At our annual meeting on April 27th, I presented 5 questions that I believe The Grove’s response to will determine the level of influence we have for Jesus in our city and in our world. Part 1!
Question 2: Will we successfully pass the faith to the next generation?
Organizations that have systems to reward mediocrity drive me crazy. Absolutely nutso. When an organization rewards itself for repeating its past success even while the environment in which it is operating changes, it’s a sure sign that I want to avoid that organization – and the people involved with it. Rewarding mediocrity is the best way to enact a slow, albeit relatively painless, demise to any organization.
Here’s what I think that looks like in the western church…
You are a young person who grows up in a church, say in the mid-1900’s, when Christian kids were equally being recruited to like Jesus, attend patriotic demonstrations and to battle the huns. They did this by holding large rallies which you would attend with your youth group at a local hall, or at a stadium in the nearby city. The rally would include singing of the most contemporary hymns and songs, a special message from a celebrity, some kind of special musical act, and a message from a dynamic preacher. You would leave the rally amped up, ready to take the world for Jesus, for your church and for your country.
You grow older and you stick with your church because it helped you have meaning in your life – it introduced you to Jesus after all, which is awesome – and you become an adult leader in your church. Turns out, there is a whole new generation of teenagers out there and it would be great to introduce them to Jesus as well. So, you get involved with running (and if you are older and have means, you also can be funding) rallies to introduce Jesus to kids. You get celebrities to say something, some kind of musical act (if we’ve reached the late 70’s, we can start getting ‘professional’ Christian bands who go from rally to rally), and a preacher who is really dynamic and relates well to the kids. And it works. Maybe not as much as before, but it works. If you are lucky enough to be a hard core, pre-destinational, God ordained election Calvinist you can ignore the lessening of the ministry effectiveness, but it’s still there. It’s not like the rallies don’t work, but it’s working for less and less people.
Now, let’s say you are one of the few who the second generation of youth ministry actually reached. And not just reached in getting you to go to a rally, or got you to sign some kind of a response card, or say a prayer – but you are one of the few who stuck with Jesus for life. Maybe it was so meaningful you became a youth pastor, or you volunteered in your local youth group. You are a part of a time in youth ministry when some studies show that as much as 85% of teens who profess Jesus at the end of high school will quit the faith during their 4 year college experience and turn away from Jesus completely. In order to fix this you grow bigger rallies, bigger groups and bigger weekly youth events. Your organization figures that if we want to help 15 kids follow Jesus for their whole lives, we need to attract 100 kids to the group. Maybe you even start holding rally-style events weekly, or even twice weekly. You get fun experiences (like vaseline mohawks!! #guilty), loud, front-edge music, minor celebrities (hence younglife’s strategy of reaching the popular kids at a local school and hoping the unpopular follow along), and a dynamic preacher. Kids leave ready to take their school for Jesus every week! But the long term effectiveness is questionable. So, the youth pastors’ turnover rate gets more and more rapid – he’s got to get out of town before anyone realizes how ineffective this 1940’s style of ministry is in 2014…
It’s not that the local church doesn’t want this. Traditional local churches with low conversion rates (that grow by transfers from churches with less attractive life-stage appropriate ministries) are full of people who had an amazing youth pastor (for a couple years anyways) and want to see that experience repeated for their children. It’s a noble and loving and normal Christian thing for a parent to want their teenage child to know Jesus and have the same meaningful experience that they did! I love and agree with this desire all the way! However, the traditional local church runs into a problem when the rally method they have been using for decades starts to fray and they enjoy less and less of a meaningful place in contemporary youth culture. It’s not that it stops working…it just works less and less. The tragic response from older generations is to blame the implementation of the strategy. We fire the youth pastor, spend more money, partner with the local “youth missionary” from young life, youth for christ or youth alive and build skateboarding ramps because kids like skateboarding, right?
We are the futile Glass Tiger fans trying to convince Beliebers, Barbz, and Little Monsters of the value of synthesizer produced music.
The classic argument lately has been that even thought those kids are leaving the church in their late-teens or early twenties, they are coming back when they get married and have kids. That was true…for a while. It’s not anymore. People in a traditional church live in denial of this because they can find anecdotal evidence and point to the young couple with the two adorable kids that came to youth group here 6 years ago and have come back because they want to raise their kids in the church, raise good kids in their good family and contribute to a better world (please do notice the complete lack of Jesus in any of the reasoning). In general, researchers are seeing less and less of these boomerang Christians return to the church in their mid-twenties. There are multiple reasons suggested, but it’s so widespread that churches need to take notice.
So, the traditional western church has become an organization that rewards a youth ministry philosophy that is horribly infective and is getting worse. We reward mediocrity. We even celebrate that mediocrity in our practices, spending and strategies.
We are contributing to the long slow, but relatively painless, demise of our churches by inefectively passing on the faith to future generations.
This is the dirty little secret among youth pastors today. Over and over again I talk to them about current youth ministry philosophies and they are at a loss because they know that past methods are becoming less and less effective, yet they are the very programs desired by the parents and leaders in their churches. They see the need for change, but they first have to reach the church before they can reach lost teenagers.
So, this is the question confronting The Grove…will we effectively pass on our faith to the next generation? Will we help them walk their journey, in their world, and maybe not follow the paths we have created? Will we help them plant churches that are radically different than the current? Do we have a baton that is worth passing on to them?
Is The Grove daring enough to lead the next generation to create radical churches – and not expect them to ever use the word ‘radical’? Or will we reward those mediocre few who fall in line, never ask challenging questions and keep their heads down so that we can keep moving along ignoring the impending collapse?
It sounds like the easiest thing in the world – until you hear how horrible their music is compared to our beautiful Canadian Rock Anthem Makers, Glass Tiger. Or you see how their theology doesn’t even fit into the systematic categories we have built for them. Or we see how little they care about issues that we have declared vital and how much they care about others we have never even considered.
It doesn’t mean that we stop going to rallies, investing in teens, or seeking help from outside the church organization. I am not against traditional youth ministry, but there is no way that it is the panacea of the Holy Spirit.
We need to become a people who help new generations know and follow Jesus – on Jesus’ terms, not on ours. It’s thinking in the same way as a missionary to a foreign field – what does following Jesus look like over there? How is it different? How is it the same? How does their cultural expression of Christianity actually challenge and improve us?
Before you write this off as an out of control rant (which may be true), I want to end with these extraordinary words of change from Billy Graham, from The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons (p.8),
Back when we did these big crusades in football stadiums and arenas, the Holy Spirit was really moving – and people were coming to Christ as we preached the word of God…But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way. He’s moving through people where they work and through one-on-one relationships to accomplish great things.