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.

Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part Two)

Lie Detector.jpg

In the previous blog (Part One), I said church meetings should provide a context for developing critical thinking skills in adults and young people. Shared church can help us fine-tune our lie detectors.

In my experience, many Christians have received little if any encouragement or instruction in such thinking. During online classes, I see this in students who have learned largely by rote. When asked to evaluate course material in, say, a journal entry, they can recap and restate what they have heard and read. But they struggle with seeing underlying assumptions and evaluating whether the material is persuasive, complete, applicable, and biblical. Doing so,  of course, requires critical thinking.

Here in Part Two, I’ll follow up with a question that rarely gets asked about church meetings. 

Can Unbelievers Help Us Learn How to Think?

Sometimes, hearing from those who lack a Christian perspective can help to nurture the ability to sift and evaluate. While writing Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Trevor Withers, Network Church, St. Albans, UK. In his account, he tells how he invited “Rachel,” an unbeliever, to visit their weekly gathering and state up front her questions about the Christian life. Some of those in the congregation thought Withers had gone too far. Others welcomed the opportunity to hear her.

Rachel had often come for Network’s Sunday lunches but only rarely for their services. Having grown up in a home in which both parents were atheists, she had begun serious questioning when she was in her late teen years. “I am clearly seeking something,” she told the congregation, “but I am not finding it.” Her first thought-provoking question had to do with human sinfulness. Why would an all-powerful, holy God, she wondered, need a relationship with us if we are sinful? The session with Rachel lasted more than half an hour, with helpful dialogue between her and several in the congregation.

Imagine for a moment that you had been a part of that gathering on that day. What kinds of fruitful heart-and-mind work was likely going on among those present?

  • Mature Christians, some of whom in the past had struggled in a similar way, recalling how God had found them and drawn them to follow Jesus.
  • Newcomers, unaccustomed to witnessing such candid sharing in a church gathering, deciding to make Network Church their home—or never to return.
  • Young people hearing something authentic—honest words from a soul describing the ache of a search for truth that had, until then, proved unsuccessful.
  • All present participating in the give-and-take as members of Christ’s body wrestled with questions they normally would not have heard from each other in church.

How Will Young People Learn to Think?

Church meetings can project an aura of unreality. Not because the teaching is untrue, but because it seems so distant from the actual questions that vex people. According to a Barna Group report, 36 percent of the Millennials surveyed said part of their problem with the church is the inability “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.” If not in church gatherings, where are these young people—or their parents—going to learn to think critically about their faith and messages coming at them from their culture?

In her book, Finding Truth, Nancy Pearcey reminds us that, “In today’s pluralistic, multicultural society, teens have to navigate their way through a complex web of competing worldview claims. . . . Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics, majoring instead on games and goodies. . . . Parents are rightly concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to nonbiblical perspectives. But there is also a risk in raising children who think the only way they can test their mettle is by breaking away from their family and church.”

Colossians 2:8 warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” But how many church young people have learned how to avoid being taken in by such deceptions? Suppose a college professor tells them, “God did not reveal what is in the Bible. It is just an obsolete book written by many people over thousands of years.” If not equipped with thinking tools, how will they cope with misleading statements in a university classroom, a workplace, a science textbook, a blog, a movie, or a television commercial?

Shared Church Pools Insights

Shared church means meeting together in a format that includes opportunity for anyone to ask a question, contribute an understanding, challenge an interpretation, or test a teaching. It offers a way to stimulate and mature the ability to think critically about our faith. While each of us individually should heed the following words, Paul originally addressed them to corporate gatherings of believers: 

  • “You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am saying is true.” (I Cor. 10:15, NLT).
  •  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best . . . .” (Phil. 1:9-10).
  • “Don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.” (I Thess. 5:21-22, MSG).

These and other texts leave no doubt that God wants us to be prepared to evaluate false teaching, fake news, and whatever else fails to line up with the truth. In the verses just listed--calling for deciding, discerning, checking things out--Paul wrote in the second-person plural. The closest American English can come to that is “you-all.” And if our meeting formats permit a shared-church experience, those gatherings can provide one of the best opportunities for training ourselves and our young ones in critical thinking.

What do you think? Have you encountered Christians who resist the idea of critical thinking? If so, how  best can you help them understand its importance?

Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part One)

Fake News in the News

As 2016 ends, fake news is making real news. The Bible calls the vendors of bogus reports false teachers or false prophets. Can practicing shared church help equip us to follow Jesus in a world full of phony reports and spiritual viruses?

From Genesis to Revelation Scripture warns us about the dangers of being deceived. Today all of us—including our young people—swim in a torrent of information, some true, some misleading, some both. It surges in endlessly through our cell phones, the Internet, tweets, television, magazines, books, classrooms, and so on. 

Even something we hear in a church meeting may not pass the truth test. Peter warned his Christian readers, “there will be false teachers among you” (II Pet. 2:1). And Paul cautioned the Ephesian elders, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth” (Acts 20:30). From our enemy’s point of view, insiders make ideal carriers of fake news.

Is Critical Thinking Biblical?

Clearly, we need to be on our guard. Yet today some conservative believers warn against critical thinking, often associating it with those who attack the authority of Scripture. While being interviewed on a radio program, Nancy Pearcey called for Christians to practice critical thinking. The liberal program host exclaimed, “Critical thinking? Most people on the conservative Christian Right would say that’s one of the biggest dangers we have—this 'nonsensical' idea of critical thinking.”

In a review of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Robert Knetsch wrote: “I have been frustrated by the lack of deep thinking within Christian circles and often I find myself branded as a cynic for asking too many questions.”

But in I Corinthians 14, Paul actually instructs us to do critical thinking when we gather with other Christians. The context includes a call to practice shared church: “everyone” can say something to benefit others (v. 26). How should they hone their truth-detector skills during church meetings? By practicing Paul’s how-to-meet instructions: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (I Cor. 14:29).

“Weigh carefully” (NIV) comes from the Greek diakrino. Other Bible versions translate it as “evaluate,” “pass judgment,” or “discern.” God’s Word Translation says, “Everyone else should decide whether what each person said is right or wrong.” And the New International Reader’s Version puts it this way: “Others should decide if what is being said is true.” So in Paul’s thinking, shared church was the natural setting in which to cultivate critical thinking.

Can Church Meetings Still Train Us in Critical Thinking?

Is it possible to develop critical thinking skills in contemporary church meetings? In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with Lowell Bakke who recalled what he had done while pastoring Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, WA. In his words:

“For three summers while serving as pastor in in this church, I used a five-question strategy. Maybe the best part of the whole process was that it put everyone on an equal footing—young believers, mature believers, and not-yet-believers. I chose a Bible book and divided it into sections. Each section became my text for that week, and everyone was notified in advance of the Scripture passage to be read.”

After teaching from the text, he asked questions that helped the congregation form some critical-thinking skills:

1.      What did you like about this text?

2.      What did you not like about the text?

3.      What did you not understand about the text?

4.      What did you learn about God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit?

5.      What are you going to do now that you’ve read the text?      

He then invited the congregation to interact, using the same five questions. Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. Bakke says, “I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

His statement leaves no doubt that Bakke did not see himself as having the last word. In The Incendiary Fellowship, Elton Trueblood, 20th-century author and theologian, wrote: “There is little chance of renewal if all that we have is the arrangement by which one speaks and the others listen. One trouble with this . . . is that the speaker never knows what the unanswered questions are, or what reservations remain in the [listener’s] mentality. Somehow or other we must arrange opportunities for Christian dialogue, since the old idea of the preacher standing ten feet above contradiction simply will not do.”

Paul praised the church in Berea for sifting and evaluating what he taught: “The people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica. They listened to the message with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true” (Acts 17:11, TEV). Yes Paul was handpicked by Jesus to serve as an apostle. But that did not exempt him or what he said from careful scrutiny.

What do you think? I invite you to engage in some critical thinking and to post your thoughts as a comment below.