Why are young people uninterested in attending church, specifically young people with no recent family history of attending church? In many urban centers similar to where I grew up, churches are dealing with one or possibly two generations of un-churched teens and young adults. Their grandparents went to church, their parents went occasionally, and now this generation hardly goes, if at all.
For many kids in urban and suburban communities, the issue is not only one of relevance, it’s issues of honesty and transparency. With this generation, it is all about being who you really claim to be. Young people value honesty; not only in what we say but also in making sure that it aligns with how we treat people.
Young people observe churches and see us (Christians) acting like everyone else. They see the turf wars. They watch religious leaders compete with each other for power and prestige; they observe the competition for members, and they take notice of how we covet our buildings, as our personal turf, and think more highly of our leaders than we should.
To a kid on the streets, some churches and clergy bear some serious similarities to gangs. Like gangs, traditionally, churches will not help you unless you are a member. Before you get any assistance the first question is “Are you a member?”; they will not work with the church down the street (they hardly talk to each other), they compete over who’s bigger and who has the better pastor; and members talk about how much they love their church (crew) and their leader more than they are heard stating their emphatic love for Jesus Christ and worshipping God in spirit and in truth. If you can’t see the similarities to gangs then let me make it obvious. Gangs rarely work together, gangs compete over size, gangs are turf oriented, gang members love the street and turf they control, and gangs love their leaders. Gangs of the same name will not only hate each other, but they also seek to kill each other. All churches call on the name of Christ but not all of them work together, namely because they compete for members to join their crew.
Our lack of collaboration, picking who’s worthy of being a member of our church (crew) and who is not, is not drawing young people. In actuality, it is driving them away, causing them to make the street their sanctuary.
Sadly, in as much as some churches act like gangs, gangs do a better job of reaching young people than we do. For some young people, the church is just another crew in the neighborhood trying to get them to join. Gangs appear to win that competition most times, if not every time. When a kid who is hungry has to choose between a gang offering to take them to McDonald’s, versus the church that offers a soup kitchen, the kid is probably going to choose McDonald’s. When a gang member offers to buy a kid a new pair of sneakers and some clothes and the church shuns the kid when he or she shows up in tattered clothing, the kid is probably going to choose the gang. When gang members offer to walk a kid home who’s been bullied and the church is closed until Wednesday night Bible Study, the kid is probably going to choose the gang.
I have seen churches closed and selling their property in neighborhoods where gangs are flourishing. It can be argued that one cause is the churches were not being who they claimed to be and living out “whosever will let them come.” They did not take seriously the words of Jesus to “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
Gangs have no problem going out to be “fishers of kids;” they do it daily. They will take all kids (“whosoever will let them come”). They are not picky. Too often churches will say things like, “If we can save one then our labor will not have been in vain.” Gangs never say anything of the sort. In fact they will give you one out of one hundred if they get to keep the ninety. But Jesus said “If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go to look for the one that wandered off?” (Matthew 18:12) We are not called to just save one; the text suggests that we cannot sacrifice anyone.
If we are serious about reaching young people and saving lives, the church needs to call a truce. We have to lay down our weapons of judgment, dogma, exclusionary doctrine, and turf wars. After all “the earth is the Lords…” (Psalm 24:1) It’s not our church. We didn’t die for it and we didn’t rise for it. God just wants us to live for it.
If the church seriously wants to advance God’s kingdom on earth and reach the young people who need us most — those who are waiting for us to show up — then we have to join forces. We have to take a cue from gangs and go outside where young people are, talk to them, get to know them, meet a need, show them that we are not just another crew. We must show them that we’re not more interested in them joining “our church” than we are with them giving their life to Jesus Christ.