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

Advertisements

Life After “Cool Church”? A New Vision for Youth Ministry, Part 1.

One of my assertions in the “cool church” post that went off last week is that the abandonment of the church by twenty-somethings is precisely the outcome that the youth ministry methods we have used the last twenty years should  have been expected to produce.

Many wrote to express the opinion that the problem lies with the “message” in youth ministry. It is too political or too weak or too strong. Since there are churches that have retained their youth whose message has been too strong, some that have had almost no message and some whose message was too off-topic, I do not think the message is the primary issue. I have a different take. As I see it, the issue, for the most part was not the message but the method. Many youth ministry’s had a clear, Christ-centered message and youth leaders that had great friendships with young people. The issue is that we had all of that in the youth room. We never bothered to connect the youth program with the parents and the larger body of Christ meeting in the main sanctuary. We created an affiliation bond with the youth program but not the church

Youth Leaders, pastors and parents, does that resonate with your experience at all?

It took me years to notice the results of what we were doing. I had to see the data to have the “aha!” It is a problem faced by both the parachurch and church youth programs: We created affiliation bonds with us, the church in mission, rather than the church local that would sustain their faith through life if they did not stay with us into leadership.

The data is undeniable: we can preach an uncompromising message, but if we do it ghettoized from the larger church we end up with students who never have a reason to cross the sidewalk into the sanctuary. As the Mormon bishop said in my “Mormon Bishop” post, “We make givers. You make takers.” He was so spot on it made me cringe.

What if instead of doing youth “services” at the same time the adults are meeting, evangelism based on getting students to come to our really cool thing rather than going to them and turning our youth program into Nickelodeon shows with a Jesus message attached – with far too much effort in the light shows and technology that no longer impress kids anyway. What if instead we gave our youth pastors a new job description:

1) Partner in ecumenical evangelism-taking teams of evangelists from our local church to the high school in partnership with the other churches in the community.

2) Train your people called to youth to make them phenomenal discipleship leaders-those ecumenical evangelism ministries are freed to stay in their sweet spot- evangelism, and the church goes back to what we used to be great at: Christ-centered disciple-making.  

3) Resource parents to help parents become the front line of spiritual formation in the home that Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78 say they should be.

4) Integrate students into the main service. …Students on the usher list, the music team, hospitality, greeting, reading scripture, leading congregational prayer, giving testimonies…for the right ones, even preaching. 

5) Organize multi-generational “soul friendships” where the older pray for, read the Bible with, and care for students.

6) Participate in multi-generational service projects with students and adults…not just youth leaders, the whole church.

Those things that foster students owning the church as their own. They happen by necessity in the tiny churches without youth programs…the ones who keep their kids at twice the rate of those of us with our expensive programs.

David Kinnaman is brilliant, but “You Lost Me” is about getting back the 20-somethings who left. As Kinnaman says, “We lost them.” They are gone. And we will keep losing more young people by perpetuating our errors on further generations of youth.

Now is the time to make important changes. The evangelical world has 35-50 year olds in church to connect with. In the mainline we have 70-90 year olds. That is a much harder gap to bridge. The evangelical church can start now…or you can wait twenty years until you are where the mainline is today.

Anybody up for a challenge?