Shared Church and the Exodus of Young People


Does doing church the-way-we’ve-always-done-it help to explain why so many young people are checking out? In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says research by the Barna Group found that, “Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” Commenting on how this looks on a line graph, he says, “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”

In light of this trend, Kinnaman asks: “Can the church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of saints?” This sentence caught my attention. I take him to mean that we have lost the potent outcomes that result when Christians connect across the age ranges. As Kinnaman points out, this is something we need to “rediscover.” I agree. From what I’ve observed, in most “assemblies of the saints” (church services) the people sit and listen as spectators. The typical meeting format leaves no opening for comments or questions from the congregation.

True, church experience includes more than the main congregational gathering. Most churches offer other venues for nurturing faith. Most of these, though, usually provide less "intergenerational power" than the weekly event most call "church." The very term "youth group" narrows the age range. Many young adults have attended only age-graded Sunday-school classes. Small groups may include young and old but often do not.

"I Want to be the 'Talker-Man'"

In the main gatherings of some churches, the pastor has nearly all the speaking parts. I knew a boy of ten or so who, after watching how church meetings work, said when he grew up he wanted to be the “talker-man.” The word-ministry of those with shepherding and teaching gifts is vital to the oversight of any congregation. But the New Testament never paints the church as monovoiced.

Something Paul wrote in I Cor. 13 can help us see why the gathered church needs to hear more than one voice. “For we [plural] know in part and we prophesy in part” (9). Paul goes on to say, “Now I [singular] know in part” (12). In other words, none of us knows it all. Even Paul himself, who wrote a quarter of the New Testament, did not.

Each member of the Body of Christ has knowledge, even though it is partial. Each has received a portion of God’s grace. Experience with grace gives us some knowledge of it. Each has received at least one Spirit-given gift—equipping us with another form of knowledge. Each is "taught by God" (Jn. 6:45). So the question becomes: How can we structure our church meetings in such a way that we can all share our partial knowledge? The resulting "pool" will supply far more than any one of us could individually.

Learning from Our Bodies

As Paul makes clear, the way all the parts of the human body work together paints a clear picture of how members of Christ’s Body interact. Each part should do its work. It belongs to all the others. It brings a unique contribution to the other parts. It dare not see itself as either non-essential or more important than other parts. It occupies a God-arranged place in the body--a place that provides a distinct perspective.

How do you and I stay in touch with the realities of the physical world? Only through the parts of our physical bodies. Think of what you would miss if the following parts of your body worked poorly or not at all:

  • Eyes: Losing vision in just one eye can reduce your depth perception (close one eye and try threading a needle). It can also cut peripheral vision by about 20 percent.
  • Feet: Neuropathy can cause the nerves in the soles of your feet to lose touch with the ground or floor, throwing off your balance.
  • Ears: Your ability to communicate with others, to recognize voices, or to savor the sounds of a symphony can all suffer from impaired hearing.
  • Fingers: Failing finger nerves can dull the warning signals of pain from a too-hot surface.
  • Nose: As one person with anosmia put it, “Not being able to smell yourself makes personal hygiene incredibly stressful.”
  • Tongue: You were born with thousands of taste buds. But if you lose your sense of taste, you might unwittingly eat food that has gone bad.

In these and other ways, your body illustrates how the Body of Christ works. No single member “knows” everything your body needs. But each member in good working order can contribute its “knowledge” of surrounding physical conditions for the benefit of all the rest. Similarly, a meeting of the church should allow members of Christ's Body to share from what they know of Spirit-revealed reality. This releases, in Kinnaman’s words, “the intergenerational power of the assembly.”

Any Room for Doubts, Questions?

How does this apply to young people? In a meeting format that permits them to do so, they can contribute from their “partial knowledge” by asking questions. Struggling to relate faith to life in the 21st century equips them with first-hand knowledge of the quandaries they and their peers face—questions adults may not even realize need answers.  As Kinnaman says in You Lost Me, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’ One out of ten (10 percent) put it more bluntly: ‘I am not allowed to talk about my doubts in church.’”

Kinnaman reminds us how young people are coming of age in an era of interaction. They have a "participatory mindset." But,  he says, “the structure of young adult development in most churches and parishes is classroom-style instruction. It is passive, one-sided communication—or at least that’s the perception most young people have of their religious education. They find little appetite within their faith communities for dialogue and interaction.”

But a willingness to venture outside the-way-we’ve-always-done-it can change that perception. Kinnaman writes of a “faith community in Oregon [that] hosts a weekly worship service that invites anyone to ask any question they have about faith. To fit with the uber-connected world of young people, the church accepts questions submitted via text and Twitter. . . .The entire community gets to witness, on a weekly basis, what it looks like to wrestle with doubt, to confess our questions without abandoning faith.” My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes more than two dozen examples of churches that are making their main weekly meeting more participatory.

Paul described shared church nearly 2,000 years ago, when he said “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Peter agreed: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms” (I Pet. 4:10).

So we don’t have to invent shared church. We simply need to rediscover it.