What Story Are You Telling?: Missional Young Adult Ministry (Super Serial Post #6)

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I am nervous about writing this post. I’m nervous because it seems that every child of God with a blog has written a post about young adults and the church.

In full disclosure, I’ve written a few (like this one).

Young Adults are having a moment. Every corporation and organization wants to understand Millennials so that they will buy their products. The church is not immune. Pastors in all denominations and branches of Western Christianity are scratching their heads and wondering where the young adults are.

I just love stock photography.

I just love stock photography.

Folks are looking to blog posts, books, other popular pastors, and anyone else who may help them tap into the young adult fountain.

This blog post is part of a series on missional Christianity, so the question here is slightly different than some of the other blog posts out there. My primary concern is not how to get young adults to go to church or even how to make our churches more attractive to young adults.

This line of thinking represents a model of church that the missional understanding rejects. The goal is not to attract young people to sit in the pews, the goal is to reach out and bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to young adults where they are.

Instead of providing the five easy steps to attracting young adults, I will give you two questions to ask when thinking about young adult ministry in your church or community.

The first question is why do you want to reach out to young adults? What is the goal? Are you hoping that young adults will breathe new life into your congregation? Do you think young adults will make your parish a little more hip? Do you think that young adults lead to young families which leads to church growth?

Everyone has a motive. To be clear, the motives listed above are not inherently bad, but it is important to understand what you want from the young adults you are seeking to reach. Young adults have energy and passion, yes. Young adults are often slightly ‘cooler’ than other generations (myself excluded). Young adults often start families and invite friends to church.

These things are true and they shouldn’t be the reason for reaching out to young adults.

The primary reason for reaching out to young adults (and everyone else) is the Great Commission – the fact that Jesus told us to tell the world that we have something they need.

This brings me to the second question to ask when trying to reach out to young adults. What story are you telling?

Young adults have grown up in a world in which they are constantly being sold things. From phone screens to televisions to billboards to every space in between, young adults are used to weeding through advertising to find the content they connect with.

Advertisers know that they need to tell a story through their marketing. The general story is that there is a problem (whether real or made up) and their product will solve that problem. If you tell the story of the problem well enough, you won’t need to work hard to sell your solution.

Christianity has the proto-story. We have the greatest solution to the world’s deepest problem. That is our story. And yet, many churches are telling a different story and it shows.

One common story that I see churches telling is that we don’t have enough members and we want more, no matter what it takes.

Another story I see churches telling is that there are social problems in the world and the church is an organization that fixes social problems.

Your church is telling a story, that is not a question. The question is whether or not you are being intentional about the story you are telling.

Young adults can tell when they are being sold of a bill of goods or a faulty solution. Too often, church leaders guess the story that young adults want to hear and respond accordingly.

Church leaders think, “Young adults love to hang out in bars. They must love to talk about theology in a bar.” Or they think, “When I was a young adult, I loved acoustic guitars in worship. We need a contemporary service to attract young adults.”

I am not bashing these two examples. I know many young adults who love theology on tap and contemporary services. The trouble arises when church leaders think that either of these outreach methods (or anything else) is the magic bullet that will have young adults flocking.

Young adults do not have a “Spidey-sense” for guitar music and pastors in blue jeans.

Someone is singing "Sanctuary"... I can feel it.

Someone is singing “Sanctuary”… I can feel it.

The magic bullet is not a program or event, the magic bullet is to figure out what story your congregation is telling and tell it well.

As I said in my last post about youth ministry, the greatest thing that the church has to offer the world is meaning through Jesus Christ and meaning is something that transcends all settings, events, and outreach methods.

I think the urge to hold bible studies in bars or to adapt worship music to more popular modes of musical expression is a good one. It is the first step in the missional journey, but we can’t stop there.

A priest walks into a bar...

A priest walks into a bar…

We can’t stop once the young adult is at the bar bible study because once that young adult leaves the bar and comes to your church the story changes. Often, things don’t match up. The story you are telling about your church at the bar on Wednesday night doesn’t match the church they see on Sunday morning.

Authenticity is so important when reaching out to young adults. Don’t tell a story that isn’t true just so young adults will come to your church. Don’t give them window dressing.

The best way to reach out to young adults is to let your community of faith do what it does best. Don’t try to be a social club or a charity or a concert venue, but simply be the church that you are.

You don’t have to change or add new programs to attract young adults. You must simply live your life on purpose and be fully engaged in the mission of God.

You will need to change if your mission isn’t clear and your story is muddled.

You will need to change if your doors only open in. 

Alan Hirsch and Darryn Altclass say, “Remissionalizing [a church is] about gearing the whole community around natural discipling friendships, worship as lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life.”

Reaching out to young adults in a missional way means getting to know the young folks that work in your office or that hang around the coffee shop where you do your work. It means listening to the young adults that already attend your church to find out what story they are telling.

It means living out your faith in a way that points to Christ

It means that we must stop guessing what young adults want and go out into our community to find out what they really need.

It means learning our own story so that we can tell it to those around us.

It doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or coming up with a new story all together.

Michael Frost sums it up by saying, “When we have no impressive buildings and no swollen budgets to sustain our work, often only then do we realize that the best we have to offer this post-Christendom world is the quality of our relationships, the power of our trustworthiness, and the wonder of our generosity.”

Transformative young adult ministry takes time. It takes the long, hard work of building authentic relationships. It takes effort to learn how to best articulate our story. It takes prayer and study. It takes risk.

The Christian story is the most captivating and transformative story in history. For two-thousand years, people who have lived their lives from within the Christian story have done miraculous things and changed the world.

We need to put the spark back in the story that we are telling. 

I’ll leave you with another quote, this one from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that describes the reframing that must happen for the church to reach out and impact the lives of young adults (and everyone else as well).

Please note, there is so much more to be said about missional young adult ministry. You can rest assured that you will hear more from me about this topic as I begin my work with the people of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in the next months.

For now, I leave you with these words, “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; rather teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.” 

What Are We Doing Here?: Missional Youth Ministry (Super Serial Post #5)

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We’ve established what it means to be missional. Now the time has come to drill down even further and focus on two areas that are close to my heart: youth and young adult ministry. This post will focus on understanding missional youth ministry, while the next post will wade into the murky waters of blog posts about young adult ministry.

The first thing that we need to decide is the purpose of youth ministry. Youth ministry emerged shortly after the idea of adolescence and the teenage years became a cultural norm around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, you were a child or you were an adult.

With the standardization of schooling and the protection of children from unfair labor practices, a new category emerged. Suddenly there was this group of young people: not children and not yet adults, with free time and closely drawn social circles.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, when churches sought to offer an alternative to the “secular youth culture” that was seen as a corrupting force in the world. Churches created equally attractive events and groups that would draw youth away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and towards Christ.

Quick, get inside before the culture gets on you.

Quick, get inside before the secular culture gets on you.

The goal was to convince the youth that Jesus is their friend.

This model continued, fairly unchecked, for decades.

Growing up in southern Alabama, I remember the evangelical youth group members passing out flyers at school for events that featured free tacos, free video games, moon bounces, and any other gimmick that would draw our attention.

Moonbounce...for Jesus?

Moonbounce…for Jesus?

I would often ask, “What are we doing here?”, as I played Nintendo, ate tacos, and talked to the cute Baptist girls.

The youth group I attended at the local Episcopal Church never offered video games or nights centered around free tacos. There were never flyers to hand out or gimmicks advertised.

Instead, 15-20 of my closest friends gathered together once a week for an hour. We played a goofy game, discussed the Bible and Christ’s love, and grew in community. We would also do a lot of community service.

I remember thinking, “What are we doing here?” as we picked up trash along the beach or painted the walls of the local thrift store.

These two examples show the two most prominent forms of youth ministry that I have seen.

The first focuses on numbers. The goal is to bring as many youth as possible in the door. What happens once they are inside the doors can change week-to-week, as long as a lot of youth are present. The thinking is that the more youth you bring, the more youth you can bring to Christ, and the bigger impact you can have.

The second model focuses on community. The goal is to have a close-knit group of youth, with little focus given to the size of the group. This is the predominant model in the Episcopal Churches that I have seen. The group gathers at the church, plays some games, eats dinner (usually spaghetti or pizza), and does some sort of activity.

These models are not inherently wrong.

They have worked for many years and reached many people. I was formed by my Episcopal youth group and youth minister as a middle school and high school student.

The problem is that they are both built on the attractional model of church. Programs (or tacos) bring the youth into the church building where they are entertained for an hour once a week.

If the goal of our youth ministry is entertainment, it is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are coming. If we are trying to entertain we will have to compete with social media, video games, Netflix, and the myriad of other extracurricular activities that are vying for our youth’s time.

We have lost sight of the primary reason for gathering a youth group and why youth group is important. Until we recover and articulate our purpose and importance of youth group, the other extracurricular activities will always win out. Parents can clearly explain why a young person needs to participate in their soccer team or band, but can they as clearly articulate why it is important to go to youth group?

Can we clearly articulate why youth group is important? Do we even believe that youth group is important?

In the book As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students, Kenda Creasy Dean says, “We are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe. Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people primarly focused on ‘folks like us’….”(pg. 59).

We have lost sight of the true purpose of the church and, therefore, we have lost sight of the true goal of youth ministry.

Before I go any further I should note that I am not anti-fun. I don’t think that youth group should be a lecture or another church service. That being said, if the only reason the youth gather together at church is to play games and eat pizza, why are they at church?

What makes the church different is that it is first and foremost about the mission of God, who is reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.

Youth group is so much more than a refuge from the secular world or a social club. Youth group can be a place where youth are taught the Christian story and spiritually fed so that they can go out into the world and preach the Gospel with their lives and with their words.

Another trend over the past decades is the postponing of perceived maturation in the church. People automatically assume that the youth group can’t understand weighty theological topics or can’t assume leadership positions in the church. Or even worse, many adult leaders assume youth are apathetic and don’t care about the church.

There are many churches and Dioceses that are exceptions to this trend. Many places treat youth with the respect they deserve and include youth voices in the life of the community.

However, there are also many churches that see the youth group as babysitting and the youth as wild animals that would flip over cars if left unattended.

Missional youth ministry’s first goal is not entertainment. It is also not babysitting by another name.

Missional youth ministry is about raising up youth to lead in their congregations and communities. It is about equipping youth so that they can go out into the world with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is about getting to know the youth in the community and their actual (not perceived or assumed) needs.

It is less about one youth minister or youth worker serving as the Pied Piper of the youth and more about a group of adults investing in the lives of the youth of their faith community.

It is less about one big youth event that attracts a large number of youth and more about a small number of youth sent out to encounter and influence their world.

Paul talks about the difference between spiritual milk and spiritual meat (1 Corinthians 3). We give our youth spiritual milk from birth until they go off to college and wonder why many of them don’t come back.

What we need is a reframing of our understanding of youth ministry.

Less entertainment, more equipping. 

Less babysitters, more mentors. 

Less gimmicks, more Gospel. 

Youth can handle more than the baby food we have been serving them. The youth that I have encountered are hungry for the Gospel to be preached and are ready for the responsibility that we often withhold.

They are used to being told what they cannot do (or should not do) by all the adults in their lives.

What they are not used to hearing is what they can do or what they have been called to do by God.

What is the answer? What are the five steps to an effective, missional youth ministry?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do any of this. It takes the long, hard work of relationship. Each church’s youth have different needs. Each ministry context has unique challenges.

One thing is clear – it is time to put some meat on the bones of youth ministry. Many, many churches and youth leaders are doing amazing things. Many people have given their whole lives to the service of the youth of the church.

There are so many amazing youth workers that live out their calling working tirelessly behind the scenes, building lasting relationships and effective ministries.

It’s time for the rest of the church to wake up and give youth the respect they want and deserve.

When youth ask “What are we doing here?”, we should be prepared to give them more than pizza and a moonbounce or even fellowship and community service.

The church has something to offer youth and it is something they are desperately looking for. The church has Jesus Christ and through Christ, we have real meaning. We have the answer to the meta-question, “What are we doing here?”

A missional youth group is a place where youth figure out their God-given gifts, experience what it is like to live in community, and learn the story of redemption through Christ.

A missional youth group is a place where youth learn that they matter and they have meaning. It is a place where they are affirmed. It is a place where they learn what it means to be a Christian. It is a place where they find their calling.

“What are we doing here?” 

I’m not sure, but come to youth group this week and we’ll figure it out together. 

Stay tuned for next week’s post all about missional young adult ministry.

Don’t Call It A Comeback: What Missional Anglicanism Has To Offer (Super Serial Post #4)

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Happy Easter and welcome back to everyone following along on this serial blog journey. The goal of this series is to understand what we talk about when we talk about being missional. I’ve established that it is not just another church growth slogan. I’ve established that it is not just about bringing in more church members. I’ve given some backbone to the term using the work of Lesslie Newbigin.

Now, I am drilling down deeper and becoming more specific to my own denomination/tradition: The Episcopal Church.

My hope is that by the end of today’s post, you will see that the missional conversation is nothing new to the Episcopal Church or broader Anglican tradition. We may have lost our way on the missional journey, but it is nothing new to us.

Or as the great Church historian, LL Cool J, said, “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”

The man, the myth, the kangol

The man, the myth, the kangol hat

My source for most of the information in this post is the great work of Dwight Zscheile, whose books People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity and The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age serve as an unofficial playbook for many churches that are exploring the missional landscape.

The missional conversation seems foreign to many Episcopalians because it is fundamentally anti-“Establishment church” and the Episcopal Church has been, in the eyes of many, the quintessential “Establishment church” for two centuries. In The People of the Way, Zscheile comments that the Episcopal Church began as the Established church in the colonies and then shifted to be the church of the Establishment. “The Anglican Church in America…remained favored by many of its socioeconomic elite. As long as the Episcopal Church tended to uphold the status quo of a stratified economic system and a rationalistic faith, it failed to attract and retain wider swaths of the American populace”(pg. 22).

This establishment mindset stayed with the Episcopal Church throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. A great example of this mindset can be seen in the decision to build The Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C.. This mindset can also be seen in the missionary style of the Episcopal Church, where any effort was primarily focused on outreach, social ministry, and education, with little emphasis given to evangelism. Dwight Zscheile says, “…the predominant establishmentarian ethos fostered approaches to mission in which confessing the faith was implicit rather than explicit” (pg. 25).

Only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral "The National Cathedral"

Zscheile says, only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral “The National Cathedral”

Now that establishment Christianity is fading away and a new reality is emerging in the United States, we are learning that this focus on implicit mission largely failed. The idea that Christian education and evangelism would somehow work via osmosis now seems obviously misguided.

There are now generations of people who grew up going to church every Sunday, but do not know or understand the Christian story. There are also many people who attend church regularly, but could not clearly articulate why they attend or why their faith is important to them. In many mainline churches, there has been a massive failure in giving people the language to share their faith and the Christian story in favor of the “implicit” model of evangelism.

In previous posts I have written about the “attractional” model of church, which involves a bricks-and-mortar building filled with religious goods and services for those who come to the building. This is a fundamentally establishment mindset that has been the modus operandi for most Episcopal churches. Therefore, it might be hard for Episcopalians to break out of the attractional mindset. For many of us, our faith is tied to physical places: the church we grew up in, the church we were confirmed in, the church our grandparents attended, etc. I am not immune from this type of thinking.

Fear not! Being missional does not mean tearing down churches, it simply means changing our focus. In the missional mindset, churches move from the focus of all activity to an outpost or hub for mission work. Church becomes a place to be refueled and renewed to go back into the world, rather than a place of refuge and escape from the world.

The Episcopal Church is at an important crossroads. We can chose to remain the way we are and seek to bring more people into our established churches. This seems logical and safe, but I am afraid that it will lead to the shrinking and closing of many more churches. The Episcopal Church is currently organized to stay in this model and could do so easily. We could easily reorganize our internal governing bodies to be more efficient, while we paint our doors a brighter shade of red and continue to wonder why people aren’t showing up.

The second path will be much harder and much less clear. It will mean going back to our foundation and building completely new structures and processes. It will mean choosing to close some churches so that we are not forced to close all of our churches. It will mean leaving our offices and parish halls to go out into the community. It will require some grieving as things pass away so that new things can come into being. It will mean welcoming new and different people that might make us nervous. It will mean being uncomfortable and uncertain. It will mean the slow work of relationship and community building instead of the quick work of church growth strategies.

The second path will mean returning to our Anglican roots and being missional. Dwight Zscheile says that the Anglicanism has many gifts to offer this time and place. “Far too many times, I have heard Episcopalians describe themselves by what they are not – not fundamentalist, not Roman Catholic, etc. Now is the time to claim what we do have to offer” (pg. 100).

The first gift missional Anglicanism has to offer is cultural translation. “Anglicanism…engages, reflects, and adapts to the particular cultural and social settings in which it finds itself….[It] has a great degree of freedom to change dynamically as the context changes” (pg. 100). This explains why Anglicanism has exploded in various contexts around the world. This ability to shift and change is woven into Anglicanism’s DNA.

“…[O]ur liturgies and common life must continue to be adapted and translated as the languages and cultures in our nation change….[This] also applies to younger generations and newcomers who need expressions of Episcopal worship and life that resonate with their native ways of speaking and being together” (pg.101).

The Incarnation is God’s own cultural translation and it shows that adapting to a given culture is not something to be feared. The Episcopalian aversion to change is almost as well-known as our liturgy, but that doesn’t mean that we have to live up to that reputation. The missional conversation is a logical fit for the Episcopal Church as the expression of Anglican tradition in 21st-century America.

The second gift of Anglicanism is liturgical worship in an image-based age. Cultural translation does not mean cultural conformity and being missional does not mean sacrificing tradition. The traditional liturgy of the Episcopal Church provides a welcome reprieve from the primarily image-based media of modern culture, but it does not swing so far in the other direction as some of the more heavily word-based denominations. Evangelical churches tend to master new media more quickly and more effectively than other denominations, but Anglicanism offers worship that is not primarily word-based. Instead, Anglican worship puts deep meaning to the images, symbols, and words. Zscheile says, “Worship in our churches tends to value multiple means of artistic expression – the drama of the liturgy, colorful vestments and church decorations, icons, paintings, candles, movement, music, the tangible experience of sharing in the bread and wine, even incense” (pg. 103).

Many evangelicals are moving to liturgical expressions of Christianity, especially the Episcopal Church. This is due, in part, to the holistic approach to worship (involving the whole body and the whole of human experience) and also because of the rich tradition that undergirds the liturgy. That being said, there must be a balance between celebrating the best of our tradition and falling into traditionalism. This dangerous traditionalism is clear in the “…churches resist adapting and opening up the riches of their traditions to new generations and populations as a way of reacting to cultural changes they cannot control” (pg. 103).

The third gift of missional Anglicanism is theological breadth and diversity. “The historic Anglican tolerance for complexity and ambiguity is a gift in a postmodern world, where paradox, ambiguity, and mystery are valued, not explained away” (pg. 104). In the last century, as progress in society made unclear many of those things that were once thought to be absolute, many branches of Christianity ran in the opposite direction towards unshakable (and unattainable) certainty. This is most evident in the rise of fundamentalism, but it can also be seen in more recent events in many denominations. Historic denominations, including the Episcopal Church, that once celebrated their “big tent” have been bitterly divided by the desire of some to have a firm grasp on the truth.

More and more, people are desperate for black and white answers in an incredibly diverse, multicolored world. This is why megachurches with celebrity pastors grow so quickly. In a time when so many voices are making so many truth claims, to have one charismatic person stand on stage and declare absolutes is very attractive to many people.

Anglicanism has rarely offered celebrity pastors with all the answers. What we do offer is a “framework of the historic creeds, the Prayer Book, and an ordered ministry” all seen through the lens of Scripture and our own experience. The focus of most Episcopal Churches is the altar, not the pulpit, because we primarily seek Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist and not only in the definite words of the preacher.

Admittedly, this freedom has led to disintegration of Christian identity in some individuals and churches, but it more commonly leads to a beautiful diversity and richness of Christian expression.

These are just three of the ways that the Episcopal Church has the necessary roots to sustain new growth as a missional church. Anglicanism is open to new cultural expressions and a diversity of theology while remaining within the embrace of tradition. So as we go out into the world and join in God’s mission, we can rest knowing that this is nothing new to us as Anglicans and it is definitely nothing new to Christianity.



For more on this topic, read Zscheile’s two books mentioned above. Also, check out the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.


Stay tuned for the next two posts. I will go more in depth and talk about missional youth and young adult ministry in the Episcopal Church.