Last week, Barna came out with some new research looking at some trends to consider in 2014. Their article opened with a broad discussion of organizational dysfunctional and the resulting decline in trust given to organizations/institutions. As the article said, this is nothing new, institutional distrust has been brewing for decades (long before we were forced to take off our shoes and turn over our coffee cups at TSA screenings). But the most revealing part was the perception of the institutional church and its decline in trust, particularly among Millennials. Thom Rainer highlighted one aspect of this in a recent blog, where he gave 11 reasons why pastors are less trusted, based on some recent findings from Pew Research. If I could be a reductionist, the essence of the argument is this: we’ve blown it.
Barna’s infograph is displayed below, and I would like to emphasize that the differences in institutional trust is largely generational. Here’s what I mean by that: when you were born affects your trust in institutions. The lone caveat to this is Congress. No one trusts them, except a small portion of Millennials.
When we see that fewer young adults are trusting of the institutional church, we are left with three options how to respond – do nothing, panic, or adapt. Most churches opt for the first two. They continue spinning an endless cycle of programs, pursue dated techniques, and maintain a status quo culture that is resistant to the changes around them. I think of this as the Mayberry Syndrome, where we want to create an idyllic relic of the past that really never existed that frowns on the adaptations around them. Instead of creating a Mayberry version of Shangri-La, it becomes a castle that seeks to repel whatever would disrupt life in the castle. Or they respond by going into full-blown panic mode and assume that the way to reach young adults is to use a PowerPoint projector, sing “praise choruses,” and wring their hands about what to do. But at the end of the day, there isn’t a core change. It’s surface change, superficial – similar to treating a broken leg with Tylenol.
What is needed is not a makeover, but a reformation. A makeover doesn’t deal with the real core issues, the center of what’s going on, it changes clothes, shaves, and gets a new haircut. A reformation seeks to take what is there and remake it into something glorious. This ethos is expressed by the phrase: Ecclessia semper reformanda, or “the church always reforming.” This isn’t anything groundbreaking, we do this everyday. Take out your cell phone. If you have an iPhone, you would have the computing power of all of NASA in 1969 when we put a man on the moon. Now we use it to throw birds into walls. Or consider your car, do you have heated seats and cruise control, or do you still have a Model T in the array of colors it came in: black? We do this in every aspect of our lives – we adapt to the circumstances around us in order to be more productive, more effective, and to respond to the changes around us.
Here are 5 ways I believe churches can apply the lessons from Barna’s research:
Leaders need to be transparent – The news is rife with Christians who are caught in hypocrisy, whose private sin is made public before a mocking world. We need leaders who are willing to be transparent, to put aside the facade of “everything’s fine” and be honest with their still-pursuing holiness.
Leaders need a compelling vision – Where are we going? How will we get there? What are we doing? These are questions leaders need to ask of every aspect of the church. Every part needs to be going in the same direction, with the same goals, and the same accountability. I believe firmly that if a church is to engage and equip Millennials, it needs to present a compelling vision that calls on people to be part of something greater than themselves.
Don’t assume – We can’t assume that just because we’ve been around or that a church used to have young adults that they will continue to do so. Assuming removes being proactive from leadership. It isn’t based on data, trends, and facts – assuming is the product of the imagination, whether good or bad. Track your metrics, find the vital signs, keep an eye on the pulse of your church. Poll young adults to find out who they are, what they want, and where they are spiritually.
Speak their language – Many times in church we use a language that for Millennials sounds like we’re speaking the color purple. For every previous generation, the language of Christianity was more known among the culture, even the non-churched. But with Millennials, everything changed. Most Millennials have grown up outside the influence of a Christian ethic & worldview. More Millennials identify themselves as non-religious, agnostic, or secular than any other generation. So we must learn how to take our “Christianese” and translate it – not very much different than what a missionary does among an unengaged people group.
Pray – No matter how hard a church tries, what programs or emphases she launches, or any other factor, prayer is the most important piece for reaching, engaging, and equipping people. Are you marked by consistent prayer for those who do not know Jesus? Is your church focused on praying for them and seeking God’s face for Him to break your hearts for what breaks His, or are you only focused on the sick list? If we are marked by prayer, God will change us and He’ll use us to change the world.