Setting the stage…
Something unhealthy has been going on in many churches for the past few decades, and a lot of books, blogs, and conferences have sought to identify it. The vibrancy of many churches is faltering, and despite increased evangelistic efforts, many numbers are falling. One of the more recently-identified symptoms of this spiritual plague is the retention rate of young people when they go to college. The majority of children raised in a church, and even attending a youth group, never come back after they graduate from high school.
I’ve seen this happen among the kids who went to the same church as I when I was growing up – hardly any of them have kept the faith as far as I can tell. What’s ironic is that I was not really part of the youth group in-crowd, and I am still in the church. It’s as if being in youth group decreased the odds of remaining a Christian as an adult. Sure, one guy’s observations in one church says nothing about a nation-wide trend. But I just came across a youth minister who did some fact-checking.
So what’s the problem?
In his blog entry that I linked to, he describes in greater detail what I just observed in the church of my youth. The culprit that he calls out is “preference.”
We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. … In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church.
These church-wide effects he goes on to describe, which you can read on your own, so I’ll just list them: age segregation, numbers defining efficacy, attending programs equated to spiritual maturity, replacing cultural fads with Christian versions, program enfranchisement, and attractional over missional.
the moral of the story
What’s the lesson we should learn from this experience?
Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.
Boom; there it is. We try to make youth group fun and exciting in non-churchy ways to get kids interested. And it seems that very few of them make the jump from there to actual church things. If we have to dress up the gospel in a load of popular music that will be out of fashion within a decade, and woo kids with games, food, and activities, then that’s what they’ll associate with Christianity. As someone else I know recently observed, kids raised in that sort of youth group culture end up knowing more about Christian culture than about Christianity. So I’d say that if people know more about Chris Tomlin and Louis Giglio than they do about Paul and Barnabus, we have a deathly problem. Literally deathly, their souls are probably at stake.
So what’s the alternative, Mr. Smartypants?
Matt Marino, who wrote the article I’ve been quoting, gave a truly amazing (and more importantly, accurate) description of what the church was like during its most successful years – the first three centuries AD.
Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church.
Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.
Once again he hit the nail on the head! The secret to the success of the New Testament & Patristic eras of the Church was almost completely contrary to all our modern sensibilities. Yes, the outward-focused missional aspects of the Church’s work is making a good comeback in our generation today, but for most of us it’s still quite divorced from our common life of worship. Many Christians are still trying to figure out how to “do church” (a terrible expression) in a way that attracts, satisfies, and retains people. As Marino put it,
We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.
From Deacon Matt to Father Matt, amen brother, and thanks for your insight.