How can we reach the younger generation?

We see it everywhere: Younger generations are leaving the church. As a 26-year-old Christian, I regularly witness this exodus and acutely feel its significance. These are my contemporaries, my friends. But here's the elephant in the room: What can we do?

The Barna Group came out last year with their findings on a multi-year study, "The Faith That Lasts Project," which surveyed 18-29 year olds who had been active in a Christian church as teenagers. Their findings were, well, depressing. Nearly three out of every five young Christians (59 percent) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age fifteen. An article by the Barna Group, as well as David Kinnaman's new book, You Lost Me, outline these findings, and the primary reasons why young people leave the church. These reasons include:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Teens' and 20somethings' experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Church attitudes toward sexuality are often simplistic and judgmental.
  5. Christianity seems exclusive, which they wrestle with.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

In the immortal words of The Who, they are "Talkin' 'bout my generation" (which is ironic because many of the people talking are the original generation to which The Who referred). But here is the million dollar question: Who is talking to my generation? Or better yet, who is listening to my generation?

As I look at these reasons for why young people leave the church, I see a pattern: most churches are simply not designed to disciple people through their spiritual questions. This generation harbors abundant questions about living a life of faith (as shown by reasons 4 through 6), but the church's attitude, or at least perceived attitude, fails to celebrate questioning as part of a faith process (as shown by reasons 1, 2, 3 and 6).

Thinking about it, these findings make sense: the format of most churches is not a dialogue, which it seems most of these young people crave, but a lecture, and the conversations that do exist largely consist of homogenous thought. Of course, some churches do intentionally engage younger generations. For example, I attend a vibrant church of mostly 20somethings where my small group community supports and loves each other and frequently parties together. But as wonderful a community I find there, I rarely ever bring questioning friends to a Sunday service. It just would not meet their needs.

So What Is to Be Done?

According to the Barna findings, "Thirty-six percent of young people surveyed said they didn't feel free "to ask [their] most pressing life questions in church." As Andrea Palpant Dilley recently responded in Her.meneutics, "That's a problem. Providing a space for open intellectual inquiry is essential for maintaining healthy conversation with people on the margins. Your guests won't come in for dinner if you send pit bulls to the door. So how can Christian communities create a congenial environment that's open to doubt and doubters?"

Similarly, David Kinnaman argues for the need of a new space and a new method for spiritual discovery in You Lost Me:

We are at a critical point in the life of the North American church; the Christian community must rethink our efforts to make disciples. Many of the assumptions on which we have built our work with young people are rooted in modern, mechanistic, and mass production paradigms. Some (though not all) ministries have taken cues from the assembly line, doing everything possible to streamline the manufacture of shiny new Jesus-followers, fresh from the factory floor. But disciples cannot be mass-produced. Disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time. We need new architects to design interconnection approaches to faith transference. We need new ecosystems of spiritual and vocational apprenticeship that can support deeper relationships and more vibrant faith formation.[1]

What might these ecosystems look like? This suggests a new kind of space, one that is different from the church, but still supports people in their spiritual process. In such a spiritual "third space," people could pose questions without fear of judgment and investigate these inquiries together, using the Bible as a primary source.

Q Place

It was at Q Place that I awoke to the dire need for a space like this. More importantly, I was also introduced to a solution. Q Place is just this—a third space, a safe space, a place for questions. A Q Place forms when two or three Christians initiate a group, invite their friends with questions, and create a welcoming environment for exploring spiritual truths.

In a Q Place, no one is an expert and facilitators are not supposed to give answers. So how does the gospel get shared? Through relationships, building trust, and reading Scripture, participants experience the good news about Jesus in new ways, or in many cases, for the first time. In a Q Place, participants have ownership over the faith process, and they retain more of what they learn. In this more Socratic or inductive way, they are never told what to believe, but rather discover Christ for themselves.

We believers are often simultaneously plagued by intimidation of the "E-Word" and by guilt that we are not doing more of it. Q Place helps overcome this paralysis. We neither need to be great apologists, nor do we need to have the most rockin' church service. Our role in this kingdom work is to listen, ask questions, welcome, love, pray, and cultivate other such practices that pave the way for spiritual conversations which introduce outsiders to Christ.

The Vital Conference that Q Place sponsors, and Q Place at large, completely shifted my evangelism paradigm. I now have a vision for living missionally and the tools to help me practice missional living. I know now that what matters is not saying the right thing, but how well I listen. I don't need to stand on a street corner; I can just be with friends, having conversations about God which, in many cases, they are eager to have.

What's more, I've seen this work on a regular basis in my own Chicago apartment. Each week I see God working in my group of 20somethings, and frankly, I don't worry how long it takes for them to grow their faith. It's not my responsibility anyway—it's God's. My role is to celebrate each step of the process, like when my group opened the Bible for the first time, or when my friend shared how this is the only place where he can talk about this stuff.

Q Place has applications beyond this younger generation, to be sure, but I attest that this is something that will resonate with them in a big way. I am not alone in thinking this. Dave Maki, a pastor in Indiana, says:

We never imagined that we would start a Q Place for 20somethings, but that is what God did. The people who came were not so much questioning God as they were disconnected from the church. These young people came hungry to know more about God … They are learning how to pray in front of others and expanding their prayer concerns. They are talking about what they are learning and sharing it with people they know. It is so refreshing to hear enthusiasm about God's Word and prayer. This group is moving at God's pace and we are blessed to watch it happening faster than we expected. So much so, that we are going to plant a seed for some of these 20somethings to consider becoming initiators of new Q Places in the future.

As a representative of a generation seeking a relevant approach to faith, this individualized, relational method called Q Place is a Godsend, literally.

1 Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. Print.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a freelance writer. Learn more about Q Place at Join Emily at this year's Vital Conference where David Kinnaman will be the keynote speaker.

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