Strolling Through Gordon MacDonald’s “Who Stole My Church?”, Part 9: Chapters 6 and 7

Reminder: I’ve been working through this book with my old college roommate, Hollywood. His church is going through it, and I thought it’d be fun to go through this book about a fictitious New England church realizing that they’re “aging” and struggling through the aspects of what that is and what it looks like so it doesn’t die. Anyway, these are the thoughts this book provokes as I go through it…and it won’t hurt for you to read the earlier entries on this.

I’ve said before that I grew up in church youth ministry’s “golden age.” It was when churches got serious about making the commitment to professional youth ministers and budgets big enough to do things like lock-ins and Super Bowl (er, um, I mean, Championship Game) parties and rallies at high school stadiums with famous athletes for speakers. We didn’t hurt for what amounted to positive entertainment with a Christian twist.

We went to these “outreach” events that went something like this: Go to the lock-in. Play games like Blind Volleyball (put a sheet over the net where you can’t see what’s on the other side and use a beach ball) or War Ball (dodge ball on steroids, with jails and freedom shots), use free time to shoot hoops or play ping pong or foosball or pool, eat all the pizza you could stand, watch a G-rated Disney movie, and about midnight a speaker would come out and give some sermon designed to talk about when he came to Christ. He would. Then a band would sing and we’d all have the chance to walk down an aisle and pray with a staffer to “receive Christ.”

At the Super Bowl (er, um, Championship Game) party they’d turn the game off at half-time and there’d be a mini-sermon with the same chance to walk an aisle and pray with a staffer to “receive Christ.”

Same for the stadium rally. A retired N.F.L. kicker would be the draw and he’d talk about what his life used to be and what it is now, and then the pastor from the area Big Huge Baptist Church would give a sermon and there’d be a chance to walk an aisle and “receive Christ.” Sometimes, it wasn’t the N.F.L. kicker but rather a big-name Christian holding the conference at a basketball arena but it always ended with walking an aisle.

One time, on a beach during a college fraternity free-for-all weekend (called, oddly, “House Party” in which all fraternities and sororities invaded all the hotels on a mile long strip of Fort Walton Beach, Florida–society was a lot less litigious back then) this random stranger came up to me and asked me if I died tonight if I knew where I’d go. I told him yes, and he was able to put his little “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet back in his backpack.

When I started working with Youth for Christ, they taught us how to draw a slightly modified version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet on a napkin. They felt that was more “personal” when dealing with teenagers. It was called “Your Most Important Relationship.” There were boxes full of these booklets in our office, but we weren’t supposed to use them in one-on-one situations…so I had them in my glove compartment. Not sure why.

It seems funny to me now because my guess is that my generation wasn’t all that thoughtful when it came to making one of the biggest life-changing decisions a person can make. I mean, we were willing to go to a high school football stadium, watch a funny slide show, hear a kicker talk for 15 minutes, hear a pastor talk about Jesus (well, at least *around* Jesus–usually loaded with how our poor choices highlighted our need to be cleansed of sin, so 38 minutes of a discussion of all the kinds of sins we did with 2 minutes about what Jesus did to fix all that seems about right) and in the span of an hour make a decision that would profoundly affect life as we knew it.

In this day and age, it seems even more peculiar that others designed programs to get us to do that very thing. And put a lot of money and resources towards it. At the time it seemed so “effective” and “normal.”

I won’t bore you with the variations and mutations and evolution that youth ministry has gone through in the last 20 years. Suffice to say my own student ministry, as recently as 5 years ago, made a significant commitment to the development of a coffee shop in the basement of our church. We procured a used Starbucks machine, hired a staff person to manage it, had hourly-wage baristas, our own menu, our own roaster, cut a hole in the side of the building and built and outside porch. It was designed for hanging out and drinking coffee.

Sure, we had a few special nights designed to get teens coming in. We had Derek Webb play there one night (which might’ve been the best night Roads Coffee House ever had), held weekly viewings of The Bachelor’s first season (the finale night had a ton of folks there), various movie nights, and my favorite, “Poetry Burn” night–kids would read or show bad art, or love notes from old boyfriends, or journal entries from middle school–all light-hearted/mildly embarrassing stuff–and then burn it in the “fire of redemption.”

Why all this?

To build relationships with teens. Communication of the Gospel message no longer could be done by a simple booklet that narrowed down the greatest moment in human history to 4 bullet points or drawn on a napkin that showed two sides of a canyon with a cross as a bridge or getting a bunch of teary-eyed guilt-laden teenagers to walk down an aisle. It had to happen in a relational context…and this place gave us a venue to get to know teens.

Know their stories.

Let them hear ours.

To let them know we really liked/loved them. That we really cared about them.

Then, once that relationship was established, you could talk about Christ in a very personal way. In a way that means something specific to their life and situation. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Now, don’t get me wrong, kids. Billy Graham rocks. Stadium ministry had a time and place in our culture (roughly 1945 to 1995–not a bad 50 year run, eh?) as did Super Bowl (er, um, Championship Game) parties with a speaker, and lock-ins and basketball arenas. I mean, lots of spiritual growth started that way for a lot of people that’s still bearing fruit.

But now even our coffee shop is closed. See, we were in process of figuring out how to move that very coffee shop across the street to the shiny new shopping village because we figured out that kids were no longer coming because, well, every church was having a coffee shop and they were beginning to feel like people were using that as a method and not really caring about THEM as much as about making sure THEY heard about Jesus. It became it’s own program.

In the simplest terms: The teens were beginning to feel like little bitty evangelistic targets. So, they shied away from it.

So, we started to design a way to have a coffee shop as a business. This was in conjunction with an overhaul of our student ministry that my unbearably talented staff designed and we were beginning to implement, but then…

…well, that’s a long, tired, well-worn story that’s been hashed out over the last few years.

Anyway, I tell you all that because chapter 6 is a dust-up of postmodernism, and would be an excellent read for somebody of an older generation who just wanted an overview of where this generation is and how they got here.

But the point is well-taken: Yesterday’s methods DO NOT work with the 18-35 age group, folks. And, as a reminder, “yesterday” can be about 5 or 10 years ago.

And here’s a couple of quotes that highlight the very thing, again using his fictional characters to do the talking:

(after hearing the 4-Spiritual Laws, someone of a previous generation might say) “That makes sense; I’ll give my life to Christ. And this could happen theoretically in the space of 15 minutes or in an evening, such as at a Billy Graham rally. I want you to think about that for a minute. We actually have thought you could get people to reconsider their entire life organization in the space of a few minutes and make a decision that would redirect their entire lives, to the end of time. Incredible as it seems, it worked for a period in history–particularly for our generation.”


“In my opinion, that’s (the lack of new converts in their church in the last few years) because we’ve been trying to convert people the old way, a way that doesn’t work any longer. People aren’t feeling guilty about their sins, and they’re not interested in hearing about forgiveness because they don’t feel the need to be forgiven.”

Now, this is where the next question in the reader’s brain should be, “Well, if that’s true, now what?”

And MacDonald gives the answer in chapter 7, using a response to fictional character Ernie:

“We’re in a new era where people want less of your carefully scripted evangelism sales presentation and more personal demonstrations of your genuineness, your authenticity. They want to see evidence that what you believe has legs–that it does something. They’re not impressed with suits and ties, with empty repeated ceremony repeated over and over, and with people who talk big but don’t deliver on their promises. Rather, they’re drawn to untrained voices in music, torn jeans, passionate emotions, and real stories. Fail there, and you lose them. Show your heart and you win them.”

And that’s the key.

We can’t be slick and polished anymore (one reason I’m convinced the age of the suburban megachurch has crested and beginning to decline).

We can’t be salesmen anymore. We shouldn’t rely on church-hopping for church-growth. Just because we’ve got a bigger/better deal going or a more personal/charismatic leader doesn’t mean we’re Spirit-led.

We can’t woo with fancy programs and movie-clip sermons and “music with excellence” because, well, they’re not impressed. And when/if we choose to do those things, we have to be careful to do that in the right spirit with the right understanding.

We have to design systems to listen to their story and tell our own. Which means we can’t throw money at it. We have to throw time at it. We have to treat the younger subculture as we would if we were going to another continent to minister…wouldn’t we study their culture/language/customs and take the Gospel to them in their context?

And we have to work at relationships.

And we have to choose to love.

Which is really the new apologetic, which is really the old apologetic, as I’ve said before on this blog for years.

And this isn’t safe or comfortable…right, patrons?