20s & 30s Ministry: The Kids/No Kids Dilemma

One of the biggest challenges in ministering to 20s & 30s is that there are so many different stages of life someone can be in and fit between the ages of 20-39. There are college students, singles, young marrieds, marrieds with young children and marrieds with teens. There is a huge difference between a person who is just starting into the ministry in their early 20s and someone about to move on from the ministry in their late 30s. It is important that we understand that difference and address it.

We tend to relate more with the people who are in the same stage we are. When the ministry started, Missy and I didn’t have any kids. It was easier to relate with those who came who were young marrieds without kids. Then we had a child of our own and all of a sudden, the things that interested us and the conversations we needed to have were with other people who had children. That is just how it works. The problem is, it is easy to think everyone else feels just as close to those with small kids as you do, when the truth is…singles in their early 20s won’t feel at all connected with that.

A few months ago we had a discussion within our ministry about where we are at and what our next steps are. We had a few people who don’t have children mention that they don’t naturally feel like the group is for them. They feel like the group caters mostly to young families. When they come, they don’t feel like it is their group. Now, that is some honest feedback! I started reflecting on my own time in my early 20s and my own discomfort with the married with kids crowd.

We are just now starting to address this so maybe in a future post I will have more to say about what works to help resolve this. Right now, we are more in the planning and development stages of our next steps for the ministry. I will let you know how it goes. For now, I just wanted to put the idea out there that if you have a diverse young adult ministry, make sure you have your finger on the pulse of those who are in a different stage than those in leadership are in and that you get honest feedback on whether or not they really feel like they belong.

Last, we have to be careful because the “solutions” themselves can lead to more problems. If we further subdivide our ministry into kids/no kids we run the risk of isolating our young people even further and remove them from some potentially healthy relationships with those who have more experience in life than they do. Like with most things, we have to find balance in order for it to be a win/win for everyone involved.


10 Big Moves in Christianity Today

  1. The move from teaching scripture to actual discipleship (includes teaching scripture but goes further)
  2. The move from attractional (come to us) to missional (go to them)
  3. The move from institutional church toward organic/simple community
  4. The move from tradition back to scripture
  5. The move from youth ministry toward family ministry
  6. The move from debating doctrine toward preaching the larger narrative & social issues
  7. The move from segregation by age to intergenerational ministry
  8. The move from complementarianism to egalitarianism
  9. The move from isolation & insulation from the world to integration (the church being salt in a decaying world has to come into contact in order to have a preserving effect. When taking to an extreme this can turn into cultural accommodation)
  10. The move from distinct denominations (brand loyalty of the past) to a more unified view of Christianity (by erasing the lines that used to bind and divide us as people get less interested in fighting those old fights and defending denominational territory)

What would you add or take away? By the way, this post is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, I don’t necessary agree with all that comes with every single move…just describing what I see going on out there, most of which is good.

James McCarty’s Thoughts on Why Young People Are Leaving Churches of Christ

James McCarty wrote an interesting post on why young people are leaving Churches of Christ: Homeless: An Essay on the Ecclesial Lives of Young Adults from the Churches of Christ

James lays out 5 reasons he believes young people are leaving Churches of Christ and then ends the post with some words for those young people and some words for the churches who are losing them. His five reasons include:

  1. Rejecting the old claim that Churches of Christ are the only ones going to heaven.
  2. Rejection of legalism
  3. Dissatisfaction of the teaching and ministries of the church as too narrow/not relevant to them
  4. Rejection of the church aligning itself with the Republican party
  5. Desire for racial diversity in the church

Going beyond symptoms to the heart of the matter:
If you haven’t read James’ post you should. I think he makes some good points. These five things could be said of all kinds of different denominations. This is not a unique list for churches of Christ. I am not certain that his five points get to the heart of what is really happening here. I think this is more of a symptom checklist of some deeper issues that have to be uncovered if we are going to move forward. You could “fix” all five of his points and still have young people leaving the church.

Two Underlying Issues:
First, in almost all of the discussions I have heard on this problem we have framed the problem as young people leaving the church. When you are concerned about young people leaving the church the metric you use to assess their spiritual health is whether or not they return to attending on Sunday. The problem is, these guys attended church for 18-25 years and then left. First and foremost this is about bringing people to Christ. If you can do that the church part will naturally flow out of it but if all you are concerned about is church attendance then you are winning them to the wrong thing. I give Eric Brown credit for opening my eyes to that point. Eric and I talk about these things pretty frequently and I am very appreciative of his perspective on this.

The second underlying issue is how do we define church and is there is discrepancy between how the older and younger generations view and define church? That question has to be followed up with this question – How is “church” defined by scripture and how do both “sides” need to adjust to have a more biblical approach? Both generations will have some helpful points in defining church and both will have areas where they need to adjust their view to something that is more biblical as well as cognizant of people who are of another generation.

How we define church is a combination of our scripture and worldview. For example, the older generation has a love for teaching. Teaching is just as biblical as community. Teaching is a part of their DNA due to the combination of worldview and what they gravitate to in the practices of the early church. What I mean by that is this…the early church did many things that we can read about in the Bible. We are all reading the same Bible but different generations gravitate to different aspects or practices of the early church. Worldview influences the parts we pick and the parts we ignore or discard. The older generation has a modern worldview. They value information and grew up in doctrinal debates where they had to “study to show thyself approved.” They also value church attendance as a marker of the faithful. Church attendance for them is defined as being at the building at a particular time on Sunday. Nothing else counts (I am overgeneralizing here…I understand that). What ends up happening is “church” ends up being defined through two lenses: what we read about in the Bible (the culture of the first century church) and contemporary culture (influences the traditions we develop and the scriptures we emphasize as our reading of the Bible is filtered through what we already value/believe to be important).

Being the 21st century church
We all have to be aware of how our worldview/culture influences the way we view and define “church” and we all have to realize that our view can always be improved. At the same time, we can get so caught up trying to be the first century church that we fail to be the 21st century church. In other words, we get so caught up on the forms of how we do things and imitating them, that we fail to personally develop and embody the heart of Jesus in our communities today. Eric Brown said this really well at the Spiritual Growth Workshop this year when he said, “The first century church was not trying to be the first century church. The first century church was trying to be Jesus.”

There is more I would like to say about this but I am curious what you guys think so far.

Spiritual Growth Workshop 2012

We are back from the Spiritual Growth Workshop 2012 in Orlando! It is always like one big family reunion with people from my past coming out of the woodwork. It was great teaching alongside my co-teachers Eric Green and Donny Dillon on ministry to 20s & 30s. It was also a treat to catch up with people like Jerry Rushford, Jerry Starling, Steve Puckett, Bob Bliss, John Ross, Bruce McClarty, Steve Diggs, Lynn Stringfellow, Matt Carter and so many others. It was also a pleasure to meet some new people including Bobby Ross from the Christian Chronicle and so many people who spoke with us after our three classes. We put out a signup sheet after each class for people to request a pdf of the Jesus 101 study and we had 75 people sign up to get that! If you haven’t gotten that get that evangelistic study of Mark here. There is an updated version that will be coming out soon! I am also working on a followup study…more on that later.

I want to pass along the part that was most encouraging to me…there is a spirit of taking our faith seriously that is spreading throughout our churches. We have seen the doors closing so many places that people are more and more open to answers. The answers are not new. The answers are old. It is not about getting trendy, it is about getting back to Jesus and reading the Gospels with a new set of lenses. It is about going rather than expecting them to come. It is about discipling rather than solely teaching doctrine. It is about the mission of God being broader than preaching, teaching and worship. This is seriously good news and I am convinced it is just in time. It is not too little, too late. God is up to something and people are getting on board!

Thanks to Joe Roberts, Larry Cline, Bob Bliss, and so many others who work so hard to make this workshop happen.

Interview with Mike Cope and His Ministry at What Really Matters

I am deeply appreciative that Mike Cope was willing to field some questions about his ministry with What Really Matters. God has really equipped Mike for kingdom work and it is a blessing to be able to learn from his perspective. He is a great thinker, communicator and is humble about how God has been able to use him for the kingdom. I was curious about Mike’s transition from preaching at Highland to working with and ministering with young adults through the What Really Matters ministry. Here is what Mike had to say:

After years of preaching, what motivated you to make the change to para-church ministry with What Really Matters:

The main motivation was a vision cast by Landon Saunders, one of my closest friends—and a man whom I’ve looked up to since I was 19 (and a student at Harding).  Landon’s great concern is for a young generation—especially those who are farthest away from faith and faith communities.  So often in ministry, I’ve found myself isolated from those very people.  I wish I knew during my decades of preaching what I know now after a couple years of sitting down with so many of these young adults.

Your new ministry focuses on growing faith in young adults, how has this generation of young people given you hope for the future?

Even those who are so far from Christian faith have a deep interest in community and in helping the world.  And it isn’t that they’ve said “no” to everything spiritual.  Many of them are at a great place for faith discussions to begin.

What challenges do you believe lie ahead for churches in reaching this generation of young adults?

For the most part, churches will have more luck with those who are already Christians but who have “taken a break.”  But for those who are truly outside, I’m guessing that creative, organic church plants are going to be a much better option.  The young adults I know will have little interest in churches trying to get big or trying to perfect a worship service.  They are, however, interested in sharing lives, understanding others, the needs of the world, and prayer.

What is the biggest lesson they have taught you while ministering to them with What Really Matters?

The church needs to leave the building.

What is one lesson you believe young people today need to hear and embrace?

For starters, they need to know that their life must be lived in community with others who will share beyond “what happened today.”  Then they need a vision of the good news and the kingdom that is broader and fuller than saving myself from hell.  (For more detail, see Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel or N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus.)

How can churches tap into the resources you are producing with What Really Matters or partner with your ministry?

I’m working on what the future of the nonprofit ministry will be, now that I’m about to start working full-time for Pepperdine, but I’m anxious to continue connecting with these young adults.  Some resources are available at www.reallymatters.net

How To Reach a Lost Generation 8: Effects of the Young Adult Exodus from Christianity are Bigger Than You Think

The most optimistic estimate is that at least 60% of Christians leave Christianity between the ages of 18-25. That is a big hole. But there could be something even more troubling that we have noticed in our ministry that is going to take us some time to address. There was a long time at Northwest where we had a vibrant youth group but nothing after that. So when people graduated they pretty much fell off in line with the statistics.

That is problematic in and of itself but it gets worse. What happened 7-14 years ago, the drop off of young adults and young families means the congregation had an extremely small number of children being born for a 7 year stretch. We are now six years into our ministry to young adults at Northwest and we have had a baby boom.  We now have a ton of kids ages 6 and younger but those who are 7-14 are few and far between and what is more, we don’t have as many families in that age range who are involved in the spiritual well being and maturation of this children as we once did. That gap will move up through the youth group, college group, 20s & 30s group over time and it is a noticeably large hole.

So we are experiencing the exodus of our young adults but what will effect will that have on the church 10-20 years down the road? The effects we have seen are substantial. I am convinced that the mass exodus of young adults from the church is one the most serious problems we are currently facing in Christianity. I am glad to see more and more people aware of it and doing something about it. I am also glad to see guys like Wes Woodell teaching on this at Pepperdine in a few weeks.

Lack of evangelism multiplies this problem. If you aren’t reaching new people and are dependent upon your kids to age in order to fill these holes the problem gets even worse. Over the last few months I have become convinced that one of the big keys to Christianity moving forward is evangelism…purposefully reaching out to those who need Jesus, studying with them, connecting them with other Christians, etc. That sounds like a no brainer and it should be but somehow we have lost our gumption and don’t invest in others like we used to. This has to change.

Has your congregation experienced this? It is not to say that this makes me feel hopeless. God can work good out of any situation. It is a reminder that the young adult exodus has repercussions we might not yet have noticed but will also need to be addressed.

How to Reach a Lost Generation Series

So far the How to Reach a Lost Generation Series is up to 7 parts with more on the way. Here is what has been covered so far in how to effectively reach 20s & 30s and grow their faith:

  1. Parable of the 60 Lost Sheep
  2. Who are we winning them to?
  3. Outreach that is still inreach
  4. The Shift from Passive to Active Evangelism
  5. 25 Reasons Young People are Leaving the Church
  6. The Burden is On Them as Well
  7. Ministry By them Rather than Ministry to Them
  8. Effects of the Young Adult Exodus are bigger than you think

I still welcome comments and dialog on any of those posts that you feel you have input or insights to share.

How to Reach a Lost Generation 7: Ministry By Them Rather than Ministry to Them

11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” – Ephesians 4:11-16

Paul said that God gifted his people in various ways and that when we use those gifts we accomplish what God has set before us, the church is built up into unity and we become mature. The problem with many ministries is that we minister to people rather than equip people so they can do ministry themselves. If we spoon feed people and do everything for them we cannot expect to grow mature disciples. Leaders aren’t developed on accident. Future church leaders are being born today but are we nurturing the gifts that God has given them?

One component of our 20s & 30s ministry is the handing off of responsibility. Instead of me doing everything for them, they are asked to do ministry, take on responsibility, and engage in the mission of God. If we are going to reach this generation it is important that they see visible and obvious inroads into engaging in the mission of God in the congregation that they can readily become a part of.

Equipping people to serve in God’s mission is not some catchy tool to get people in the door. This is what God has told us to do. If we do it we will accomplish God’s will, grow in unity and become mature. If we refuse to do it then we can’t expect God to fulfill His side of the deal.

Here is an older post outlining some specifics.

How to Reach a Lost Generation 6: The Burden is on Them As Well

Much of my focus is on what the church can do to reclaim a generation that is leaving the church, faith, or Christ at a breakneck pace. I focus on the church end because that is the only thing I can personally do to help. I do believe the church has the responsibility on taking the first move toward them in order to reach them rather than just sit and hope some day they “get it” and come back with none of our own issues being addressed or resolved. So that is why my focus tends to be there.

However, the burden is not solely on the church when it comes to reaching young adults. They have a burden as well. When Christ’s call comes to someone it is a call to change. That is why it is called conversion because it is a drastic change, resurrection even. You can’t go from the world to faith in Christ and be unchanged. Being a Christian is not an easy thing, especially when you have been in the world and lived like the world for some time. Making the jump is a call to a tremendous amount of change and they need to be cut to the heart and repentant in order to make that leap. So we need to be patient with them while still calling them to a Christ-like life. That means there is a burden on them and not 100% on the church.

The reasons they leave are not just because the church has really goofed up and missed the boat and because young adults are so level headed and pure that they just can’t be a part so they abandon it. They have issues too. We have to be honest about that. Here are some reasons on their end:

  1. Sin – Some don’t want to come back because they know the life they are living is not compatible with the Christian faith. It will require change and they just don’t want to do that yet. We can’t change that.
  2. Guilt – Some know that coming back will require them to face the guilt that has weighed on them for years. They believe church will intensify that guilt rather than alleviate it.
  3. Change – Most people fear some types of change. Change is not fun or easy, especially when you are talking about changing the core of who you are. That is a big thing to ask of someone. They know that returning to church, faith, etc will require change and the tension is so great that many would rather stick with the new life they have formed rather than think about making such a drastic change.
  4. Faith – There are many in this generation who never were Christians to begin with and they must be reached. We can get so focused on all those who have left that we forget there are many who never had a chance to begin with. To be honest, this can be a tough group to reach, not because they aren’t open to the conversation but because they seem even more different and distant from us on the surface. At least those who grew up in church have a baseline knowledge we can tap into, even though there may be hard feelings, we still recognize ourselves more with them than we do the unchurched.
  5. Awkwardness – They wonder how they will be received and what people will say and ask. Some won’t come unless someone has already reconnected with them outside church so that they know someone there is already in their corner.
  6. Satan – It is important to remember that Satan stands in opposition to this whole process of reaching and reclaiming a lost generation. This is a fight and it won’t be easy. We have to recognize that.
  7. Tim Keller’s Defeater Beliefs – really important to be familiar with this. A must read.
  8. “Economic realities. Young people are graduating & not getting the start to their careers that they’d hoped for. http://www.esquire.com/features/young-people-in-the-recession-0412 (from Philip’s comment on the last post)”
  9. “Virtual connectivity. People have all sorts of digital connections with people. They’re simply not as lonely & in need of companionship in ways that the Church used to provide. (from Philip’s comment on the last post)”
  10. “Virtual escapism. Pornography, gaming, sports, fan fiction, you name it. Hobbies are deeper & way more complex than ever thanks to the internet. Sex is easier to access & cheaper than the way the Church prescribes. People would rather self-soothe into these forms of escapism rather than confront their own spiritual corruption in community. (from Philip’s comment on the last post)”

How To Reach a Lost Generation 5: 25 Reasons Young People Are Leaving the Church

I was inspired by this post on Millenials Leaving the Church to make my own list of reasons why they are leaving. There are many more but this is a start. It is good to be aware of these issues because they point to something deeper that needs to change in our very paradigm of what we view church to be:

  1. They see a disconnect between the biblical mission of the church and the actual activity of the church. In other words, they don’t see how the church is really advancing the kingdom of God.
  2. There are generational/cultural gaps that were worsened by the popular use of youth groups. The church has become segregated by age and the groups that need each other most have no connection.
  3. Traditional church is more institutional than it is missional.
  4. If an outsider were to try to list the priorities of the church they would say we are about worship and Bible study but little else. A typical church has 3-4 times for studying the Bible in a given week but ZERO ways to serve the poor, take care of widows and orphans, and other equally biblically viable ministries and missions.
  5. We have balance issues. 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.
  6. The church “experience” doesn’t seem to reflect real life or the early church at all.
  7. Older Christians think they want things to be less biblical but in my experience it is actually the opposite. For example we encourage them to read Acts to find out what church is supposed to look like and they wonder why the church isn’t more like that.
  8. They don’t understand our church lingo. We use all kinds of words that they don’t understand. That gives a feel of us vs. them.
  9. We don’t offer transparent, real environments where people are free to explore life, faith and their identity.
  10. We squelch anything that makes us feel defensive. In doing so we push them out in the name of defending the faith. We don’t even give them a chance to converse over our differences. Sometimes they even get shouted down if they question anything.
  11. Our communication is broken – what the older group thinks communicates well does not connect well with the young adults. This is true in preaching, teaching, worship, you name it.
  12. We expect them to come to us instead of us taking initiative to reach out to them.
  13. We expect their faith to expressed in ways faith was meaningfully expressed 50 years ago. It may not look the same and we need to realize that and embrace it as long as it is still in the confines of what is biblically (not traditionally) accepted.
  14. We don’t often realize where the boundary is between scripture and tradition. We put them both on the same level in some areas and that is distasteful to them when they feel tradition has become scripture.
  15. We don’t give them a voice. They need a seat at the decision making table, especially in areas that affect them. How do we expect them to ever lead anything if we hold the reigns over them so tight?
  16. We don’t give them freedom to make mistakes and learn how to reconcile things afterward.
  17. Fear…fear of change, fear of anything different, fear of losing control. It is all an illusion. Did we ever really have control of things in the first place?
  18. The adjustments we make to reach out to them are still on the surface and don’t run down into the deeper issues. We think if we just sing newer songs that they will want to stick around. That just doesn’t cut it if there are deeper, unaddressed and unhealthy issues in the church that are the real reason they are disinterested. Faster songs won’t heal an unhealthy dynamic in a congregation.
  19. Leadership that is not willing to disseminate control and responsibility.
  20. The assumption that we had them in the first place. Some never made their faith their own.
  21. They leave when the focus is church and perpetuate a system over Christ.
  22. When the emotions are not allowed to reflect the reality of the situation. 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.
  23. 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. Life is messier than what we put on on a given Sunday. Let it happen when it needs to happen.
  24. We babysit them instead of expect them to be engaged in a mission bigger than themselves. Getting babysat for fun activities won’t cut it.
  25. Trying to compete with the world, in worldly ways. The truth is, if what we offer them is about just having fun we will never compete with what the world and their non-Christian friends can provide them. But if it is about spiritual depth, connection with God and eternally impacting others…we have something to offer they will never find in the world.

What reasons have you experienced in the lives of young adults?