I grew up in a traditional church that was more interested in hanging on to its formalities than it was in open-mindedly assessing why it was losing its youth. My own youth group was quite large but by the time we had reached 18 the vast majority of us had walked away from the church. As a result of these experiences I have, for a long time, been quite interested in the topic of youth and church.
Enter the modern church. Among many other things, the modern church was an attempt to create a church culture that was both attractive and retentive of its youth. However, after many years of going down that road we are still publishing books on how youth are leaving church in droves. It appears the modern church has failed.
But why? The answers are as complex as the problem, but allow me to present a paradigm that I believe contributes, perhaps more than any other reason, to the youth exodus that plagues churches everywhere.
Before I do so, allow me to dissect the church into three chunks. The first chunk we will call the "heart beat" of the church. This is what gives the church its life, breath and relevance. In other words, the heart beat is the purpose of the church. The second chunk we will call the "muscle". This is what enables the church to live out its purpose. In an Adventist local church this would include- in part - the "business meeting" (most powerful meeting in the church which involves every church member), the "board meeting" (where appointed leaders of the church meet to implement the decisions of the church and to steer the church through representative decisions) and "ministry meetings" (where ministry leaders of diverse ministries get together to plan for the year). In other words, the muscle of the church is its system. The third chunk is the cosmetics of the church. This is the stuff everyone sees like the age of the building, its cleanliness and it's upkeep. But this also involves the church's style like its dress code, its musical niche, its interior design etc. In other words, the cosmetics of the church is its style.
Now that we have divided the church into these three chunks allow me to introduce what I believe is the major problem with the church today. Jesus gave the church a heart beat: the great commission. This task to make disciples of all nations is why the church exists. It is its purpose. The muscle of the church is thus fully employed in bringing this purpose about. And the cosmetics of the church adapt to the different cultures and generations that that particular local church is speaking into. However, at some point in history the church seems to have lost its heart beat. Once it lost its heart beat (making disciples of all nations) it became obsessed with itself. As a result the muscle of the church switched from an outward focused system set up to facilitate the accomplishment of the great commission to an inward focused system set up to keep the church members happy. The end result of this was churches that cared little of how they were perceived in their communities and instead focused on keeping one another happy. The cosmetics of the church thus evolved, not as a tool for speaking into culture, but as a celebration of nostalgia.
Then one day, a well meaning member realized that all the youth were totally not clicking with church. So this well meaning member spoke with another well meaning member and together they decided something had to be done. What can we do to attract and retain our youth? They asked. And the answer was always the same: We have to make church cool.
OK, maybe no one ever used those exact words. But that's what it all boils down to. Most of the modern church is ultimately concerned with being "cool" enough so that its youth feel comfortable and perceive the church as relevant. But it hasn't worked. We are still publishing books and funding research on the "youth exodus issue" and church leaders across the board know that youth are still leaving. In addition, the modern church's attempt has become the object of scorn both in the church and in the culture the church is supposedly reaching. Check out the video below, by Nick Thune, which communicates exactly how many secular post-moderns perceive the church of today.
This video is both hilarious and sad. Hilarious because the dude is funny! Sad because the modern church has become so predictable, shallow and "cool" that it can be so easily caricatured and ridiculed. And the worst part of it all is it hasn't worked.
But why? Well, here is my theory. Remember the whole heart-beat, muscle and cosmetic thing? When the church lost its heart beat its muscle became useless and its cosmetic gradually lost touch with its culture. When well meaning members decided to seek a solution, however, rather than go to the core of the issue and fix that (the church had no heart beat) they simply tweaked the cosmetics. But what do you get when you wash a tomb white? You get a white washed tomb. Its pretty on the outside, but inside its still full of dead men's bones. So what do you get when you take a church that has no heart beat with an atrophied muscular structure and simply change the cosmetics? You get a church that's pretty on the outside, but fundamentally it is still dead, irrelevant and useless. It only takes the youth (who might be initially attracted by your coffee bar and contemporary Christian worship band) so long before they figure out that your contemporary church is, apart from the cosmetics, no different to the traditional church that they ran away from. It's still boring. It's still irrelevant. It's still exists for nothing more than the appeasement of its own membership. It has no lasting, impacting or legitimate reason to exist. And without that heart beat you can change your cosmetics all you want and you will end up with nothing more than a shallow and cheesy version of Christianity that hardly resembles the world changing movement Jesus intended us to be.
Am I against the cosmetics? Of course not. There's nothing worse than walking into a church and it feels like you just stepped back 100 years. There is nothing worse than churches who clearly have no interest or knowledge of the culture and its language. But heres my point - the cosmetics should be the result of having a heart beat. They are not the thing that causes it. Change them all you want, but it wont revive your church, keep your youth, or attract your neighbors. But a church with a heart that beats for the broken and lives to share the gospel to its community by acts of mercy, justice and service is a relevant church that will impact its sphere of influence for decades to come.
Lets be that kind of church.