This month: 182 - A New Wineskin for Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Duncan Campbell

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It can be a scary word, “innovation,” particularly for a fellowship that prides itself on sticking with Scripture as its core anchor—as it should. But COVID has thrust us—many of us kicking and screaming, some of us quite happily—into a very new world of how we do church. Thousands of Christian leaders across all stripes have had to look down the barrel of 2020 and make some bold decisions about how their church will go forward in its worship, discipleship, community engagements, and so on.

And we just can’t shake the feeling that all this streaming and ‘online footprint’ is not the type of church leadership for which we signed up when we were writing our term papers and translating Hebrew in grad school. New skills notwithstanding, some of us have learned the hard way that what COVID really did was expose decades of poor stewardship and church leadership. The best livestream gear in the world can’t save boring preaching and teaching. No amount of social distance will solve an ugly room and bad (non-existent?) discipleship methodology. Your congregation might settle for it, but the ones we’re trying to reach online won’t. And when there are so many great lectures, sermons, and podcasts out there in which to find encouragement, the implication of why more people don’t watch our live stream can be ego-crushing.

So now it’s 2021, and we find ourselves in the unenviable position of recognizing that we must innovate but being unsure whether we’re equipped to do so effectively, having used those muscles so seldom pre-pandemic. We’re not even sure what “effective” means in a post-pandemic landscape. Should we be happy with 70% of our pre-COVID numbers? Should we keep the live stream or stop it? Should we hire an ‘online pastor?’ Innovate how? Our theology? Our practice? What have we held onto that is radically obsolete now? Bigger: What must we jettison that will sink us if we don’t?

Enter Luke 5, quite possibly the most innovative chapter in all of Scripture. Let’s take a quick little survey of all the fresh ideas emerging, all the sacred cows slaughtered, and all the ossified notions of ‘how things are done’ being shattered like a cold mirror in this gem of a chapter. 5

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the
people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.
2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen,
who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one
belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then
he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

Innovation #1 – Change the where and the how of your preaching. As it turns out, sound carries further over water than land, so Jesus was using physics to allow more people to hear. He was adapting to his surroundings for the benefit of the crowds. And he was still preaching the Word. The message didn’t change, only the method. So go preach in a boat. Have a worship service on the lake. Or in the lake! “But we already livestream our sermon, Duncan?” Yes, you do. In a room. With walls. And probably fluorescent lighting. What if you did the sermon while hiking? Spelunking? Scuba diving? Or a man-on-the-street sermon? Or a sermon at a touristy spot?

4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep
water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master,
we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because
you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done so, they
caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help
them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to

Innovation #2 – Go where you’ve not yet gone and fish in a way you’ve not done before, despite objections from the ‘experts.’ Because—spoiler warning—this is all new territory for everyone. There are no experts in a post-Covid church landscape. Peter is the professional fisherman here. Jesus grew up a carpenter. It would have been well within Peter’s right to say, “Jesus, I appreciate the sermon, and if you’d like to show me how to make a dovetail joint for my cabinets, I’m all ears. But why don’t you leave the fishing to us, ok, bud? Thanks.” No, Peter was courageous enough to break the conventions despite no evidence that it would work. So, what if you did a two-man sermon, with one of you at HQ and the other out in the field? Hmmmm. Interesting.

Innovation #3 – Create the infrastructure now to prepare for the massive catch. Peter and co. were not ready and consequently their methods were insufficient, i.e., their boats began to sink. Boats are made not to sink. That’s like the number one thing boats have to do: not sink. And these were sinking. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean build a new building and saddle the congregation with debt. But it does mean asking the question “what’s our plan for when double this many people show up?” Because asking that question is a step of faith, like praying for rain then grabbing your umbrella. How long has it been since you’ve prayed an outrageous prayer?

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go
away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his
companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s
partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you
will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left
everything and followed him.

Innovation #4 – Have the courage to go with the better goal/method and dump the old goals/methods as the situation arises. It would have done Peter zero good to leave his fishing business, follow Jesus, but still carry the net with him. Yes, this might mean leaping out of your comfort zone. Welcome to leadership. It might be high time to give some space to that voice in the back of your head that’s been saying for months ‘we really shouldn’t do _ anymore because it doesn’t work.’

12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Innovation #5 – Hurting people need your presence, not your distance. Your care will become their witness, which makes your care a bit of discipleship. Practically, can we please figure out something worthwhile to do with our nation’s assisted living residents? I don’t care how nice the facilities are, they live in a suck hole devoid of joy. Prove me wrong. So what if we flipped the script and honored them instead? What if we got them on camera telling stories from when they were teenagers? Or how about those who are abuse survivors? Maybe not put them on camera if they aren’t up for it, but surely we can think of some ways to communicate acceptance and safety?

15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Innovation #6 – Offset the viral-content chasing culture by aggressively pursuing alone, solo communion with the Father. This will likely mean innovate the places you go to pray.

17 One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

Innovation #7 – When taking the message of Jesus is important enough to us, we will come up with and execute hole-in-the-roof ideas, despite the reasonable objections of the We can’t do that crowd. Yes, we can. Yes, it will likely be messy. So are omelets. Get on with it. Block party for the streets surrounding your church, with a dunk tank and live music? Yes. Backpack trip to climb a mountain? Yes. (That’s a built-in sermon series right there, by the way.) Church at the beach? Yes. Painting? Yes. Skateboards? Yes. Competition Day? Yes.

21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Innovation #8 – Like Jesus, speak to people’s hearts, not their arguments. Look deeper. Jesus said out of the overflow of the mouth the heart speaks. So listen to people’s words and let that inform our preaching and teaching.

Innovation #9 – Let go of the old ways of doing things once the new thing starts to get some traction. In this passage, there’s no reason in the world why the healed man still needed his mat. Yet he took it with him. Why? You know the answer: habit. But what used to be a necessary tool was now just extra weight he had to carry. What are our mats? What’s our extra weight?

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Innovation #10 – Don’t let a person’s secular job scare you from asking them to serve in ministry. They might just surprise you. The fact that you even ask will do wonders for their faith.

29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Innovation #11 – Have a dinner party for the regular folks in your community, no strings attached other than just to get to know them. Getting them to rub shoulders with people in whom dwells the Holy Spirit is always a good thing. Most of us don’t do banquets very well or very often, and they can be stuffy and intimidating. But what if you invited a dozen food trucks to set up shop in your church parking lot? Once a month?

33 They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” 34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” 36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”

Innovation #12 – Finally, the passage from which this publication derives its name. There are new things and there are old things, and according to this passage, each has a place in God’s economy, and each may be useful depending whether they complement each other and the gospel. The trick is discerning which is which. The innovation here is more of a summation of common sense leadership: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. Your system is perfectly designed to get the result it’s getting. So if you don’t like the result, the solution is do things differently. That is waaaaaay easier said than done, I know. But remember, it’s not a choice between doing something and doing nothing, because…even doing nothing is doing something.

There might still be a place for doing things the way they’ve always been done, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of how our message engages a new culture. The reality is culture is never static. Ever. But good news: one of the geniuses of the church is the ability to adapt to any context to share a message that is beautifully timeless and eternally relevant.

On February 14, 1999, Valentine’s day as it turned out, I was employed by a church as their youth minister, and that was the day I made the decision to be baptized.

I’ll come back to that. But first, Philadelphia.

If you’ve ever been there, chances are you went to liberty hall, saw the bell, pretended you were in National Treasure, and ran up the steps like Rocky. But there’s also a pop art sculpture there that is a global icon. It is the LOVE sculpture: huge, red steel letters in Didone font, the L and O stacked on top of the V and E. The O is slanted so the negative space points to the V. It’s interesting and simple and quirky and fun and all the things you hope an art landmark will be. It was created by an artist named Robert Indiana and was brought to Philly in 1976–also the year I was born–on loan for display in the city’s U.S. Bicentennial celebrations. Indiana offered it to the city for $45,000, but they couldn’t afford it. He began prepping it for travel back home when the owner of Philadelphia’s NBA team, the 76ers, made him an offer of $35,000. He took it, and it’s been in JFK Plaza ever since, the quintessential photo backdrop.

This sculpture has been copied, translated, and mimicked in just about every way imaginable, even in Hebrew, which reads right-to-left. It’s been on postage stamps, posters, postcards, and pottery. It’s been Christmas ornamented, yard signed, and bumper stickered. It’s been mugged, tumblered, glassed, and gobleted. It’s been on the sides of buildings and made into bookmarks. Why?

Because when love becomes art, something transcendent happens. It touches your soul in a place reserved for the deepest and most profound moments.

Like on the side of a coffee shop in South Austin.

There’s a place called Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Ave., where in 2010, local musician scribed a simple, beautiful love letter to the Jo’s owner with a can of red spray paint. On the exterior wall of the shop.

The constant foot traffic took notice and soon people were coming specifically to seek out the wall, taking photos with friends and lovers alike. The site’s popularity exploded and went viral in no time. Now it is Austin’s “LOVE” sculpture, if only in 2D. The text?

“I love you so much.”

Not exactly Shakespeare, I know, but the more you read it…the more it packs a wallop. I certainly don’t condone vandalism, but there’s something about declaring one’s love with the written word that simply has no equal. You’ll never ever get tired of reading a love letter, or a sonnet composed for you, or lyrics and a tune written for you. Love written is love read. Over and over. Forever.

Which brings me to Harry Potter. Or more precisely, Lily Potter, Harry’s mum. In the final book, we get a flashback scene of her final, fateful moments. Voldemort’s attack on Harry is imminent, but instead of running, she’s making her stand and whispering to 1-year-old Harry:Harry, you are so loved, so loved. Harry, Mama loves you. Dada loves you. Harry, be safe. Be strong.”  This is what she chose as her final words before she faced death bravely and without hesitation. In the story, Voldemort tries to kill Harry after Lily, but the curse from his wand not only doesn’t kill Harry, but rebounds and hits him back, causing his body to be obliterated and raising all manner of questions in the process. And all of that turns out to be the backstory to Book 1 in the series.

But it made me wonder…why would Lily tell Harry to be safe and brave if she thought he were about to die as well? The answer is…she wouldn’t. Lily knew that casting herself in front of Harry and taking Voldemort’s death curse full blast would protect Harry with a power far greater than the magic of the Harry Potter universe. Aslan might call it the Deeper Magic. She knew her sacrifice would work. She was sure of it. Her knowing, her being absolutely without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain that it would work is the only possible thing that could give a person the courage to do such a thing. “You are so loved.” Those are the words of power, as much for her as for him.

Now back to my baptism when I was a full-time minister. See, I grew up in a very high-church infant-sprinkling protestant congregation, that of my parents. It was full of great folks and much ritual piety, but it was also thirty-eight minutes away from our home, which meant Sunday morning was about the only time I was there. Big church was really all I knew. Fast forward to March of my senior year of high school. My friend Brian leaned over in English class, and said, “Hey my youth group has this retreat next weekend. You should come.” I think I responded with something like, “what’s a youth group? ” I went to the retreat and God sent a million volts of Spirit straight into my soul in the form of bible teaching aimed at teenagers, singing bordering on the angelic, and the most amazing object lesson ever. I wasn’t baptized that weekend, but I certainly had discovered a whole new territory of faith that I wanted to explore, nay conquer. A ‘youth group,’ you say? Indeed. Tell me more.

But as I said, this was March. I didn’t have much time. By the time August rolled around, I had been to camp for the first time ever, learned many devotional songs, and was well on my way to ingratiation. There was a girl at this church who’d just graduated from the university I was about to start in the fall, and she told me about an amazing campus ministry there. I went, met everyone on a Thursday night, and thus began the college years of my faith exploration. Fast forward to my 21-hour senior semester, and I was president of that campus ministry organization and good friends with the youth minister at the church. At my graduation party, he offered me his summer youth internship, and I said yes. My life took another turn, this time toward ministry. It was an amazing summer to say the least, during which I learned so many things, chief among them being that I wanted to pursue ministry as a career.

At the end of the summer, the youth minister was let go and they asked me to be the interim while they went through the process of hiring a new guy. So I did grad school full time and youth ministry full time, and in four years of college and campus ministry, no ever asked me, “So tell me about your conversion story.” In hindsight, I think everyone assumed I’d grown up in a youth group so no one bothered to ask. But that left me in the awkward position of holding a ministry position whilst not having completed the faith pie with believer’s baptism.

Turns out there were a whole slough of bigger theological implications than simply infant sprinkling or believer’s submersion through which I had to wade. But on Valentine’s day, 1999, I decided to sit down with my bible (because no girlfriend, obvs) and not get up until I came to a conclusion. Two hours later, conclude I did, and called my preacher/colleague in his office to ask if I could come in and be baptized.


I think he dropped the phone.

Then we had a great, deep laugh.

Every day since has been a journey of what it means to bring love into the world. Sometimes that love is painted, sculpted, hammered, hand-lettered, projected, caricatured, designed, or welded. Because when love becomes art, when love goes from abstract to the tangible, something transcendent happens. God wasn’t content to give us the Word. He sent us Word Who became Flesh.

Every day since has been an exploration of God saying I love you so much, not with red spray paint but with the red blood of Jesus. It is not written on walls, but on hearts in the pages of Scripture. Diving into these words is our love letter. It sounds much like God’s words in Jeremiah 31:3,”The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”

Every day since has been a chapter in the story of God being for us–us!–that we are so loved and worth the sacrifice which he was beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain would end with resurrection. That he asks us to be brave and strong in the writing of the story seems a small ask by comparison.

These elements are so true, so universal, so common to the heart of humanity that even the world echoes it in places like Philadelphia, South Austin, and Godric’s Hollow. Truth is too vibrant, too robust, too alive to remain in places like bible pages and congregations. It is so vast, dangerous, and breathtaking that even the world sees it. The difference is love is not just something we create, display, or speak. It is who we Jesus-followers are meant to be, to the witness of the world. So says our Lord in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

May we be so known.

welcomeOn Sunday night, August 31, several youth groups from San Antonio-area churches of Christ met at our church, the New Braunfels Church of Christ, for a youth praise event. But this one was slightly different. Our theme was Light The Way, and part of the “sermon” was me using a tripod, a camera, a 25-second shutter speed, and a handful of flashlights to tell the story of Jesus with a technique called “Light Writing.” To do this, get the room very dark, click the shutter open, “draw” in the air with the flashlights, and when the shutter clicks closed, you have recorded a light painting in still image form. I used a projector to display the image from the camera, i.e., instead of the picture displaying on the camera’s LCD screen, it displayed on a projector. The 230 teens in attendance were being led in worship song by our guest worship leader while I painted a series of 17 different compositions. When I was finished, I scrolled back through the paintings, and delivered a short lesson from John 8:12.

Here are the images I created on stage while the teens were singing:

The light metaphor is used so heavily in Scripture, particularly by Jesus, that we wanted to build a worship experience around the idea of actual light as a way of telling the story. It was a great night, and was received very well. Months of thought, prayer, and prep went into the event. God was certainly praised by many voices, but by many eyes as well. The idea of Visual Worship was very much at the fore in our planning, because we want to worship God not just with our voices but with our eyes too. What better medium to use for that than light?

But I want to point out how this was not just a bevy of cool effects. These were specifically chosen images that form a narrative of Jesus. This was intentional, rehearsed, and story-driven. We do this in all sorts of other media. This one was visual. And it was, at least I think, cool. And it is very important because if there are ways to sin with your eyes, then there must also be ways to worship with your eyes. If this is true, then we as a fellowship may need to re-evaluate the extent to which we employ the visual in our corporate worship experiences.

redseaFull Disclosure: I am a creative type, and I’ve had a rough go in more than several worship services. And I notice that there’s fewer and fewer like me in our fellowship. But even so, I promise I’m not trying to start a “worship war.” Instead, I would like us to think about the roles that the visual can and should play in church gatherings for the express reason of making sure our message gets heard and seen in an increasingly visual culture.

I admit, the idea of Visual Worship sounds a little too artsy and perhaps foreign to members of a fellowship who worship in ‘auditoriums,’ and go to ‘lectureships’ (just look at those word roots). But we live in a visual culture filled with icons, screens, graphics, and apps, ad infinitum. The visual is the language of our current culture. If we are to engage this culture and stay relevant, I believe our worship services should employ this language so our churches are not dismissed and, more importantly, our message is not compromised by our delivery methods. And it’s no good vilifying the current culture, as if it were 21st century that’s endangering the gospel. The gospel is universal and will thrive in any culture. But it has to be communicated in culturally relevant ways. If the alternative is staying in the 19th century with our design, architecture, fonts, and furniture, that’s just as much of a cultural choice.

Understand: I not talking at all about our message. Our message is fine. The Gospel will and should be preached faithfully. Jesus came, died, resurrected. Disciples should be made. And salvation is by grace through faith. What I am saying is that it is just as ridiculous to preach the gospel to people under 30 using a clipart-laden PowerPoint as it would be to preach the gospel in Chinese to a roomful of Ethiopians. They may listen because they’re polite, but you won’t convince them it’s important. You won’t even get heard, no matter what your message is. Because—and here’s the crux—the environment of the space is monumentally important to current culture. If the environment and design of your worship space is not perceived as important to your church, then your church will be dismissed— subconsciously or not—as irrelevant.

For example, when you walk in your church’s worship space, you should be able to tell it’s a church, but you should also be able to know it’s 2014, not 1976. The color of the carpet, the style of pews, whether or not there are screens, the design of the stage area, the dimmable/non-dimmable lights may not matter to you. But they matter to hipsters, art majors, people who are the first to get the new iPhone, architects. Will interior design save souls? No. But it will set the stage for a message of salvation to be heard.

The shrubs, trees, mulch and a flowers on our church’s exterior don’t really matter to me personally, but if I’m trying to reach out to the landscaper demographic in our community, I’m going to make sure our landscaping sends the message “Hey, landscaping is important to us.” When a landscaper pulls in and notices things are done well, and done correctly, they have an open mind and good feeling about the place–and the message–before they even walk through the doors. Conversely, if the flowers are dead, and there are palm trees even though it’s Michigan, that landscaper who has decided to visit your congregation has just gotten the message that the things that are important to him are not the things that are important to this congregation. That’s not a message I want visitors to have before they even sit down.

But how many more people under thirty are there in our communities than professional landscapers?

Most often in churches, incorporating the visual means projection and computers. But what about architecture? Even interior design? Or how about the fonts and layout of the bulletin? The signage? The letterhead? There are a million tiny (visual) design elements that add up to one of two big messages: 1) we’re relevant, or 2) we’re not.

Most people aren’t able to quantify or articulate these design elements because they don’t have a background in design, film, architecture, or art. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t make these elements any less important. At the subconscious level, I’ll argue that the vast majority of people do notice the feeling, mood, general vibe and purpose of the space within 30 seconds of entering. Environment matters a great deal. And environment can go a long way in preparing a person to hear a message.

Design elements may not be the first things we think of when we think ‘worship.’ But this has not always been the case in history. In the Medieval world, the stories were told not by books or movies, but by the stain glass windows, and in a larger way, the architecture itself. Not everyone could read, and even if they could, Bibles weren’t readily available until after Gutenberg’s little invention. So the story of Jesus, indeed the story of the bible, were communicated by images. If you’ve ever been to a cathedral in Europe, you know this to be true…window after window of glass and lead that are stunning, and have been stunning for generations. (It’s worth noting that they are in the church, the place of ritual, and are illuminated from behind by light. The metaphor is just too great to pass up.) Standing there amid the Gothic architecture, staring up at those windows, you will come to know why they say a picture is worth a thousand words. And pictures, images, ideas conveyed in color and texture capture us like few other things can.

God knows this, and leveraged it back in the Ancient Near East. The artistry of Israel’s tabernacle bespoke its sanctity and importance. It is in the last third of Exodus that we meet Bezalel and Oholiab, God’s designated artisans. They were men who would communicate the gravity and eminence of God’s dwelling place through their creativity. They were chosen by God to build and decorate the tabernacle because they were tremendously gifted, and there’s something about the creative process that connects us with God. Not connect us in the church-y sense, but connects us to something Other, in the place where art has a voice that is beautiful and mysterious and makes you sound nuts when you try to explain it, because it is not from the country of words. Indeed, notice: when you walk into our modern church buildings, you look around for people you know. When you walk into one of those intricate cathedrals, you look up. Which seems to lead to a mindset and posture of worship? When it comes to telling a meaningful story, artists have the upper hand. And we Christians have the most meaningful story of all. Let’s start empowering artists to tell it, and tell it excellently.

There is even a modern resurgence and interest in the ideas of using technology in ways which enhance the message, not become the message. Indeed there is a annual conference in Nashville about this very subject called SALT. This is from the website of Salt Nashville:

“Worship is similar to the family gathering together at our Father’s house partaking in a meal together. At the dinner table there will be a main course, that for us represents the meat of our services, or the Truth of God’s word. Side dishes compliment the main course through music, prayer, offerings, announcements and liturgy. We don’t believe visuals are the main thing. We don’t even believe they are a side dish. We believe they are the seasoning that covers all these elements. There are two seasoning elements on the table: salt and pepper. Both add flavoring to your meal, but only one has the ability to preserve and heal wounds. That’s what art does in our services.”

Luke McElroy, one of SALT’s founders, has written an informative précis on Visual Worship and its origins here:

Environmental Projection is a current trend in lighting, and using ProPresenter software for worship lyrics and images in ways that tell a narrative that matches the message from the pulpit or communion table. There are Addressable LEDs, projection mapping, and ways to control house lighting from your iPad. There are so many tools out there, it’s mind boggling. But as Mr. McElroy says, these seem like new ideas, but they only seem that way because the canvas has changed. Art has been a pivotal, indeed, essential aspect of the worship experience for generations. This is why I believe incorporating the visual and intentional design back into our congregations and worship services is not just an Under-30 thing. When done with excellence (which is not the same as doing it big or over-doing it; there’s a line, and we best know where it is), a visual worship element will speak to the hearts of everyone in the pews, of all ages.

On the Thursday after our Light The Way teen praise night—four days later—the granddad of a youth group member spoke to me about the event. He was in attendance and told me he was moved to tears by the singing and the lights and the message. He told me he started out in the back of the room but moved closer in the middle of the singing so he could hear and see better. This is a man who himself was a youth minister back in the day. He’s in his late-60s. He’s been in church for 40+ years. And he told me, “That was the best worship I’ve ever experienced in my life. Thank you.”

May we create environments that open us to receiving God and giving him our best.

            In the previous article, I wrote briefly about some of the passages which provide a framework for an intergenerational youth ministry. It’s not a new concept, but what is new is our many and varied opportunities to integrate our adults into our youth ministries. So let’s flex our creativity muscle and think about some ways to do just that.

The Hows

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

With Hebrews 12:1-2 planted firmly as your anchor verse for your youth ministry, here are some tangible ways to go Tribal.

1. Get adults in the room for classes, groups, and fellowship. Not only to teach, but just to be there. Engage in the ministry of presence. Presence communicates value. Parlay those interactions into conversations. Parlay the conversations into friendships. Parlay the friendship into doing ministry together to bless someone else.

2. Give each senior in the youth group a three-picture frame. Ask them to fill each frame–before leaving for college–with a picture of themselves standing next to three different people; the first person a half-generation older, the second a full generation older, one two generations older. If they don’t have someone of that age to put in their frame, their goal becomes to form a friendship with someone so that they can put them in the frame. During your Senior Send Off service (you have one of those, right?) ask the three people in each senior’s frame to commit to regularly checking in with the senior for the next yearPoll the teens,

3. Ask the teens which adults of the congregation they’d like to see more of in the youth group. Then go get those adults and tell them that the teens want them! Populate your volunteer pool with these adults.

  1. Ask the teens to identify and rank their own love languages. Use these in your ministry.
  2. Ask teens to tell you the top 5 ways they want adults in church to let the teens know they care about them.
  3. Ask teens to tell you the top 5 ways NOT to do this.
  4. Tell adults the results (a sermon series, perhaps?) and create a plan for helping the adults live out those connections.

Because in the teens’ world, they must know you care about them before they will listen to you about anything. You must build relationship capital and earn the right to be heard. You earn it by doing the things the teens say in the poll.

4. Assign retired people in your church to go to the games, concerts, and performances of the youth group members at their respective schools. Go see the teens in action. Sit with their parents. Afterwards, say    the following: “I love to watch you play.”

5. Have parents swap teens for a weekend. Go do something cool. Because then the parents’ own teens will get jealous. Which will provide an excuse to go do something cooler next weekend.

6. Take youth group to visit an assisted living center for 30 minutes. Ask the residents to tell the teens stories of when they were teenagers. Watch the magic happen.

7. Have your church’s small groups host the youth group for a devotional once a month. Plan the gathering with activities designed for everyone to make a new connection and friend outside their own age demographic.

  1. Go to Lowe’s and grab two paint chips each of about fifty different colors (they’re free); two Raspberry Mists, two Midnight Moons, etc.
  2. At the gathering, pass out one set to the adults and the other to the teens. Then tell them to find their exact match. Ask a question they can both answer to each other. Shuffle the two stacks cards separately. Redistribute. Repeat.

8. Have your men’s ministry borrow the guys of the youth group, either during a Sunday morning class, or a mid-week gathering. Do the same with the girls and the women’s ministry. Do an activity (sitting and sharing only counts part way. Get up and move.), then talk about it.

9. Teens need to know about grace, faith, baptism, sanctification, etc. But they also need to know how a faithful Christian grocery shops, works a checking account, buys a car, gardens, fixes stuff, and spends their spare time. Who better to teach them these life basics than you? So go kidnap a teen in the youth group next time you have to run errands on a Saturday. (Green-light it with their parents first. Amber alerts in youth ministry are a resume killer).

10. For college-age students, your church has got about 3 weeks to pull in and embrace new students at the start of the semester. Studies have shown that if a college student doesn’t get connected to a church the first three weeks of their freshman year, they are unlikely to ever do it at all. So spend some money and resources making those three weeks of worship distinctly aimed at college students, with sound biblical substance, and great visuals. Go out of your way to make church…there’s really no other word…COOL. (Yes, I’m aware we shouldn’t go to a church because it’s cool. But that’s a mature perspective. To an immature perspective, COOL might be the best outreach tool your congregation will ever use.) And when they come, your church’s goal should be for every college student to be greeted by at least 4 church members before the first song starts. And each of those college students should be taken to lunch afterward. Sidenote: this will require some intentionality and planning of your post-worship meal. If you have the “I don’t know, where you YOU want to eat,” mentality, it’ll be tough to plan for taking a college kid out with you.

11. Grandpa-Grandson and Grandma-Granddaughter retreats or dinners.

12. Force yourself, no matter how crushingly difficult, to go on a sarcasm-and-meanness fast when you are around teens. Some (most?) teens are not cognitively developed enough to get it, and you’ll consequently come off like a jerk. Besides, they hear enough negativity. Be the one who fills their ears with something positive. Remember that whole Ephesians 4:29 passage? Practice it on the teens.

13. Aim for a 2:1 or even a 1:1 teen-to-adult ratio at yearly youth ministry events and weekend conferences. Events and conferences are great for teens, but what really makes the experience stick is having a faithful adult/mentor with whom to experience the event, so that all the good of the weekend doesn’t stay at that weekend. They will keep talking about it when the spiritual high wears off, and that’s a good thing.

14. Got a teen who’s shown some aptitude for technology? Pair them with someone in the A/V booth who will teach them how to produce the Sunday Morning Service (slides for the preacher, video clips, audio, etc.). Coach them on how not just to operate the technology, but how to use the technology to create an environment for worship. Or give the photography-minded teen a chance to produce some original content for your media presentations. Work towards the goal of having the teens plan, produce, operate, and participate in the service. There are a hundred ways to serve on Sunday without being in front a mic, and teens are good at most of them.

15. Organize a Take-A-Teen-To-Work day where professionals of the congregation take similarly-gifted teens to work.

16. C.H.A.T –  Call. Hang out. Ask. Text. These are four primary ways to let the teens in your church know you care about them. Call and leave an encouraging voice mail. Text a bible verse. Ask how their week has been. Simple little things are huge, because they communicate respect. And when a teen reads ‘respect’ from an adult, that’s a good thing.

17. Find a real, true, honest reason to brag on a teen to their parents, and do so. Best case scenario? Do it within earshot of the teen.

18. Dumb Things I Did as a Teenager Night, hosted by the elders and their wives. Elders will start to be seen as real people, not figureheads. That’s ALWAYS a good thing.

19. Get different ages in the room. Hire a Christian comedian. Get everyone laughing together. Laughter opens brain pathways that few other things can. Receptivity is increased afterward. Use this to your advantage to communicate the real message of the evening.

20. Introduce the older to the ministry potential of social media as a means to stay connected with teens. Then have the younger tutor the elder in how to Text, Tweet, Facebook, etc. Have a Selfie Night or Hashtag Tuesday. Caveat: Social media is for sharing interesting tidbits, encouraging thoughts, advice, funny pictures, even bible verses and prayers. It is not primarily for deep conversations or correctives. As soon as teens feel like they’re being stalked and their behavior scrutinized–even justifiably–the social media bridge is burned and you’ll be un-friended faster than you can say LOL. If you see something dodgy on a teen’s feed, DON’T write a corrective then and there. DO have a one-on-one conversation about it later, AFTER you’ve earned the relationship capital to do so. Otherwise, you may get your point across, but you’ll be summarily dismissed afterward. Indeed, Social Media should be the launch pad for in-person conversations.

21. Once you figure out where a particular teen is going to college, military, or trade school, make a proactive, intentional effort to contact a church in that area you think would be a good fit for the teen. Talk to someone. Get a name. Make a contact. If that contact passes your muster, tell said contact about your about-to-be college freshmen and ask them to come meet when you move the teen into their dorm.

22. Give a few teens and twenty-somethings a seat at the church planning table. Solicit their input. They’ll have insight that’ll be valuable. You just have to be sure to ask the right questions.

One of the visions for the youth ministry at our church is to break age barriers. We want adults in the room, making friends and ministering with their presence. Of course the events are still aimed at teens, but I believe when a youth ministry is done properly, the adults will be fed by it too. They’ll be like the grown-ups at a Pixar movie who get all the subtleties and enjoy it on whole other levels. How many times have you walked into a Cars, Toy Story, or Frozen with ‘This is a kid’s movie’ expectations only to be pleasantly surprised and even moved by it? A youth ministry run with excellence can have the equivalent effect. I believe it can also produce young people who’s faith is not only solid, but flourishing and contagious.

This process will not be comfortable, nor easy, at least in the beginning. It will feel awkward and probably won’t be attended very well for a while. But since when is something easy that’s worthwhile? And not every church will do this the same, nor should they (shout out to the autonomous nature of the church as found in Acts and the Letters). We must be contextual. But whatever you do, let me encourage you to stick with it, pray over it, and watch what God will do, however slowly. Find a handful of proactive faithful adults, cast the vision, empower them, and get out of their way. Because once teens see and know that they matter to other adults in the church, not just their parents, they will welcome the company. We want our teens to sail into college comfortable being friends with every age at church, even if they’re introverts. We want our twenty-somethings to be vibrant, robust participants, even leaders, in our churches. We want them to have a confidence that only comes from being bestowed upon them by their faith heroes. In short, we don’t want a new technique. We want a new normal.

Further Reflections

  1. As you look back on the formative years of faith development, who do you remember? Was it someone older than you?
  2. Does your church have a big college-student representation? How is your church making this happening? What retains the twenty-somethings?
  3. What other programs or ministry opportunities have you seen successfully integrate generations?
  4. How do you see Powell & Clark’s Sticky Faith fitting into this discussion?
  5. What questions are we not asking?
  6. What’s the biggest disservice your church is doing to the teens? What’s your plan to change it?
  7. What other poll questions for teens are there which would provide some valuable insight?

Part 1 – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 1): The Necessity of Age Desegregation in Our Churches
Part 2 – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 2): Theological Basis for the Shift

In the previous article, I gave some vistas of the modern landscape of rank & file youth ministries, in hope of sparking some interest in doing things differently so we may achieve some different results. One of toughest things about about dealing with young people is that you may never see the fruit of the seeds you plant. But if the vast majority of crops wither within five years, that’s another problem entirely. It’s time to reexamine how we farm.

I believe the ‘who’ that’s missing from most contemporary youth ministries is quite simply adults of the congregation. As I started to examine scripture and considering why and how we do what we do in youth ministry, I discovered that adults intentionally being around the youth for the explicit purpose of spiritual formation was not a new thing at all. In fact, it was quite ancient.

The Theology

Since there aren’t really youth groups in the Bible,[1] let’s look at some relevant passages about spiritual formation of the young, and adults’ role in it. These passages constitute a (non-exhaustive!) foundation of a theology of multi-generational youth ministry.

Genesis 18:18-19 (NIV)

18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (emphasis mine)

One of the main reasons God chose Abraham, according to this passage, is so that he would pass on his faith to his children and his household. In fact, this passage teaches that unless Abraham does just that, the promises from God will remain unfulfilled. But also notice the distinction made here between ‘children’ and ‘household.’ Abraham’s mission was to extend far beyond his blood relatives. Indeed, one of the promises made to him in Gen. 12 was that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. His household, i.e., his servants and servants’ children as well as his own family, was where the fulfillment of that promise was to begin. And this passage assumes that Abraham the adult will be the proactive party in this spiritual formation of the young.

Most every discussion about spiritual formation of children will, and should, include the familiar passage from the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9).

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESVUK)

“7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

This is fairly straightforward; teach your children about God at every opportunity. No need to belabor the point here. However, just a few verses later in the same chapter, we find this:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25 (ESVUK)

20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’

Part of what it means to teach our children about God is to tell, and re-tell the stories of God’s glory, providence, and grace in our own faith journeys. But first look at the question of the children. Notice that it’s assumed that the children will one day ask, “Hey, dad? Why do we have to follow all these rules? How come we have to go to worship?”

There’s no need to be insulted when children ask the question. It’s normal that children will question why we live the way we live. Our life of faith is neither easy nor convenient, which is how most of the world aspires to live. So our naturally curious children will call us on it about the time they really want to sleep late on Sundays. But when that day comes, says Moses, we are not to answer them with rules, citations, and traditions which hold little value to the youth.

We are to answer them first with our stories. We are to answer them with what God has done. Only then will it make sense to follow God’s statutes as a Thank You for our salvation. We don’t live the way we live because we like the people and wholesome activities. We live the way we live because we were once dead, and Jesus made us alive. Taking cookies to the fire station every week doesn’t make much sense to someone who’s never been pulled from the flames of a burning building. But to the one who has been pulled from the flames, weekly cookies not only makes sense, it seems woefully inadequate. So it is with Jesus.

So we’d better learn how to tell our stories in compelling ways, and pronto, because one day our children, and the children of others, are going to ask. It is vital that our responses inspire them, because it is a story that deserves to be told inspiringly, after all.[2]

Ezekiel 47:21-23 (NIV)

“‘So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance,’ declares the Lord God.”

Ezekiel was written to God’s people who were in the exile to Babylon, between 586 and 536 BC. Ezekiel himself was among them. In this passage, God is giving the people a vision of what their re-entrance to Canaan will look like one day in their future. In that context, then, there are several relevant observations. First, there will be some non-Israelites–“sojourners”–along with Israel when they return to the promised land, and they will have been part of the Israelite community long enough to have had children. So their children will necessarily intermingle with Israelite children…and their parents. Second, these sojourners are to receive equal treatment; there is to be no difference as to how the Israelites treated these goyim vis-à-vis their brothers. They are to be welcomed into the family of God’s people with open arms, the implication being that they will be given ample opportunity to confess the Lord, their males be circumcised, and their families keep Torah. Some will do exactly that. The takeaway? Even as far back as the exile, God makes provision for families without a connection to the Lord to be in close proximity to those who do, and children were part of the equation.

Psalm 145:4-12 (NIV)

“One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness. The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.”

This is such an appropriate passage for several reasons. First, notice how high God is lifted in exultation! And it’s the OLDER generation that’s doing it! In our churches, more often than not, it’s the teens who get excited about worship; the upbeat fresh songs, the clapping, the general excitement and energy level are all far more common among the young than the old in our day. Not so in this passage.

Second, the description of the Lord as gracious and compassionate, etc., is a direct quote from Exodus 34:6-7, the passage in which God reveals his relational character to Moses. That Exodus passage is either directly quoted or alluded to more than two dozen times in the Old Testament alone. So the Psalmist is evoking some powerful imagery, indeed justifying why this God is worthy of the praise at the beginning of the passage. This praise will pass down from one generation to the next. As each generation hears the praise of the one before, they themselves will catch the vision.

Ah, but the best part is who will be the eventual beneficiaries of all this praise: all people. What a delightfully oblique reference to the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. And what is it, according to this Psalm, that all people will know? God’s mighty acts, and the splendor of his Kingdom. And they’ll know it by having been told by the previous generation.

Did not Jesus come to show us exactly these two anchors, with love as the vessel? When was the last time we declared God’s mighty acts to anyone, let alone a teenager? And if we don’t have a vision for the splendor of the Kingdom, how can we expect a teen to have it?

Among these and other passages which are important for understanding the intergenerational vision, the following trends emerge:

“Father’s House” is used 27 times;  “Household/s” 118 times; “Father’s Household 11 times. “Clan/s,” i.e., a several households of the same tribe, is used 226 times. “Tribe/s” = 293 times. “Youth Group” is used zero times.

From my research, here are my top three conclusions.

  1. House / Household / Family was the main context for moral education (which included literacy), and the initial context for vocational education (cf. Exodus 12:24-28; Deut. 6:4-9; Is. 28:23-29; Ps. 78:1-7).
  2. “Household” included more than blood relatives, e.g., aliens, fatherless, & widows (Ezek. 47:21-23; Deut. 14:28-30; 26:11).
  3. Therefore, familial AND extra-familial household members, in some cases non-Israelites, shared the task of educating the children, both morally and vocationally; passing that knowledge on to succeeding generations. But when the parents couldn’t, or somehow were kept from doing so, that responsibility fell to the extended family in the tribe.

If we transpose this Tribal system on our churches, I believe our youth ministries will drop some new anchors in teens’ lives in preparation for the coming culture shock of Not Being In Youth Group. And again, this doesn’t call for a complete change in youth/children’s ministry programming. This is simply about getting more adults to be along side the teens/children as those programs are planned and executed. These ideas are not without biblical precedent.

  1. MOSES TO JOSHUA (Exod. 17:9; Num. 13; Deut. 31:1-8; 34:9)
  2. ELI TO SAMUEL (1 Sam. 3)
  3. JESUS TO THE TWELVE (NB: Peter, James, John; John, the Apostle Jesus loved. (esp. John 15)
  4. PAUL TO TIMOTHY (1 Cor. 4:17; Acts, Ephesians; 1 Timothy)

None of these proteges were related by blood to their respective mentors, and this is not a list of obscure characters. These are heavy hitters. Another interesting tidbit: in our world, an “orphan” is a child who is without both parents. But in the Biblical world, particularly that of the New Testament, an “orphan” could refer to a child who only had one parent, usually the mother, i.e., the “fatherless.”[3] So when the word appears in James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” NIV), a perfectly reasonable interpretation that the orphan and the widow are related, i.e., a single-parent household. As such, Timothy could have been an “orphan.”

There may not be many teens in our churches who have lost both parents, but I guarantee we’ve got single-parent household teens by the truck load. Let’s find ways for those teens to connect with a father- and mother-figures of faith. The youth minister can introduce and connect people, but it’s our boots that should be on the ground.

The Vision

We want our teens to learn to have deep, meaningful fellowship across generations, so that when all the razzle-dazzle of youth ministry is gone, they don’t go with it. We want there to be something more nourishing and substantial in their church experience, and for it to be in community. That is what will sustain a young person and keep them plugged in at their new church away from home, indeed anywhere. But it is imperative that we help them exercise their relationship muscle now so they know how to use it freshman year of college. We want our teens to leave our youth group and feel comfortable developing friendships with people twice and three times their age. The vision is that they’ll be glad for their time in our youth ministries, but they are ready for something more mature, not pine for their high school faith days.

Of course they’ll want to make friends with Christians their own age, as they should. And it’s been pointed out to me that sometimes teens leave their parents’ church because it is just that–their parents’ church. It’s a fair point. But suppose they go to a church of all upwardly-mobile hipster twenty-somethings. Eventually the same thing will happen; the whole process has just been deferred, and they still won’t know how to be in community with people twice their age.

We must help them learn to get out of their age demographic for the purposes of their Christian walk, but also for the sake of the family aspect that church is supposed to be. If they can learn that one thing, they have taken a big step toward maturity. (And incidentally, for you baby-boomers and beyond, hanging out with a college kid would not be the worst idea in the world for you either. You’ll find yourself feeding off their contagious energy. Just try not to kill their optimism; it’s what makes them charming.)

In a nutshell, we want to change our youth ministries from being program/activity driven to being relationships/service driven; and that the relationships be with faithful adult Christians. My friend George the Youth Minister, says it this way: “We want for this to go from a ministry TO the teens, to a ministry OF the teens.” But the good news is, a youth ministry need not jettison its programming. It need only integrate faithful, loving adults of all generations into it. It’s the ‘Follow me as I follow Christ’ method. Every teenager deserves to be friends with at least one faithful adult Christian. “And every teenager, left to his own devices, will always gravitate to the oldest person he can find who will take him seriously, and treat him with dignity and respect.”[4]

In their survey of the most effective faith-nurturing practices of adults, Johnson & Yorkey found that in the students who continued their faith, more than 90% of them had a half-dozen mentors in their [growing-up years].[5] “Almost without exception, those young people [who came from our youth ministry] who are growing in their faith as adults were teenagers who fit into one of two categories: either 1) they came from families where Christian growth was modeled in at least one of their parents, or 2) they had developed significant connections with an extended family of adults within the church. How often they attended youth events (including Sunday school and discipleship groups) was not a good predictor of which teens would, and which would not, grow toward Christian adulthood.[6] (emphasis mine)

Our marching orders are simple: get in there and cultivate some relationships with the younger generations. Doing so will earn the credibility to pass on your faith, both by word and deed. Are you a grandparent-type? Then find a teen in your Tribe (read: Church) who needs a grandparent. Do you have a good rapport with your teenager’s friends? Then leverage that relationship toward Christ by buying them a cheeseburger that’ll lead to a conversation.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest struggles our youth have is quite simply age-isolation. It’s so easy to dive into the virtual world of ‘Likes’ and ‘LOL’ but never actually get to know an adult who genuinely likes them and who will actually laugh out loud with them. Everyone of us is a youth minister, whether you are related to the teens in your church or not; to the teen with both mom and dad, to the single-parent teen, and to the teen who show up when they have every reason not to. Otherwise, what models will our teens have, if not you? Upon whom will they look? Many have said it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a church to raise a child’s faith. As the sign in the University of Colorado library reads: The generation who knows only itself is destined to remain adolescent forever.

You can read part 1 here – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 1): The Necessity of Age Desegregation in our Churches

[1] 2 Sam. 18:14-15, a grisly example to be sure, is about the closest thing to youth group in the Old Testament.

[2] So Joel 1:3 (NIV), “Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.” Cf. Psalm 78:1-7; 145:4-12.

[3] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 725. See also John 14:18; the only other place in the NT the word ‘orphanos’ appears.

[4] H. Steven Glenn and Jane Nelson, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a

Self-Indulgent World (Roseville, CA: Prima, 1989).

[5] Greg Johnson & Mike Yorkey, Faithful Parents, Faithful Kids (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 249.

[6] Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry, 2d. ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity, 2004), 102.

This article is the first of a new feature at Wineskins called “Ministry Highlight“. These articles will highlight some of the freshest approaches to ministry that we believe will be helpful to many of you out there who are asking and attempting to answer the most relevant questions of our day.

This article is by Duncan Campbell and is the first of three outlining his approach to transitioning youth ministry toward a more intergenerational approach. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest questions facing churches today as we are beginning to see the connections between our traditional approaches to youth ministry and the disconnect from parents and other adults being a part of the faith development of our children, and the mass exodus from church by young adults.

The State of Things

The idea is simple enough: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” But this simple idea is profoundly discomforting when it comes to how we do church, and more directly, youth ministry. The simple truth is that all across Christianity, when teens graduate out of the youth group they are also graduating church at the same time. I know there are exceptions, and I’m painting in broad strokes, but you don’t have to be George Barna to notice that in most churches there is a gaping hole where the twenty-somethings should be. It’s as though there is an unwritten rule somewhere that says ‘Church begins at 30.’ There are several gales to this perfect storm, but let’s start with the youth group.

Youth groups are amazing at what they do. They have huge per capita budgets, the most forward-thinking practices, the coolest rooms, the trendiest tshirts, the most memorable trips, camps & retreats. They nearly always have the best tech/gear in the church. They have the most engaging worship sets, the catchiest worship songs, the most affable and dynamic speakers, and the most creative among us as their leaders. They are used to getting their hands dirty in service, feeding the homeless, and playing fùtbol with poverty-stricken kids in Africa. They are used to full-throttle, well-planned, and image-rich.

And the clock is ticking because, in the current climate, 92% of that is coming to an end as soon as they graduate. A time is coming when they are no longer part of the youth group. So then what?

They will always be welcome at the local congregation, of course, but the local congregation will be enigmatically foreign. Not ‘worse’ or ‘better.’ Just different. For in the Congregation, the language is different than that of Youth Group. The pace is different. The food is different. The worship is different. The messages are different. The ministry is different. And they often experience all this slower newness about the time they move away from home for the first time, a major life change in and of itself.

So they walk into a congregation away from home, and it’s filled with strangers, an immediate 8 on the intimidation scale. Then the worship starts and they know they are not in Youth Group anymore, as an ominous feeling sets in that ‘This is what I have to look forward to from here on out?’ Then they notice the teens of that church sitting in a clump off to the side, and suddenly an unexpected pang of envy hits. They tell themselves they are not here for friends but to worship. So they focus on the worship. Which is unlike the worship they’re used to. The songs are unfamiliar. The preaching is no where close to their life. They may go several weeks because it’s habit, but they are slowly starving spiritually. Eventually apathy sets in. So they leave. In droves. They venture out to find their main Christian community elsewhere because it’s just not happening at church. Their alternatives are:

  1. Become involved with college/young adult ministry or parachurch organization.
  2. Go to some other Big Church Sunday morning. Be a church consumer, hoping for the “best” one, whatever that means.
  3. Find a small group from church.
  4. Become a youth ministry volunteer, hoping to hang on to the glory.
  5. Go to another kind of church that ‘fits’ them, which likely entails a compromise in theology, even if they don’t know it.
  6. Quit going.

None of these sound that great, but we really want to stay away from options 4-6. Our vision for the college-aged and twenty-somethings is that they become a vibrant, connected, contributing element of our congregations, indeed of the global church body. The problem is that most of them haven’t been part of a congregation. They’ve been part of Youth Group. Think of Youth Group graphically as a one-eared Mickey Mouse, with the Congregation as the ‘head’ and the Youth Group as the ‘ear.’ They barely touch.[1]

For far too many of Christian teenagers, “youth group” and “church” are mutually exclusive. They think in terms of one or the other. And we leaders are squarely to blame for this, and for inflicting on them the ensuing culture shock.

I freely admit I could be wrong, but I believe we are now seeing the fruit of years of church compartmentalization and the philosophy of dropping off a 7th grader at the youth ministry and picking him up when he is a senior, expecting him to be a fully mature Christian by the Youth Minister’s hands. Alas, we have cast our seeds far too wide and watered them too little, and with the wrong kind of water. Something is missing from Contemporary Youth Ministry, and it’s been missing for a while.

That said, I’m not advocating a brand new youth ministry model or brand new programming. I’m not trying to change the What, but the Who. So actually the better statement is “Someone” is missing from Contemporary Youth Ministry. In the forthcoming two articles, I hope to offer some biblical anchors of a fresh approach to how we do youth ministry. Because I’m not content with doing what we’ve always done. The stakes are too high.

[1] Stuart Cummings-Bond, “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse,” Youthworker, Fall 1989, 76.