianity…as it was modeled to them.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague – rather than too much catechesis, they received too little. They were not given an intellectual frame for their faith.

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive  In the middle of forty years of enormous investment in youth ministry, high school is when atheist millennials embraced their unbelief!

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional oneusually involving the loss of a trusted youth leader

Did you notice the seedbed that hatched young atheists? It was specifically a reaction AGAINST their experience of the church. Second, they didn’t become atheists in those evil, conspiratorially faith-stealing secular universities. We lost the Millennials when they were in high school – In our youth groups!

One student said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”

Our big fail?

“Meanness” is style. And apparently a style fail is the least of our issues. According to atheist millennials, we also have a theology fail, a program fail, and a leader fail. The atheists who grew up in our churches tell us that we didn’t:

1) Model love and authenticity during their critical adolescent years.

2) Disciple them. Not downloading information, but the time-intensive task of walking with them, life on life…teaching them Christian practices in a context of friendship.

3) Catechize: Provide historic answers to the historic questions.

4) Allow them to engage their doubts. Talking through doubts is how one gets through them.

5) Integrate them thoroughly into the life of the church. We gave them a soteriology without an ecclesiology:  A personal Jesus without a Body of Christ. We professionalized student ministry and segregated kids away in youth rooms. We let parents, the older generation, and anyone in the church staff not titled, “youth pastor” off the hook.

Students needed a web of relationships and an affiliation bond with the larger church.

But we shuttled them off into “youth services,” creating in-effect parachurch student ministries on church campuses with trendy grow-out-of-it-when-you-graduate names. And, often, by the time they get back from college, their pastor, the student pastor, is gone as well. In a “youth service” model, Millennials have never been in the sanctuary and don’t know those leading in there either. Add in the fact that the sanctuary reflects a ministry model developed for their parent’s generation and, for many, you have strike three, and the Millennials are walking off the field and hanging up their bats.

6. Give them a mission in the world. The doctrine of creation tells us that we were made on purpose for a high and holy purpose. When they were in high school did we give them something epic to do? Something unreachably heroic that they could only see and do with eyes of faith?

Will we listen to them?

Young adult atheists are telling us that we failed to give them a robust faith in the triune God…a faith they were asking us for. And this isn’t just a problem facing “liberal” or “conservative” churches.  While the Left gave them Social Justice Jesus, the Right gave them a truncated, topical Jesus who promises, “Your Best Life Now.” A Fuller seminary friend told me that in a recent survey of graduating youth group seniors the most common thing students, across denominations, wished they had been given more of in youth group wasn’t games, skits, or worship. It was “Bible Study.”

Lead pastors, you have served your mission field of busy 35-55 year olds nervous about cultural change by giving them practical content from fewer, trusted voices on video-venues. What might missionally engaging students in there changing context look like? After all, like you once said to your senior pastor when you were working with youth, “We cannot expect today’s youth ministry to use the models we designed for a previous generation.”

When you and I started in ministry, students came to the church hungry to be entertained. Today they come expecting a sense of the transcendent. Study after study tells us that Millennials long for spiritual practices, meaningful service in the church, and a mission to the world. They seek peer groups to support their faith. They desire older Christian mentors and multi-generational relationships. They come for Scriptural knowledge and, gasp, theology. They come to learn about the God who made them, redeems them, and has a purpose for the world. They come seeking God’s plan and calling on their lives to do something of true and lasting significance.

Yes, the world changed. But while that change occurred we kept giving them a simple Gospel message with fog machines, light shows, and games in which they stuffed their faces with marshmallows.

So they left. But not when we thought. Not why we thought. And not how we thought.

A way forward?

It should be obvious that what I am pointing toward is not less youth ministry but a redirecting of it toward a more robust form. A form more tied to the greater church. The solution to all of this will involve Lead Pastors – You are the source of vision, direction, permission and covering. Nothing changes without your endorsement. Will you allow your Student Ministry leaders to change your student ministry today so that tomorrow’s students don’t bail too? You were an innovator in reaching your mission field. Will you free your student ministers to innovate to a new generation? We all want Christians for life, not just for high school. Will you unravel programs when the data demonstrates that filling youth services today leads to empty sanctuaries tomorrow? 

The truth is staring us in the face. The stakes are too high to throw away another generation with sincere but ultimately unhelpful youth ministry.

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Exclusive Inclusivity: Will The Episcopal Church Keep Gay Millennials?

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What is going on?

Over the past two weeks I have fielded phone calls from three different young gay men requesting “spiritual safety.” These are not exactly expected, as I am a known traditionalist. The conversations go like this:

Caller: “Hey Matt. So you know how I’m a Christian?

Me: “Yes.”

Caller: “Well, I need some Christian friends.”

Me: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”

Caller: “Yeah, about that…as a young gay person who loves Jesus and wants to grow in his faith, I feel like an outcast in my church much of the time.”

Me: “Ouch. Is it really that bad?”

Caller: “Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.

Me: “I know you well enough to know that bugs you.”

Caller: “Uh, yeah. I joined a church because I want to be Christian. …So, can I hang out with you…even though we are in different places on sexuality?”

Me: “Have we ever talked about sexuality?”

Caller: “No, but well, word on the street is that you’re “not really with us.” You treat me like a brother in the Lord, though, and not like some kind of oddball because I believe the core doctrines of the faith and that the Bible is the Word of God.”

I want to raise a question: How is it that young people feel belittled for being too Christian in a Christian church? And (here comes my conventional logic defying proposition) could orthodox, trinitarian theology be replacing sexuality as a point of alignment for a growing number of LGBT young adult Episcopalians?

I am sure that my politically doctrinaire friends on both the Left and Right are warming up their typing fingers to punch out a fiery response for daring to wander outside of the accepted sexual orthodoxies right about now. But before your fingers fly, let me ask you to put aside the arguments of the past, the ones you have rehearsed and rehashed answers for, and peek around the corner, for just a moment. Think about those three phone calls and ask yourself if they might be pointing at something significant on the horizon…

Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality.  In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.

My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?

And does this point to an emerging generational divide within the Episcopal Church? Boomers, for whom winning arguments is culturally quite important, are wired differently from post-modern Millennials. For Millennials, respect trumps truth. They would rather be in relationship than be right. They embrace mutually contradictory ideas without internal conflict. It confuses those over 40 when Millennials report that they are both significantly more pro-life and more pro-gay than their parents. Many boomers are shocked when they hear of Millennials requesting Rite One weddings (including the “dreadful day of judgment”), and that when playing “Jesus Seminar” on the Creed they vote their marbles more orthodoxly than their parents.

I see winds of change blowing into the Episcopal Church. It came in with the Millennials when they walked through the batwings and bellied up to the bar at the last General Convention. Did you notice that GenCon12 voted to become both more progressive politically while, at the same time, holding the line on theological orthodoxy?[1] Did you notice the groundswell to shrink national structures and sell the national Church Center? Did you notice the Acts8 Moment? Many Boomers seemed surprised at those swirling winds.

But none of this should come as a surprise. It is what always happens with the second-generation after a struggle. And with sexuality, in much of the country, Millennials are second generation people. In issues of race, those who fought for equality are shocked that the second generation has forgotten the struggle. With women, young adults have to be taught that gender inclusive language is important…because “when a woman might actually become President of the company or the country,” as one young African American woman recently told me, “pandering to me with language isn’t important.” In the sexuality debates, most Episcopalians now in college have never known a church in which LGBT people were not welcomed. The last conservative church departures occurred when they were in junior high. Gay Millennials are telling us, “We joined this because we want to be Christian.” And my ringing iPhone tells me that, too often, we are making it difficult for them.

As the culture continues to change, will the Episcopal Church keep Gay Millennials? Or will they end up going someplace else – someplace that puts more emphases on their faith than their orientation?

In another fascinating conversation last week, a friend, a woman in a long-term same-sex partnership, told me, “We want our kids in your children and youth midweek programs.” They live close and trust us. They are not going to give our church a shot, however. “We are going to keep driving (40 minutes) to our megachurch on Sundays. We know they are not Gay-friendly, but the preaching and music are great.”

Her statement was a fascinating example of cultural change coming: In a world in which LGBT people increasingly have public affirmation and political protection, they no will longer need the affirmation of the church. When they engage the church it will be because they long for the faith of the church. All of which leaves a question hovering like incense after a high Mass: As evangelicals become less LGBT hostile[2], will the Episcopal Church hold on to LGBT Millennials?

Is my ringing phone an aberration? Or are we quickly entering a new era in which LGBT people will no longer come to church for affirmation but for transformation? (In fact, maybe they were seeking transformation the whole time.)

And how do we give transformation? What if we simply remember who we are – a prayer book using, Lambeth Quadrilateral believing, transformation expecting church?[3] Ditch the fuzzy Christology, hermeneutic of suspicion, and denials of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Return to basic Christian teaching that we are dead in our trespasses and sins and there is one solution, to be made alive in Christ. Proclaim, without fingers crossed or apology, that humanities’ ills are only be solved by casting ourselves on the mercy of God to receive the gift of salvation purchased on the cross at God’s initiation and God’s expense, “For by grace you have been saved.”[4] I am not arguing for the dropping of the ability to question in the Episcopal Church. We learn by questioning. I merely argue for the charitable assumption of the Great Tradition and, at the end of the questions, the clarity of our leaders to say, “Here is how Christians have clung to God for 2000 years.” To quote Greg Boyd, “faith isn’t about trying to feel certain about your beliefs but being willing to commit to living a certain way despite the fact that you’re not certain.”[5]

A new wind is blowing. One in which young people, including young Gay Episcopalians, will engage with churches because they want help to walk with Christ in a community of other Christ-seekers.

How will the Episcopal Church fare in this brave new world?


[1] Politically progressive: Same sex blessings, affirming inclusion of transgendered people. Theologically orthodox: No Communion of the unbaptized, Confirmation as necessary for parish office.

[2] Check out the Christianity 21 Conference and the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, both of which feature unambiguous and unashamed Jesus speak. The way evangelicals talk about homosexuality, or choose to avoid talking about it, and the way most evangelicals treat LGBT persons is certainly changing. Influential evangelical, Tim Keller’s comments in an Ethics and Public Policy Forum is telling of this direction: “Large numbers of evangelical(s)…will continue to hold the view that same-sex marriage runs counter to their faith, even as they increasingly decide they either support or do not oppose making it the law of the land.” 

[3] BCP, 877-8) 1) The Bible as Word of God teaching all things necessary to salvation, 2) The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of faith, 3) The 2 Sacraments given by Jesus for the life of the body and 4) the historic Episcopate as the organizing principle of Christ’s Church)

[4] Ephesians 2:1-5, Rite One Eucharist: “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.”

[5] Greg Boyd’s post

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/.

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 are young people leaving the church?

In February a blog I read, Marc5solas, posted “Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.” It has half a million hits. Since it addresses themes discussed on this blog, people are asking what I think of it. Answer: He hit the ball out of the park. Marc probably stretched a few points to add up to ten, but that post was a home run. Why?

While the Evangelical church “wins” kids with “wow” (lights, bands, fog) and community, the Mainline is winning them with social justice and community. These are two sides of the same coin:

  1. Neither Evangelicalism nor the Mainline give students an articulatable ground for faith other than “God is for me.”
  2.  Both Evangelicalism and the Mainline pander to the “me, me, me” of the age. We even do it with the most other’s-centered thing we do: service projects. Listen to people gush about serving, “I felt soooo good giving that guy a sandwich!” We neither do nor teach about alleviating the conditions that lead to suffering or “teach a man to fish”- because it isn’t about the people, it is about us and our feelings. Which leaves us with…
  3. Faith as a feeling.
  4. We reinforce this self-centeredness by segregating students away in youth rooms to entertain them, sending the message that they are a market to be pandered to. (See “Mormon Bishop to the Megachurch“)
  5. We give students a list of behaviors to follow for God (which are inevitably external and political).

Moralism and social justice without Salvation by grace are nice results with neither the motive behind nor the power therein. Feelings without a grounding in the nature of God or the costly gift of grace is empty emotionalism. The gospel isn’t “you can do it.” It is “You can’t do it. Jesus did. Surrender your life in gratitude to the only higher love worth reorienting your life around.”

There is one more reason kids are leaving the church that plagues the mainline: While the Evangelical church is investing untold millions in the wrong things, at least they are investing in their young. We can’t muster the energy or money to send the message that we care. The years from birth-to-20 are more than 25% of the average life expectancy. Ask yourself what your church’s total budget for people from birth-to-20 is. Is it 25%? I’ll bet it isn’t close. I know of a church whose choir discretionary budget is 100x the youth discretionary budget. Yes, 100 times! I know of a church in which the music minister makes more than the two paid staff for youth and children make. No wait, the music minister’s assistant makes more than the two full-time staff for youth and children make-and one of the staff members is ordained. If you are in the Mainline chances are good your church spends more money on custodial than children. We spend more on our trash than our kids and then wonder why families went somewhere else?

Why are we losing youth? Wrong message. Wrong methods. Wrong investment.

As my dentist says, “Ignore your teeth and they’ll go away.”

Buh, bye.

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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.

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.911

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 unchurched millennials 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.” Do you notice how 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 can the church engage the post-modern 25 year old? Certainly it isn’t easy. This generation is conflicted. On one hand they distrust large events. On the other, they flock to things with momentum. The good news is that today’s millennials seek the things from the church that the church did well for most of her 2000 years: community, a chance to make a difference in the world, and, most importantly, offer a transforming connection with the creator and redeemer of the universe. Unfortunately, we lost these as they eroded invisibly out from under the evangelical suburban cultural veneer. It is not too late. But it will take a new kind of church that is much less like the one we know and much more like the one the early fathers knew.

The big question is not whether the millennials will engage, but will the previous generations, builders of a church that fit a set of cultural expectations that are rapidly fading away, listen and respond by opening leadership opportunities to the next generation? Will the church develop new leaders, give legitimate responsibility to the next generation, and take new chances on historic ways of being the church?