How We Got Here

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

Outside, in the culture, if feels like we’re just now opening our door and walking outside after a ferocious thunderstorm that felt eternal. It smells fresh and new, but we can’t forget (quite yet) what we just went through. The storm stripped away our facades and exposed the ugliness underneath. Now we have to deal with the reality of how we got here—and that’s a blessing in disguise. Or, in the rhythms of Jesus, He intends to take what has been revealed as ugly and re-fashion it into something beautiful. But first, a reckoning…

In a lengthy, thoughtful, and well-reasoned article by Michael Luo, editor of The New Yorker, he explores the underlying forces that moved American Christianity, like a slow-moving glacier, into patterns of shallow faith-formation and discipleship. Luo writes: “The style of the most popular and influential pastors tend to correlate with shallowness: charisma trumps expertise; scientific authority is often viewed with suspicion.” Luo laments the disintegration of a primary trajectory in our love for God—that we would worship Him with “all our mind.” He points to the church’s history of embracing all aspects of our human agency—heart, soul, mind, and strength—and lifts up the intellect as a worship offering: “Cultivating the life of the mind… has been an important current throughout much of Christianity’s history, a recognition that intellectual pursuits can glorify God.” The church’s widespread abdication of intellect as a foundation for faith-formation has, says Luo, shallow-ized our long-term impact on the culture at large.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of You Lost Me, pins the blame on the current decline in church membership and attendance on a prevailing church culture that is fearful, anti-science, controlling, and sometimes hostile. But Matthew Marino, director of Youth and Young Adults for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, counters Kinnaman by making a broader charge: The church isn’t losing Millennials, because it never had them in the first place. And it never had them because church youth ministries have, for so long, been ineffective and misguided. Marino writes: “What was the last ministry those Millennials were a part of? For most, the answer is the youth ministry. And when we consider that the 15-year-old youth group member of a decade ago is the 25-year-old non-attender of today, a question starts to form: ‘Did something happen in the youth room that might have caused this?’”

Marino points to these two “evidences” of a youth ministry “train” that’s gone off the rails as we consider how we got here:

  1. A Failed Practice of Entertaining, Not Discipling, Teenagers—In the ’80s and ’90s, says Marino, church youth ministries “began imitating successful parachurch ministries to ‘attract’ students with games and activities.” Then, by the 2000’s, Marino says “bands, fog machines, and light shows became the youth room rage.” The goal was to “wow” kids with entertainment. And that kind of pandering attitude has created self-focused and shallow students.
  2. A Failed Practice of Segregating Students—Marino says that the onset of targeted youth worship services essentially planted parachurch ministries on church campuses, separating students from the general church population. “Parents wanted their kids to like church,” he writes. “Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth Pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band and shorter message.” The result of this segregation, he says, has been a mass disconnection from church among young people.

At the tail end of his blog post, Marino builds on his diagnosis with this treatment plan: “…Let’s put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Reclaim rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church. Challenge and equip parents to spiritually lead in their homes. Re-envision youth ministry as youth who DO ministry, pursuing and extending the faith connected to the entirety of the community of faith, the church.”

In response to Marino’s blog, youth ministry leaders around the country both embraced and pushed back on his assumptions and diagnosis, including…

  • Darren Sutton (Illinois youth ministry veteran): We lost this generation because… While they were asking questions and wanting to be included in the discovery of answers, we just keep talking at them—”three points, this is what you need to know, just eat it because it’s good for you.” While they were becoming unintentionally personally disengaged with people via texting and social media, we were building static Web sites and designing facilities that focus on the front of the room. While they were looking for causes to invest in and wanting to make a true difference “out in the world,” we just kept on saying, “Hey, look what we’re doing over here—come to us!” While they were looking for thoughtful debate and respectful disagreement, we were defending the faith because somewhere we forgot that Jesus is big enough to handle their tough questions when we cannot.Until we put on our big-boy pants and allow this generation to disagree and search and grapple and wonder and prove it for themselves, we’re gonna keep pushing them out…
  • John Mulholland (longtime youth ministry veteran, now a lead pastor in Nebraska)—In some youth rooms, they’ve made it “safe” and accessible to do the following: ask questions, doubt, build community, serve, and so on. Students did not just hear about biblical truths, they experience them. They eat weekly meals together. After group, they go to McDonalds. They share fears and worries and are not judged or laughed at. Cue the transition to big church. One person stands up front and speaks. Prayer is offered by one person. Serving is a “once a month opportunity,” not a lifestyle. There is no format for questions, so no one raises their hand. Other than a “shake hands with the person next to you” there is no real community. It makes me wonder: What if we did “big church” like we ran a student ministry? Doesn’t good youth ministry have the “antidote” for what’s ailing “big church”? 
  • Jonathan Greenhill (former longtime youth pastor in Virginia)The question that I think every youth pastor wrestles with is how do we help change the culture of the entire church. If youth pastor throws the numbers/program mentality out the window in order to seek more clearly what God is doing, they will likely get to have their very own meeting with the pastor/personnel/angry-parent committee. So the question is, how do we manage this type of philosophy shift if the whole church isn’t moving in the same direction?
  • Dr. Dave Rahn (former senior vice president of Youth For Christ/USA)—Thousands of churches have adopted forms and practices that are far from the original blueprint. We operate with organizational assumptions that we refuse to challenge and wonder why we’re losing vitality. Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we’ve put our confidence in ministry best-practices. We’ve organized youth work in a particular way and have evolved without being careful to determine what pleases the Lord (Ephesians 5:10). Rather than adjusting our practices to what Jesus wants—what’s timeless, universal, and essential—we’ve sought security for our ministries by becoming more politically astute, giving parents and church leaders just what they ask for. When we focus on our kids, our families, and our rosters, we gather and spend a lot of money on ourselves. And we will most certainly grow church members who are socialized to vote in their own best interests rather than meet the unwavering demands of Jesus to take up our cross daily and follow him.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.

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