As someone who has spent a fair amount of time vocationally as a pastor, I should love church, but I don’t. As someone who has always had a heart for young adults and discipling them to live like Jesus, I should be out there with a crew of people mentoring them right now. But I’m not. Why not? Like so many others, I got burned out and burned up by what we call church, both by leaders, and by members. There is too much that feels broken to make any genuine change or growth as there should be. Churches want millennials to adapt to them and millennials want churches to adapt to them. In many instances each side is right about what is wrong, but wrong about what to do about it. For me, current Americanized church culture has become a nearly impossible environment to minister in either direction; to the church and to the people. To a large degree that is on me. I own that. At the same time, most everyone thinks that they know what should be happening, but it’s usually based on bad information so nothing changes for the better. I’ve come up with a name for this bad-information-no-forward-motion phenomenon. I’m calling it “presupposition paralysis” and it is the elephant in the room no one wants to deal with. Well, here it goes.
The following is inspired by an article on faithit.com written by Sam Eaton. While I quote a fair bit of his post, please take a moment and read his in its entirety before reading mine. I don’t know Sam or anything about him beyond the bio at the end of his post. My post is not meant to argue with Sam, but to give him and others food for thought and hopefully action (if he ever reads it). I’m not trying to talk to Sam specifically with this, but I am encapsulating millennials when I do refer to Sam.”
His well-written and well-intentioned article has served to be a catalyst to help me bring into focus the dozens of other articles and books written on the subject, recent life experiences, and conversations around the same topic. Even if no one ever reads this, I needed to document this for myself so that I don’t lose this new-found focus. I’m going to use his “12 theses” as a framework to echo my own similar frustrations, sound some original frustrations, and hopefully address the presuppositions and the causing paralysis in the church and millennials. There are solutions. There are answers. There is hope for all of us.
Sam’s article goes deep, therefore this one will as well. Writing this kind of feels like writing the letter Jerry McGuire sent out and eventually lost him all of his clients and his job. But Jerry ended well, so let’s hope this does too. Get some coffee or tea and settle in.
(If you do nothing else, scroll to the end and watch the video. It encapsulates what I want to do and what I want to see happen.)
Goals and Background
Here is who I’m hoping to connect with as I write this;
- Lead pastors and/or Young Adults Pastors. I’ve been both, I know the challenges. You need some encouragement as well as to reevaluate some things, especially those with “successful” young adults ministries. Are you building up the status and prestige of your church and personal ministry by building a large and active-looking ministry, or are you building up and sending out disciples of Jesus? It tends to be an either-or proposition. Not always, but usually.
- Anyone, young or old, who is tired of ridiculously over-the-top churches with their productions and “experiences,” as well as churches who want people to buy into their culture and way of being the church without any desire to change and therefore grow. Surprisingly enough, there are young churches like this; it’s not just all of the old people. There is a way to be the church without all the BS. What you think is the church just might be your tradition. Let’s stop and talk about it.
- Millennials who know what they want, but don’t realize that what they want changes often. If that statement is off-putting then consider this an opportunity to do some of the internal reflection on yourself that you wish churches would do on themselves. You have an important part to play but you don’t yet fully understand what that means, and that’s not all your fault. To be fair, a lot of churches have lost sight of what this means also.
Here is where I’m coming from;
- 20+ years of ministry experience, Bible college degree, married 22+ years, parent of two millennials, full-time senior pastor for 8 years, young adults and small groups pastor, years of paid and volunteer youth ministry, worship team and other volunteer service in the church. I have served with and been mentored by some amazing people. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I know an elephant when I see it and I’m not afraid to talk about it to its face.
- Currently church-less. As of this writing, there is a church that we feel safe and comfortable going to, but it isn’t yet our home church, our base of community. It is our third church in 10 months. If you think church shopping is hard as a “normal” person, try doing it as a pastor. Wait, don’t. It kinda sucks.
- Currently at a point of decision.
- There is a church in town that has aged but wants to reach out to young people (20s to 40s) and has asked me to take that on if I want to. The best way I can describe them is a group of hippies who love Jesus, love to worship, full of the love of God and the Spirit, but have aged and like having the church service the way they do it. They are one of the most genuine group of worshippers I have seen in years. There is life there. At the same time, its like going to visit your grandmother. She’s great, but she plays her music, decorates the way she likes to decorate, its smells the way she likes it to smell (hopefully), and all of those things are her right because she lives there alone. If she were to take on a 30something house mate, either things would have to change around the house, or she would need to build an addition to the house for hew new housemate. That’s where this church is. They want to build an addition to their church family that suits a younger generation while also carrying on with their service. I’ve been given the opportunity to build this addition and as of this writing I have no idea what I would do, nor do I know if I have the energy to create something from nearly scratch. If you live in Vancouver, have some ideas, some energy, and are interested, drop me a line.
- Just this week, a young family we knew from the church I pastored in Forest Grove but now lives in Portland, contacted us and is desperate to find a church in their part of the city (near Portland State University). They have spent a few years trying to find a church that is theologically sound, Biblically moral, and not trying to put on a production every Sunday. That’s hard to find in a city like Portland. They texted my wife and I asking if we would plant a church in Portland, which already seems like a church-planting capitol because its the cool place to try and plant a church these days. But the church planters are trying to plant cool churches instead of just healthy well-balanced churches (based on their marketing anyway). Why is this couple asking us? I would like to think it’s because we are neither the types who believe, “Just shut up and believe the Bible you liberal Commie,” (they are out there) nor are we those who say, “Jesus loves you the way you are and you never have to change a thing, just love people, especially yourself.” We believe that when we gather, it should be intentional, done well, and people leave full. It should be like having a really good dinner party as opposed to going to a dinner show in Vegas. In response to our friends, I somewhat jokingly said that if they could find 10 adults who would be committed to such a thing that we would consider it. They are now seriously praying for 10 adults while trying out one more church. Zoinks! I you live in the downtown core and NW Portland area, drop me a line. I think.
With that in mind, let’s jump in.
Here is what the conversation about the church and millennials looks like.
Which one is which? Yes. I think both the church and millennials are playing both parts and they are both right and wrong.
Sam opens echoing something that I feel. I want to love the church but I don’t. He then suggests that no one is listening to millennials about why they are anti-church. I don’t doubt Sam feels that way, but I find the idea hard to believe based on the number of blog posts, surveys, and books documenting that very subject, telling churches how to engage millennials. People are listening, people are trying to change things. Perhaps its a question of efficacy. Keep in mind as we go, in many instances each side is right (in my opinion) about what is wrong, but wrong (in my opinion) about what to do about it.
Sam’s 12 Theses
1) Nobody’s listening to us
Millennials value voice and receptivity above all else. When a church forges ahead without ever asking for our input we get the message loud and clear: Nobody cares what we think. Why then, should we blindly serve an institution that we cannot change or shape?
- Presupposition (millennial): If we will be heard we can help grow and contribute to the church. Everyone should have a say.
- Paralysis (church, and myself): My experience with millennials is that they expect you to do whatever they say. When you don’t, they leave.
Just as these 12 theses are accurate generalities, so these responses are generalities. Bear that in mind.
When I have either openly sought the input of millennials, or they sought me out, as a lead pastor of a church, or the young adults pastor, when I have heard them out and decided, in some cases, not to implement what they suggested, many times they leave. On the part of the millennial, there is an element of entitlement and a lack of teachability. They genuinely feel that just because they say it, I should do it. That’s just irrational. On the part of the church, there can be elements of institutionalism and hierarchy. This leads to an environment where there is dictatorship and not discipleship. What is needed is an underlying environment of discipleship.
Discipleship promotes an environment of questions and learning the “why” behind things. Dictatorship promotes a “what” level environment. “This is what we do.” “Why?” “It’s just what we do. Don’t bother me with questions.” In a discipleship environment, the millennial would feel free to ask and suggest just about anything. The leadership would then say, “Yes, and here is why and where it fits,” or “No, and here is why, here are the larger concerns. Keep the ideas coming.”
Churches need to do a better job at
- having a “why” behind what they do,
- being open to having it challenged which results in it either being strengthened or changed, both of which are better than before,
- and being able to teach, develop, guide, and disciple people. It’s 10 times harder to do but then you get 10 times the fruit.
Millennials need to do a better job of understanding that just because they want it doesn’t mean it’s good for them or the church, or that they are going to get it.
2) We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements
Why does every church need its own mission statement anyway? Aren’t we all one body of Christ, serving one God? What would happen if the entire American Church came together in our commonalities and used the same, concise mission statement?
- Presupposition (church); If we can promote ourselves and create a culture like Apple, people will “buy” what we’re “selling” including serving the needy.
- Paralysis (millennial); Provide opportunities for us to take action and to serve the needy, but we want it to be cool and fit with our schedule.
My experience has been that a church can be more concerned and consumed with marketing itself and its pastor as a brand than actually living out the gospel, all in the name of the gospel. So much money, we’re talking the equivalent of a modest annual salary (at least), is wasted on slick brochures, video production, ads on Facebook, graphics designers, painting facilities, signage, billboards, blah blah blah, to get a church slogan and pastor’s face in front of people, which does result in butts in the seats, but zero discipleship. Discipleship is difficult. People leave when it gets difficult, even though Jesus said it would be difficult, but we want them to stay so we will keep it easy. I sat in on that meeting more than once.
At the same time, my experience has been that when I’ve gone through the effort to provide the genuine opportunities that millennials want, it is inconvenient and no one shows up. When I ask them why, many say, “You should have promoted it better.” Irony of ironies.
Discipleship done right results in living out the great commission, creating compassionate people, legitimate miracles that point people to Jesus and doesn’t ask you to send in that love gift. Discipleship does what we need. We need to be doing it.
3) Helping the poor isn’t a priority
Let’s clock the number of hours the average church attender spends in “church-type” activities. Bible studies, meetings, groups, social functions, book clubs, planning meetings, talking about building community, discussing a new mission statement…
- Presupposition (millennial); If we spend more time taking care of the poor and less time in church stuff we will be doing a better job of obeying Jesus.
- Paralysis (all); There is a radical oversimplification happening on both sides of this one causing both sides to become further entrenched in their point of view.
There is a lot behind this one, too much to esplain’. Lemme’ sum up. So much of what we see and experience in life can be illustrated on a pendulum. There are two extremes; a tick and a tock. In this instance, the tick is “get out there and feed the poor or you’re a bad Christian wasting all that time on Bible study.” The tock is “get in here and fill your head with Bible knowledge or your a bad Christian wasting all that time on people who don’t know Jesus anyway.” An exaggeration? Maybe, but that’s what seems to float around the inter-ether.
A pastor that I know recently posted a most ridiculous tweet. In effect it said that we need fewer Bibles and more Bible living. Now, I know what he means (I think), and knowing him he said it that way deliberately in order to stir people up (like me!) which is stupid because it causes more confusion than it does encouragement and edification. What he and others should say is that we need better Bible teaching that will lead to better Bible living.
The issue isn’t quantity, it is quality.
Both of the above tick-tock extremes are wrong. There is a balanced middle that should be sought, not the opposite extreme of wherever we are now. God doesn’t honor and encourage one over the other, He honors and encourages all of it; Bible study and practical service. It is through Bible study that we know how to serve, and it’s through serving that we experience what we’ve studied.
If I may explain it in these terms; the goal is to learn the word of God the Father, so that we know how to live like God the Son, under the influence and empowerment of God the Holy Spirit.
Do we have too many Bible studies that basically just serve to fill heads with knowledge? Yes we do. Instead of stopping them, we should fix them. Do we have too many Christian social times that are designed to keep people out of trouble? Yes we do. Instead of stopping them, repurpose that time into something intentional.
Having said that, these things require commitment, and that is something that is becoming harder to come by on all sides.
What’s more, not everyone is wired and called to help the poor in the same way. To say that, “Helping the poor looks like this, if you really loved Jesus you would do this,” is just ignorant. Some people aren’t wired to walk up to poor people, strike up a conversation, and hand out blankets and food and such. If you are, go do that. Some people are wired to collect and organize the food and materials. Some people are wired to support those who do the hands-on work. Just read Acts 6 when this very issue comes up and you will see that Jesus’ apostles themselves said, “That is a need, but it isn’t our calling to fulfill that need. Let’s find those who are called and gifted to do it, set them loose, and we will keep doing what we are supposed to do.”
To be honest, sometimes I feel judged by those who oversimplify this particular area. Forgive me if I sound defensive.
4) We’re tired of you blaming the culture
From Elvis’ hips to rap music, from Footloose to “twerking,” every older generation comes to the same conclusion: The world is going to pot faster than the state of Colorado. We’re aware of the down-falls of the culture—believe it or not we are actually living in it too. Perhaps it’s easier to focus on how terrible the world is out there than actually address the mess within.
- Presupposition (church); If we keep reminding the kids that Jesus is coming back any second and the world will only get worse and worse, that will straighten these kids out.
- Paralysis (millennial); OK, let’s say I believe you. You aren’t telling me what to do about it, only that I should be anxious all the time about it.
One’s view of the end times should have next to nothing to do with how we live our daily lives walking with Jesus. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true. Here’s why. Regardless of when the rapture or Second Coming are, we should live every day like it’s our last for Jesus because we don’t know when we will die anyway. Happy now? Chances are you could die before the end of th…
One of the solutions from Sam’s post on this point is, “Explicitly teach us how our lives should differ from the culture.” The sad reality is that many pastors will read that as saying, “Tell me how I’m supposed to live my life,” which is almost the opposite of the solution being communicated. See #7 below. If I may, I would add to Sam’s solution “how and why our lives should differ.”
What Sam is after happens in properly done discipleship. “You keep using that word.” And I know exactly what it means.
5) The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Affect
There is this life-changing movie all humans must see, regardless of gender. The film is of course the 2004 classic Mean Girls. In the film, the most popular girl in school forgets to wear pink on a Wednesday (a cardinal sin), to which Gretchen Weiners screams, “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” Today, my mom said to me, “Church has always felt exclusive and ‘cliquey,’ like high school.” With sadness in her voice she continued, “and I’ve never been good at that game so I stopped playing.” The truth is, I share her experience. As do thousands of others. Until the church finds a way to be radically kinder and more compassionate than the world at large, we tell outsiders they’re better off on their own. And the truth is, many times they are.
I agree and acknowledge that this happens. It sucks. It’s stupid. A different angle on the same subject is what my wife and I are currently experiencing. I’m finding that to fit in with some circles, I feel like I have to put on the costume of the “American Christian.” For my part, (a) I don’t want to fit in that badly, and (2) the caricature of the American Christian is ridiculous and needs to go away. But I digress.
- Presupposition (church); If we create this kind of environment with these kinds of greeters and make people talk to those around them as part of the service, we will build community.
- Paralysis (all); we have narrowed down what a happy and normal Christian is supposed to look and act like to the point where we can’t help but create our own divisions.
On the one hand there will always be groups of people who associate more with themselves than with others due to an affinity that they have. Music, sports, knitting, computers, whatever. That’s just normal human behavior and it’s OK. It becomes abnormal and unhealthy when an element of exclusivity sets in. Either when those are the only people you ever hang out with, or only people who are into (blank) are welcome and can contribute to this group, both are bad.
On the other hand, our culture, church or otherwise, has determined that to be an extrovert is to be normal. A good pastor is an extrovert, a gregarious people-gatherer. Where is that in scripture? A normal Christian should be outgoing, always smiling, always getting into people’s lives. Really? I peg the introvert-o-meter on all of the personality tests and have found myself excluded from ministry because of it, regardless of the strengths and skills I bring to the table.
Just as a human body is diverse so should be the church. The Body of Christ should be diverse in every sense. We need to find ways for this diversity of people to connect and serve, not constrict them to all being just the cool-looking parts. I’ll leave it at that.
6) Distrust & Misallocation of Resources
I don’t have much to add or comment on this one from Sam. I will say that in my 8 years of lead pastoring, no one ever asked to see the books which were available to anyone. I think that ideally no one should become concerned to the point where they feel like they need to see what’s going on in that department. At the same time, I think that leadership should operate in such a way that the think everyone wants to see them all the time and its easy to do.
7) We want to be mentored, not preached at
Preaching just doesn’t reach our generation like our parents and grandparents. See: millennial church attendance. We have millions of podcasts and Youtube videos of pastors the world over at our fingertips. For that reason, the currency of good preaching is at its lowest value in history. Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes. We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?
- Presupposition (church); Discipleship is happening from the pulpit. We’re telling people what the Bible says and they should just know what to do with it.
- Paralysis (millennials); My education has prepared me to pass tests, not process information and make real-world application of said information. I don’t know what to do with this. Also, I don’t want anyone telling me what to do, yet I want to be mentored and have deep relationships.
I am particularly passionate about the problems and solutions on this one and I will try to contain myself on both.
When churches make the preaching/teaching time the main event, when the large church gathering experience of music and teaching is the emphasis of a church’s culture, it is a ginormous waste of time and resources for virtually everyone involved.
Pastors, notice the qualifiers there. “Main event” and “emphasis.” Gathering together as family to sing and to hear God’s word taught in a group has played an important role in the life of God’s people since Old Testament times. It’s not an invention of the church. It is a cornerstone, but it is not the only stone.
(Regarding Sam’s comments on preaching, I have to point out that all of the Young Adults I know and follow on social media are really into preaching. They are constantly posting pics and quotes from church. It just so happens that the preacher is a younger hipper type of person. I think this one needs more analysis some other time.)
What we need is the return of Rabbinic-style discipleship. (See “Building A Discipling Culture” by Mike Breen.) We need a balanced and modern version of it. It exists. I’ve seen it. “I want to believe.” But again, it takes commitment. It takes time. When I was lead pastoring I felt like people would come on Sunday, and MAYBE to one other thing during the week. My limitation was not a lack of desire to mentor other people. My limitation was that people didn’t really want to be mentored. They liked the idea of mentoring, but not the cost. Jesus ran into this frequently, so much so that after three years of some amazing ministry and drawing of crowds, only 120 were following Him and they were in hiding. There are lots of things that are important for a healthy well-balanced church;
- Sunday morning corporate gathering is important.
- Gathering to pray is important.
- Mentoring time is important.
- Serving those who need serving outside the four walls is important.
Yet what are people’s lives occupied with that are also important, at least to them?
- Going to the gym.
- Hanging out with friends.
- Hiking trips.
Or if your a millennial that is also a parent, single or otherwise,
- Sports practice for your kids
- Gymnastics/Dance for your kids.
- Scouts for your kids.
- Theater/Music for your kids.
- Time with your family away from other demands.
It’s like, “Jesus I want to follow you, but first…” “Pastor, I want to be mentored, but first…” Jesus repeatedly talked about counting the cost of discipleship, which term I’m using interchangeably with mentoring.
The situation we are in now and that few in ministry talk about is this; the result of years of not discipling and mentoring people is that there is hardly anyone to disciple and mentor the next generation. So much so that no one really gets what discipleship is supposed to look like. Sadly, many pastors don’t know how to disciple others because they aren’t taught that in seminary, nor have they been discipled themselves, at least not in a long time! This cycle must be broken.
Millennials, if you are serious about wanting to be mentored, if you commit to the process, you could be key in saving the future of the church. Talk to your pastors, talk to your leaders, and see if you can help start a revival of discipleship. Beg for it, fight for it, until they ask you to leave you trouble-maker.
NOTE: This could fit anywhere, but seems to fit best here. As a lead and young adults pastor who tried to build a community around mentoring and service, I consistently saw millennials float from church to church like they were going clubbing. The ones who would visit our church once in a while, who would friend me on Facebook, I saw them go to Cool Church 1 on Sunday mornings, Cool Church 2 on Sunday nights, Cool Church 3’s young adults ministry all the time because they like the music here, the speaker there, the social time at the other. Very rarely did I encounter a millennial who was interested in being mentored. I read a lot about how millennials want to be mentored and I really want it to be true, but it has yet to be my experience. This is why commitment has come up at least twice so far.
8) We want to feel valued
Churches tend to rely heavily on their young adults to serve. You’re single, what else do you have to do? In fact, we’re tapped incessantly to help out. And, at its worst extreme, spiritually manipulated with the cringe-worthy words “you’re letting your church down.” Millennials are told by this world from the second we wake up to the second we take a sleeping pill that we aren’t good enough. We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations. We need a church that sees us and believes in us, that cheers us on and encourages us to chase our big crazy dreams.
- Presupposition (church); Value is found in service. Do your job as unto the Lord without complaining.
- Paralysis (millennial); I’m more than a cog in a machine, I’m a person designed for relationship and I’m getting burned out.
I agree that churches can use and abuse young single people when it comes to service. I’ve seen it, I’ve been it, hopefully I haven’t done it to others.
With regard to the statement that millennials are told that they aren’t good enough, you do not have the corner on the market on this one. Everyone in every demographic is told this in some form, from little kids to the elderly. It’s called marketing at best, and abuse at worst. I was in Target recently with my wife and saw a row of manly mannequins with athletic t-shirts on them, pecs and abs bursting forth, and I told my wife, “Those make me feel bad,” to which she replied they do for women too. We are all bombarded with “you are not good enough.” As I mentioned earlier, introverts are perceived as not able to be up front, speaking and leading, because that doesn’t fit the culture-made mold. It’s garbage because I have years of successfully doing so inside and outside the church.
Proper Bible teaching and proper discipleship should include the teaching and demonstration that our value and identity are in Jesus alone. That’s just universal.
I do, however, have a problem with the statement, “We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations. We need a church that sees us and believes in us, that cheers us on and encourages us to chase our big crazy dreams.” To be blunt, these are the last things anyone needs if they are serious about being a follower of Jesus. Plus, just read 1 Corinthians. How do you think those people felt after Paul dropped that truth-bomb on them? But he wasn’t wrong to do it.
- God created His own chosen people, Israel, a light to the world, His own special treasure, and gave them a set of conditions and expectations we call The Law of Moses. These didn’t just point out what sin was, but also pointed people back to a gracious and loving God that they needed day by day, with whom they could walk and have a powerful relationship.
- Jesus Himself put expectations and conditions on His followers. To be a disciple of a Rabbi in His day required that you left everything behind, gave up your own life, and pursued the life of the Rabbi. Jesus explained the price, in terms of consequences, of following Him very bluntly. He challenged and pushed them to grow and change beyond “exactly the way” they were. That’s what growth and maturity are. You are what you are now, that’s fine, but you can’t stay this way because you are supposed to grow, change, mature. What if you had a 8-year-old that said, “I am enough, accept me just as I am.” I accepted my kids as such when they were that age. But I also expected them to grow up. I conditioned them to grow up. To do otherwise is criminal neglect and bad for everyone involved.
This is the conundrum of the gospel. While Jesus paid the price for our salvation, while we can’t earn God’s love because He gives it to us freely just as we are, following Him also costs us our lives. It costs us everything to be a follower of Jesus, even out big crazy dreams.
As for big crazy dreams, if your big crazy dreams don’t come directly from God, I have no interest in cheering you on. Most people’s “big crazy dreams” are completely self-serving and not God-serving. What does God say? What’s His plan for you? How do we do that? I will cheer and encourage that all the live-long day. But if your dream is to nail potatoes to old barn siding, post pictures on Instagram, and sell them, I’m not interested.
9) We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)
People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image. We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.
- Presupposition (millennial); The church won’t talk about the hard topics, guess I need to find my answers elsewhere.
- Paralysis (church); According to the available research and surveys of millennials, they don’t want to be challenged and told what to do, they want to hear about how great they are and have their dreams cheered on. That’s what keeps them coming back on Sundays.
This one is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. And, again, millennials don’t have the corner on the market on this one either. People now in their 40s and 50s were once in their 20s and 30s facing the same decisions and didn’t always get the help they needed from the church either. This is not a new or unique thing. Having said that, the church needs to do better at it while people need to be teachable.
This might be getting old now, but, discipleship to the rescue! Issues need to be talked about from the pulpit, yes. But the nitty gritty you are looking for, the conversational cage matches that need to take place, happen in the context of a discipleship relationship, a mentoring relationship. Churches need to provide them, millennials need to commit to them.
10) The public perception
It’s time to focus on changing the public perception of the church within the community. The neighbors, the city and the people around our church buildings should be audibly thankful the congregation is part of their neighborhood. We should be serving the crap out of them.
- Presupposition (church); Almost no one in this neighborhood comes to this church, so we need to focus on keeping who we have. In order to do what we think we should be doing, we need to keep the doors open and the staff paid, which means doing things that our customers, er, congregations like to keep them coming back, and hopefully we can do that other community service stuff we know we are supposed to be doing.
- Paralysis (all); I have expectations A, B, and C of a church and I won’t go there until they do them.
It isn’t as simple as “serving the crap” out of our communities, because we have a geography problem. So few of our churches are populated by people in the immediate community, unless you are in a really small town with a couple of churches. But even then you probably go to the one across town. 😉
In the context of Vancouver, WA, many churches are commuter churches, not community churches. Many people drive 20 minutes across the county, or even into Portland (while some people in Portland come over here!), because the church that they like is there. There may be a church five blocks away, but for whatever reasons, right or wrong, they don’t connect with it. But that is also a different conversation.
Before we can rightly serve our communities, our churches need to rediscover what they are supposed to be in the first place and how they should operate. The reason we have a problem with the lack of “calling the schools and the city, knocking on doors, asking everyone around us how we can make their world better” is because churches have a larger and deeper identity problem, as do their pastors. I will try to keep this as succinct as possible.
Here’s the situation.
- When I took on the role of lead pastor at a small church on the edge of the Portland Metro Area, I unexpectedly found myself as the CEO and President of a non-profit 501c3 corporation, a business operating in the County and in the City. This is something else they don’t teach you at Bible college or Seminary.
- This corporation had government paperwork to maintain and bills to pay. I don’t think a lot of churchgoers take that into consideration. The larger a church gets, the larger the organization gets, the more burdensome the HR and facilities responsibilities become. The challenges, the frustrations, and opportunities to compromise become frighteningly real.
- In order to pay the bills you have to keep people coming. In order to keep people coming your have to do a lot of really lame stuff that you eventually buy into yourself as significant ministry, hoping and praying for the opportunity to mentor a few people who want to do the work of real ministry.
- All the while, you, as the pastor, lose the option and the ability to be an authentic and genuine fellow human being, as does your spouse and kids. You have to become Pastor Nothing-Is-Ever-Wrong-And-I-Never-Do-Anything-Wrong-Along-With-My-Family. It super sucks.
Not many pastors will tell you that, but there it is. We live in a store front window for the world to see while you live in an enclosed apartment only letting in those you want to let in. Again, another post.
Let’s paint the painful-realites-of-church situation this way.
- Once upon a time there were a group of kids playing baseball in a field, like in the movie, The Sandlot. Soon more kids came and they needed to split up into teams and got to play real games. Yay! Eventually friends and families came to watch, more kids came to play, and the sandlot wasn’t enough space.
- They wanted to build a field with stands. Oh, and people get thirsty and hungry watching and playing ball, so there needed to be concession stands as well. Well, no one can just go find an empty lot and build it.
- First you don’t have the money. Second, you don’t have rights to the land. No one person wants the personal liability and financial responsibility so you create a legal entity that can have a bank account, apply for permits with the city, and build what is needed to serve all these people.
- Now in order to play, people have to pay dues and fees for all of that stuff. Soon one field isn’t enough, more clubs form, more facilities are built.
- Eventually people figure out that you can make money doing this, so professional stadiums are built. Humongous, multi-million and billion dollars facilities that serve one purpose; play a game nine or so months out of the year, and the rest of the time it’s empty.
- More than this, we can sell shirts, have contests, spend money to televise it, show highlight clips of exciting moments, because we need to keep it interesting. After all, just watching a baseball game is kind of boring. And then there are celebrity ball players…
This, in a very real way, is what has happened to church in America.
In order for us to get back to the many things that we are supposed to be doing, the church needs to get back to what it is supposed to be;
- the interconnected and interdependent Body of Christ,
- an assembly of called-out-from-among-the-crowd-to-serve-the-crowd people, which is what the Greek word ecclesia means, from which we get the word “church”
- the Bride of Christ in intimate and fruit-bearing relationship with Jesus.
The church needs to be revamped. It needs to be retooled. It’s a difficult proposition that will require hard work and long-term commitment. Whose in?
11) Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)
Words without follow-up are far worse than ignoring us completely. Despite the stereotypes about us, we are listening to phrases being spoken in our general direction. Lip service, however, doesn’t cut it. We are scrutinizing every action that follows what you say (because we’re sick of being ignored and listening to broken promises).
- Presupposition (millennial); No one wants to grow us up like we want to be grown up.
- Paralysis (church); We are so used to keeping up an organization and being in maintenance mode that all we know how to do as ask you to join us as we are.
Challenge accepted. In my past ministry jobs I have personally written up detailed, measurable, tangible plans to disciple and mentor millennials for the long term only to have (1) few to no millennials actually interested, or (b) the church leadership think that it’s too dense for the average person to digest, or so I was told, so we’re not doing that.
The more I pushed for even the most basic, practical, in-stages, systematic plans to grow people from new believer and beyond, the more resistance I got from my church bosses. The few millennials who I was able to engage “under the radar” really dug what we were doing and I think it had some potential, if not momentum.
Eventually I resigned. I could say more but it wouldn’t serve the purpose of this article except to say, dear millennials, working for a church isn’t always the spiritual utopia you might imagine it should be. But no one talks about it. Perhaps sometime I will when I can do so constructively.
I want to disciple millennials. I want to teach them. I want to invite them into my life and share what I have of Jesus with them. I want to learn from them. I want to cheer them on as they have crazy God-given dreams for their lives. I’ve done it successfully in the past and I want more. So far, when I ask and invite them, they seem more interested in going to events and “experiences” where there is exciting music and motivational speakers. I don’t know who to believe anymore; people such as Sam saying what he says, or people who speak with their actions and do the opposite of what Sam says. Still working through that one.
12) You’re Failing to Adapt
Here’s the bottom line, church—you aren’t reaching millennials. Enough with the excuses and the blame; we need to accept reality and intentionally move toward this generation that is terrifyingly anti-church. You see, church leaders, our generation just isn’t interested in playing church anymore, and there are real, possible solutions to filling our congregations with young adults. It’s obvious you’re not understanding the gravity of the problem at hand and aren’t nearly as alarmed as you should be about the crossroads we’re at. You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction. A smattering of mostly older people, doing mostly the same things they’ve always done, isn’t going to turn to the tide. Feel free to write to me off as just another angry, selfy-addicted millennial. Believe me, at this point I’m beyond used to being abandoned and ignored.
- Presupposition (millennial); Church, you’re uninterested in us. You don’t know how to connect with people. We’re mad at you and we’re going to be mad at you until you do something that wins us over, and we really want to be won over.
- Paralysis (church); We have experience and wisdom to share, we want to share it, but we’ve lost sight of how. We are as much afraid of you as you are frustrated with us. We don’t know what else to do so we will keep doing what we know how to do. Also, we feel like we have one chance to get it right with you and if we don’t do it right the very first time you will bail, never to return. Chances are we won’t do it right the first time, so we don’t know what to do.
Sam I hear you. I feel you. In many ways I’m right there with you, just as a 43-year-old former-pastor instead of a millennial. But I also see it from the other side. You say to the church that it isn’t reaching millennials, to which I would say that millennials aren’t reaching the church. What we have here are incorrect expectations on both sides and a failure to communicate.
Many larger churches primarily build young adult ministries through marketing, creating experiences, doing things that maintain a group. They see you primarily as someone to market to, not to minister to. I know, I’ve been in the meetings. They do want to minister to you. They aren’t animals. But most of the energy is put into marketing. In other words, they try to be “sexy” in their ministry (meaning polished, slick, like Apple Computer), and, sadly, it works from a numbers perspective. Sure, there are a few who eventually want to go deeper, but they usually have to leave to find it, even if they started off at sexy church.
I would like to take a moment to mention one larger church that I have some personal experience with that, in my opinion, is reaching out to millennials rightly, and that is Calvary Fellowship just north of Seattle. The ministry is called CREW and I wish I was a millennial living there because that’s where I’d be. I know there are others out there (I trust) but most of the ones you search for online and are at large churches are mostly about they hype, at least based on their marketing.
Smaller churches tend to build a young adults ministry through a catalyst person, be it a pastor or church member. Calvary Chapel didn’t lead the Jesus People movement in SoCal in the lat 60s because Chuck Smith connected with the kids. It was because of a charismatic hippie named Lonnie Firsbie who found a platform with Pastor Chuck at Calvary Chapel, who, himself, had a genuine heart for bringing young people to Jesus. But even in this scenario, the young tend to stick around as long as the catalyst person is around. That’s no good either.
What is the answer?
Church, the answer is not in programs, but in embracing people who are in process. Millennials, the answer is not to make demands but to become and to make disciples. Fellow followers of Jesus, the answer is not to be busy doing things that we think Jesus would do, or things we think we should be doing as “Christians.” We should be pursuing and doing the things He actually tells us to do today because we asked Him today and He answered. If that is to serve, then serve. If that is to teach, then teach. If that is go, then go. If that is wait, then wait.
The answer is not in age-segregated churches. A church should not just be older people, nor should it just be young single adults. A church needs the older because the older are supposed to teach the younger. A church needs the younger around to be taught, grow, mature and become the older who then turn around and teach others. It’s the circle of life (now you have that stuck in your head!) and it happens faster than you think. The church doesn’t need to be multi-generational, it needs to be inter-generational.
In other words, the answer is in discipleship.
There is no magic formula for all churches and all millennials because there are too many variables to consider.
However, there is a common first step for all concerned; stop. Stop what you are doing right now.
If what you are doing, church or millennial, isn’t bearing fruit, a word-picture Jesus uses often, it’s time to stop, it’s time to prune and train the vines of our lives. It’s time to take a long, hard look at what God says we should become and be doing, as a whole, and take steps in that direction.
I don’t know what that looks like for you in your context, I hardly know what that looks like for me, and I’m still working on it.
Earlier I said I didn’t love the church. That’s not entirely accurate. I don’t love what it is now. But I love what it could be, and that’s what keeps me going. I want to be a functioning and healthy organ in the Body of Christ. I want to be a part of an inter-generational church. I want to help disciple and mentor millennials. That means either finding a church of older people who themselves can be taught how to mentor others, and then infuse millennials into that environment, or start with a group of presently young-ish people, and grow together through a few generations until we are there, inviting in whatever the next generation is going to be called as we go.
I’m not trying to make this about me, but it seems I’ve been presented with both of these opportunities. Option C is to find a church that is already inter-generational and plug in, which is certainly possible.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers. Most of this is observation and opinion. Consider this a journal entry from me, and not a series of mandates. It’s where I am now.
What about you? What are your thoughts? Where are you at in your process? Are you an older person and intrigued? Are you a millennial looking for direction and encouragement? Let’s talk. Let’s share. Let’s build. Post your comments below.
And if Sam every reads this, I’d love to dialog with him as well, in the truest sense of the word.