Going beyond style to substance to empower the next generation in your church
Our church is overwhelmed with young converts. In fact, of the thousands that come to our services each week, more than 70 percent are younger than 29. And about 40 percent of them didn’t attend a church before they came to Substance Church. Pastors often ask me, “What are you doing to get all of these young people?” Honestly, that’s a critical question that the American church had better start asking soon.
Contrary to the exaggerated claims of attendance, as David Olson noted in The American Church in Crisis, only 9.1 percent of Americans attend any evangelical or charismatic church on a weekly basis. Even scarier is the fact that the vast majority of this number are quickly becoming senior citizens. In other words, there is a generation of young people who have totally given up on the church as we know it.
In his book UnChristian, David Kinnaman reported that in 2007 only 3 percent of people under 29 had a favorable view of evangelicals. Why are young people so cynical? Why are they leaving churches in epic numbers? And what can we do to stop it?
Of course, people may expect me to give them the classic relevance argument: “Act hipper” and “dress younger.” But I know dozens of hip churches that aren’t growing either. So, for the answer, we’ve got to dig deeper than this.
Of course, there are a good number of churches that need a total makeover. What passes for “contemporary worship” in many churches is archaic. The best-selling secular artist of the last decade was a rapper named Eminem, yet the majority of Christians don’t even know who he is—let alone listen to a single rap artist. The cultural gap between the church and most Americans is wider than ever.
However, young people do not want to see more older people rapping like Marshall Mathers—nor do they want Baby Boomers to unfurl their middle-aged guts to show off their new belly-button piercing. Although relevance is important to them, authenticity is equally important. But, even beyond this, I suspect they’re looking for something far more exhilarating: ownership.
There’s a huge generation gap in the American church right now. According to the 2010 census, the majority of Americans are under 40 years old—the largest group of which are 20-somethings. The vast majority of pastors (and church decision makers) will soon be senior citizens. As a result, there’s roughly a two- to three-decade difference between the majority of church decision makers and the average American. The implications of this simple fact can be rather far reaching.
Did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the median age of a church and its odds of reaching unchurched people? In The American Church in Crisis, Olson noted that, as churches and leaders age, both their odds of growth and reaching unchurched people plummets. Why is this? Many researchers believe that it’s simply because the vast majority of receptive unchurched people are young. Thus, young people either can’t relate to the church’s culture anymore; or, they don’t perceive they’ll have as many friendships or ministry opportunities.
For example, I was recently talking with a group of dynamic young leaders in our church. (Many of our largest ministries are run by 25-year-olds.) They said to me, “Thanks for giving us a chance to truly impact this church.” In my mind, I wasn’t doing anything special, so I asked them, “What do you mean?”
“Well, in most churches, you can’t even have a say on anything significant until you’re at least 40 years old—nor will you fit in until you’re 50,” one responded. “But here, you expect us to be leading large ministries by 25. It’s just inspiring!”
Another young leader said, “At my last church, they had a young-adult service for people wanting edgier worship on Sunday nights. Although their intentions were good, to us the mere existence of such a service felt like a death sentence—like forcing a 29-year-old to perpetually sit at the kids table on Thanksgiving. So we finally left.”
In other words, the whole philosophy of a “youth-oriented” service subtly says, “We don’t want your influence in the main service.” Relegating people to young-adult services or other odd service times would make sense if we were talking about a minority demographic wanting a bizarre worship style. But they’re not a minority anymore. They represent the majority—not to mention the culture of the largest unchurched population.
So it’s no wonder they’re cynical. Many of them are sitting in churches that claim to be interested in the lost, yet these young people see the disparities and simultaneously feel powerless to change them.
So, what do we do to change this? Thankfully, the Bible gives us a perfect solution in Acts 6, where there was a similar cultural gap forming in the early church. Greek Jews were feeling marginalized by the Hebraic Jews—there was a representation problem in the church.
So what did the apostles do? They created the first multiethnic launch team alongside a disciple named Stephen. They balanced their demographics by creating a leadership team that represented the group being overlooked. (It’s important to note that they all had Greek names.) The American church would do well to apply a similar strategy.
Rather than teaching Baby Boomers to dress younger and start rapping, perhaps we simply need to start looking for more anointed young people to empower. If we can find young people like Stephen, who are “full of God’s grace and power,” they will know how to reach their generation better than anyone.
So let me get practical: What are some simple ways to apply this apostolic example? Or, allow me to rephrase: What are older churches doing to stay in sync?
1. Raise up young leaders on your main platform who represent your mission. Nothing says, “We value your demographic” like giving young people strategic decision-making posts and visible positions in a church service.
2. Keep the median age of your staff under 40 years old. Keep in mind, the average church over 15 years old only grows by 1 percent per year. There are hundreds of reasons older churches lose their effectiveness. But almost all of the exceptions to this average are churches that keep their median staff age down. This practice doesn’t devalue the role of older people but simply acknowledges that we shouldn’t lose the balance that creates fruitfulness.
3. Allow the youth culture to define the main services. I like to think of myself as young and progressive, but when I hang out with college students I always have a stunning revelation: I’m getting old! I remember when my 24-year-old worship pastor came to me with a request: “Can we integrate more rap into our worship on Sunday mornings?” Of course, I was a bit skeptical. After all I don’t listen to rap music, but in the spirit of open-mindedness I agreed to one song. But I told him, “It had better be worshipful!”
Of course, it was so anointed that, after that Sunday, I was convinced that God’s favorite new instruments were two turntables and a microphone. Now, we usually integrate at least one rap-oriented worship song each Sunday.
Every generation has a tendency to idolize and camp out around their worship formats. Rather than seeing worship as a lifestyle, we eventually transcribe it into a style or service format.
Ironically, music was not the driving force of most worship services until the time of John Wesley and the Moravians. Yet today, it’s become a sacred cow—the pre-eminent evidence of God’s presence (or non-presence). So even slight modifications to a church’s Sunday culture is likely to cause some to scream “Compromise!” at the top of their lungs. This is all the more reason why church leaders need to clearly define the purpose of their Sunday morning worship—and provide midweek alternatives for those with different preferences.
For example, at Substance it’s impossible to make everyone happy. That’s why, every Tuesday night, we have three hours of worship and prayer. We tell people: “If you want a specific type of worship, prayer or teaching experience, we have hundreds of styles and opportunities under one roof. But on Sundays, nobody gets what they want except for the one lost sheep that heaven is looking to rejoice over” (see Luke 15). It’s funny how people stop debating worship when they start seeing the undeniable fruit.
You see, despite all of the liabilities and inconveniences of adopting a new generation, there’s something much more exciting we stand to gain. Only a few years ago, Substance was nothing more than a ragtag group of college students. All it took was a few mentors to set them on fire. And now, almost every month, we see 40 to 80 radical conversions. And we didn’t need Baby Boomers to get fauxhawks. Rather, we simply needed a good strategy to create ownership for a generation that feels stuck on the bench.
Peter Haas and his wife, Carolyn, planted Substance Church (substancechurch.com) in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2004. Although only in his mid-30s, Peter has become a well-known pastor and conference speaker.
Connect to the Largest Generation
How to reach non-Christian Millennials with the gospel
By Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer
Millennials, those Americans born between 1980 and 2000, are now the largest generation in the country, numbering more than 78 million. We could, with good reason then, lament the reality that 85 percent of them are unreached. If we instead look at this generation as a great mission opportunity, then there are some key issues to consider in reaching them.
Remember the indifference factor. For the 85 percent of Millennials who are non-Christians, their attitude toward Christians and churches is largely one of indifference. Only 13 percent of the Millennials rate any kind of religious or spiritual issue as important. Most church outreach efforts used today will not be effective with this group. Christianity is not on their radar. We have to be wise and discerning in reaching these young men and women.
Unleash the simple power of inviting. Millennials as a whole are social creatures. Their desire to be with others is not limited to electronic social media. They value being physically present with family and friends. We believe the simple approach of inviting and accompanying them to church will be powerful.
Connect Boomer parents with Millennial children. When asked if parents were a regular and key source of advice and guidance, a staggering 86 percent of Millennials responded positively. There are about 30 million Boomers in churches today, and many of them have Millennial children who aren’t Christians. Why not become more intentional about connecting these Boomer Christians to their adult non-Christian children?
Demonstrate the deep meaning of following Christ. Millennials view life as tenuous and uncertain, believing changes must be made quickly and trivial matters should be ignored to focus on more weighty matters. Millennials, both Christians and non-Christians, are not impressed with most American churches today. But if this generation is ever convinced that churches are serious about a radical commitment to Christ, we have good reason to be hopeful to connect with both the Christians and the non-Christians of this generation.
Demonstrate concern for others. Nearly eight in 10 Millennials have a strong motivation to serve others in society. That is why if you see a church with a large number of Millennials, you are likely to see a church that is passionate about serving its community and passionate about reaching the nations with the gospel. Millennials’ desire to serve others extends beyond family. They want to serve the community. They want to serve the world. They want to make a difference. Many will be willing to go to those churches that demonstrate such traits.
Demonstrate transparency, humility and integrity. Non-Christian Millennials have little patience for leaders who don’t demonstrate integrity and who demonstrate self-centeredness and arrogance. They are looking for leaders who represent the best of biblical values, whether they know they originate from the Bible or not.
Thom S. Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and a pastor and researcher. Jess W. Rainer is an assistant pastor and seminary student. Adapted from The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, copyright 2011. Published by B&H Publishing Group. Used with permission.