“Why are our young people leaving the church?”
“How can we attract them back?
Because my work is in the area of mobilizing young people, I hear these two questions ALL the time – in many different places, but especially in Western countries.
Just last week I sat around the table with the leaders of a major denomination with thousands of churches. They shook their heads in discouragement as they described the major challenges they are facing as young people drift away from the church.
My response to these leaders was not a call to get back to the basics, or to double down on what they learned growing up. It was not a knee-jerk rejection of this wicked world or pointing the finger of blame at culture.
Actually, I am encouraged, because I think that at the heart of all this turmoil is some Very Good News. And that Good News is something the church desperately needs, whether we recognize that need or not.
So, let me begin to explain the generational divide like this...
God is doing a new thing. As each new generation is birthed and matures, God is going to do a new thing. The old things will pass away. And so, each generation has a new gift to offer the world – a particular charism, strength or emphasis, that becomes the lens through which they will approach faith in Jesus. They didn't invent this passion, and they weren't the first to live it out - but as a group, they are characterized by this gifting.
For several years (perhaps since around 2001) there has been a growing clarity around what this generation has to offer.
It is the call to Justice.
For many in this generation, that calling helps define what they see as the major sin that they will struggle against. That sin is “Complicity in Injustice” – participating in unethical trade, trafficking, or exploitation - living unjust lives, lack of concern for the poor, or denial of the need to care for the environment. Social Justice is the Big Theme - and it's as old as the prophets.
To someone of a certain segment of the church, those words hardly even make sense – especially in a context of faith! They are barely even on the radar. When was the last time you heard someone over 60 preach a sermon on injustice? Or use the word “complicit”? Or talk about “privilege”?
That is because for this section of the church the major sin to be avoided is not injustice, but “Hedonism” – illicit sex, drugs and swearing, sleeping around, gay marriage and getting drunk. Personal morality is the Big Theme.
Can you see how these two generations (or ways of thinking, because it is not always age-related), driven by a different sense of what is wrong with the world, might find themselves talking at cross-purposes, even though both might have an important perspective?
Can you imagine how churches led by those of the Personal Morality Generation might be a HUGE turn-off to the Justice Generation? This is a generation that is passionate about God’s heart for the poor, pursuing mercy and justice, and transforming society. Meanwhile, all they hear at church is what they perceive as a weird preoccupation with “petty” issues of personal morality – and complete ignorance of what Jesus calls the weightier issues of the law, “justice and mercy” (Mat 23:23).
So why do I think this is such good news for the church? Here are 3 ways I see this playing out for the good of the church:
- Cultural Credibility. If we think we’ve lost the young people, then sadly it is worse than that – we lost the wider culture years ago. They haven’t been interested in a narrow hyper-personalized definition of faith since the 1950’s. But there is something they DO find incredibly provocative and attractive – a counter-cultural, self-sacrificial care for the poor and marginalized. This explains why Mother Teresa, Bono and Pope Francis are such heroes for this generation, both Christian and non-Christian. When we allow ourselves to be led forward by those with a passion for Jesus and justice, we start to see the wider culture sit up and take notice. This is not a selling out, it is a recognition that the radical teachings of Jesus still hold plenty of counter-cultural yeast to provoke a response.
- Kingdom Theology. All this talk of justice would just be an irrelevant cultural fixation, if it weren’t so central to the Kingdom teachings of Jesus. A careful survey of the gospels shows how often Jesus speaks about the Good News of the Kingdom of God (binding up the broken-hearted, releasing the captives, healing the sick, etc). It’s exciting to see the Justice Generation rediscovering the centrality of the Kingdom. Yet, this theology of the Kingdom and the heart for justice is sometimes misunderstood, over-spiritualized or ignored by the Personal Morality Generation. Sadly, not enough theological work has been done in evangelical circles to understand how the teachings and life of Jesus relate to the systems and structures of society. Our theology risks becoming a watered-down antidote to individual sin instead of a beautiful vision of God’s Kingdom come on earth (as it is in heaven). As Brian Zahnd puts it, "Jesus is Lord, not the Secretary of Afterlife Affairs".
- Love for the poor, the broken and the marginalized. Thank God this isn’t all about us and how might agree or disagree – or even about getting our doctrine right! As God stirs up a generation that is deeply concerned for the poor, we are seeing new expressions of faith that are serious about practicing radical hospitality, living lives of greater justice and concern for others, and caring for God’s creation. Ultimately, we are moving deeper into loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving God with all our being. And that is truly good news!
If God is doing a new thing, then I trust that He knows what He is doing. I trust that he knows the corrective that is needed for this time and place. I trust that he will replace the old wine skins that need to go and bring new wine skins for this new season. Our only response is to let go of fear and defensiveness and ask God, with open hearts and hands, what He wants to do.
What do you think? Do you see these themes being played out between the generations? Let me know in the comments below.