On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 1: why technical changes don’t help churches retain young people

It’s official. I’ve become a statistic. I am now a part of the 18-35 age demographic that has left the church. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I’m not attending a church, it means I’m not a member of The Church, which may only be something you understand if you grew up in my background. What it means, for practical purposes, is that in the studies and surveys that are done, I now count, and not in a good way.

I grew up attending a Church of Christ (“The Church”), and until recently continued to attend a Church of Christ. It was a place filled with quirks and problems, but they were the quirks and problems I’d grown up with. They were my people. It was a place I wanted to stay because, let’s face it, if everyone leaves, who is left? Be the change you want to see. Etc. And yet, I now find myself elsewhere. So how did we get there?

It’s a story that isn’t quick or simple, and can’t be told in a blog post. Some of it boils down to the fact that when we moved, we became a part of a new place whose problems were not our problems, and whose history was not our history. And ultimately we found ourselves feeling like a square peg in a round hole.

But I have experience in Churches of Christ, and some insight into how their leadership works, and how change happens. And if my experience has taught me anything, it is that the group to which I now belong – the “young people who no longer attend the Church group” – is used to justify most of the change related agendas that crop up in churches. I also know that most of the time the things I hear proposed that “our young people want” are in reality things that have no bearing on what people who are leaving actually want. And so, on the rare chance someone in some leadership position reads this, I thought I’d take a minute to outline a few of the broad concerns that encouraged us to leave (or didn’t).

Before I begin, I feel like a couple of caveats are in order. First, I love my heritage, and I really do want to see it succeed. This discussion isn’t a case of, “How the Church of Christ is awful, and why I’ll never go back.” Indeed, if I found myself in a location with a vibrant and healthy Church of Christ that was dealing seriously with some of the issues I will discuss, I would desire to be a part of that conversation. It is also not a case of finger pointing. I don’t have any one place or set of people in mind when I write this, and in complete fairness these problems are not unique to Churches of Christ, though we do have our own interesting flavors of them. And this is also not meant to be an exhaustive list – if I sat down in a room with a few of my closest friends, I bet we could double my list.

This is also not meant to be an attempt at solutions. Pointing out problems without offering constructive solutions is generally bad form, but there are two reasons I’d like to refrain from that: 1) With many of the issues I am going to discuss, the question, “How do we ‘fix’ this problem?” is, at best, misframed. These are not problems that can be “fixed” like you would change a flat tire. A better model might be something like therapy – how do we transform who we are as a church to be more like the image of Christ? 2) “Solutions” – such as they are – are certain to be deeply contextual and local. In other words, there is not a “one size fits all” solution, or even a general set of guidelines for what these changes look like where you are. I can make some comments on my context and locale, but that may not – and probably will not – apply anywhere else.

So here goes. There’s a lot to say, and putting it all in one giant post seems like overkill. My plan is to take the rest of this post to talk about a 30,000 foot issue, and then get into some more specific concerns in follow-up posts.

Let me start with a broad observation: the main way that churches and church leaderships tend to think about problems related to a loss of membership or lack of growth is in terms of technology, and by that, I don’t mean whether or not your church uses PowerPoint or has a Twitter account. In the late 19th century, the great revivalist Charles Finney talked about the “technology of revival,” where he envisioned the human heart and mind as if it were a locomotive, full of dials and levers and buttons. Finney’s idea, which he used to great effect, was that if you learned how to pull the right levers and push the right buttons and turn the right dials, you could achieve the proper effect you wanted in people. For example, one of Finney’s techniques was called the “anxious bench”, where people considering becoming a Christian could come down to the front and receive prayer. Turning up the emotional temperature, long altar calls, and pointing out specific people in the audience by name were all fair game. Contemporary churches might call it coercion or even manipulation, but to Finney, it was simply technology. Cause, effect.

I would suggest that functionally, this is how many of us think about change within our churches. In other words, when we don’t like the direction things are going, our first tendency is to ask what buttons and levers we can manipulate to change course, instead of asking whether a steam locomotive is really the best means of cross-country transportation in an age of jet-airliners.

Since the 1970’s, one of the main trends in churches has been an attempt to manipulate technology to lower the barriers to entry for people who stopped coming to church because it was too stuffy, or formal. Many churches have tried to change their level of formality (e.g. “You can wear jeans at our church!”) or their style of worship (e.g. “We sing songs you hear on Christian radio!” or “We have a praise team!” or “We have instrumental music!”) or the style of the message (e.g. “Our preacher talks about really practical things!”). Now I’m not saying these changes weren’t, in some cases, necessary. I am saying that they are, at their core, technological changes. They are changes that are relatively separate and independent from our core identity as people of God. And on the whole, I’d like to suggest that people aren’t leaving because we need to push different buttons in the locomotive – they are leaving because they’ve grown up in a world of jet-airliners, and, while steam locomotives are nostalgic, they were designed for a world that no longer exists.

And to be fair, there is a reason why churches and church leaderships do this: it’s easy. Technological changes in churches tend to be evolutionary and straightforward, rather than revolutionary and intractable, and frankly technological changes are fairly easy so long as the political will exists. It doesn’t (usually) take a lot to get people on board with a change like visitor parking spaces, or a welcome center in the lobby. And honestly even technological changes on the scale of the worship wars are easy to conceptualize and implement, relatively speaking, in the scope of church change. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider trying to implement this change: create a broad culture of abundant generosity in your church. That’s not a technological change; it’s a paradigm shift. It’s learning to speak a new language, or be a new kind of people. And it’s not something where you can easily chart a roadmap from point A to point B, where a series of six innovative programs and ministry activities will get you where you want to go. In fact, it’s somewhat hard to know where you would even begin if you wanted to transform a congregation into a more generous reality.

And that’s sort of the point, and at the same time, the conundrum. Culture changes don’t usually come about as a result of programmatic and technological adjustments, but programmatic and technological adjustments are one of the few things church leaders have direct control over. And it’s certainly easier to teach (or attend) a class on generosity than it is to be a generous person.

The trick, of course, is that there are always technological changes that can, and should be made for the church to thrive as the world changes. The danger is that we only recognize the need for technological changes, and end up with an iPad-controlled steam locomotive. That’s better, perhaps, than one controlled by mechanical levers and dials, but it doesn’t help you much if you need to cross the ocean.

In the subsequent posts, I’d like to talk about some technical changes Churches of Christ have tended to dwell on, and some cultural changes they have tended to ignore, which contributed to our ultimate decision to walk away.

Next: Part 2: Why winning the worship war is a Pyrrhic victory

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