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As church leaders, part of our job involves staying aware of cultural shifts. I’m not talking about trends—this cool thing, that new thing, those ideas gathered from a leadership podcast, conference or mega-church we’ve visited. I mean the changes in people, in our community and in culture as a whole.
I came across a post on unseminary.com* that draws attention to eight areas of culture change. Author Rich Birch does not push his personal opinion; in fact, he poses several questions behind each cultural shift and challenges readers to think about whether they are addressing these issues, in and around their churches. Three of those areas particularly caught my attention:
Birch notes that with people living longer, “pastors [who are] now in their 60s . . . might very well be serving well into their 70s.”
When interviewing for my current position (student ministries director at Valley Church in West Des Moines, Iowa), I asked, “Why is a second member of the teaching team important?”
I was encouraged by the answer. Not only were church leaders looking for a solid communicator and some flexibility for their lead pastor, but they were also looking for a younger voice. My lead pastor told me, “The bulk of a congregation is typically 10 years on each side of the preacher’s age.”
That means, if you are 40, the bulk of your sweet spot will be 30-50. So who will help you attract (and communicate with) those under 30? With those over 50?
A simple search for churches on the web or in the Apple iTunes podcast store reveals that many lead pastors are making space for others on their teaching team to “get a shot.” While I am not being groomed to take over the church where I am serving, this is one way to pass the torch and create a seamless transition. Thinking about the future and replacing leaders should be a consideration in all areas of our church: children’s ministry, youth ministry, small groups, etc.
According to Birch, “The fastest growing religious group in our culture [comprises] people who identify their religious affiliation as ‘none.’”
No surprise here. With more than 20 years of experience in youth ministry, I have witnessed a generation of young people growing numb to a faith that is not authentically lived out by their parents and is insignificant to their peers.
With this being our new reality, do those we are leading know how to articulate the gospel to the nones—to those who call themselves religious or spiritual but aren’t interested in the local church? As a youth worker, I wrestle with the weight of that all the time. The students in my ministry who have the best interaction with the nones in their own lives are those who understand the gospel’s balance of 100-percent truth and 100-percent grace.
In his blog post, Birch says we need to learn from others. In particular, he believes we should be looking to Canada and to European countries that are further down the de-churched road, to see how they are reaching that demographic.
I don’t have the answers, but I am trying to learn. I recently picked up two books recommended for articulating the decline of Christianity in America: Jesus Centered Youth Ministry, by Rick Lawrence; and Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, By Thom and Joani Schultz.
I’m also asking, “How can I help people understand who Jesus is, and how can I help people attach themselves to Him?” For too many American Christians, Christianity is just one of the countless things they do; it’s not who they are. I am in the business of helping people see the one true, authentic Jesus—the Jesus of Matthew 21:12 as well as John 11:35.
Access to the Internet, plus a higher level of education among church members than ever before, means that sermon preparation can no longer rely on “three points and [a] joke,” Birch says.
Here’s where I have some disagreement with the author. True, there isn’t a perfect sermon formula and I am an advocate for teaching smart messages. But I am less concerned with being intellectually deep than I am teaching a message where people connect with God.
Great sermons are not based on my jokes or my depth. Great sermons happen when I step out of the way for God’s presence and power to show up. (No, I do not have a formula for that either.) I believe that if preaching were less about the preacher and more about the preparation (time with God, your heart, study, prayer, practice, rest, inviting the Holy Spirit), we might see more of the nones—as well as the intellectuals, and the average Janes and Joes—connecting with the church.
It’s worth exploring unseminary.com for five other areas having an impact on our churches: diversity, marriage trends, delayed parenting, political divisions and geographic distance.
Let’s keep our eyes on our culture and always be willing to explore how we might help those around us see the true, authentic Jesus.
*a blog devoted to “stuff you wish they taught in seminary”