Asking End-User Questions in a Post Christian America

I was at a meeting yesterday with a very nice young guy.  He is in his late teens/early twenties, and is quickly becoming the leader of one of the small groups in our youth ministry.  He does on attend mid week (he is out of high school), but he attends the small group every single week.  I hadn’t met him yet, so I wanted to hang out a bit.

He seemed well grounded and friendly.  It was obvious that God was working in his life.  When I asked him what church he and his family attended, however, he told me that they used to attend a church in town for many years, but haven’t gone anywhere in almost a year.  When I inquired deeper, it was obvious that leaving this church and not attending a local congregation was an intentional choice that the family made together, and in his words, “I can’t see myself attending a church any time in the future, at this point.”

What were his reasons?  He said that he noticed that attending a church didn’t seem to be producing any sort of meaningful change in people’s lives.  They seemed to simply attend on Sundays and not connect that with any other part of their lives, and in his view that idea seemed to be almost built into the whole church system.

Now, I am sure that there is more to the story.  Without peppering him with questions there is no way to know if a fallen leader impacted him negatively, or church discipline of the family was involved, or just a growing sense of complacency bothered them.  But what I do know, is that there is a rapidly growing number of Americans who feel that church is simply not essential in any meaningful way to their lives.

The somewhat recent book The Essential Church highlights this problem and suggests some possible answers.  I’m not going into them here, except to say that it surrounds a national survey that shows 70% of Americans between 18 and 22 drop out of church and never return.  I think part of the answer is that the Church in America needs to start asking itself end-user questions instead of system questions more frequently.

For those of you asking, “What does he mean by that,” let me illustrate.  In sales, they teach you to not tell a customer about features of a product, but instead to tell them about benefits.  “Ma’am, this lawn mower has 6.75 horsepower and has rear wheel gear drive,” sounds a lot less enticing that “Ma’am, this lawn mower has plenty of power to cut even in thick grass, and since the rear wheels are driving, it won’t lag as you mow uphill.”

6.75 HP, rear wheel gear drive, and even Briggs and Straton only tell people who may already know a lot about mowers what they need to know.  They are insider information.  If you had never used a lawnmower before, 6.75 HP would mean absolutely nothing to you.  But power to cut thick grass and helping you mow uphill are end-user language.

So when a church is talking about planning the Christmas eve candlelight service, I really wish that more churches would ask themselves questions like, “Why are we doing this?”  Or another, “What lasting thing will this do for them?”  Instead, we ask “What should we sing while we turn the lights off and slowly light the candles?”  This totally misses the point, but we have survived on this kind of thinking for centuries, because the people had essentially no options.

Now they do.  Maybe 50 years ago, things like not attending a church or living together outside of wedlock (not equating the two) were pretty taboo to most people.  Today, they are normative.  Today people who feel that the church is becoming rote and impotent can simply leave.  In fact, they can do so while still considdering themselves Christian, and still feeling connected to other Christians.  Or they can just leave the faith entirely, if they think the impotence goes too deep.

I have said for a long time that Christmas Eve candlelight services are usually pointless.  Honestly, I get nothing from singing Silent Night and lighting a little candle.  In fact, my inner dialogue during that time goes like this:

“Wow, it is pretty with all these candles.  I hope Peichi doesn’t spill wax on my pants when she tilts her candle…”
“Please don’t spill the wax…”
“Uh-oh…there is little drip of wax.  I hope it doesn’t go past the little star cutout thingy in the little paper disk…”
“Dang it…It made it past the paper disk.  I’m going to hold it at the bottom.  Maybe it will cool by then…”
“Ouch, it didn’t cool down.”
“I hope I can blow it out soon…Oh good, we’re done.  I can blow it out, but don’t blow too hard, or  ge waxt on my pants…”
“How did it get on my pants?.  I was so careful”

You know what is funny?  This is not made up.  This is what I got out of the Christmas Eve service.  I know that not everyone is like me.  I know that people would get upset at me if this got out…oops.  But, I think the church would benefit if we starting by asking those end-user questions, instead of assuming them.  Maybe the church would stop losing great people as a result.

6 Replies to “Asking End-User Questions in a Post Christian America”

  1. I think another good question to ask is: should we really care so much about getting back the people that leave? It might sound harsh – but it seems to be the cool, hip thing to do today: advertise your church as one that “reaches out” to those that have been “burned by the church and left.” I have been in conversations like the one you were in, but I usually do ask more questions. Usually, when you get down to what really happened – it’s not very pretty. Go look at the website for the church that this friends of your left. You will probably see a ton of social activities for him to connect. Even the coldest churches usually have something. It usually comes down to a certain leader didn’t become their friend, or so-and-so didn’t call them enough, or they suggested an idea or change that was rejected. If you ask them what they did to try and connect: “well, I’m not a leader (or whatever excuse) – so they should have called me.” Or something about them being too different and they wanted something more like this. Which could all be reasons to change churches (if you have the right attitude about it), but not leave church altogether. I’ve found this to be the case in 70-80% of these conversations. The people that are truly hurt and truly burned by the church… they tend to stick with church. They might change churches, but they don’t leave. It is kind of bazaar.

    But, also – I think about it this way: these people already left a church because they didn’t like it. My experience has taught me that maybe 10-20% of them had a good reason. The others didn’t. So you actually want to pull in people that are 80% likely to find something wrong with your church and leave in the future anyways? Great – you can have them. I’d rather get the people that have never been in church (which is a much larger field anyways).

    Guess I am just jaded… but I am soooo tired of “pastor so-and-so didn’t become my friend and recognize my greatness, so I left.” Entitlement is so tiring sometimes.

    Also – I am wondering – that statistic about 70% of people never returning to church – is that for people that went in the first place? Seeing that only 20% of the Americans out there ever go to church – I am thinking that is not supposed to be 70% of ALL Americans between 18 and 22 drop out of church?

  2. Okay – you probably opened up a Pandora’s Box with this one, because I love questioning accepted traditions, especially with technology.

    This week on Sunday morning, you told people to turn off the cellphones so that they couldn’t Twitter and FaceBook and distract themselves from being engaged with God. Conventional wisdom would tell you that updating statuses during church would distract. But is that really true?

    Some studies are suggesting that updating Twitter and all that can actually help increase engagement in classrooms and other similar meetings. There are two ways this happens:

    1) For those that are bored and checking out, updating a status functions the same way that doodling on a piece of paper does. It keeps the mind somewhat engaged in something rather than just totally going comatose. Comatose brains will miss everything. Semi-engaged brains will still miss a lot, but there is an increased chance that they will catch something that intrigues then and then start paying attention.

    2) Despite what some say, Twitter and FB and all that is not as much about narcissism as it is about sharing with others. People update statuses to share something with others. It is that process of processing our thoughts for others that helps us learn. Even if you are listening, you only retain 10% of what you hear. If you write it down, it goes up to something like 30%. But if you teach others what you are learning, then retention goes up to 80% or more. Sharing with others is a form of teaching. It’s called social constructivism. We learn best when we construct information to share with others. I follow a guy that is always Tweeting what he is learning from sermons. It is good stuff.

    It is something to think about.

    Of course, the flip-side to think is this: someone at lunch after church was making a joke about that announcement. “If we have all these small kids in worship, totally taking ALL of our attention and making it so that we can never engage in worship because they won’t stay still – that is okay. But dare get out or cellphone and spend 10 seconds trying to update Twitter – and that is bad!” They were making a joke, but you could sense some exasperation behind the laughter. But this young mother did have a point – it is kind of weird to care more about cellphone distractions than little kid distractions.

    My question is when are we going to tell people to stop singing off-key? 🙂 Twitter will only distract me for maybe 30 seconds. But that person that belts out tunes at the top of their lungs off-key? That lasts the whole worship set!

  3. Matt,
    I don’t think it is opening up Pandora’s box. It is a good question. I have two responses, though:

    1- When I mention something like that from the front, you have to realize who I’m primarily talking to, and it is not you or the people who would be engaging with the message through Facebook and Twitter.

    Three weeks ago, I was completely unable to focus on the message because of a person (I thought at the time it must be a teen, but later found out it was an adult woman) who spent the entire service texting with button sounds on (“beep beep”). I was later told by several people that they were extremely distracted, as well.

    I have also been in the pulpit giving a message (on several occasions) when several church members in leadership positions were going through their work email on their Blackberrys (Blackberries?).

    We have also been fighting a cultural battle with some families that would allow their students to spend the entire service playing their Nintendo DS’s, just like they do all the rest of their day.

    I am deeply saddened by the growing Church culture (not speaking of Grace, specifically) that encourages “obliviots” who never give a second thought to the distractions they might be to everyone around them. The problem is really that many don’t give thought to their actions at all. This is not really new. It is just that now we have toys that allow us to be distracted/distracting in new and more powerful ways.

    2- I do agree that there could be good uses of Twitter and Facebook posting for helping people to interact, or cement it what they are hearing. However, I remember being a child and listening to sermons that were longer and more serious than today’s. If we go back, not even that far in time, we would see that sermons were much longer, more in depth, and more literary. People sat, learned, and grew. I am in no way glorifying the past, but many studies show that even churched Americans are far less biblically literate than they were even 30 years ago.

    We have become a people unable to sit without moving our thumbs, or switching web pages for more than 5 minutes. I don’t have any idea where the balance is between church trying to communicate with people where they’re at, and church trying to call people up to not only biblical but also intellectual maturity.

    –Just know that when I make an announcement about those things, your iPhone Bible App is not what I am talking about.

  4. You know, every time I read about Biblical literacy decreasing, all I ever read are recent polls by George Barna. I never see them compared to actual poll results from 30 years ago or whenever. And many of the questions on the Barna poll I wonder if they have really any meaning. Christians today can’t name the four Gospels. Well, neither could the first centruy Christians… probably because they hadn’t decided on the four Gospels then. In fact, a lot of the questions on the Barna polls I read test insignificant trivia, and many of the other questions are really testing whether people believe in heretical teachings that have existed since the first century – like did Jesus sin while on the Earth? Yep – it is pretty sad that 4 out of 10 Americans believe that, but it is a belief that has been around since Jesus was here (in fact, the Bible records people accusing Jesus of sinning).

    I’ve always personally thought it was an urban myth that Americans are less Biblical literate than they used to be. Church attendance has also declined in the past 20 years. How do we know that these poll results don’t come from that? Just because someone says they are a Christian that attends ____ church, that doesn’t mean they go to church as much as the average church member did 30 years ago.

    On the other hand, educational studies have shown for over 100 years now that people don’t learn much from sitting and listening. The longer you sit and listen, statistically the less you will learn. Are our current short attention spans a sign that we are doing something wrong as a society – or a result of finally being freed from the mindset that we HAVE to sit still and listen for a long time? Are human beings made to sit still, or are we made to be constantly be moving our thumbs? Why did God have to command us to be still and know that He is God, if being still is going to be the natural state we are all going to gravitate towards? And why did he have to tell it to a mostly non-Urban society, if constant movement is a recent problem?

    I think I was trying to more get at why we are selective on limiting some distractions, but not others. I was watching some parents with 3 and 4 year olds this Sunday. None of them were worshiping. The kids were bored, and there fore bothering their parents, who had to constantly deal with bored kids instead of worship. And I noticed many people were also distracted by these kids. I understand the desire to worship together – but I just don’t see how it is working for anyone. It just seems weird to deal with one source of distractions, but not another.

  5. I have an extended answer to this, which I will make as its own blog post in the next few days. Thanks for posting!

    Be a RyanShinn.com evangelist. I don’t care a wit about my page views, but I love comments like yours, and the more the merrier.
    Cheers!

  6. Hah – well, I never really could get people to read or comment on my blog…. so I’m not the best person to recruit for evangelism. But I can try. You should hook your blog up with Facebook, so that when you post a blog it puts an update on there.

    Of course, I have been working on my post “Why I am not a Calvinist” for over 3 months now, with nothing to show for it, so I understand why most people don’t follow my personal blog. I did post an entry at my work blog that you might find interesting called “Why Twitter is Irrelevant (To Me)”:

    http://www.edugeekjournal.com/?p=451

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