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

angry-man.jpg

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

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.

Advertisements

A faith that will last: A call to ancient-future youth ministry

Youth-PrayerSnark MeterrealMID.003

It is values driven and data supported. It is life-changing and both church-sustained and church-sustaining.

Click the link then tell me what you think…

Building Faith That Will Last: January 5 Edition of The Living Church Magazine

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

Profile Picture2

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.

You-Lost-Me1-662x1024Snark MeterrealMID.003

(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

tumblr_lvfmugA0uF1qi39uwo1_500

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

images-1

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

1926-ford-model-t-assembly-line

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?

Continue reading

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…

…“Bye-bye.”

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.”