It can’t be hidden: many American young adults are leaving—sprinting is more like it—away from the church. Over the years, my generation (Generation X as we are known) has been examined, tested, prodded, and poked all under the same umbrella of researching why we are leaving the church at such a rapid pace. It has also been a part of finding why those behind us in age are leaving even faster. As a member of this generation, I see many of the conclusions as far-gone and misguided. Much of the research done in the past dealt with modality, rather than deeper issues; deeper issues like the need for authentic community. Because community is so important among young adults, we as the church need to learn how to build true, authentic community in our churches.
Due to the modality type research, many churches adjusted their worship styles, others tried to have videos before their sermons while others tried to wear rocker clothes and say a couple swear words from the pulpit to have clout with this emerging generation. All of these attempts did little to nothing to address the real issues going on with the dissatisfaction with church from my generation and the generations after me. In fact, from my experience, if prodded, these young people would call such attempts a nice try at best and a disingenuous attempt at worst.
The beginning research was obviously not cutting it and fell far short of truly discovering what this generation was truly seeking in a religious body of believers. The authors in the book UnChristian did truly enter ground-breaking research that helped to pull back the curtain of the Wizard Oz (of the Gen X) Here, the authors Kinnaman and Lyons didn’t ask questions of “what do you want from church” as others had. They asked questions they knew would spark passionate (which translated into honest) answers such as: what ticks you off about “church”? What comes to mind with you think of “church or Christian”? Here they discovered that many people walking around in this generation believed that Christians were: anti-homosexuals, hypocritical, too political, only interested in converts and many other accusations (Kinnaman and Lyons, 2007). Much was learned from this research, including the desire for authentic community among young adults. Much of the findings found that many Christian and non-Christian young adults took umbrage with not only the lack of community among the church but also how fake the community that was formed seemed to be. Many young adults claimed they felt unwelcome among Christians, felt they needed to be “fixed” before they could join, and that there was no true acceptance of who someone wasn’t “fixed”. This then either meant one had to fake who they were to join the community or reject the community altogether; which proves the point that this was not a true community.
This research led the way for others to probe similar places in the Young Adult world and one the nuggets of discovery—of which there are many—is the concept of community being highly important to this generation. Community takes on different forms within this generation (and those following it); deeper forms of community than those in most churches. This idea of community so drives my generation that we seek it out; if it’s not where we are looking, we either create community or go somewhere else to find some. Others were coming up with similar answers about community and we soon found out that community was a central need for this generation.
Ed Stetzer in his book Lost and Found (which researches Gen X) says some pretty powerful stuff regarding community:
“The church has, for generations, spoken of community. However, most of us would agree that community has been more of an aspiration than a reality. We have “aspired” to build community, but it has scarcely been realized. And that has not gone unnoticed by young adults, both inside and outside the church” (Stetzer, 2009, p. 69).
Stetzer makes an astoundingly powerful point, of which I agree fully; my generation is seeking deeply real and honest community and when they look at the church they see back-biters, liars, and hypocrites. The kind of community they are looking to engage in allows for failures, isn’t power-hungry and in many ways is more Biblical than the current “pew community” tends to be. Generation X is looking for a community that shares together, lives life together, eats together, prays together, laughs together, confesses sins together, and yes even worships together. So far, as Stetzer brings to light, the current church culture in America hasn’t gotten it; in fact they miss it! Most church members in your typical church worship together by going to the building of the church, singing a few songs, and listening to a sermon they soon forget.
Gabe Lyons, a fellow Gen X member has done some great work after his co-writing UnChristian. His newest work: The Next Christians goes even deeper into the world of Gen X. He states, in that book:
“Communities are built on trust and intimacy born out of deep connections. But relational intimacy often comes only after people show willingness to be vulnerable about who they really are: their mistakes, bad habits, grandest dreams, and worst fears. I’ve found that intimacy flourishes when people are willing to “go there”: when they are willing to share their wildest dreams and greatest hopes in the context of a group that genuinely listens and cares about what they have to say” (Lyons, 2010, p. 153).
Lyons claims that this generation, desires community, but not just any community—one that is intrinsically involved—not simply a community that shows up and says “hi” once a week. This reminds me of Acts 2:42-47 where it talks of them meeting “day after day” and “having everything in common”; such a beautiful picture of community! At this point, one might be asking why do the Young Adults feel this way about church lacking community? Obviously, we’ve seen the lack of candid conversations, people not owning up to their issues, and an overall sense that most church people feel they need to pretend to be a “Christian”. These are true, but other things are at work. Take the idea of third space as an example; this is a big deal to young adults. Third space can be defined as the third place a person would choose to hang out or spend most of their time. People generally have three main places: home, work and their third space. This phenomenon didn’t really gain traction until a small company took heed to new research and decided to play on this idea of third space. This small company began to create places where live music, coffee, comfortable tables, and chairs were everywhere. This company also provided a good many people desired: coffee! The company which heeded the research of my Generation and won out: Starbucks. Their placement of comfortable chairs and tables was strategic more then nice. They desired to create a place where folks would congregate and have conversation.
Look at our local churches and ask this question: “Is it a third space?”; I bet you said no. Churches today seem stuffy and uncomfortable; so many young people stay away. This third space idea has more play than people may realize. However, I still agree with Lyons and Stetzer that the main issue is the lack of honesty and transparency among most Christians today.
Stetzer in his book shows similar ideas about being real and transparent through his research. He says these things in particular stand out:
“A belief that quality is greatly contingent upon transparency; honesty and vulnerability may help in both reaching and keeping young adults; an interest in seeing a relationship with Jesus lived out in everyday life; a desire to address and be open about struggles of life” (Stetzer, 2009, p. 73).
Stetzer’s research backs the belief if Lyons in that Gen. X is seeking a community of people who are honest about their life and struggles. I truly hold to this premise and firmly agree with both authors. They say young adults need community and a true, raw, honest type of community and I say yes, this is what we need. Lyons defines such a community as: “…a group of friends united around a common goal” (Lyons, 2010, p. 152).
We as believers have a common goal: glorifying Jesus and loving one another; we shouldn’t lack for any type of community, yet we do. I say without holding back, I truly believe the previous generations feared this type of community and so caused a programmatic form of church to be developed; rather than embrace a raw and real community they hid behind their programs. Programs trumped people; and I believe this is another reason why young adults stay away from church. When someone cares less about you and more about a church program it screams at them that they are just a number. Young adults desire a community that means something both to them and those around them. Program driven church doesn’t say this to the heart of a young adult.
However, the idea that many Christians are fake and hypocritical (Kinnaman and Lyons, 2007, p. 28) can’t be such a strong belief across the board of young adults without merit; it has to have stemmed from real interactions with current Church-going Christians. I have seen such a Christian; one who goes to church, “plays nice” with the other Christians at the weekly meeting and continues to live his life as a secular person; thinking nothing of his “Christian community” or Christ until the following week. Seeing this time and time again in my own life (and then hearing others have seen it too) makes me understand why many in my generation have stayed away from church.
The current form of church community is not working any longer and must be transformed into something new if we are to attract—or even keep—the current young adult generation in our churches. God can and will build his church; the question comes in as this: are we willing to change the way he asks us to? It won’t be easy for us to change the way we have always done things (program over people, lack of comfortable space), nor will it be easy to submit to such an intense change: where people are actually in our lives asking personal questions—of which we need to answer honestly—so we can maintain community. This new type of community—the community of depth and honesty—(according to Lyons) can touch the world (Lyons, 2010, p. 156). Young adults desire to be a part of a bigger picture that actually means something—for them and the world—so this drives them to be a part of a community that actually has deep, real meaning. The current generation knows that this type of community can not only effect positive change through us personally but can cause us to inspire one another to live out their Christian walk daily–which impacts the world!
Many churches seem to desire to reach out to this current generation (as was said earlier) yet many are hard pressed to change themselves in order to do so. I say this must happen; change must occur because we can’t maintain the course and expect better results. In order to attract and keep my generation in the church, we must offer viable, and authentic community. Without this vibrant culture of folks genuinely caring for one another, we will continue to see my generation leave the church. The church in America will cease to be the open door it desires to be and will become a closed off, un-likely seeker destination.
These studies shouldn’t shock many people; in fact we should have caught onto this community thing quicker, if we were really looking. For example, why did Starbucks take off the way it did? Was it the coffee? No, it was the “Third space” that it created. A space where people felt comfortable to be with one another, in community; people were congregating at the church of Starbucks, talking and getting into each other’s lives. Church was not a third space, not a place to cultivate community, so it missed out on something for a time. Let me probe you, the reader: are you living in community? Do you even see the need for such a deep community? Finally: how can you help to form a true community?
Let me paint a picture of what this community would look like: people having freedom to come to church without hiding their baggage, pain and sin. People walking into a people centered congregation where the Pastor cares more about individuals than programs and the “number of people in his/her church”. People being able to comfortably hang around church (not just on Sundays) and have deep, meaningful conversations; people not just asking “how are you doing” expecting a quick “I’m fine” but expecting a true (long if necessary) response of what’s really going on.
Community is a large and important piece to the young adult puzzle; one that must be put into place in order to more efficiently minister to this group of people. We need to get back to Acts type community if we desire to reach this generation where they are.
Stetzer, Ed. (2009). Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them. Nashville, TN. B&H Group and LifeWay Research.
Lyons, Gabe. (2010). The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith. New York, NY. Double Day.
Kinnaman and Lyons (2007). UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters. Gran Rapids, MI. Baker Books