Birthing a New Model of Church
By Justin Douglas
I want to first thank the Sider Institute for sponsoring this conference. I feel I am under-qualified to share, but am humbled by the invitation. What I share today is simply out of my own experience. While I am confident in the stories and experiences of those I have encountered, only time will tell if my perception about the church moving forward is correct.
A few weeks ago I was with a former youth group student of mine who is about to turn 21. I asked him what he thinks the church needs to do to reach him and his peers. Keep in mind that this is a student who was raised in church and went to Christian school and has faith. His answer was, “I couldn’t even begin to answer that, the disconnect is so multifaceted.” As we continued, he shared how he doesn’t see much hope for the model of church that he grew up with. He doesn’t see how his peers would ever enter into the way of the church in which he was raised.
I spoke with another former youth group student who is on staff at a midwestern Christian university where he works in the office of the campus pastor. As a millennial, he is already connected to the needs of the student body, but the connection goes even deeper as he is partly responsible for student spiritual development. When I asked him about the state of the church today in relation to young people, he told me that this generation is not going to choose a church based on creeds, confessions, programs, affiliations, or denomination. Young people are looking for churches with purpose, mission, and values. However, they can spot a church from a mile away that has all of those in writing with no action, and that is something they are not at all interested in.
As lead pastor of The Bridge, I serve a church where we are reaching all generations. I have lunch every month with a woman named Marge. At 93 years, she is one of my favorite people at The Bridge. (We actually have a date this coming Tuesday—we are going thrifting together and then having lunch.) At the same time, I am connecting with millennials and Generation Z’ers. When I sit down with a new person or couple attending our church, there are different questions depending on the generational category they fall into. What my two former students were expressing seems true in my experience at The Bridge.
One of our core values at The Bridge is belonging by acceptance, and I feel we do a good job of acting on this. We believe that no matter what your story is, you belong here at The Bridge, in our community. We are committed to belonging. This idea seems to really connect with young people, and I do not think it is because it is trendy to be accepting. I believe it is because they are a generation that has seen few examples of commitment. My best friend has parents who were divorced when he was a young child and then he spent the rest of his adolescence watching his parents go in and out of other marriages or relationships. He is a millennial. Because of his experience growing up, he now has commitment issues. Commitment, even when it gets hard, even when it gets messy, might just be the church’s largest asset as we reconnect with millennials. Loving people authentically with commitment creates an ethos that will be attractive to millennials and Generation Z’ers.
One of the other distinctions that we’ve heard positive feedback on from our young people, including high school aged students, is our Q&A Sundays. We allow questions to be asked and we give a lot of space and room for doubt in our community. We desire conversations and honesty. We do not fear disagreement; instead we want to model how to disagree well and maintain commitment to the relationship, even when we disagree. This seems to appeal to a generation that has no patience for their parents’ and grandparents’ fundamentalist understanding of faith.
I am 33 years old, born in 1984. Most descriptions of the millennial generation begin at 1982, so I am at the older end of the millennial generation. Much of what I have learned from others through my ministry relationships has been my own journey as well. The longing that others have is similar to my own.
I think we are living in an interesting time where the old model of church is dying and a new model is being birthed. I do not think we are in a post-church age, because I do not believe there will ever be a post-church age. The church is not a model, but rather it is the collection of those who proclaim Christ, and there will always be people who do so. Even Jesus declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18).
What if the disconnect we are feeling and experiencing is less about our need to do better at connecting our church with a new generation, and more about our need to accept the death of our current model of church in America? When things die we have to grieve. The church is failing to grieve. The process is too painful, especially when the model (our way of doing things) is so attached to our identity, tradition, and education. We first denied the problem, many of us are still angry with this next generation, and now we are bargaining, “What can we change that will bring them all back?” I can’t helping thinking back to my former student’s words, “I couldn’t even begin to answer that, the disconnect is so multifaceted.”
We are in need of a complete overhaul because what we have now isn’t working for young people and we haven’t accepted that simple fact. As depressing as this might sound, I am incredibly hopeful for the church and for this generation. God continues to bless the old model, despite its problems, and work through us as pastors with such grace and patience as we try to figure this out. I know there are pastors and leaders here who are going to be innovators and bold supporters of what is coming next. I just want to encourage all of us to not give into fear, but instead, embrace with passion a departure from the old and an entrance into the new.
Taking Church out of the Church
by Timothy Fisher
This morning as I was coming from Maryland into Pennsylvania, I had an experience that in some ways was a picture of what I imagine this day to be about. Even though I’ve been coming to Pennsylvania for decades and decades, all of a sudden today I noticed that as I crossed over from Maryland into Pennsylvania, there was a brand new, nice-looking, completely overhauled sign that said, “Welcome to Pennsylvania.” The essence of that sign didn’t change; it was still welcoming me to Pennsylvania. I’m glad it didn’t throw me into confusion by saying “Welcome to Nevada”—I might have been pretty concerned about that. It was just a different expression of welcoming me to Pennsylvania. I see that as some of our purpose today—the church doesn’t change in its essence, but perhaps some of its expressions to those around us. When I looked at the logo that was selected for this conference, I’m glad that the subtitle, “Being the Church in a Post-Church Age,” is in a smaller font, because what really excites me about this day is that first part: “Prophetic Mission.”
I’m reminded, almost every day, that three times in the Old Testament, God said that he would fill the earth with his glory—“all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” It only gets better in the New Testament. Today, as we are celebrating, re-thinking, re-imagining, Jesus is building his Church; God is filling the world with his glory. I think God is calling us not to ignore all of the things that Devin just shared [in his introduction, see page ____], but as prophetic people to imagine and re-imagine what can be. That’s probably both our challenge and our opportunity.
When I think about those who are leaving the church, I wonder what the statistic is on those who have left the church (“the church is not relevant for me”) but are now returning. Over the last year there have been several who have been away from the church, millennials primarily, who are now coming back into the church. What I noticed is that in each of their stories they have had a profound experience with Jesus apart from the church. One young man who had been away from the church, and probably at the time would have still defined himself more as an agnostic, prayed to God as sort of a last-ditch effort to find something he had lost. God answered that prayer and he began to explore more of what it means to follow God. He has since given his life to Christ and wants to be baptized.
One of the challenges, I believe, is that as millennials are returning to church, they don’t want to return to the church they came from. Our challenge is to have a place for people to return to. They want to be involved; they want their lives to count and to matter. Another challenge is to involve millennials—those under 30—in all key levels of leadership, whether church board or preaching opportunities.
I think we can also take church to others. For the last seven seasons, I have been offering a game-day chapel through Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At three o’clock on a Friday afternoon during football season, I will find myself speaking to the football team. I remember being pleasantly surprised the first season when I wondered whether anyone would show up for this football chapel. That first time, as we were in a portable building on school property, the doors opened and some students started coming in—and then more, and more, and more. Over the last seven years, 80 percent or more of the football team has come to every one of those chapels. Many of them—probably more than half—have no other church experience, so this is church to them. I offer to pray with them before the game during our half-hour chapel service.
Almost every player comes for the pre-game prayer now. When I pray over them, I’m not just praying for a good game that night, and I’m not just praying for no injuries for them or their opponents. I’m praying that Jesus will draw them closer to himself. And you know what, it’s not turning anyone away to pray like that.
A few weeks ago, we were facing one of our cross-town rivals. The other team was going into the game with a record of 8-0, and we were going into the game with a record of 8-0. Playoffs were on the line for both teams. As it happens, the other team’s assistant coach attends my church, and he had contacted our assistant coach, who also happens to be a believer. He said, “I was thinking that after the game some of us could get together for prayer.” What he was actually thinking was that his pastor and the other coach would be open to it, but he wasn’t thinking of offering the opportunity to both teams. Our assistant coach misunderstood and brought the proposal to me, and then we took it to our team, and the whole team wanted to participate. I let the other assistant coach know that our whole team was in, and he said, “Wait a minute. I was only thinking of the coaches. I wasn’t thinking of the teams. Let me run this by our head coach.” (He’s pretty cautious when it comes to something like this.) Long story short, after this dog fight of a game, almost one hundred football players from both sides, with coaches, bowed their heads in prayer.
I wonder, is one context any more important than the other? Is one context more important because it happens to take place on a Sunday morning at ten o’clock and we sing three worship songs, than the other that takes place on and off a football field? In a recent article in the Citizenmagazine from Focus on the Family, based on a forthcoming book called Abandoning The Faith, the author challenged readers with the idea that we redefine church attendance to include more than those who meet in public locations. I think that’s part of our challenge as we think about being the church in a post-church age.
Being the Hands and Feet of Jesus
by Erika Grace
As I listened to thetwo panelists before me, I thought about how I shouldn’t even be here, given my story. I grew up in the church and my parents were Christians, but everything for them was so religious. They didn’t explain the reasons for why they believed and acted like they did, but just said, “This is what we do. And there is no reason why. This is just who we are. This is what we’re going to do and you’re going to do it too. This is what this family does.” That’s how I grew up.
I’m 24 years old, almost 25. I was an obedient child, so of course I wanted to do whatever made my parents happy. But my home was really broken. I grew up being sexually abused by my ex-step-dad, and I had to hide it all away for many years. Eventually, while I was in high school, everything blew up and the whole mess became known. I started dating a great guy who went to my school, and I ended up getting pregnant in February before I graduated from high school.
Before this, when I was a sophomore in high school, my parents grounded me for having a MySpace account and sent me to youth group at a Brethren in Christ church. I fell in love with this church and made so many friends with people my age that I switched schools to be where my friends were. When everything blew up, I walked away from the church completely, even though they never stopped supporting me. When my daughter was about a year old, my grandmother passed away. She was the rock of our family and her death sent me into the deepest depression of my life. I knew that there was more for me and my daughter and life in general. I broke up with my boyfriend and told myself, “I need to go back to church.”
I didn’t go back to a building, however. I went back to relationships—people I knew who were there for me. My pastor and his wife were always checking in on me and trying to encourage me, draw me back, remind me of God’s promises for my life, and remind me that even though the choices and mistakes I had made would have consequences for my life, they wouldn’t determine God’s love for me.
My life was completely transformed when I went back to church. Jesus has done an incredible thing and I am so grateful that I can raise my daughter to know and love Jesus. We moved from South Jersey to Philadelphia to start Story Philly with our friends. Our congregation is made up of the kind of people we’ve been talking about today: the “nones.” We have hundreds of college-age kids and young professionals coming on Sunday nights when we meet. We do have one random older woman, probably in her 60s, who we call Doctor Ruth who comes every week. We love her, and she loves to be around the young folks.
I’m realizing that this post-church age we’re living in is not post-faith or post-hope. People are still genuinely desperate for the message of hope that Jesus offers. It’s not about the building, or where we are giving that message; it’s about a different kind of church. Story Philly is located right in Center City, where there are many universities, young professionals, and others who identify as liberals who are outraged by everything that’s going on right now. They are looking for hope. They are looking for truth. They are looking for a place of rest and comfort and an answer. We know we have that answer but we also know that they aren’t going to walk into a pristine chapel on a Sunday morning at 9:30 and listen for that. So on Sunday nights we have church, having a lot of fun awhile also hearing the word of God. We also have Story “chapters.” We meet on different college campuses. People on our leadership team pair up, just like Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, and go out into different areas in West Philly, Center City, at Temple University, at the University of Pennsylvania. We’re spreading out and gathering in people who might have never walked into church on a Sunday morning. They come and say, “Wait a minute. This is church? Church can look like this? Church can look like people who genuinely love each other? Church is about relationships and understanding that there is a God in heaven who actually loves me and knows me and has set me apart for a purpose? I can be a part of something greater than myself? That’s what I’ve wanted all along. That’s what I have been looking for all along.”
I think we’ve all sensed that there has to be something greater than ourselves out there. And many of us are like me who have been in church before and who were hurt or left for some reason. Our parents made us attend or we’ve become a bit jaded by the church, so we’re not even going to give it a second thought. What I’m learning is that it’s not about the rituals or the religious practices; it’s about being the hands and feet of Jesus. It’s about being the church. People aren’t coming to church looking for a place where they can read the Bible 14 times a day. They’re looking for people who are like them and can say, “You know what? Me too. I’ve struggled too. I was lost too. I’m a sinner too,” and who can understand them on that relational “Me too” level. Then together we can say, “I’m not the answer; you are not going to be the answer. But Jesus is the answer. Let me show you how. Let me show you how I learned. Let me show you how I overcame being homeless. Let me show you how I overcame being a teen mom. Let me show you what the Lord has done in my life. He has done all these things and I’m not particularly special. He didn’t do it for me because I’m special; he just loves me, just like he loves every college student in the city.”
That is what we are doing at Story Philly, and it has been such an honor to be a part of it. I’ve experienced first-hand what it looks like to grow up in a church where you see things that just don’t add up, that don’t make sense to you, and you want more. I believed there was a God, but I wasn’t experiencing him. I didn’t believe what I was told until I experienced it for myself. I came and found people who were actually willing to have a relationship with me, walk through life with me, and show me that there is a God who loves me and there is a Jesus who wants my whole entire heart. When I’m surrendered to him, life can look completely different than anything I could have ever done on my own.
Now as the director of Re-Story, I’ve helped to start a youth program. Instead of having a traditional youth group (because it’s kind of hard for us to reach the youth in the usual way), we are setting up a mentorship program where we go to some of the city schools, especially in North Philly where there is significant poverty, as mentors and tutors. We go in and say, “We are here to do life with you. We are here to come alongside you.” As we do that, we believe we will be able to build relationships and then invite youth to a Story chapter meeting on Wednesday night, where they can experience church unlike anything they had probably ever imagined church being. At its core, church is the body of believers coming together to worship our Creator and remembering that this life is not about us but that our mission is to spread that message to everyone around us.
Reaching the EPIC Generation
by Vicky Landis
My heart breaks for this generation of young people. For more than 10 years, I’ve been working with teens and young adults as a youth leader in my church and most recently in my role as mobilization administrator for Brethren in Christ World Missions. I’m far from millennial age
In my role as the mobilization administrator, I oversee the recruiting and training for both short- and long-term workers. Our short-term programs and internships, like STEP and THRIVE, are my best opportunities to connect with youth and young adults or millennials. Of course, all millennials are not created equal and they hate being labeled, but the overarching theme I hear from them is that they want church and church people to be real. They don’t need big “shows” or extravagant programs. They want a message with meat, to be able to talk about difficult subjects, and to learn and grow alongside people who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and real with them. They seek and desire mentors and connections. They are tired of “fake.” In my role, I feel like we can offer some great programs that fit their interests, but a challenge that I face is how to teach and lead them. They do not want a lecture. They want experiences. They want someone who will listen and connect with them. They don’t feel like they get that in the church. I could share some of these stories with you, but today I want to highlight two stories about two of my nieces.
One of my nieces, Kayleena, is 23 years old. I’ve talked with her and several of her friends about why they don’t want to be a part of the church. Kayleena grew up in a Christian home, within the Brethren in Christ. Through various situations and life circumstances—making some wrong choices, then being condemned and hurt by the church), she has veered away from the church. She is slowly trying to find her way back, but it’s hard. She and her friends don’t feel a need to go to church, when they can talk about spiritual things and have a relationship with God anywhere they are.
Another niece, Brianna, is 21 years old and is Kayleena’s sister. Brianna, of course, was brought up in the same household as Kayleena and they have both chosen different paths. Brianna goes to church, but she struggles with some of the same feelings that Kayleena has. Brianna is trying to determine why she wants to go to church—for herself or just because that’s how she was brought up and what her parents would expect. I was surprised to learn from Brianna that she doesn’t think she knows a lot of Bible stories or Bible characters—basic Bible information. She said she wasn’t taught the stories like my generation was. What happened to the days of flannel graph and sharing Bible stories? What’s the new flannel graph? Where’s the emphasis on memorizing Scripture?
Ironically, I even struggle with recognizing the importance of church attendance. I shared this and some of my personal experiences with Devin before I agreed to be a part of this panel because I didn’t want to be misrepresenting anything. I can resonate with many of feelings and experiences of Kayleena, Brianna, and many other young adults. I think this is one of the reasons I connect so well with millennials and other young people. Anyone who knows me, knows that “what you see is what you get.” I am open and honest and always willing to put it all out there; being real and authentic is something that’s important to me.
I was brought up in a Christian home, and our family was always very involved in church. I’m also a cradle-BIC-er (born into the Brethren in Christ Church). As a teen, I was often frustrated with my parents because any time there was church, we were there. Of course, as I got older and really took ownership of my faith, there was a time that I definitely appreciated attending church. One of the best (and hardest) experiences of my church/faith journey was when I was part of a church plant, The Table, for 10 years. At The Table, we didn’t do church in the “traditional” way. It truly felt like family. I experienced church like I never had before. Everyone was connected and supported one another. One of our goals was to be real and relevant with everyone. After 10 years, The Table closed. I was part of the church board for that decision, and, although it was the right decision, it was still a very difficult one. Honestly, church hasn’t been the same for me since.
I often feel like people don’t really want to be connected. After leaving The Table, and trying to find another church, for the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to try to “get in.” People have good intentions, but I’ve had quite a few experiences where I felt like it was very fake. People don’t have time (or make the time) to welcome others into their circles. People are set in tradition and in their comfort zones. It’s hard to break in, and it’s tiresome to keep trying, week after week.
Given these stories, here’s a take-away from a conference I attended on how to reach millennials. This generation is the “EPIC Generation”: Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connected:
E – Experiential – They don’t want a lecture from the stage, but an experience
P – Participatory – They want to participate in the outcomes of where a message goes
I – Image-rich – They grew up with visual images and prefer them over facts and figures
C – Connected – They are connected socially and technologically with people.
As I said in the beginning, my heart breaks for this generation. If we are serious about transforming the world, we have to be serious about investing in this next generation.
Author: Vicky Landis
Vicky Landis is mobilization administrator for Brethren in Christ World Missions. She and her husband attend the Lancaster (PA) Brethren in Christ Church.
Author: Timothy Fisher
Tim Fisher is pastor of the Walkersville (MD) Community Church where he has served for over 20 years. In addition, he serves as a character coach for the local high school varsity football team. Tim received his M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from Evangelical Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a Ph.D. from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary.
Author: Justin Douglas
Justin Douglas is senior pastor of The Bridge, a Brethren in Christ congregation in Hummelstown, PA.
Author: Erika Grace
Erika Grace lives in Philadelphia and serves on the pastoral/leadership team at Story Philly, a Brethren in Christ church plant, where she overseas the youth ministry. She is mother to a six-year-old daughter, works as a nanny, and is a student studying nutrition and dietetics.