Redefining Belonging

Young people and technology are redefining church and how we belong.

<%image(20051230-youngpeople.jpg|184|260|youth)%> First of all the New York Times reports that young people attend multiple churches based on what they feel each has to offer.

“In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.”

They are not interested in being limited to one church’s programs. In some respects this seems to be a very positive trend. Teens recognize that they need guidance and a relevant message and they are not afraid to go beyond traditional boundary lines to acheive that end. The article reports:

“We see it all the time, everywhere,” said Jose Zayas, director of teenage evangelism for Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group based in Colorado Springs. “They gravitate to where they feel a connection. They’re more pragmatic than their parents’ generation. They look at what works for them. I think it’s healthy.”

Yet there are some really disturbing parts of the article. First all, I know that the anti-consumeristic blood hounds are waiting to pounce. Yes, this may very well be a case of teens looking out for their needs and gobbling up whatever they can lay their greedy paws on. This may be the case. But we all consume. It’s a necessity. I wonder if they give back in addition to consuming. Giving back keeps consumers from being chubs.

Actually, what disturbs me the most about this article are some of the quotes from the teens themselves. And the quotes reveal some of the incomplete doctrine they are being taught. The pastors and teachers who shovel this stuff to them should know better. They should also read Tony Jone’s excellent article on youth ministy in the book Stories of Emergence about being a pastor and not a promoter.

What caught my eye the most was one a teen’s comment,

“That was just the biggest thing for me: that you don’t have to be perfect, that God loves you not for what you do and for this body that we have only for a short time, but for your heart and soul and who you are inside,” Emily said of what she had heard.

That sounds sort of OK. Yes, we do not have to be perfect. But does this concept need a bit more fleshing out? We do not have to be perfect, but God also makes us perfect. Some guy named John mentioned that we can be sure we know Christ because we do not sin, but walk in the light. Her follow up comment reveals a gap in her understanding.

“Every time I went to church,” she continued, “I felt God loved me, that I don’t have to worry about sin because he forgives me. So I looked forward to going back. I don’t really understand all of it. But I have the passion to learn more.”

The phrase, “I don’t have to worry about sin,” really caught my attention. In one sense we don’t have to worry about our past sins, they are forgiven. But if we keep sinning, then we darn well better start worrying about sin.

Nevertheless, even if the teaching is not quite on target, I think the trend of young people taking greater responsibility for their spiritual growth is a good thing. My only hope is that in attending numerous large group gatherings they will not just hang on the fringes. Of course you can be on the fringe of one group just as well as two or three.

Read the whole article.

My second story is about the effectiveness of podcasts in drawing people into church.

Ipod news reports:

“Online sermons from the Bridge Chapel Christian church in Liverpool have led to a surge in worshippers attending in person, according to a report from the Daily Post.”

The young seem to be catching on to this in particular, “The sermons are playing a huge role in attracting people of all ages, especially youngsters who are searching for their spirituality,” Evans said. “People talk about church numbers falling, but those who are making efforts to connect with people through things like podcasting are experiencing rapid growth.”

I think this is an interesting trend that we should not read as a new hook to get people into church. Instead it’s another way of belonging to a community. People hear the podcast, feel connected, and are motivated to be a part of the larger group.

It’s a matter of direction for me. Are we always trying to set traps that will draw people in? Or are we moving outwards beyond our traditional boundaries to create more connection points? Can people be in a different place and still belong? I certainly hope so.

I hope that podcasts will be one of many new ways for people to belong. The more we reach out to people, the better for the Gospel.

2 thoughts on “Redefining Belonging

  1. nate hulfish

    As a youth pastor who is committed to Jones’ view of pastoring not promoting (by the way, I have your copy of "Stories of Emergence"), I find a number of students who do not attend our church but attend our youth ministry because they "like what they get from it." Most of these students attend churches and youth ministries elsewhere as well. It is difficult to minister to these students because they aren’t interested in deep relationship – they want the "social" (hanging out with friends), they want the "spiritual" (singing songs, praying, listening to me speak) – they don’t want anything personal (they want a "no questions asked" approach). As a result they don’t give back – they merely consume. It takes a toll on me. It takes a toll on our adult leaders. And ultimately, I believe it takes a toll on students who are looking for something more than "social spirituality" (hopefully this is a self-defining term).

    The students that do give back are the students willing to commit on a deep and personal level to each other and to the adults involved in our youth ministry. The difference is obvious.

    I guess both sets of students are a reality. The trick for me is balance.

    In regards to podcasting…

    I podcast my high school Wednesday night teaching time (every other week) for the purpose of providing teaching to students who weren’t able to make it out on that particular Wednesday night. The week following the teaching time, small groups meet to try begin fleshing out what was taught so I podcast for the purpose of trying to keep everyone up to speed and on the same page.

    I never thought about podcasting a means of drawing people in through our doors (I guess I’m not a good promoter). And so I suppose I use this tool as a means by which students who miss (for whatever reason) can feel connected to the larger group and hopefully return feeling connected instead of lost.

    In an interesting note…a former students who is now off in college told me last week that he’s been enjoying my podcast. "Oh," I responded, "you’ve been listening." "Yeah," he said, "and I pass it along to all of my friends who listen and love it as well." And thus the Gospel goes out to college students whom I will never meet…hopefully they feel as if they belong to the body of Christ as a result.

  2. Ed Post author

    Thanks Nate for your thoughts. It’s helpful to hear it from someone right in the middle of this situation. It seems that the mix and match form of religion can be more of a hindrance than a help. Way to go with the podcast.

    After posting this article I e-mailed JR Briggs, a pastor out in Colorado Springs who blogs at brokenstainedglass.typepad.com. I asked JR for his thoughts on this article, and here they are

    uncut

    uncensored

    I’m not sure that I am the right person to comment on the issue, seeing that I don’t work with teenagers, but twentysomethings (college students, career folks, soldiers, teachers, singles, young married couples with families, young professionals, etc.) I couldn’t think of working with jr and sr high school students.
    So, whatever I write, take it or leave it, because I certainly am not the expert on this issue of teens and Christianity.

    But, here goes…

    The article mostly highlights New Life church, a HUGE church here in town. Actually, it’s the biggest church in the state of Colorado, about ten miles north of our house. The pastor, Ted Haggard, has some influence, as he is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and is often interviewed on CNN, Larry King, and is on conference call with the president every Tuesday morning. I am not sure your theological background, but this is a very charasmatic church.

    The article references other churches, one being Woodmen Valley Chapel, another mega-church in town (though significantly smaller than New Life) which is where I am on staff (in addition to Stu Davis). In fact, you might want to get your old roommate’s perspective since he is one of the youth pastors on staff at Woodmen that references Hannah Wight talking about spiritual gifts…Stu taught that series.

    New Life does things big and excellent and with lots of passion, you could say. Doing things big and passionately and with excellence is good and at times bad.

    Good, in the sense, that it is appealing. Bad, in the sense, that we have to be careful that we aren’t becoming materialistic and all.

    The deeper issue is, of course, the culture of Colorado Springs. CS is an interesting place, a difficult place to do ministry. In my opinion, one of the most difficult places in the country. there is a polarization between Christians and those who don’t like christians. That’s why there are bumper stickers are cars around town that read, "Focus on your own damn family" (of course, a jab at the evangelical Focus on the Family ministry, which sits about two miles south of New Life).

    Everyone thinks that ministry is easy in the springs. I think its the opposite. In fact, most people don’t know that Colorado Springs is well below the national average of church attendance, compared to most cities per capita. In fact, we are WELL below the average.

    This city can make your soft in your faith if you are not careful.

    Which is why I think its a unique place to work as a pastor or at a church. I think at Pierced we tend to buck the local trend of ‘soft Christianity’ which is why people think we are ‘weird’ and counter cultural at Pierced…which I like that label because we are trying to get rid of the stigma of soft Christianity.

    Anyway, take it or leave it…you can use any or all of what I wrote on your blog.

    Take care –

    J.R.

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