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.