Why it takes more than a “Youth Sunday” to show kids they matter

When I was a kid, our church held a “Youth Group Sunday” service once a year, usually right after we got back from church camp. Generally it was an evening service—we were Baptist and it was the 90s, so that was something we still did. Also, our AM service was televised. (Again, we were Baptist and it was the 90s.) So letting the youth group take control of an evening service seemed a bit… safer.

During “Youth Group Sunday,” the music was a little more contemporary. We performed badly acted skits. In place of the sermon, we’d share post-camp testimonies—a chance for us to tell everyone how “on fire for God” we were going to be (for the next couple of weeks).

Then everything went back to the way it was.

We were expected to be quiet in church once again. As a reward for our (relative) silence, we were entertained with our own activities, our own Bible studies with the requisite “edgy” videos, even the annual ski trip. Everything was carefully structured to cater to our demographic niche.

Strangely, the greatest impact on my spiritual formation during those years came not from all the age-specific programming, but from a handful of older members who crossed the generational divide to mentor some of us. Their presence did more to show us we mattered than anything else the church did.

Today, the defection of Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) is no small source of hand-wringing among church leaders. And here’s the kicker:

All that age-specific programming, along with token gestures like “Youth Group Sundays,” aren’t the answer to keeping them in church. In fact, they might be part of the problem.

Tom Fuerst, a UMC pastor, suggests Millennials aren’t attending church because, well, they’ve never had to. All our specialized programming has effectively kept them out of the sanctuary for most of their formative years.

Hear me out on this: age-appropriate spiritual formation opportunities are a GOOD thing. But, taken to an extreme, they might be sending an unintended message to our kids: you don’t matter. 

Tom writes:

You created structures and systems of “doing church” that taught us that our presence in the communal gatherings were relatively irrelevant. We learned from your structures, not necessarily your example.

Millennials who grew up in churched families sometimes don’t feel like they belong in church because they have never participated in church on a week-to-week basis. We’ve never believed (because we’ve never been taught) that our weekly presence, despite age, matters to the vitality and mission of the church.

To echo something another writer, Amy Peterson, shared this week, I want my kids to have an intergenerational church experience. That’s one reason why I, like Amy, have found a home in the Episcopal Church.  But church isn’t intergenerational unless the kids are truly part of it. We need to welcome kids into the sancutary…yes, even the fidgety ones. They need to be more than passive observers, too. They need to be shown they are fully valued members of our communities—token gestures like the occasional “Youth Group Sunday” will not do that. They need to see that our worship is incomplete without their participation. They need to see that, as Tom put it, “their voice matters to the mission of God in the world.”

I guess that’s why I like the fact we have acolytes in our services. But I wonder if that’s enough. Is there more we can do to engage kids—without patronizing gestures—to show them that their presence and participation matter every bit as much as the adults’?

And not just so we can boost our numbers, but because participation is vital to spiritual formation. Kids learn by doing. They learn by being included. As I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t learn the faith so we can belong; we belong so that we might learn. In a lot of our churches, we get this backward. It’s no wonder so many of our kids check out when they reach adulthood.

And that’s where the final caveat comes in: it’s not enough to welcome kids into your worship if it’s not participatory. If your worship is primarily a passive experience for all but those on stage—if the main event is someone lecturing for 30-60 minutes while everyone sits in silence—then you might need to rethink how you do church before you ask younger people to take part. Otherwise the question will be, take part in what?

I don’t have all the answers to how we go about welcoming kids as integral members of our worship and mission. But until we figure how to do this better, there’s not much point worrying about how we’re going to get Millennials to come back to church.

First, we need give them something to come back to.

Image: fumcuhurch.com

What if we’re the prodigals?

You could feel the passion in the air at the 4/14 Summit in Bangkok.

Passion for “reaching the next generation.”

Lots of good ideas, full of hope and promise, circulated among conference goers during three days of plenary sessions, breakout groups, and meals together.

“Holistic children’s ministry.”

Talk of kids being “rooted” in faith so they can be “released” to make their own contribution to this world.

A compelling vision for seeing children as “partners in ministry,” as full citizens of the kingdom—not as second-class members of the church.

Particularly among US attendees, there was a lot of talk about “bringing the prodigals back,” an allusion to the parable of the prodigal son who forsook his family, his identity, and his calling to seek a life on his own terms.

Prayers were spoken for the “prodigal generation,” for millennials who grew up in the church and then walked away. Anxiety and anguish were voiced over these prodigals who had lost their way.

I kept wondering:

What if we’re the prodigals, not them?

What if it’s the church who failed them, not the other way around? What if we’re the ones who need to repent and ask forgiveness?

Much has been written about millennials leaving the church. How many and why are matters of intense inquiry. Barna says 59% of millennials raised in the church end up walking away from institutional religion or faith altogether. Pew reports that 1 in 3 millennials have no religious affiliation—more than earlier generations at the same point in their lives.

Some millennials are justifiably disillusioned by scandal and abuse in the church. Many are turned off by their churches’ preoccupation with money and power. Some are simply yearning for less flash and more transcendence. Others long for justice, but their churches don’t offer an outlet for this passion. (It’s worth noting that historically black churches, which have a much richer legacy of social justice, aren’t experiencing a similar decline).

Most millennials feel the church has been coopted by partisan politics. Some left because they were forced to choose between faith and science, or between their church friends and their gay friends. The overwhelming majority perceive the church as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, and sheltered.

None of this is new information.  But all of it, I think, points to the same conclusion: We’ve lost the plot. The “main thing.” Our “first love.” We’ve lost sight of it. And I think it’s time we owned up to it.

During a breakout sessions near the end of the 4/14 summit, I raised a question that had been nagging at me all week. What if we’re the prodigals? What if we’re the ones who need to repent? The uncomfortable silence that followed was punctuated by a few murmurs of agreement.

Someone else, one of the few millennials present in the room, stood up to say that if we are to regain her generation’s trust, we ought to get serious about acknowledging and prevening abuse in the church — not only sexual abuse, but any abuse of power. The breakout facilitator blinked defensively and said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by ‘abuse,’ ” before quickly changing the subject.

Until we understand who the “prodigal” really is, our efforts to bring millennials back to the church will fail. Only when we confess that we’re the ones who let them down, not the other way around, will we earn the right to ask them back. Until we own up to our failures — until we admit that we are no longer worthy to be called their sanctuary, their place of refuge — all our handwringing over their departure will be in vain.


The first-century church in Ephesus was known for its diligence and perseverance. They were known for their orthodoxy. They had tested counterfeit apostles and exposed them as frauds. But in one thing they had failed: they had forsaken their first love. “Consider how far you have fallen,” the Spirit told them. “Repent and do the things you did at first.”

“If you do not,” the Spirit warned, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

Until we rediscover our “first love,” we have no right to expect millennials to come back to the church or to think of ourselves as a beacon of light to a “lost” generation.

Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo (photo by Jorge Elías on Flickr)

Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom and Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)


Baptismal font at the Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Olney (UK)

Seattle pastor Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN.com about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite evangelical pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building real community instead of just building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

Rachel often talks with pastors about why millennials are leaving the church. She’s written about how younger Christians feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness,” how evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. Their disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

To Richard, these are matters of mere preference. He wrote:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said liturgy is “better” than low church, that Gregorian chants are better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial (I missed the cutoff by a few years), but I am one of those Christians Rachel writes about, who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity. And I can assure you that the decision had more to do with substance than style. (Which is not to suggest that one form of Christianity is better than the other.)

[Related: 11 things I things I love about the Episcopal Church]

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all—for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist

A few years earlier, on a visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag the service on a bit longer. (I assumed that was the reason when I was a kid, anyway.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus told his followers to do when they gather together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above—this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Yet it’s also a reminder that we come to the table empty-handed, in need of grace.

Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Recovering a high view of the Eucharist—and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship—is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain

Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on my wife and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Years earlier, someone placed their hands on our bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as our Catholic sisters and brothers on what we mean by apostolic succession. There’s a wide diversity of thought in our tradition, as there is on many other things, too. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us—by design, not by accident—to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization cultivates a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and seek new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires, as some independent evangelical churches seem to be. We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness

The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure—which wasn’t even the original building—we sang thousand-year-old songs (and a few newer ones as well). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy offers a helpful corrective to consumer Christianity because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community, not by an individual with a “platform.”

The liturgy  reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded of my smallness every Sunday is another substantial reason I am captivated by the liturgy.


None of this is meant as a rejection of more contemporary form of church, like the one represented by Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church, so I’m somewhat familiar with it. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs good ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor am I rejecting “converted-shopping mall evangelicalism,” at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church my wife and I belonged to met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there saved my faith.

Nor is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like the one I belong to have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid. We don’t always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.