November 20, 2012 — 2 Comments

A friend of mine came by this morning and offered to buy my breakfast; he had something he wanted to discuss with me. It turned out he wanted to talk about his daughter who is currently attending college. She was always active in church, often inviting her unchurched friends to attend her youth group. Now that she is in college and no longer living at home, she has stopped attending church. He wanted to know what he could do.

I was fascinated that he should come to me at this particular time. Just yesterday I attended a conference presented by the Barna Group called “YouLostMe.” This conference addressed the fact that the church is losing the Mosaic Generation (also called the Millennial Generation or Generation Y). This generation is usually defined as those born after 1982.

Some argue that we have always lost this young age group, but as they get older they will come back to church. Others believe this generation is different. The Barna Group insists that their extensive research suggests that those in this group are definitely not coming back as has previous generations.

One of the speakers at yesterday’s conference asked a profound question: “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” Unfortunately, I think the evidence is overwhelming that we do. I’ve had this conversation repeatedly over the years with church leaders. We want youth and young adults in our church but we are not willing to make the changes necessary to keep them involved.

For example, I have repeatedly pointed out that we have encouraged our youth pastors and leaders to bring drums and guitars into the youth room. But when our young people graduate from the high school youth group, we expect them to leave their participatory, contemporary worship behind and suddenly start worshiping “like adults.” This problem has led to “worship wars” in almost every church I have pastored in the past 40 years.

But there is a deeper problem. The Mosaic Generation is really into relationships. They question authority and don’t support institutions to the same extent as previous generations. They don’t respond as well to advertising, mass mailing, or door to door style evangelism. They view their peers as their moral and spiritual compass. Of course, this has been the case with every generation. But, it is apparently true of this group to a greater extent than ever before.

Dr. Win Arn was the founder and president of the Institute for American Church Growth. He was also publisher for many years of Church Growth: America magazine. Over 30 years ago he told me about a study his organization had done with 720 people. Of this group 240 were new Christians who continued to be actively involved in their churches. Another group was made up of 240 new converts who had already “dropped out.” The third group of 240 had had the gospel presented to them but had chosen not to respond positively.

Each person was asked to classify the individual who had introduced them to Jesus Christ and the church into one of these categories: TEACHER (one who had used an information transmission approach), SALESMAN (one who had used “manipulative monologue” to convince them), or FRIEND (one who had used non-manipulative dialogue).

The results of the study were very revealing. The vast majority of people who perceived the presenter of the gospel as a TEACHER did not respond positively to the invitation. Those who saw the presenter as a SALESMAN tended to respond but those most often became the “dropouts.” (only 29% had, in fact, remained active). Those who perceived the presenter of the gospel as a FRIEND had responded positively to the gospel message and had remained committed to their new found faith and active in their church.

If this was true 30 plus years ago, imagine how much more this applies to those aged 19-30 today. Business as usual is not reaching and retaining this younger generation. We must get them engaged by building relationships. They will not be argued or debated into the kingdom. Significant numbers will not respond to our condemnation. They will respond and stay only if they feel our genuine love and experience authentic friendship.

Do we love them enough to sacrifice our preferences? Are we willing to invest our lives in theirs? It seems that few Christians are willing to say with the apostle Paul, “Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  . .I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel so I can be a partner with it” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23).
This all suggests to me that if the church is to continue to be effective in the 21st century we will have to adjust our methods without compromising the message. We should revert to the relational methods we see in the New Testament. This is also why I think the church that survives the 21st century will be much less institutional and much more organic.

Dr. Gary Thompson


I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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  • Leah Randall

    I agree with your conclusion, Gary. In fact, I think the transition to more organic, less institutional will happen well before the end of the 21st century…within one or two decades, accelerating as the Kingdom fills the earth. Good article, my friend!

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