“I don‘t need a church, I need a family.”
I’d watched her spend the last 6 years since high school in and out of church, trying to figure out where it fit into her new life as an adult. She’d gone from telling God to “forget it” to realizing that He was the only One able to give her the strength she needed to raise her little baby alone. She knew she needed God, but where could she find Him? For a while, she had tried out a church that focused on the needs of the “fringe” – those who had been marginalized by the traditional church – but somehow it didn‘t feel like the family she longed for. So, now she was coming back to the church where she was involved in high school, my church.
But to be honest, I’m not sure that this is the best place for her. Our church is full of young families, but we’re not a college town, so there really aren’t many people her age here. After graduation, most of our teens leave town because it’s too expensive to live here. No big deal. But a lot of them leave church when they leave town. This seems to be a national trend. In Barna’s 2007 report, he says that 61% of students who were spiritually active in high school are spiritually “disengaged” after graduation.
Church-bashing seems to be fashionable right now, so please don‘t misunderstand me: I continue to believe that the church is an integral means by which God equips and empowers us to be His people. Jesus Christ was the physical representative of God on earth. Since the ascension, He has called us as His Body to take on that job of representing Him to a watching world. The church as an institution is not exactly the same thing as His Body, but the institution of the church is an important way in which Jesus equips and empowers His Body. So, what can we do about the fact that a big part of the Body is abandoning this key vehicle for transformation?
Let‘s take a look at some sources of the problem and some ways to let Jesus into them.
1. Worship is stale – same old, same old.
2. Evangelicals are watering down their theological beliefs.
3. Evangelical congregations are still racially segregated.
4. The Bible has lost its authority, especially on issues such as divorce and premarital sex.
5. Christianity in America has essentially no built-in cost.
6. Any expression of the supernatural has been excised from Sunday worship.
7. No one is ready for the fact that Gen Y Christians are going to radically reinvent the church.
8. U.S. churches tend to compete rather than cooperate.
9. There is a dearth of good leaders. Those who fill America’s pulpits are teachers –good people all – but not leaders with a vision.
The reason I bring up this study (even though it is seven years old – practically ancient by today’s standards) is simple: most of the evangelical world needed a published study to point out these alarming trends in the church, but recent research into the 20-something exodus reveals that they have been seeing these trends for a long time. However, this is a non-confrontational generation. They would rather slip out unnoticed and do their own thing than work for change within the established church. So, the 20-something exodus is really more like a quiet disappearance. They‘re leaving because church doesn‘t seem to have what they‘re looking for, but what is that?
Where do 20-somethings expect to see God? Often in whatever is different. If they grew up in a liturgical background, they’ll look for modern modes of worship. Conversely, if they grew up in a media-driven church, they’ll often turn to churches which feature hymns, silence, and creeds. This reactionary search for “different” is partly what makes the “emergent” church movement so diverse and thus so difficult to define. 20-somethings crave the opportunity for unexpected encounters with God. Unfortunately, many of our worship services have no room for such fresh experiences. They are the same week after week, with little or no room for new ways of seeing God and entering into worship as a response to who we’ve seen Him to be.
Part of making room for fresh encounters with God requires a different kind of teaching. There is a widespread belief among 20-somethings that teaching only allows them to see God when it is intimately connected to real life. They are longing for deeper answers to difficult questions. Church leaders need to be willing to get beyond the basic teachings of Christianity. They must deal with the issues that we face daily, even those that cause us to doubt. Unfortunately, these are issues that few churches have the guts to deal with – issues like unanswered prayer or the divinely ordained genocide of entire ethnic groups in the O.T. or how a body ravaged by chromosomal abnormalities could have been “knit together in my mother’s womb.” Issues that raise the specter of doubt are often off-limits in church, but we must teach congregations to see doubt not as the enemy of faith but as a catalyst. Dr. Craig Smith, president of Shepherd Project Ministries and professor at Denver Seminary reminds me that “settled unbelief, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. God often uses doubts to cause us to establish a more firm foundation, if they are met with a willingness to work through difficult issues by investigating Scripture and being authentic and bold in its application to our lives.”
Beyond simply dealing with difficult issues, 20-somethings see God when these issues are addressed by teachers who are transparent and authentic. A teacher needs to be willing to let listeners in on his or her own struggle as they live out the Christian life. Only then will 20- somethings grant a teacher authority in their lives. A seminary degree once earned a pastor the right to be heard. Now, knowing that the pastor can relate to their struggles to apply the Truth is what earns him credibility with 20-somethings.
Addressing issues that 20-somethings deal with doesn’t mean abandoning in-depth teaching from Scripture in favor of watered-down topical preaching. It means that teachers must become shrewd students of our culture and adopt a “no-tiptoeing” practice of applying the passages they are teaching.
As I talk with people about the 20-something exodus from church, an inevitable temptation always arises – to pass the buck: if the pastor would just preach the right messages; if the worship team would just play the right music; if someone would just start a college group…
More than another program that caters to their individual needs or a weekly phone call from their old youth pastor, graduates need to be integrated into the life of the WHOLE church, to see that they are valued and that their contribution is essential in the church body. Margaret Feinberg had this to say when asked about what the best thing is that we can do to help 20-somethings to stay involved in church. “While youth group meetings and gatherings are fun, “big church” seems a whole lot more flat and boring. They wonder how to connect and integrate—relationally, spiritually, and personally. That’s why it’s essential that youth leaders are intentional about integrating students into the life of the church from a young age through opportunities to serve and be served (cook a meal for the seniors then enjoy a meal prepared by the seniors of the church), build relationship with leaders, develop intergenerational ministry opportunities, and even speak into the life of the church, “If you could do anything as a part of the life of this church what would you do?” Such intentional activities not only give students the opportunity to build rich relationships but also to speak into the life of the church. In addition, leaders need to prepare their graduating students that no two churches are the same—but all have something to celebrate. Students need to be prepared that they’ll never find another church just like their home church at college, but that they can (and should) become involved and make a difference there.”
There‘s a quiet disappearance of 20-somethings from the church. Their disappearance is leaving the Body of Christ handicapped, lacking a leg or an arm. Instead of seeing the needs of 20- somethings as a burden or being irritated at them for wanting to change the church, let’s look at their needs as an opportunity for the Body of Christ to grow. Their contributions are essential if the church is to be a significant molder of our culture. Let‘s find new ways to help them to experience God through worship and see Him working through authentic relationships. Let’s become people who know and understand who God is well enough so that we are able to work through the tougher issues of faith with them. And let us not miss the opportunity for those conversations because of our fear or because we are simply unprepared or unwilling. Finally, let us create those opportunities for Jesus to use us, His Body, to change the world. Perhaps the world He will change is right down the street. It’s all about seeing Jesus do what only He can do. When we, as His church, step out in faith, it may be that the 20-somethings are not the only ones who catch a new glimpse of God.
1 As a side-note, Margaret blew me out of the water when she told me about one of her writing practices. Her conviction is that we ought not to pursue change simply for change’s sake, but that we need to embrace new ways of introducing the God of all time to our ever-changing culture (my paraphrase). In an effort to make sure that while she became a catalyst for change in the church, her theology stayed true to scripture, she sought out some people to be on her team. She now has all of her book manuscripts proofread by Theology and New Testament professors from Denver Seminary!