We're probably all familiar with the so-called 20-something problem. A 2003 Barna Group survey documents the marked absence of “20-somethings” from American churches, noting “research shows that 20-somethings are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches.” It seems clear and irrefutable: Young adults are not filling our churches. I'm confident we're all tired of hearing about it.
Here is some good news: 20-somethings in Colorado Springs, Colorado, haven't received the memo. They must not know their peers are disillusioned. Every weekend, thousands of them attend our church.
As associate pastor of New Life Church, I speak to several hundred people every Saturday night-most of whom are poster children for this allegedly estranged lot. Hundreds more pack out our college service, the Mill, and our downtown Boulder Street campus, pastored entirely by a crew of 20-somethings. And this all happens before several thousand people-boatloads of 20-somethings thick among them. They fill our main auditorium for Sunday morning services.
Each week they come, worship God and sit relatively still while we teach from the Bible. Then they leave and invade half-a-dozen franchise restaurants en mass. It's part of their weekly routine. It's part of their lives. The point is they are not responding to some “recruit the young people” campaign. They're just coming to church.
Aside from their many variations of sticky, product-fortified hairstyles, they appear to be basically the same as all the other New Lifers. And they are my friends. I sit across from them at Starbucks week after week trying to fuel their dreams, nurture their broken hearts and challenge them to obey the scriptures.
I know them, and over the years I've come to know a little about why they do what they do. The amazing thing is, not only are these allegedly “Elusive Ones” not showing any imminent signs of leaving the church, but they are also steadily, naturally taking ownership and driving it ahead.
Perhaps more than any other demographic, they're bringing friends to services, going on missions trips, starting small groups, and generally picking the church up on their shoulders and pulling it forward into the 21st century. Yes, each week more and more of these supposedly elusive young adults are becoming part of the New Life family. Why is this happening? Let me offer six reasons.
1. We hire sharp young leaders and put them on the platform.
Every year in June we host the Life-Giving Leadership Conference at our church, and every year the attendees ask this one question more than any other: “Why are there so many young men on your staff?” The answer is simple and profound: Our senior pastor believes that a pastor draws a range of people from 10 years younger to 10 years older than himself.
A senior pastor who resists the natural inclination to hire his peers, and instead puts men 10 and 20 years younger than himself on the platform-and, yes, it is a risk using someone in your pulpit who doesn't use a comb or remember the Carter administration-positions his church to connect with the Elusive Ones and continue to thrive in the coming decades.
Here's where the battle lies: In order to get a sharp young man on your platform, you have to make the local church business appealing to him. Truth is, the generation of leaders that will draw the generation of congregants that seem to be fleeing from the church like a hurricane are not ultra-attracted to what we do. I'm convinced one of the two or three key secrets to New Life Church is that we have figured out how to make local church ministry appealing to the sharpest and most innovative young men and women.
2. We don't have goatees, backward baseball caps and Dr. Martens.
It is popular right now for churches to be “culturally relevant,” presumably in order to connect with the vanishing constituency of young adults. Too often, though, this mandate is interpreted in an unfortunate way that culminates in repelling rather than attracting the Elusive Ones.
Churches that go down the relevant route often respond to culture in one of two ways. The first is to attempt to mimic it. We've all grimaced when pastors go backstage after the main service, switch out their suits for jeans and a baseball cap and come back out for the Gen-X service.
The tricky thing about mimicking culture is that churches tend to be at least a decade behind. Want me to prove it? Spend one day observing the current wave of “next generationism”; then, at the end of the day, make a list of all the churches you can think of whose youth pastors do not have goatees.
(In case you aren't following me, the goatee-along with the shoulder-carried boombox and parachute pants-has gone out of style. Please do not be defensive, colleagues, but the '80s are calling, and they want all the goatees back.)
Incidentally, this type of church sometimes becomes enamored with culture, which leads to more serious problems than the 20-something vacuum. All manner of silliness is perpetrated in the name of worship and a variety of sinful behaviors are justified as reaching out by churches who are enamored with culture. Regardless of demography, the church is still the body of Christ and its mandate is immovable. We must never confuse the methods with the purpose.
The second way churches can work with culture is to let leaders lead. Put people in charge who are natural leaders and who are part of the demographic they're trying to reach, and then let them do it the way they would do it. Rather than trying to mimic culture, these young leaders forge it.
Rather than reading a book or attending a conference and trying to do church the way an expert says is Gen-X, it may be more authentic to get a good Gen-Xer and let him do church how he would do it. Empower your sharp young people to help shape your church, and watch them do so.
3. We deregulate.
Churches are frequently led by control freaks. The process of becoming a lay leader in many of our churches is not dissimilar to opening a small business in India-exhausting requirements, endless regulations, excessive approvals and superfluous forms. And the results are often the same: Good people become discouraged, and eventually take their ideas and ambition elsewhere.
At New Life, we borrow the ideas of capitalism, and view people's creativity and innovation as our most precious ministry commodity. We resist the temptation to be in total control, and, instead, empower people to lead according to their gifts and callings. The same principles that caused the American economy to keep growing while the Soviet Union crumbled from the inside are precipitating incredible ministry growth in our city.
Twenty-somethings respond to this kind of ease of access. If it's too complicated, requires too much insider knowledge or demands too great an upfront time commitment, they may shy away. But when the way to leadership is made plain, they have proven quick and enthusiastic to jump onboard.
I know what you're thinking: You want me to turn a bunch of wild-haired 24-year-olds loose on my congregation? Are you crazy? What if they do something I wouldn't do? Well, my friend, that is the hope-that they would do some things you wouldn't do, draw some people you wouldn't draw and serve some people you couldn't serve.
Incidentally, it is likely that some will mess up, and that this will make you uncomfortable. No doubt, it's more comfortable to be in complete control. Some of our most memorable ministry failures have been the brainchildren of the Elusive Ones; it's true. But so have some of our most profound successes.
And, what's more, empowering them is drawing them in hordes. They want to matter, and so many are leaving our churches because they aren't allowed to matter yet. We have found, in the balance, that it is well worth the risk.
4. We listen to Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell and Dinesh D'Souza.
There is a tendency in church unwittingly to confuse the thinking that Jesus is all we need to know for salvation, and Jesus is all we need to know period.
This misunderstanding in the last three decades has fueled the Christian loser stigma: people who can deftly unpack the subtleties of eschatological prophecy but can't get to work on time; whose cars boldly proclaim the message of truth through the menagerie of pithy bumper stickers, but who can't present their ideas coherently, let alone persuasively, to someone who doesn't believe.
Too many of the Elusive Ones have been repulsed by this phenomenon and consequently have thrown out the baby with the bath water.
At New Life, we teach through the Bible verse by verse in our weekend services. We believe it is foundationally important for Christ's followers to love the Word of God, and we teach it with the aim of instilling a hunger to know it more. Still, we are attentive to present scriptural ideas in global, sociological and geopolitical context.
Often, we will highlight ideas from secular authors such as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman, former Reagan administration adviser and Stanford scholar Dinesh D'Souza or business guru Malcolm Gladwell. While these authors do not shed light on predestination and free will, they are clearly thinking about and articulating some big ideas that are shaping the 21st-century world.
Our executive staff commonly reads books that explain the world in which we are training people to do ministry-books such as The Progress Paradox, Of Paradise and Power, and The Lexus and the Olive Tree-and discuss them together.
The result is a ministry culture in which the church is not ancillary and arbitrary, but central and focused. Recognizing that it is essential for our people to understand the world around them if they are going to change it, we are deliberate to package the Scripture with worldview.
Twenty-somethings tend not to value church intrinsically-they don't seem interested in being part of the flock just because that's what upstanding people do-but they do want to be a part of something that has the power to affect change. The onus is on us as church leaders to show them that Jesus' church is society's supreme change agent.
5. We teach them how to pray.
If the suggestion to deregulate deals with empowerment on the personal level, this one involves empowerment on the cosmic scale. The principle is the same: The Elusive Ones are like the rest of us-they want to make a difference. This lot, though, is particularly disinterested because of a life of exposure to Christianity that doesn't make a difference. So they think, Why bother?
These folks don't come to church negatively predisposed. Twenty-somethings don't hate the church; they have just never considered it as a change agent. They're not jaded; they're disinterested. To the Elusive Ones, the church has no more potential for changing the world than does the Elks club … so they don't come.
Our church is drawing the Elusive Ones because we coach them in doing the things that make a difference. We teach them how to do what they most desire: to matter. That's why we emphasize prayer so much-because it matters.
Prayer changes things. Making prayer attractive, doable and even exciting unlocks a world of change potential. And the best part is they can do it now! They don't have to wait till they're older, wealthier, more experienced or more polished. Demystify prayer, model it well in your services, and promote it through the ministries of your church and you'll experience the double-blessing of becoming more alluring to 20-somethings and more powerful for the kingdom of God.
6. We send them around the world.
Christianity makes the most sense when its message of hope, peace and freedom is considered through the lens of any of the hundreds of cultures that lacks one or more of these benefits. In the last year, we have taken teams of 20-somethings to Morocco, India, Thailand, Mexico, Pakistan, Western Europe, Indonesia and Nepal.
The culture of New Life expects that 20-somethings will go to the darkest nations of the world and serve the least of these-and the Elusive Ones embrace it. Once young adults experience the gospel message manifest in feeding the world's hungriest, aiding its weakest and cherishing its most brokenhearted, they fall in love with the work of Christ and His church.
I encourage you to be problem solvers. Don't merely recognize the 20-something problem in your church, somberly agree with the many problem-identifiers out there, and resign yourself and your church to a bleak future. Resist the impulse to join in the problem-identifying.
There is no shortage of material on the status of Generation X. (As you are reading this article, someone else is busy writing the next book on this problem.) It's being proclaimed well enough, but there are too few churches fixing it.
Young adults are steadily coming to our church, but I don't believe we have any particular calling or anointing for it. We are not a Gen-X-savvy church. No one on our staff has any body piercings; there is no “revolution” rhetoric or “you are the chosen ones” hype to keep them frothed up into an emotional lather.
We are just a local church trying to serve God and love people. I'm not sure we know anything that is profound. Still, we are seeing God steadily and naturally add to our congregation throngs of young adults who are preparing to receive the baton one day and advance the kingdom of God in their lap around the track.
So don't believe the hype. We are successfully ministering to young adults, and so can you.
Rob Brendle is associate pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he leads the SaturdayNight service. Rob is the author of In the Meantime: The Practice of Proactive Waiting, scheduled for release with Waterbrook Press in January 2006.