The Collapse of Conventional Ministry

There’s a surging hunger among young people for Jesus. New research shows that they want a clearer understanding of what Jesus really said and did, and how faith in him matters in their lives. In fact, that desire is so deep, it’s #1 on their “wish list” for what they’d like to talk about at church. But are we doing that? Even though we assume that everything we do in children, youth, and young adult ministry points to Jesus in some way, the evidence is clear: That’s not what our young people say they’re experiencing. So what would a ministry look like if it shifted toward a passionate, persistent, and permeating focus on drawing people into a closer orbit around Jesus?

The central question of the book the WWJD frenzy was based on, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, is simple: “If Christians are supposed to be following Jesus, why aren’t they making more of an impact in their daily lives?” The book’s answer was to imagine what everyday life might be like if all of us simply talked and acted more like Jesus. Well, that would change everything, but as far as I can tell from my three-decade perch as a national observer of the church, the WWJD movement didn’t change everything. There are two inherent problems at the core of WWJD:

  1. Our guesses about what Jesus would do in our contemporary circumstances are directly tied to how well we know and understand what he’s already done, and our record there is pretty bad.
  2. Jesus was fundamentally unpredictable—he’s the most surprising person you’ll ever know. It’s hard to predict what surprising people will do, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to know their heart.

People who are caught up in a romantic relationship don’t have to be told to focus on their beloved; it’s hard to stop thinking about the person, actually. No matter what we’re doing or who we’re with, our thoughts stray to the object of our passion. To use the language of C.H. Spurgeon, our life is “beelined” to our beloved. But the beeline isn’t the momentum of a “should”—it’s the attraction of a lover. There’s an enormous distinction between the two.

Young people today are leaving church because so many of them have been “shoulded” into a relationship with God or the church. If they, instead, had a kind of “beloved” attachment to Jesus—a passion for him that created a beeline momentum in their life—they’d not only stay connected to the church, they’d also bring a bunch of their friends with them.

Our conventional responses to the mass exodus of young people from the church—a steamrolling crisis—have missed the mark. We’ve tried to be more relevant, more perform-y, more tolerant, more technologically savvy, more flexible, more professional, more sophisticated, more purpose-driven, more comprehensive, more socially aware, more… more. But all our “mores” have done nothing to reverse the trend of disengagement.

My friend and longtime pastor Tom Melton once told me: “We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with him as so much work.” We “work at” our relationship with Jesus, and urge others to do the same, because the nicey-nice Jesus we’ve most-often described to them requires us to work if we want to maintain a connection to him, or worship him, or serve him. The false Jesus of our conventional narratives arouses no passion in young people and adults. Their passivity toward him is a natural result of the milquetoast descriptions they’ve heard of him.

Nicey-nice Jesus isn’t strong and fierce and big enough to walk with young people (or us) into the fiery furnaces of everyday life. They’re facing big challenges and struggles, and they’re looking for someone or something to help them through or give them the courage they need to survive the blows they’ve endured. Because the only Jesus they’ve experienced in the church is often a Mr. Rogers knockoff, they’ve naturally turned to “lesser gods” that promise better results, including:
• humanism
• drugs and alcohol
• affluence
• video games
• social networking
• sexual experimentation
• spirituality
• sports
• academic achievement

Today’s young people just aren’t getting who Jesus really is, or they aren’t getting enough of who he really is, or they’re getting, literally, a fake Jesus. As a result, few of them are living passionately with Christ in their everyday lives. Without the passion of a “devoted faith” in Jesus, all that’s left is a cultural commitment to churchgoing. And we all know that cultural norm is quickly evaporating.

Our challenge is to make the pursuit of Jesus the central, consuming, desperate focus of our ministry. The French Laundry in Napa Valley is one of the world’s top-rated restaurants. If you work there, the highest honor you can receive is a T-shirt given by the owner to a select few. The T-shirt slogan “Be the Pig” refers to the difference between pigs and chickens. A chicken might offer up an egg for breakfast, but the pig gives his life for it. All-in disciples of Jesus are pigs, not chickens.

The clearest biblical translation of this kind of “be the pig” discipleship is described in John 6, when massive crowds are following the rock-star Jesus. They hear him say, nine times in a row, that they must “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” or they’ll have “no life in yourselves.” They’re so disgusted and disoriented that they abandon him en masse. And after the dust and noise from their retreat has cleared, Jesus looks at his remaining 12 disciples—also likely disoriented—and asks this incredible question: “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” And, here, Peter steps to the plate and answers like a pig, so to speak: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Only you have words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter, like the masses who’ve just stampeded down the hill, would likely escape him if he could. But he just can’t. He so identifies himself with Jesus that he can’t imagine leaving him. Peter is all-in, a pig not a chicken, and this is what discipleship really looks like. Later Paul, another all-in disciple—one of the greatest thinkers and apologists in history—describes his orientation to Jesus this way: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

I believe churches in general have been using a flawed strategy for discipleship that produces chickens, not pigs. I call it the “understand and apply” strategy. It assumes people grow deeper in their faith when they understand biblical principles and apply them to their lives. “Understand and apply” has proven to be a marginal strategy, at best, and has weak biblical support. The ultimate reason young people stop following Christ after they graduate from high school is that they can. I mean, they’re not “ruined” for him, as Peter was when Jesus asked if he was going to leave, too.

A disciple’s answer to that question is something like: “I don’t understand a lot of what you’re saying, and I can’t comprehend the things you do, but I know I have nowhere else to go. You’ve ruined me for you.” Disciples answer this way because of the depth of their attachment to Jesus. We need a ministry momentum that persists in its focus on the heart of Jesus, not on the self-help tips-and-techniques of a try harder to get better false gospel. Our mission is to introduce people to their deep calling as beloved brothers and sisters of Jesus, living out their meaning and purpose in life because they are “ruined” for Him.

This is at the heart of our new resource called Lives of Meaning and Purpose, a ministry kit developed out of our five-year project “Creating a Culture of Calling.” Please do check it out, HERE. And pursuing the heart of Jesus is the driving focus on our new 40-lesson curriculum for teenagers and adults—it’s called Following Jesus, and you can check it out HERE.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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