Knowledge is potential, not power

Knowledge does not guarantee the ability or willingness to do something about it. Too often in the church we describe problems, analyze problems but then do little to solve them. The 20s leaving the church is a classic example of this. People describe and explain why and then it’s like everything is ok now that we at least understand it. Few churches are turning the boat, taking that knowledge and using it to leverage better outcomes. Knowledge is potential, not power.


Hot Topic of the Week – Why are Young Adults Leaving the Church?

This topic has been brought up for every generation of young adults since after the Vietnam War. It has received a lot of attention over the last several years especially and has been something I have spent a good deal of time writing about, speaking about and actually ministering to people from this “missing generation”. So this is of great interest to me and I know it is of great interest to many of you who read this blog. I want to point you to a couple of key reads that have come out recently so that you can enjoy some of the great conversations that are going on out there and also point you to a few of my own past posts on this topic:

A few recent posts you should read on the subject:

  1. Scot McKnight’s post Millennials are Leaving Church: really? is a brief review of Brad Wright’s Book “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.” which takes the record for world’s 10th longest book title and also challenges the idea that young people are actually leaving church at a faster rate than any other age group. Richard Beck of ACU posts in the comments and is cited in the book. If you don’t read Scot or Richard you should.
  2. Rachel Evan’s post Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church where Evans talks about what young people are really after. They want substance. They don’t want the old stuff spiffed up to seem knew and hip. They want roots. They want deep meaning. They want relevance and community and belonging. Getting below the surface is vital and sadly few churches know how to do that well, especially with a generation they just don’t understand.
  3. Richard Beck’s response to Rachel Evan’s post What Does Rachel Evans Want? is a very thoughtful post about a generation that desperately wants to be heard and the struggle of staying with a faith tradition that you think needs to change or jumping ship to another tradition and leaving your roots behind.

Note to Church leaders
You have to figure this one out. Forget everything you learned in seminary about how to do ministry. Forget everything you ever heard about what makes good worship. Forget everything those old books say about how to create community. Stop studying. Stop looking for the next quick fix. Stop scouring the web for the next ministry that is sure to get them in the door.

Instead, here is what you do…

  1. Pray for them daily
  2. Pick out a few young adults and actually get to know them outside of worship times
  3. Ask them questions
  4. Care about their answers
  5. Ask about their friends…and meet their friends (then do steps 1-4 for their friends too)
  6. Take what you learn from them and make that your textbook…let that shape your approach
  7. Involve them in leading the church in what comes next. Give them a seat at the table. We wait until people are 60 to put them in “leadership” positions and fail to develop new people while still in their 20s & 30s.

You aren’t going to like or agree with everything you hear them say. Get over it. The church will die because we were too proud to listen to them.

Here are some of my previous posts on why this group is leaving:

Karate Kid, Discipleship, and Why Some Are Leaving Christianity

Mr. Miyagi knew discipleship. He knew what it took to train someone to be able to do the things he did. Miyagi trained Daniel this way, not because cars needed to be washed but because these were the moves Daniel had to repeat enough times that it became natural to him (think muscle memory). When you do something enough times, your body is able to do it nearly instantaneously, almost without thinking. Daniel had to learn this…not just head knowledge alone . He had to learn how to act and react if he was going to succeed and grow. He had to learn this because there was a fight coming and he had to be ready.

The same is true with our faith. We disciple people in times of peace to ready them for times of trial. We lose credibility when we fail to make the Miyagi connection, letting people know that there is more to all they are doing than what they see. When we don’t make the connection between what we do “at church” with real life (relevance) all we leave people thinking they are doing is washing cars and painting fences. That is one of the biggest reasons young people have left the church is because we haven’t always made the obvious connection of how what we do is preparing them for significant things that they must be ready for.

It is crucial we help people make this connection.

We’re All In This Together – A Sermon on Breaking Down Barriers in the Church

This year we are focused at getting the church to be more inter-generational. This past Sunday I preached on taking down the divisions that so often divide us in the church. The one I picked on the most was the generational barrier and how to have balance with that. A few of you ask that I post this, so here it is (for listen or download). I hope you find it challenging…

We’re all in this together

The One Thing the Conversation About Young Adults Leaving the Church Brings Out…

is the bias (or read that expertise and passion) of the person who is making their case:

The educator says we need more solid biblical teaching

The evangelist says we need to be doing more outreach and teaching them to be evangelistic.

Their parents will say they are just in rebellion.

The pastor will say we haven’t cared enough for them.

The counselor will say we haven’t met their felt needs

The culture guru points out that we don’t exegete our society very well, meet them where they are at, etc.

The worship leader will say we need new songs.

The preacher/communicator will say we need to be more relevant.

The legalist will have a checklist to hand them if they ever do return.

The guy in the pew might not even notice that they left.

There is one thing missing in all of this…what will they tell you if you actually ask them why they left? Do we even care enough to ask or do we just talk over and around them? Are we connected enough with them to feel like we have space to ask that question? There are many reasons people leave the church and our gut level, first reaction will say more about our own personal leanings than it will be an all-inclusive glimpse into why young people are leaving the church. That is called transference and it is good that we are aware of that tendency.

1 Corinthians 13 Young Adult Remix

If you want to reach 20 Somethings, here is the key – Love them and let them know it. You may not have all the “right” programs (as if there is a giant cookie cutter you can press into your congregation and make it work). Your worship may not be flashy. Your members may be aging. The nursery may be empty. You may not know all the right things to say, the questions to ask or be up on all the latest cultural trends, viral videos or newest songs…but if you can just have a heart for this generation and reach out to them in love…embrace them and give them space to explore faith in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way…you will be amazed what will happen.

Here is why this works. You spend time with the people you love. That generates a connection greater than giving them the next great program or ministry. You give attention and affection to the people you love. That will build their trust. You will gain and earn the respect to speak words of truth into their lives, give them the guidance they need and be there to pick them up lovingly when they make a mistake. Love is key because love shoots right through all the surface issues of why they leave and why we don’t keep them around.

Do we love them like we should and do they know it? Is our love for them at least as evident as our love for doctrine and tradition? If your answer to that is no, then I would ask you to read what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13. Today it might sound something like this…

1 Corinthians 13 Young Adult Remix

“If I speak all the true doctrines of the church, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where it is silent, take the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess in the Sunday morning offering plate and worship a capella, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are traditions of the church, they will cease; where there are tongues that teach church doctrine, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

If you read 1 Cor 13 in context going back into 1 Corinthians 12 you will see that Paul didn’t think any of these gifts were bad things. In fact, he said to seek them out. Same for us. Doctrine is important. Even our traditions can be important to us. We just have to make sure that all of these things are seen and done through the lens of what will remain and the greatest thing that will remain, is love. So please don’t read my re-write as any slam on the church. If it is a slam on anything it is on those who take perfectly good things and use and abuse them and run people off (especially young people) because they “have not love” in how they use and practice those things. I just want to be clear on that.

Marc5solas Take on Why 20 Somethings are Leaving the Church

After my post on why young people are leaving the church, several of you sent me the same link to what I think is one of the best written pieces (and most commented on 300+) in the current discussion on why young adults are leaving was written last week was written over at marc5solas. You can read Mark’s thoughts here. What makes his take so helpful is that he actually asked some young people and let us know what they said. I am sure he narrowed it down some and probably re-framed it a little in the writing in order to make 10 recognizable categories out of it, nevertheless, his list is solid. Here are his 10 reasons with a little of my own commentary on his excellent points:

10 – The church is “relevant”
On the surface, this runs counter to conventional wisdom that our young people really want relevant lessons that they can apply to their lives. They still want that and relevant is still important. What Mark is talking about here is the church’s construction of a pseudo-relevance that tries to look enough like the world to gain some interest but in the process misses the whole point of what faith is all about. The Gospel is always relevant. We just get in the way with our own versions of what we think is relevant and mess the whole thing up.

9 – They never attended church to begin with
Here he is talking about the insulation that comes from being in the “other church” we know as youth ministry. As Eric Brown has said, if you have a viable youth ministry in your congregation, you have two churches meeting in your building. Not only have we insulated them in our space (where we put them vs where we put everyone else)…we have insulated them against the world that they are about to be tossed head first into. Then they don’t know how to deal with it when it happens.

8 – They get smart
Man he nails it on this one…his main point here is once they leave the nest of the church and youth ministry, they finally encounter people who view them as smart and able to think for themselves. This one is about intellectual honesty and, as Randy Harris would say, epistemological humility. If we don’t give them room to safely ask their questions and wrestle with their faith before they transition into adulthood, chances are we will lose them the moment they have that space and don’t know what to do with it.

7 – You sent them out unarmed
Again, so true. He believes this starts with the leadership and works it way down. In other words, even the leaders in some of our churches are woefully ignorant of doctrine, scripture, etc and that ignorance gets passed down to those they teach. Again, let’s not get defensive when they ask questions, touch questions…it shows they are exploring and we need to walk alongside them when they do that. Otherwise they learn the Gospel is too small to take a serious question and they leave it. Who wants a Gospel that isn’t big enough to survive a question from a teenager?

6 – You gave them hand me downs
He believes we made faith too subjective, about our feelings. That is going to vary from fellowship to fellowship.

5 – Community
He thinks we provided the wrong kinds of community. That is probably true in many ways. That doesn’t mean community is bad or that we shouldn’t embrace it. Discipleship cannot happen outside of some sort of community. So I think there is balance here and he is rejecting the things that should be rejected when it comes to certain kinds of community…I just want to make sure we don’t throw out perfectly legitimate forms of community in the process. Even God lives in community with himself as Father, Son and Spirit and when he made Adam, realized the first thing that was not good in all creation…that Adam was alone. We need community. It is just about what we do in that community and why we have it that makes the difference.

4 – They found better feelings
This is nearly a repeat of #6. The only twist here is that he is now more talking about the church’s embrace of Christian Smith’s moralistic therapeutic deism.

3 – They got tired of pretending
This is so true. The positive way of saying this is that what they needed was an environment where they could be real about their life, their struggles, their questions, etc…authenticity and dealing with reality. Instead, they got more of a codependent, hide the elephant in the room and gloss over any negatives you may encounter kind of faith that is just not in tune with reality. They will and have run from that type of Christianity, as they rightly should.

2 – They know the truth
This is the old checkbox mentality…do this and you are good with us but do any of these things and you might as well never show your face again. Guess what, some of them did the naughty list stuff and took the threats of the church seriously and never returned. This one is about the church’s embrace of truth without the grace (see John 1:17 to find out how Jesus shows us we need both, together).

1 – They don’t need it
This is also about Moralistic therapeutic deism. The church is a place to learn to be good, not a place to encounter the resurrected Lord, the demands he places on your life and the life that comes through our connection with Him. They haven’t been taught why they actually need Jesus.

Thanks Mark for such a good list and such solid explanation. I hope you guys who haven’t read his post will take a moment and do that. Again, this is a complex issue and I am glad to see Mark engages in the issue in all its complexity and also in a way that is in touch with the realities of being a young adult in today’s world. To those of us in church leadership, this issue runs deep into the core of who we are and what we do and if we don’t want the same results in the coming generations, we have to evaluate what is going on. We have to determine what is tradition and what is scripture. We need to dig in and study for ourselves and pass on our knowledge to our young people. We have to fight with them and for them for faith. We need to serve them and with them and be served by them. We have to encourage and foster real, deep faith…that is NEVER formed solely in the auditorium or youth group class in 1-2 hours each week.

Why Are Young Adults Leaving Church? A Comprehensive Answer

There has been a mass exodus of young adults from Christian churches (including but not limited to Churches of Christ) over the last few decades. As I mentioned a few posts ago, there is a flurry of debate in blogs, facebook, etc on why young people are leaving the church in their early 20s. What you end up finding is that the experts tend to give the one thing they are most passionate about as the one reason young people are leaving. Well, there isn’t one reason. There are many. There are two big questions that are on people’s minds when it comes to this issue: 1) Why are they leaving? (what this post is about) and 2) what can we do about it? (future post). There are a variety of reasons young adults leave the church in their early 20s. They are not all leaving for the same reasons and not every reason is the church’s fault (which tends to be the chorus out there…the church is fully to blame. Not really). I believe there are four categories that all work together into a devastating mix that have resulted in this movement.

Re-frame the discussion: Who/what are they leaving?
Before I dive into the four reasons let me say this. The whole discussion needs to be re-framed from the start. We are stating the problem in terms of young people leaving “the church” when what is more concerning are young people who are “leaving the Lord”. One reason for that is, it is easy to measure when someone leaves the church. They stop attending. It is easy and measurable but it gets us off on the wrong foot in the discussion. Our goal is not first and foremost to get them back to church attendance but to get them back to Jesus. That is an important distinction. I do mean to diminish the church in saying that. I am just trying to get everything in the right order. I want to credit Eric Brown for pointing this out to me sometime back.

1 – Themselves

 Them factor #1 – Identity Formation
Young adults are at a transition point in life where they are trying to figure out multiple major decisions. What career will they pursue, where will they study, who will they marry, how many children will they have, and the big question “Who am I and how do I go about answering that question?” It is a time of investigation, experimentation, transition and stress. We might assume that, if they grew up in church, they should already know who they are through years of Bible class, youth group, summer camp, etc. Many didn’t develop a faith of their own during those years.

When you are a child, our society guides your path. You know you go to first grade after kindergarten and you know you go from middle school to high school. It is all mapped out for you. But when you enter your young adult years the map is removed and all you have to go on is whatever you have been taught and experienced up to that point in your life. The way isn’t clear and it isn’t easy. They are going to make a lot of mistakes along the way and, from what they remember about church, it is not necessarily the place they want to be because they don’t believe they will be welcome their given the decisions they have made or are currently making trying to form their own identity. Many are forming an identity and that identity no longer identifies with “church” as they knew it growing up.

Them factor #2 – Freedom, decisions and experimentation
Adulthood comes with a new set of freedom to make a path for yourself in the world. Finding that path comes with experience, experimentation and the influence of others. Many are already engaging in risky behaviors (drug usage and sex) in their teens years (yes, even while in the youth group). When they get the increased freedom of adulthood and being away from home and influenced by a new set of non-Christian peers, the behaviors that were so private in high school may be taken to a whole new level. They know those behaviors were preached against in church. They may not feel like church is the right fit for them because they don’t see how church has anything meaningful for their life to influence them into a better way of living. They just anticipate condemnation from those who disagree with their choices.

Them factor #3 – Never a disciple to begin with
Another “them” factor is whether or not they were ever “bought in” to being a disciple of Christ in the first place. In the past, the assumption was that faithful attendance equaled mature disciple. When they got on their own they ran for the door. They did that because in adulthood they now had the freedom to choose and finally chose what they would have done years prior had their parents not been forcing them to attend.

For this crowd, they were a part of our attendance number…but they weren’t really serious about their faith to begin with. They never made it their own. This transitions us into the next two categories that may have had an impact on why they never made their faith their own in the first place: 1) the church & 2) the family.

2 – The Church

 Church factor #1 – The “institutional appearance” of the church
There has been a lot of talk about how institutional the church has become. I think there is some truth in that but I think we also have to be careful to not talk institutionally of Christ’s bride. That also, though, means the church has a responsibility to not relegate itself to the level of institution along the way. What does it mean when someone talks about the church as an institution? What most people mean when they say that is that the church has lost sight of its mission and has become an organization that exists to perpetuate it’s own ecclesiology, often not seeing much distinction between tradition and scripture.

There aren’t going to be many churches who actually do this in a purposeful way. Most churches are doing what they believe God’s mission for them is in some sort of way…even if they just think it is worshipping for an hour on Sunday each week. The problem is that many congregations are presenting themselves in institutional ways and don’t realize they are doing it. For example, the practice and attitude that spiritual things must happen at a building and not in homes communicates that the church is an institution.

We frame this whole discussion from an institutional perspective – the big discussion today is why young people are “leaving the church”. That is an institutional way of framing a deeper problem. Shouldn’t we be framing this as young people are leaving the Lord? We talk about how they have left church because that is how we measure things, by an institutional measure we call attendance. Counting is fast and easy. Discipling someone is slow and difficult.

When a young person is looking for answers and for a relationship with Jesus but all they find is what appears to be the spinning of wheels of an institution with little warmth and no visible mission other than to get back again on Wednesday and Sunday and do it again that young person may go somewhere else where they can find that. Then we say they left the church. Did they? Even the thinking that people are leaving the church is institutional

There are several more “church factors” but they are all influenced by the problems that come along with institutional church. Here are the rest…

Church factor #2 – Woefully Inadequate Discipleship
As a teen, if I was there regularly it was assumed I was a disciple of Jesus. Even more basic than that, if I was baptized then everything was good as long as I kept attending. I never experienced any intentional discipling until I was in graduate school studying psychology. My major professor discipled me in clinical psychology. Not what you expected? She did. We worked out major projects together. She taught me, mentored me, took me under her wing. She gave me guidance in the field. She was the expert and I was the student and I spent hundreds of hours with her helping me grow into being the best psychologist I could be. How is it that a state school graduate department has a better method for discipling people than most churches?

My experience has been that we do a better job teaching someone why they need to be baptized (which is important) than we do actually teaching them to follow Jesus. The truth is, you teach those things the same way. It is all under the umbrella of helping make a disciple. Many churches have missed the boat on this. If you want to know more on how to do this have a look at Mike Breen’s material. It is excellent. We are working on our own discipling material that will be done in 2013.

Church factor #3 – Age segregated ministry, a body divided
A body that is divided cannot grow unless you are a worm. A few decades ago the youth ministry model became really popular and still is today. There are many good things that came through youth ministry. I was blessed by a good youth ministry in my teen years. But we cannot be blind to the problems that it fosters. 1) It isn’t geared to disciple. There are some exceptional youth ministries out there who do better at this but for the most part that is true. 2) Teens don’t know anyone in the rest of the church. Eric Brown said that if you have a viable youth ministry, you have at least two churches that are meeting in your building on Sunday. The teens don’t know the rest of the church. When it comes time for them to graduate out of the youth group the leap is too big and they jump ship. There are some transitions that can be made that will be discussed later.

Church factor #4 – Ecclesiology
Some churches haven’t changed their worship service in decades, if ever. I am not saying that is a sin, I am just making an observation. The tempting route here is to talk about how we need certain things in worship in order to make it relevant. I won’t deny that certain things will help connect with a younger generation but I that discussion comes after a much more important one. The discussion that has to happen first is to understand why a church can worship with the same order and the same songs and the same topics for 100 years and never make much of a visible change. This is a value issue that points to something under the surface that needs to be examined if we are going to reach the next generation. Here is how I can say that with confidence. Go into a church that has been doing it like that and move communion to the end of the service and see what happens. People will be up in arms over it! Why? Because we haven’t ever done it that way, it’s not scriptural to have it after the sermon, the guys who started this church would roll over in their graves if they knew we did that and on and on it goes. What you won’t hear is an actual scripture that says its wrong or that God even cares. What you will find is value in tradition that is so deeply rooted that it becomes destructive, stifling and insulating.

It is not the lack of powerpoint that will run young people off or keep new young people from coming in the first place. Faster songs won’t heal an unhealthy dynamic in a congregation. It is the actions, attitudes and underlying values that will take care of that. Before you can deal with the young people leaving issue you have to dig around in why you do the things you do and whether God is more concerned about when you have the Lord’s Supper or that your attitudes and values are driving away your own children. I think scripture is clear about the second and is absolutely silent on the first.

Church factor #6 – Leadership & Change
In Churches of Christ we are notorious for having a difficult time with change. Fear can keep us from addressing this issue. I grew up being taught that on every issue there is a right and a wrong. Change was bad because change could logically only have two outcomes (and both were to be avoided), 1) you either had to admit that what you were doing was wrong in order to do something different or 2) what you are doing now is right and the new way is wrong. Some churches are willing to go to their grave and shut their doors rather than tweak the negotiables. Some believe there is no such thing as a negotiable. There is a fear that the only way to reach 20 somethings is be negotiating core beliefs or even some very important, non-core beliefs and doctrines. We fear we will have to compromise scripture in order to reach them. That is just not the case. Leadership must be willing to disseminate control and responsibility even to young adults. They aren’t kids any more. They need a voice and they need to be heard. We might even fear what they will say if we let them speak. Well, get over it because some are leaving because no one cares enough about them to listen or love them.  Some will fear that these young people will want us to do some crazy things and it will all get out of control, nothing worse than losing control right? Control is an illusion. Did we ever really have control of things in the first place? What isn’t an illusion is their absence.

3 – The Family

 Family Factor #1 – Families are broken
The divorce rate remains high, even among Christians. Kids are experiencing trauma and hurt in their lives at a very young age. Teenagers today are exposed to things that you cannot even imagine. Substance abuse is becoming common place. Teenage pregnancy is running rampant. This is not just “out there” but in the church as well. Families are broken and the kids are feeling the pain as a result.

Family Factor #2 – Families aren’t  discipling their own kids
Youth ministry worked well when families were intact. As families have started to deteriorate and our churches have less and less intact families, the spiritual development of teens has been left in the hands of youth ministers as the families have spent less and less time developing their kids spiritually. It used to be common for families to eat together, pray together and even read scripture together, that is happening less and less. What is more, in our attempts to show how vibrant our youth ministry is parents have assumed that the ministry can disciple their kids. Again, if they attend, it must rub off. Youth ministry only works well as a supplement to what the parents are doing. Parents are doing less and less spiritual development. These kids are growing up and we are seeing the effects today in the mass exodus of young adults from our church.

About 10 years ago I worked with a bus ministry. Every week we knocked doors and every week we would bring in around 100 kids and 0 parents to the church. We formed relationships with them. We sang with them, taught them, baptized them and loved them. Now those kids are adults and very, very few of them that I am aware of are still actively involved in their faith and relationship with God. It wasn’t for lack of effort. The family card trumps the church card nearly every time. For more information on how families can disciple their own children see

4 – Culture

 Cultural Factor #1 – Post-modernism, Perceived Relevance & Questions
It is easy to see that the world has changed. Christianity is on the decline and agnostics are on the rise. Post-modernism has put the world in a “question everything” state of mind. That can be healthy. In some instances, the church wasn’t ready to give an answer to those questions. Or let me put it this way, we were so out of touch with the culture that we weren’t even aware of what questions people were needing answers to. Instead, some kept answering the same worn out old questions over and over again. When you spend your time answering questions no one is asking and ignoring or are ignorant of the questions people are asking you box yourself out of relevance.

Cultural Factor #2 – The Church’s position in society has changed
The church no longer holds the position in society that it once did. Church scandals, this lack of relevance, and a general distrust of absolutes (both moral, ethical and epistemological) have resulted on the macro level in a growing distance between the church and the unchurched. The politicizing of the church has also played a role for some in recognizing the church with one political party over another. It muddies the water of what the church exists for. However, on the micro level Christians have become so much like the surrounding culture that it can be hard to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians. The actions, attitudes, and beliefs of both groups have gotten blurry. That can make church an unattractive place for a young adult who is looking for something different than they find in the world when they come to church and find the same antics they see in the world.

All of this to say, the church is losing its identity and place in the world. Now, that is to be expected if we are following our biblically mandated mission, that the world will not understand or even hate the church. It is tragic, though, if the church loses its place in the world because those inside and those outside the church are not radically different from one another. The church loses its relevance because people can find the same thing in church that they find in their workplace, their home, and everywhere else.

Culture Factors #3: The Need for Real Experience/Encounter
95% of the activity of the church is geared toward less than 1% of the week, that special hour of corporate worship on Sunday. They want a faith and teaching that translates into the other 99% of their life. The church “experience” doesn’t seem to reflect real life or the early church at all. We have traditionally favored logic and reason over emotion and yet emotion is still a part of real life and worship should not be distanced from reality. When worship is unengaged and seems like it is going through the motions, it doesn’t click with a culture that values transparency and authenticity. This includes things like a lack of celebration. Big things happen in the church…a lost person is saved and no one seems excited. It just doesn’t add up so it must not be real. They will leave. The structure of the church and its activities don’t match up with real life. There is no lament. The order of worship has too much order and not enough worship. Life is messier than what we put on on a given Sunday. Let it happen when it needs to happen.

 Combination of Factors Over One Main Reason

 What I have attempted to show here is that, while we all have our pet reasons about why young people are leaving, there isn’t one answer to that question. There is a constellation of issues that all culminate in a mass exodus of young adults from church and even from faith. There are more things that could be added but I figure 3200 words is a good enough running start. I am going to tackle what it is we can and should do about this in the next post.

For more information you can read my handouts from the 2011 Tulsa workshop on reaching 20 Somethings.

Bottom line – If you want to know why someone left, don’t get bogged down in all of this…go ask them. Let them know you love them and miss them. Invite them into your home and show them how much you care about them, even if they have made every mistake in the book.

Additional reading:

20s & 30s Section here at Kingdom Living – 40+ posts on ministering to 20s & 30s
James Nored
Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking (Part 1)
Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking (Part 2)

Danny Dodd – Everything Has Changed
Lynn Stringfellow – Why Our Kids are Leaving the Church
Russ Adcox – When I Grow Up

The Biggest Issues Being Discussed in Christianity Are All Connected

There are several topics that come up over and over again in Christian circles, particularly among church leaders, including:

  • Reforming our ecclesiology, the idea that our worship needs an overhaul and…
  • The segregation of the church into professionalized, age-specific ministries and the pitfalls that brings…and
  • The failure of parents and youth ministry to disciple our kids and…
  • Recognizing God’s mission for his church and how many churches have remained too institutional and neglected the biblical mission of the church which all leads to…
  • Losing our young adults – the mass exodus of 18-28 year olds from church

These are not separate issues.
All these issues feed into each other in an interconnected ecosystem that we call the church. They cannot be dealt with on an individual basis. These are systemic issues that all work from a common core problem. I believe that core problem is our identity. Have we forgotten who we are? Have some preached Christ divided where the Bible proclaims Christ united? Is the body, then, only a body if it includes who we are comfortable with. Instead of wrapping our identity in Christ, some have exchanged that idea for a seemingly tight-knit, deductive system that is able to defeat all false doctrine, doing so without a dose of humility and love. Our identity get wrapped up in being right, having perfect doctrine and being undefeatable by the denominations. Find that for me in the Bible somewhere…

So who are we and how does that impact these interconnected issues? Once we fully identify with Jesus (which is God’s ultimate goal for our lives, Rom 8:29-30 & 2 Cor 3:18)

  • Our worship and worshippers become so Christ-focused that our ecclesiology is no longer an issue (whether semi-archaic or technologically advanced) because they are so in love with the Lord and giving him their best that the bells and whistles become periphery. People who come into the worship will not be wowed by multiple powerpoint screens but by the Spirit that is at work within the congregation. Which would you rather draw them with anyway?
  • Segregation in the church becomes a church united, where intergenerational ministry is taking place and not just ministry TO all the generations at once but the generations ministering together, engaging in the mission of God at the same time rather than in isolation from each other (our current system is like just having a hand throw a game-winning touchdown…just shouldn’t work like that).
  • Parents are then reconnected with their kids in a spiritual setting and they are equipped to intentionally disciple their children. They see the need and their responsibility to do that because they realize just how much their kids need Jesus and how no one else will do a better job of teaching them than they will.
  • When the body comes together like this, with Jesus as our focus, the church’s mission naturally flows out of our identity and our practices become more in line with the ministry of Jesus and less concerned with the perpetuation of an institution.
  • Which results in our young people growing up with real faith that will last through their adult years because they know and love Jesus and our attrition numbers begin to decline.

These problems are all interconnected. We cannot just put band aids on symptoms. We have to get underneath it all and start addressing the core issues and I believe it all goes back to claiming the wrong or misplaced identity and putting our trust in the wrong things. I hope this post doesn’t sting too hard…it is not meant to be a rebuke. I also know not all churches suffer from this to the same degree. Also, this is not strictly a “church of Christ” issue but that many churches of all sorts of different denominational affiliations are trying to navigate this. I am afraid, we are taking this piecemeal and fear we won’t be able to solve a systemic issue by only focusing on one or two parts and missing the interconnection. This post is meant to help unpack where some congregations are at in this so we can move forward in healthy ways. The elephant is in the room for some, will anyone be willing to talk about it?

Cultural Insights Gleaned from the Recent Discussion Over Harding’s New President

Over the last week or so Rich Little has expressed concern over Harding Universities selection of its next president. Rich has invited a number of guests (Harding alum) to post their thoughts on the appointment. This has included people like Don McLaughlin, Jonathan Storment, Sara Barton, Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, and several others. One of my first thoughts reading those posts was, “Wow, right or wrong I hope Harding tunes in to this discussion” but the more I thought about it I think the posts tap into something that runs a lot deeper and needs to be heard and understood by a wider audience of church leaders. At its core, the discussion reveals and reflects the growing culture gap that exists in our universities but also in our churches (see especially Sky Vanderburg’s post). It is the latter that this post is going to deal with. Very little of what is said below is about Harding (in case you are interested I support Harding and Dr. McLarty 100%). I am too far removed from the details of that situation to deal with all of that.

Concerned they don’t understand or listen:
When you read those posts you see there is a concern that there is a disconnect between generations and cultures. This is demonstrated in several ways (whether perceived or actually happening). This happens when it appears the older generation does not appear to be interested in the input of the younger. Or, regardless of age, when one side of the theological spectrum doesn’t appear to want any input from those “on the other side.” [That goes both ways, by the way] When young people get shut down, shut out or not invited into the conversation, it appears that the establishment doesn’t really care. Or even worse than all of that…the older generation does invite you into the conversation but then doesn’t do anything with your input, solutions, and creativity. Again…perception is reality. Create this perception and people will criticize you for being uncaring, whether it is true or not.

The way to address that concern is to be transparent and invitational. It is important that church leadership be transparent with what is going on. Transparency takes good communication. I don’t say that as an indictment of Harding or anyone else. I am not close enough to that situation to know if that was the case or not. I am speaking generally here. You have to let people know where you are headed and how to get on board. If they actually get on board it is even more important that you value them, their input, etc. The vision of where you are headed has to be informed by scripture but you also have to be aware of those you lead. So you have to invite them into the decision making process so that they have input in the most important areas of their lives and value that input enough to actually implement at least portions of it. That validates the whole process and builds bridges to reconnect the generations. This is why it is important to have connections between the eldership and younger groups in the church.

Deep Feelings of Hurt
The result of that disconnect, whether theological or cultural is hurt. You see in the discussion on Rich’s blog there are a lot of people who have been hurt by the ideological gap between the generations. It is more than hurt over the actual ideology but over actions and attitudes that have come out of the discrepancy that have broken some relationships. [again…this goes both ways] This happens in universities and it happens in churches. It has to be addressed and cannot just be glossed over. It is imperative that we don’t adopt the attitude that hurt people will just have to work it out themselves. If people are getting hurt, it is important that we understand what happened and how to prevent it as best we can in the future. The fear is, in order to fix it we will have to compromise ourselves theologically. That is not the case. Reconciliation does not mean we all have to agree on everything in order to avoid all forms of people getting hurt. Rarely does the hurt come from just disagreeing on something. Hurt comes from more significant events and specific actions that spring out of the differences not in the differences themselves.

Maintaining a Position of Relevance
Young people are having a hard time seeing how we have done things in the past continues to be relevant today. There is a fear of status quo. Status quo feels like death (again, whether that is fair or not we have to be aware that is the perception). In churches, young adults have a hard time feeling like Sunday is relevant to the rest of their lives. You come and sing and pray and listen and go home just to come back the next week and do it again. Sunday morning worship doesn’t scream relevance like it used to. We have to help people understand how to live for Christ in ways that are relevant and Sunday won’t ever completely foot the bill all by itself.

The world has changed. Have we adapted? The world is not what it was even 15 years ago. In church world it is too easy to get stuck. You can be ineffective for lengthy periods of time with no perceived immediate penalty or recourse. The fear here is that the world has changed and the church is losing its relevance. The plea is to recapture the imagination of all parties and get them in line with Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes some criticism to pull that off as long as it isn’t criticism for the sake of being a cynic without seeing any viable options or direction in the process.

Appreciate voices of dissent:
To those of you who are church leaders, here is the rub…when young people express their concerns…it can sound like harsh criticism by uncaring people. The reality is, if you have people who are willing to speak up, be thankful for them. Most people just leave without saying a word and not helping you get any closer to figuring out what is going on. If you have people who will help you understand what is going on, even if it sounds like complaining, rejoice that those people are in your corner because they will help you navigate this if you don’t get too defensive. If someone is telling you their frustrations it means they love you and the church enough to express it. The worst thing you can do is shut them down and shut them out. We can learn a lot from those we disagree with if we are willing to listen.

Seth Godin said this on his blog today that I think is entirely appropriate as it pertains to these conversations,

“You can’t argue with success…

Of course you can. What else are you going to argue with? Failure can’t argue with you, because it knows that it didn’t work.

The art of staying successful is in being open to having the argument. Great organizations fail precisely because they refuse to do this.”