How do we get young people to be involved? I think we simply invite them. There was a young youth ministry intern who was tasked by our youth pastor to raise up an all middle-school-aged worship band. My church in that season had plenty of young college-aged kids who wanted to serve in our church. That alone was a bonus, but this idea of letting the kids take over was something I had not seen first hand before. When they began leading worship, they all were pretty remedial at their instruments, learning them in their first-ever group setting. The sound was not always on the beat or in tune. It is one thing to pluck a guitar in a small room in the back of a music store. It is another to prepare to be in front of your peers playing music! I think they had but four songs they learned. And, yes, it did not sound very good––at first.
Beyond Music Style: How To Bridge Generations In Your Worship Services
This small seed planted much more than was visible at the moment. My daughter, Emilie, went from this group at age 11, to the adult worship team at age 13. Today, as a 20-something, she is a gifted worship leader and songwriter and can take leadership of worship in front of thousands. Emilie is a co-founder of the worship group, A Beautiful Liturgy, and partners in A Beautiful Liturgy Music Publishing. If you were to hear those 11-year olds, you would not have seen her level of leadership today or the skill she and the others currently have in music. Often when we talk about bridging the generations, we are looking for that one silver bullet that can solve the dilemma. But time is on our side if we invest in the right way. In fact, a little patience might grow our young people to take our ministries, not only beyond today, but further than we could ever imagine. It can all start with a middle-school youth band.
Breaking The Walls Down – Are We Putting Our Youth In A Church Ghetto?
The problem is that we have sequestered our young people from worship. It is almost as if we wall off a ghetto for them, isolating them from the experiences we have instead of passing them on. They have their own room with their own sermons with–as described previously–their own worship team. Had my daughter not been brought into the “adult” world of church, perhaps she would follow the cultural norm of the evangelical young adult. When adulthood is finally reached, the church their parents offered would be a foreign experience, inferior to the touch points of the years in youth group. While we need youth groups to address the unique life-stage of our young, are we doing anyone a favor by running a parallel worship setting? What we draw people within ministry is what we are forced to keep them with. So, if we keep scratching the existing system to create a new one, might we be fostering a revolution every generation in worship? This is obviously unsustainable. In fact, we are seeing the new revolution is going far to deconstruct faith. Many do not bother going back to the church they were raised in.
The style of music has been something we use to gauge how well we reach generations. Larry Osborn of North Coast Church in Vista, California told a small group of us in an early think-tank about multiplying worship services that it is not about targeting age, but about targeting mindset. These are wise words, as when a ministry I served had to expand to venues for worship, we received unexpected feedback. “What? I am not ready to die yet! This is my service,” said an 80-something woman as an usher reminded her that next door we had a quieter service meant for people just like her–older. She was not going to have any of that. She was in the row with her extended family. If she had to turn her hearing aids off, she would rather do that than leave her family to be with her peers. But this, for a time, was the exception, not the rule.
Unlike the 1970s-birthed youth movement, we need to break down walls that separate generations rather than leverage the differences. In a society fractured by politics, race, and class, we must see the Church as the refuge and family that historically and biblically is our identity. Imagine the unique place in our world where gender, age, race, and class do not matter. Christ is all and in all! If we truly believe in the church as such a place, we might see less of the drop off witnessed in recent years. Walls help us sell. The 1970s and 1980s youth groups had a large population that could be marketed to in a “mass” way. Pepsi knew this as did anyone of the day trying to get a message across. Today is far different. Tactics that once worked have to be evaluated along with our motives in bending the purpose of worship to meet the market. Demographics so indeed tell us a lot, but they don’t offer solutions. It may be time to tear down the walls that allow us the ease of marketing.
Here are three ways to tear down the walls
- Reject style as a barrier. People can accept far more than we give them credit for. For instance, video games and movies that attract young and old have symphonic sounds, hip-hop, country, and sound or style that helps tell the story. If we see music as not a style–but a storytelling vehicle for our prayers and faith–we have more freedom.
- Accept that diversity is the normative state of the church. Eventually, your church will age, and the young adults will have kids. All life-cycles and walks of life should be expected in your church setting and worship. If you don’t have at least one walker in the aisle, is your church truly a success?
- Intergeneration homes are the norm, reflect that in church programming. Never since before the 1940s have young adults lived with their parents as long as they are today. This is an economic change as some have described, but it is also a choice. How does your church relate to these homes with multiple generations? How can they worship together?
Connect To The Unconvinced
Only 4% of self-described “nones” attend church on a regular basis according to the Pew Research Forum. This is the largest growing group. They are “unaffiliated” with a church as a preference. And, they are young. In our church settings, there has been a lot in the evangelical world done to emphasize reaching the unchurched for decades. I remember well Bill Hybels talking about “unchurched Hart and Mary” about reaching those in his wealthy Chicago suburbs who did not attend or participate in church. Have our efforts failed? Have we built church “magnets” that have shifted saints more than reached the uninitiated to faith? The goal is the noblest of goals to allow a questioning agnostic to come to faith in your midst–to include them by allowing them to belong before they are ready to believe.
As one who was part of two church plants that focused on this effort, I still feel the altruism to reach those who are irreligious. What we are finding is that we are not only shifting saints, but losing the ones we have to the tribe of “nones.” One thing I propose is that we have focused on revisiting church to be more relevant to the seeker, while perhaps not counting the cost of our methods. You see, what you draw people in with must become what you keep them with. If not, it is a bait and switch of epic proportions. With most saying to researchers that they have but a few objections to Christians. One of these is hypocrisy! How do we bridge our services to stop the leaking to the “nones” and leave a spiritual legacy that will last? I believe this has to come from rethinking our goals in church–especially in worship. We can no longer make our public worship simply an event to attract the uninitiated. We must build our tribe of faith into a family that reaches out rather than a worship service that reaches out.
People reach people. Worship services are for worship. But what about the seeker and the younger folks? I am glad you asked! When Jesus says that you cannot serve both God and money he is making a point about how one must be primary. The First Command makes this clear, but the First Command without the Second makes no sense–at least according to Jesus. If “all the Law and prophets” hang on these two, we do indeed see the inseparable glue Christ’s words pair these with. What we also see is that the focus in worship is not even on the believer, essentially. It is a First Command endeavor where we as a family practice loving God in a vertical sense. The focus on others, whether Christian or atheist, cannot be greater than God our first love. But, when we love God, loving people is the choice we make as well. The vertical is our worship together as a family, the service and work we do for people is the horizontal.
Worship services, of course, do not ignore those who are trying to figure out their faith. Paul, the Apostle in 2 Corinthians, makes it clear that order matters because there will be people observing our public worship who are not believers. We do not want to do things that are so inexplicable as to confuse the seeking person. In our love towards God, we are willing to include those who are not fully part of us yet. This event of our weekly worship then cannot truly be our only venue! In fact, God is so gracious to give us one day of rest and worship. The rest of our week and focus is in the material world that is the context of an incarnation of our faith in practice. It makes no sense to sing praises on Sunday and hurt the vulnerable in our communities the next day. We bring to the worship our sins of the past week, and we leave with the hope of Christ’s presence. What we do in the service may not be designed for a person who rather not believe. But, if they are to believe then, why would we exclude them from what will help feed their future faith-filled selves?
Here are three ideas to help the skeptics find a home with you.
- Develop a venue where questions are invited. Sunday worship may not be that place. However, what if the pastor or a group can meet to share doubts and questions about faith? To accept the reality of the “nones”, we should invite them on their honest quest for truth. This takes the pressure off your worship service to have to do this!
- Shed fear of losing control and authority. Just because some will question and not follow Jesus does not mean we lose ourselves. If we partner and, with the Holy Spirit’s power, engage the skeptic, we may even be strengthened, ourselves. Fear of challenge is an enemy. Admit in worship that questions are welcomed!
- Explain your worship practices as often as possible. While it might seem redundant to the faithful, your uninitiated guests will appreciate you explaining why you recite a creed or ask them to bless each other by sharing the peace or even simply sing out loud together. Do people know “why” you do what you do?
Marketing The “Right Way” To The “Young And Nones.”
We just talked about the young who become disillusioned and the irreligious who never fully considered faith in Christ, fully. Both of these can be served. Worship, which is for the believer, does not have to be turned into an evangelistic altar call to be welcoming. Why should we get rid of symbols if they actually have meaning to us? It is one thing to shed them if we do not even bother to explain them and use them. Then we might be best to get rid of them as distractions. But what if the act of singing together be something we keep longer, rather than shorter? What if we read the Bible from the Bible? What if a creed is recited? These are not problems for the seeker or the “nones” in my opinion. What is a problem is the lack of room to doubt and challenge to think for yourself. Our faith has stood over 2000 years in very hostile threats from emperors and kings and even internal strife. Why would we be so panicked that the Christ we believe in has to be marketed like craft beer or bubble gum?
The best thing one can do in marketing is to have clean bathrooms. If we translate this to church, this is not about changing the meal of Jesus. What if our relationships are what we work to promote? Is it safe to come and belong to your church even if I am not sure I believe everything yet? If I made some mistakes in life, are you going to shame me? Having clean bathrooms means inviting over for dinner the people Jesus ate with. We introduce Jesus to people, not a cool vibe, sermon series, or campaign.
Should the actual worship service be the only thing we invite people to? Or, are we sacrificing this very important time to gather the people of God unnecessarily? Learning to stay cool is an exhausting proposition. We need to speak the language of people where they are at, but the idea of being “relevant” perhaps pales when we have a society screaming for authenticity. What is authentically Christian that we can invite people into? Who are we, uniquely, that the world is in need of knowing? If we only work on our logo and still have an unkempt bathroom, we miss the point. For instance, how we as a local church pay our vendors in the community matters. When there is a flood or fire, how we act authentically in love for the poor matters.
What will turn off the skeptic could be the very things that we hope draws them! Slickness doesn’t even work in politics any longer. But, as I write about the pragmatics, I am trying to convince us all that doing the hard work of sowing seeds is what grows fruit–not simply learning how to draw a crowd and entertain them. Yes, draw a crowd. But, that is not our goal. Our goal is introducing people to Jesus and the good news he has for them. That might take more than a slickly marketed church event! It may very well be hours talking over coffee.
Here are three ways to market in a way that builds bridges.
- Show pictures of all generations and the real demographic of your community. When I worked with a creative pro to put together ads, we intentionally had a single adult, a blue collared worker, a mixed-race couple, and all ages in our ad. We ended up seeing the people in our ad visit our church! Luckily, we were in tune enough to know what we looked like in our town.
- Be human in your communication. Are you perfectly photoshopped or does what you put online actually look like you? The best compliment I received was when someone said I looked like my Twitter avatar. Seriously, it matters that we don’t gloss too much. So, if you meet in a school, be sure to make that part of your promotions visually.
- Be funny! This is similar to being human. What I mean in this case is that we can show that even though we take our faith seriously, we do not think we are above being laughed at. How can you laugh at yourself in your online presence or advertising? When people come to worship, are you too serious as a worship leader?
Grandma’s Recipe Is Best Learned In The Kitchen
There is nothing, however, better in marketing than allowing people to see themselves with what you are selling. So, I understand the move to put young folks in the leadership of worship. Where this becomes a problem is when we have an intergenerational church, and we think we can suddenly be a young church with only young people by banning older folks from our worship teams. This does happen, by the way. There is a way to do this that might draw more young people to church!
Why do we focus solely on the worship team as a place to raise up younger leaders. It seems that if you are young, leading youth or music are the only choices. But, what about that MBA student serving on a finance team? How many young 20-something architects do we invite to our building committees? If we want to keep a church engaged with younger people, then the plastic method of only picking “visible” roles will garner the opposite result.
Instead of only having young people on the worship team, why not invite the young into the church boardroom or finance team? I believe this isn’t just pragmatic marketing aim like having clean bathrooms, but it also shows us how learning leadership in faith truly works. If we are a family, we have to begin to structure and evaluate our methods based on that principal. We learn grandma’s pie recipe best in the kitchen.
A little girl at age three is sitting on the floor, stirring a bowl with flour. It is messy as the white powder is half in the bowl and half all over this sweet girl in pigtails. Above her on the counter is mom. Mom is kneading the crust while grandma shows her the “right way” and her secret ingredient. The little girl sitting on the floor will surely be good at making pies! But, what a mess. All of the flour on the floor might seem pointless or just a ruse to get her out of the hair of those cooking the meal. This would be shortsighted! That little child eventually will have her mom show her how to knead the dough, even after grandma no longer can.
Our faith is passed on in this manner, I believe. If we invite younger leaders into the kitchen in all our ministries, we will have amazing pies! Or, in this case, a thriving ministry with young folks partnering with us to reach their peers. We have to become vigilant to reject the purchase of Costco pies as our role. After all, don’t the kids need their space? Is it imposing on them to learn about how we follow Jesus? What this may expose is more of our shallowness in our walk of faith than anything else. We can only pass on what we know. The blessing for us who are not so young is passing on worthy wisdom! If we embrace this, we very well may be surprised at how the next generation responds.
Three ideas on how to raise up worship leaders.
- Start very very young. Just like the story I shared, age 11 was when kids started their journey in that church as worship leaders. If we expect a young 20-something to be mature enough to lead those older than themselves, then we need to give them years of experience and mentorship!
- Allow mistakes as part of the process. If you expect perfection, then you will lose the culture of discovery. Some will not make it to the end and become worship leaders, but the process is valuable.
- Coordinate the whole church to find worship leaders. Does the youth or children’s pastor partner with worship ministry to raise up young people. Does the worship director aid in training the leaders of the other ministries in their worship or music efforts? Partnership is required and not as easy to implement as one might hope.
It Takes Courage To Bridge Generations
One barrier to overcome is ministry envy. When a church is brand new, planted by a young guy, and filled with his peers, we might be tempted to compare that to our church that may have 50 to 100 years of history. If a church is young because it happens to be young, that is great! These are the ones touted as the ideal, however, when in fact, the norm is that churches that thrive will have more than one life-stage participating. It can be devastating for both us and the people we serve if we attempt to model our methods after what works in another church, regardless of demographics.
Bridging does not mean we make the generations the same. This cannot happen when some are worried about college loan debt and others about the retirement accounts sustaining them. The courage is that, as in a family, we need each other. Countercultural to the church business culture is the idea that a church can look neither like an AARP or H&M advertisement. What we should look like is the local community that we are planted within. When the cities change, so does the church. Immigrants moving in might require even more bridges to build. People can be who they are as individuals. They mystery of the Body of Christ is that we transcend tribalism!
Christ being all and in all is a fact. Our faith in this truth can guide us to make courageous choices to bridge our tribal divides. Generations were never meant to be sequestered and separated. Whether it was the Industrial Revolution moving us to the punched clock world where we leave our families for the factory or the high-tech “never-present” human consumption of social media, we have bridges to build and walls to tear down. There is no silver bullet. There is no easy answer. However, the beautiful human model of the family schools us in how to worship. We worship together.