Every church has a culture. Many churches describe themselves as a family. At times, that family is a bit dysfunctional. Interestingly church culture can remain even when all the members of the church who established that church culture are long gone. It takes intentional work to reshape a church’s culture in a particular direction. Church culture reflects the nature of the community that forms as people come together and bond intergenerationally.
Many churches think that in order to attract young people that they need to have a young hip pastor with a cool worship leader. They believe that the culture of cool will attract young people to join their church. In actuality, these attempts are too surface level to have any truly lasting effect. Young people are well equipped to see through such attempts. It did not take long in my ministry for me to realize that the success of my ministry was not going to come down to my own ability to remain cool (assuming that I ever was cool in any respect). Youth culture moves fast and even the best of us are not truly capable of keeping up.
Multi-million-dollar media companies spend far more budgetary funding keeping up on youth culture trends. Even then the best researchers with the biggest budgets don’t always provide companies with the right formula stay current and on top of their given market. The church does not stand a chance competing with these budgets.
Much of my ministry has taken place in Orange County California an area of the country noted for both premier amusement parks and massive mega churches. While there are often the trappings of the hip and cool at work in these mega churches, at their best they also manage to express an authenticity in their approach to ministry that is attractive. On a larger scale mega churches are able to do what most congregations are just not able to emulate. This is especially true if in this emulation the authentic core identity of the people behind the ministry is somehow hidden in favor of a cooler more “youth friendly image.”
Contrary to the pursuit of the cool, young people have been found by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and other research to seek after authenticity in churches rather than some carefully cultivated image. Growing up in a world dominated by social media, today’s young people are no strangers to the projection of a cultivated image. They know what it takes to get the right Instagram photo posted. Many have experienced the work it takes to take and retake a photo over and over again to get just the right response from their “followers.” With some much of the cultivated imagery around, young people have a deep seated desire for a more authentic experience.
This is especially true when it comes to the Warm Relationships that a church offers to their young people. Working to build a church culture in which authentic intergenerational relationships are nurtured and encouraged is key. In many ways, warm is the new cool. It turns out that building a long lasting relationship with your pastor, DCE, and others in the church has a more lasting impact on keeping young people in the church as opposed to the young or perceived cool factor of your church’s pastor. This does not mean that there is no wisdom on calling a pastor who can better relate to youth and families in your ministry and community, but it does mean that the longevity of the pastor’s ministry plays a greater role than the given age of the pastor at any point during his time serving your church.
Through these long lasting relationships with the framework of the local congregation Warm, Challenge and Grace can be nurtured. When I began my ministry, I had a young man sit down in my office and announce to me that I was not Mike. True, I was and could never be Mike. Mike was the DCE intern who had served the church the year prior to my call. It was Mike who help connect me to the church and get me that call, but I was not Mike. I could not be. I was not able to rely upon the relationships built by Mike in his year of ministry. I could not argue with this obviously hurting young man. All I could do was acknowledge the impact of Mike’s ministry and be who God had made me to be. My ministry had to have its own time to build relationships with the young people in order to win them over. This was a challenge, when I took four of them to the LCMS Youth Gathering in Atlanta (there now you can go back and figure out how old I might be). We had no context relationally from which to have built trust and it showed in some of the challenging times we had on that trip. Yet, when my ministry in the church came to an end 9 years later, those relationships were there. I’ve even had the pleasure of having former a youth turned high school teacher reconnect at a conference I spoke at and share her excitement in texting another member of that youth group who was on that Gathering trip about her being in the session I was leading.
These kinds of long term, long lasting Warm Relationships are the fertile in which Warm, Challenge and Grace take root. Further it is developing multiple long term Warm Relationships with Supportive Adults that helps to make a congregation a place where young people stick and bring their friends. Supportive adults deliberately invest and value long-term, inter-generational relationships. When you are around for the long haul, you build the relational capital to be there and walk with young people as they go through challenging transitions in life, to be there as to celebrate milestones, and to walk them through times of crisis.
A congregation that encourages adults to invest long-term in young people created a culture of Warm Relationships. Through these relationships young people feel loved and cared for and are far more likely to not only remain a part of the church (there home church or another), but are also far more likely to bring a friend in need to the church to help them find the kind of support that they have received. In this way, Warm Relationships help a church to Grow Young.