Look around your church. If you're like the vast majority of congregations in the United States, you'll be hard-pressed to find a thriving community of 20-somethings. Sure, there may be a smattering here or there, maybe even a special service for them, but they likely don't make up a significant portion of the total attendance. The question is, Why?
It seems an entire generation is finding church--and in some respects Christianity--irrelevant. Sunday morning seems to have lost its appeal, replaced by the Web, coffee shops, discussion and literature. This generation is looking for something more, and its quest has officially moved beyond the walls of traditional church. In some cases, it has bypassed it altogether.
But what can be done about it? Is there something pastors and church leaders are--or aren't--doing? Is there something wrong with today's American church? Or is there something innately wrong with an entire generation of spiritual seekers?
It's impossible to define a generation in broad strokes, and, thereby, it's impossible to offer simple, off-the-rack solutions. To effectively reach someone, you must first understand them and the world they live in. That's not an easy task, but there are some common threads.
This generation is not looking for programs or services. It's much deeper than that. They're wanting real answers, real truth and are wanting to encounter something bigger than themselves in a real way. They want purpose for their lives. They're looking for authenticity.
The majority of American churches are built for families. There are programs for children, youth and parents. When those youth graduate from high school and head off to college, a line in the sand is drawn.
For the first time, they're out from under the shelter of their parents and youth pastors, and they begin to see and experience things they've never encountered before. They meet intellectuals and peers who challenge their faith in a way that it has never been challenged before. They have to figure out for themselves how they're going to live their lives. In one fell swoop, their worldviews have been rocked. They've been enlarged.
So these perfect youth-group kids turn into questioning college students. They begin to seek answers for themselves, no longer taking at face value that which they were taught as children. They look to places for truth and meaning that they didn't even know existed before. They get into music, trends and styles that had always been taboo before. But they're on their own now, making their own choices. And the church has no idea what to do with them.
It's almost as if church leaders expect kids to drift from their faith in their college years and 20s. It's almost as if they say, "It's been great having you in youth group--we'll see you again when you have kids." Those bright-eyed kids are sent into the world to figure things out for themselves. And we wonder why so many of them never come back.
Questioning status quo and seeking the truth is good. But you have to wonder how different things would be if the church woke up to the needs of this generation and was able to effectively meet them where they are. Maybe instead of drifting from their faith in their 20s, many more would grow stronger in it.
Unfortunately, there seems to be an underlying distrust 20-somethings develop toward traditional religion. Maybe it's because so many of them are the products of broken homes and they find it hard to trust authority. Or maybe it's because once they launch out on their own, they discover many of the parameters they were given growing up don't apply to them anymore. They look back on their youth and see nothing but a list of don'ts, and inevitably they begin to see religion as nothing but that either.
Leonard Hjalmarson, the author of NextReformation.com, says that's why so many 20-somethings are looking outside the walls of the church to find intimacy and spiritual nourishment. Because they now question their pasts and are seeking spiritual truth for themselves, 20-somethings can't fully trust their parents or pastors anymore.
"What worked yesterday doesn't work today," Hjalmarson says. "Our culture has shunned weakness and glorified strength. The leaders have been the ones with the answers. The ones with the answers got us into this mess, so we no longer trust those who think they know the way. In the postmodern world it is the ones willing to journey to unknown lands who gain our hearing."
"Twenty-somethings are attracted to people who seem more honest and real. They don't like too much hype or pyrotechnics or pressure. They want some room to really think about what they're committing to. A lot of Christians can be pushy or preachy, but my generation doesn't respond to forcefulness. If you push too hard, they'll run."
Chaffer says 20-somethings are many times put off by the fact that church leaders don't understand the world they live in. "It's hard to find a church with a down-to-earth pastor who will engage in cultural issues without being critical," she told Ministries Today. "Many times, the church appears to be too heavenly minded to be of earthly good."
"Twenty-somethings are in an ongoing search for truth, something to believe in," asserts David Docusen, worship leader for Access, a 20-something-targeted service at Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida. "They won't buy into God just because the pastor says they need Him. They need to feel the need and see the need, and feel a part of what is going on."
"Twenty-somethings feel most churches don't understand at all where they're at and are not equipped to deal with all the junk in their lives," adds Jim Poorman, pastor of H20, a progressive church in Orlando, Florida, founded by Great Commission Ministries. "Most are afraid to even talk about 'the junk'--they get the impression everyone acts as if they have it all together, and they won't ever be there."
It's obvious this generation is looking for something. But during the last two decades they've seen the shortcomings of the American church--the scandals, the greed, the hypocrisy, the irrelevancy--and they've decided to look elsewhere for answers to their spiritual questions.
One reason might be an underlying dualism that permeates the majority of churches. It's a separation between "sacred" and "secular" that most 20-somethings just can't seem to relate to.
"The church has tended to divide life so rigidly between 'Christian' and 'non-Christian,' that it's hard for people to relate anymore," Chaffer says. "Fact is, many of us still feel God's presence strongly in some of the most 'pagan' places.
"But the church invalidates that," she continues, "oftentimes by pummeling us with law: 'No drinking, smoking, cursing or secular rock 'n' roll.' And if a church is not that way, the sermons and other meetings still seem so spiritually worded that it's hard to feel like church life is connected to real life."
Lori Chaffer's husband, Don Chaffer, is the lead singer for Waterdeep, a songwriter and producer, and is involved in leadership at the Jacob's Well church in Kansas City, Missouri. He feels the dualism in churches hinders their ability to connect with 20-somethings in a deeper way because they don't view life from the same perspective.
"There is, increasingly in culture, a sense that life is a holistic endeavor," he says.
In other words, this generation doesn't separate spiritual life from real life. So how can Christian leaders respond to this?
"Just loosen up a little," Lori Chaffer advises. "Be more casual, both visually and emotionally. Talk more about our culture as being just another culture, as opposed to being the Antichrist.
"Accept post-modernity," she adds. "I'm sure people bagged on modernism as being pagan when it started, but now the church loves it. Pastors need to live in the culture, not sheltered from it."
A spiritual renewal is happening. The Call (log on to www.thecallrevolution.com) is attracting hundreds of thousands of young adults to one-day events around the country for no purpose other than prayer, worship and fasting.
The Passion OneDay event (see www.PassionNow.org) will attract tens of thousands for the same purpose. Twenty-somethings are so hungry for a deep, tangible experience with God that they'll pack up their things, jump in a friend's car and drive across the country to be at some event just because they know God will be there. Why can't that be happening in churches as well? It can.
PASSIONATE FOR JESUS
Churches are waking up to the need. Knowing they need to do something, but not sure what, they choose to start a life group or ask the youth pastor to start a new service for 20-somethings. The only problem is that approach won't work in and of itself. It's time for a renewal.
If you look at The Call and Passion events (and countless others), what's really at their cores is lifestyle worship. Worship is the thing that most deeply connects with 20-somethings because it bypasses religion--it's just an individual talking to and serving a God Who is bigger than them.
This does not mean the buck should simply be passed to your worship leader, however. "Worship has become pitifully atrophied in the church, because people presume it's simply music," Don Chaffer says. "It's all of it: sacraments, readings, teachings, fellowship, silence and then also singing.
"And really," he continues, "worship ought to be a state of the heart that continues in the context of daily life. Again with the dualism--if we teach that worship is just singing, then people have no worship skill set for daily life. You can't burst out in song every time you need to touch God."
Twenty-somethings want to know the depth of the Word as well. "This biblically illiterate generation needs truth to be communicated with them," Poorman says, "and they need to see authentic, passionate worship that allows them to connect emotionally with God."
"Twenty-somethings want something to be passionate about," Docusen echoes. "People are so afraid to step on the toes of seekers that they sterilize their passion. When an unbelieving 20-something walks into a church and sees passion, it gives him or her something to believe in."
Too often, churches try to reach 20-somethings by watering down truth to make it more palatable. They put emphasis on lighting, fog, loud music--all of the superficial stuff--and overlook the very thing 20-somethings are really looking for: an encounter with God.
"Twenty-somethings are looking for authenticity, raw reality, a high degree of openness and vulnerability from their pastors," Poorman states. "They want a strong relational connection with others and solid mentoring from those older in the faith, and a church that takes risks and tries anything to reach those outside the church."
Docusen believes pastors might have to ruffle the feathers of the church body. "Pastors must embrace new ideas to reach a smart, self-thinking generation," he says. "New ideas and new ministries tend to scare those who have been in church a long time.
"But ministering to the body as a whole includes this group that has been excluded. It may cause a stir, but this will be the generation that will run passionately with their God they have fallen for. It just will be communicated in a different way."
According to Hjalmarson, the solution for reaching 20-somethings is really the same solution for getting back to truly fulfilling the church's biblical mission.
"McChurch may have served a billion people, but it abandoned its true vocation," he says. "St. Francis chose the way of weakness, the way of the holy fool. He chose descent when others were riding up the hill, building power and prestige on the backs of the poor.
"The real crisis today is a crisis of spirituality and of faith," he asserts. "To the extent the modern church adopted worldly goals and sought prestige and power, she abandoned Christ.
"She also abandoned the hope of transformation, choosing security instead of growth. New learnings only come when we leave the place of certainty behind. Only the meek will inherit the earth, and the truth is hidden from the wise.
"The modern church is powerful and wealthy and a dying cause--a new church is waiting to be born."
Seven Ways to Make the Connection
It's not hard to bridge the gap with 20-somethings. These seven tips can serve as a helpful guide.
1. Be relational. Too many churches have emphasized formulas and programs rather than people. The answers are not found in postmodern pastors conferences, books or even magazine cover stories. The way to reach this generation is to get out of your office and go build relationships with them in the real world. You'll then begin to understand their lives and their hearts, and will know how to better reach them.
2. Be cross-generational. Who said 20-somethings wouldn't like a church service just because it has more traditional praise and worship? And who said the older generations wouldn't mind a little change in their services? By bringing the generations together, a give-and-take is established that benefits everybody.
3. Get outside your comfort zone. "On the outside, lose the suit," advises Jim Poorman, pastor of H2O, a progressive church in Orlando, Florida. "Be 'scary' real in your teachings, give the 20-somethings more ownership, lengthen the guitar strap, turn up the amps, let them meet outside your church walls, name it what they want, invest financially in it, give them your life."
4. Put on stage those you're trying to reach. People only feel connected with something when they feel as though they are a part of it. If you want racial diversity in your church--which is very important to this audience--you'd better have racial diversity reflected in the church staff and on stage during services.
It's the same with age. If a 20-something looks up front and only sees middle-aged suits, they don't feel as though they belong there. Make a concerted effort to have gender, race and age diversity reflected at the front of the church. Otherwise you'll end up with a congregation full of only stodgy middle-aged men.
5. Lose the lingo. One of the biggest things holding back the church from truly reaching current culture is the code language it uses. Be aware of how someone from the "outside" would perceive the things you say. For example, someone who is not on the "in" with Christian lingo would ask, "Who in their right mind would wash themselves in the blood of the lamb?" He or she wouldn't have the vaguest idea what you're talking about.
There are other ways to convey deep, substantive biblical truth--not watered down--by using words that normal, intelligent people would understand. When something comes up in Scripture that may sound strange, be aware that some people there don't know the meaning behind the phrase. Take a minute to explain it so everyone can understand and grow in their faith.
6. Listen. "Provide a safe, comfortable atmosphere for them to be real," Poorman says. "Do the best to connect them with others who have a similar past or are presently in the midst of some of the same struggles. Bottom line: Listen to them."
7. Above all, be yourself. "Be yourself, and don't sweat this stuff," says Don Chaffer of the Christian roots/rock group Waterdeep. "Find out what [type of] church you have if you really are yourself. If everybody leaves, you're probably not pastoring the church you thought you were."
Interested in better understanding and reaching the 20-something crowd? Whether you're a senior pastor, a youth pastor or a lay leader in the church, Relevant magazine is a great ministry resource and will keep you informed. To subscribe, log on to www.relevantmagazine.com or call toll free (866) 512-1108.
Top Seven Don'ts in Reaching 20-Somethings
Sometimes what you don't do can make all the difference in connecting to the college-age crowd.
1. Don't water it down. Nothing is worse than being pandered to. Don't insult the intelligence of the audience you're wanting to reach by watering down the gospel or giving it to them in bite-size pieces. This audience wants depth of teaching.
"Twenty-somethings want something to be passionate about," says David Docusen, worship leader for Access, a 20-something-targeted service at Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida. "People are so afraid to step on the toes of seekers that they sterilize their passion. When an unbelieving 20-something walks into a church and sees passion, it gives them something to believe in."
2. Don't stay still. "What worked yesterday doesn't work today," says Leonard Hjalmarson, author of NextReformation.com. This generation was raised on change.
Even if your church has a thriving community of 20-somethings and seems to be doing everything right, do not stay there. Complacency breeds stagnation, and stagnation breeds death. Always be looking for new ways to grow, reach out and better impact the lives of this generation.
3. Don't lump high school and college/20-somethings together. Think about the differences between a 14-year-old and a 25-year-old. They have zero in common. One is just getting through puberty, and one is getting married.
Lumping both groups under one pastor or lay leader basically gives that person an impossible task: understanding and nourishing the needs of two separate, unrelated groups of people that are in very different places in life.
4. Don't use the word 'youth. ' Twenty-somethings bristle at the word "youth." The usage of it immediately says, "This is for teenagers." Twenty-somethings and the unchurched won't connect with something labeled "youth" or even "young adult."
5. Don't copy someone else's formula. There is no quick-fix solution to reaching 20-somethings or the unchurched. Just because a certain style or emphasis may be working at another church does not mean it will at yours.
Look at your church and see what unique things you have to offer that no one else does. Capitalize on those things. Seek God, and seek the input and counsel of the audience you're wanting to reach. If you're wanting to reach 20-somethings, they need to be the lifeblood behind the efforts.
6. Don't try too hard. If you do, it will feel forced. Strategy has its place, but things have to happen naturally (and supernaturally). Trying too hard makes people feel pressured.
7. Don't overemphasize the aesthetics. Yes, we would recommend having a service or environment where 20-somethings can gather that doesn't feel so churchy. But don't overdo it.
Remember, it's not the sound, lights or fog that are going to change lives. It's the heart of worship, teaching and relationships. Create an environment that's cool but doesn't detract from those three things.
Cameron Strang is CEO and founder of Relevant Media Group, a progressive media company focused on reaching 20-somethings and impacting culture. Relevant Media Group's new magazine, Relevant, debuted in March. The company also publishes 15 titles each year through Relevant Books. For more information, log on to their Web site at www.relevantmagazine.com.