I was interviewed by Preaching magazine about preaching (go figure) and reaching the young adults who are disconnected or disconnecting from church. It was a good conversation that I'm reproducing here in three parts. If you are not a subscriber, Preaching Magazine is worth your time. The most recent issue is on my elliptical right now.
Preaching: Your book Lost and Found is about reaching the younger un-churched. That's a challenge with which many churches are struggling as more and more young folks are walking out the doors instead of coming in the doors. In your research, what did you find as reasons why young adults are un-churched?
Stetzer: A lot of it has to do with their perception of the church. One of the things we found frequently was that they actually had agreements with beliefs that we would think would matter. For example, the younger un-churched--those who are 20-29 years old who haven't gone to church, synagogue or a mosque for anything other than a holiday or a funeral in six months--81 percent of them say they believe in God, a higher or that a supreme being actually exists. That's actually higher than the older un-churched, the 30-plus. So they believe in God at a higher level than the older un-churched--81 percent, I mean, that's overwhelming.
Among the younger un-churched, 57 percent agreed somewhat or strongly with the statement: "There exists only one God, the God described in the Bible." So, there's a high level of spiritual openness, interest, even beliefs; but they tend to see the church as, well, full of hypocrites. They tend to see the church as not helpful to their own spiritual growth and development. So, I think they're open [but] it's the church they're not as open to.
Preaching: As you explore all of this, what are some of the things that you've counseled church leaders to do to try to reach out to that group of younger un-churched?
Stetzer: One thing is they don't necessarily need to get a goatee or a soul patch, sort of get themselves some thick-rimmed glasses and start using hip terms that are probably 10 years behind the culture.
Preaching: One of those T-shirts with lots of curly-cues.
Stetzer: Exactly. Everyone's got the T-shirts now. You know, I've just kind of given up on being cool. I gave up on being cool in high school, though; so that probably would be a long time.
Some automatically assume the way to do this is to adopt the newest trends. I'm not sure trends are what we need. I think ultimately what we need to do as we show the love of Christ is to understand and engage culture, not necessarily ape everything in that culture.
We actually looked at churches with vibrant ministries to young adults, and one of the things they had was cross-generational connection. I was talking to a pastor recently--Troy Gramling from Flamingo Road Church in Florida--and he asked me, "What are you doing to invest in the next generation?" This was last year, and I was 42 at the time. I thought, "What do you mean? I AM the next generation."
There comes a point--I mean I'm 42--I should be investing in 20-year-olds. I think people our age need to be asking the question, "How can I build those cross-generational relationships? Those are more important than getting yourself a soul patch and one of those cool T-shirts.
Preaching: Specifically from the preaching side, what are some things that pastors and church leaders should be aware of as they seek to preach to and reach younger adults?
Stetzer: One of the things we found is the desire for depth--many pastors are finding this.
Of course, there's always the desire for depth. There's sometimes this passion for minutiae in many Christians, and I often think that's a healthy and an unhealthy thing. They love knowledge but not transformation, and we see those kinds of knowledge junkies in the church. I'm not talking about that kind of thing. Because you can fill up their minds with everything--every obscure reference of Scripture--and they won't be changed by the gospel.
I think for young, un-churched and younger churched, they want something more than the sitcom-like approach to preaching and Christianity. It's all this, "Five Ways to Have a Happy Life" and "Three Ways to Raise Obedient Pets" --there's no mystery, there's no depth to it. One of the things we found, among the younger un-churched and churched, is a desire for something deeper. That's a good thing from my perspective.
I was talking to Craig Groeschel (pastor of LifeChurch.tv) about this for a podcast I did with him. I said, "What do you see? What's the shift?" A lot of people would say that's a church reaching a lot of seekers, a term a lot of churches have used; they probably don't define themselves as seeker-this or seeker-that. One of the things he said is that in reaching the younger un-churched--and their church does a great job with it--that they've gone deeper, so we see that theme.
There are two movements that have kind of captured the attention of a lot of younger adults in the church: the new reformed movement and the emerging church. Regardless of what you thing about either, both are movements that have a desire to go deeper into theological principals. Some of us might say some of the paths that one of those groups has gone--or maybe you think both those groups have gone--are problematic for some people theologically. I get that, and I share those concerns; but what I would say is that it shows the yearning for more than the light teaching of the modern evangelical machine.
Now there are some exceptions. We all can think of the exceptions--we see them on TV all the time--but for churched and un-churched, they want to know something more, that God is about more than we can understand in that one simple message, "Five Ways to Have a Happy Life."
Preaching: That's the caricature that some older, traditional evangelical pastors have of the young pastors: that what they're doing is Christianity-lite, topical preaching and so on. Yet what I'm finding as I talk to many of these younger pastors is the opposite. They are intensely biblical; whereas many traditional churches are doing a 20- or 25-minute expository sermon, these guys are doing 40, 45 minutes and more in intensive exposition of Scripture. So, it seems to me the trend seems to be moving not toward exposition in the traditional, classic sense that we have thought about it in recent years, but very much in terms of taking the Word of God, opening it up and applying it to people's lives.
Stetzer: Robert Webber, who died recently, offered some helpful categories. You used one of them: traditional evangelicals. In my denomination, that's probably the leadership right now and in many seminaries. For them, as far as preaching goes, that's going to be much more of a working through the text, verse-by-verse, bring in a lot of linguistic tools. That sort of thing.
Following that, Webber talks about the pragmatic evangelicals. Think in terms of the WillowBack world, my own little made-up word. The idea is that it's much more practical; some might use the word felt-need preaching; but what we've seen is that even many of the churches that became known for that don't do that anymore or do that to a lesser degree.
Webber talks about this emerging generation that he calls the younger evangelicals. Well, I don't know if we can use that term forever because they're not always going to be that young; but there's a desire to do preaching that is more text-engaging. I preached in November for a pastor friend of mine, Mark Driscoll; and I'm thinking, "I've got to bring an hour of in-depth biblical text." I don't preach an hour. When I preach, I'm a 40-minute preacher; but this church, one of the fastest growing churches in America, is led by a pastor who preaches every week for an hour, working through the text.
So I think it's a misnomer to say that emerging generations are not seriously wanting to engage in the Scripture. I find the opposite. My friends--these young pastors with whom I work with--they're very much engaged in it, and to the point where I'm looking at it and saying, "Man, I've got to step up for an hour to bring that."
If you can't wait to read the rest of the interview here on the blog, you can read it all at preaching.com. If you haven't read the book, you can order it here. If you want to get a good look at the younger generations and what they think of church, faith, and religion, you should pick it up. And, of course, check out all the articles from Preaching Magazine.