Monday, November 16, 2009

If the North American Church is in Trouble, No One Sent Young People the Memo

My church planting ministry takes me to many places not only in my beloved adopted state of Vermont but across the nation as I recruit church planters, sponsoring churches and raise prayer and financial supporters for these new church plants. In my travels I attend a lot of meetings where it is common to hear people complain how few young adults they have in their congregations. The 18-24 year old age group in particular seems to be missing in many churches. If you listen to what is said in these meetings, it would be easy to believe that the North American church is in trouble and may even cease to exist in another 25 years. But I find myself asking if all this "doom and gloom" is an accurate portrayal of the "big picture" or just the reactionary comments of people who have lost touch with young adults.

In my own interactions with young adults, I find them very interested in spiritual things. They seem eager to experience the reality of God. They are interested in investing time, energy and effort in making the world a better place through a practical expression of their faith. The church where I am an elder is reaching many teenagers and a growing number of young adults for Christ and from our perspective, the future looks bright for the church. But much of what we have done in our own church was more of an "accident" than intentional. I have been looking for some models where churches set out intentionally to make a significant impact in the lives of young adults.

Recently I was blessed to attend Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC. This four year old congregation has several hundred young adults who attend one of five services each Sunday. As a 42 year old, I was clearly one of the "old people" in the group. I watched as college students and young professionals worshipped God with passion. While their music was much more energetic than most churches, the focus of the music was on Jesus, not entertainment. I was amazed at how forcibly the congregation was challenged in a biblically based sermon to grasp God's concepts of stewardship and what that meant in the lives of those present. The preacher may have been dressed in blue jeans, but the sermon was not some watered down version of the Gospel, it was a radical call to live like Jesus. After the worship service, several of the staff members took time to go to dinner with me and share what drew them to be a part of this exciting venture. One thing that really drew them was the ability to actually serve the Lord in a key leadership role as a young adult. One young man said, "I'm 25 and my wife is 24 and we wanted to be part of leading ministries to others. That was just not acceptable in most churches, but at Midtown they let us use our gifts in a huge variety of ways." Another young man said that what drew him to the church was the sense of "family." He had attended a very traditional church while growing up that went through a painful three way split when he was in high school. He felt that if people in that congregation had actually known each other, loved each other, and treated each other like family, then the split would not have happened. Midtown has created that family atmosphere. What I took away from that dinner discussion is that two keys to reaching young adults are allowing them to serve in leadership roles and creating a family atmosphere in the church. WOW, that sounds easy!

While the people at Midtown clearly enjoy their faith and have a lot of fun being together as family, everything is not fun and games at Midtown. They shared, with much difficulty, how painful it was to exercise church discipline on a couple who had been part of the core group and how hard it was to have 20 people leave their new mission as a result. But they agreed that their church was stronger today because of their commitment to make it clear that they actually expect their members to live according to biblical principles. That is a concept that many older traditional churches may need to consider.

What blessed me most about this group is that they are not just starting a church for their own enjoyment. They are a church planting church and have multiple interns in the congregation who they are sending out to start new churches in other places. These are young, Spirit filled, biblically based followers of Jesus who are absolutely convinced that God has called them to use their gifts and abilities to change the world with the Gospel. And I believe they can do it. If the North American church is really in trouble, clearly someone forgot to send the young adults at Midtown the memo!


  1. Jim and Irene MurphyNovember 16, 2009 at 6:01 PM

    Terry, it was good to see you on Sat. So glad that you got to worship at Midtown yesterday.
    Praying for you and your family.

  2. Debbie McDowell, South Carolina Baptist ConventionNovember 16, 2009 at 6:02 PM

    Great article. Glad you had that experience. Thank you for visiting us in South Carolina.

  3. Edward and Margaret ChampionNovember 16, 2009 at 6:03 PM

    Praise the Lord!

  4. WOW. Thanks for sharing this in detail.
    I will forward it to others. Midtown is doing in Columbia what you are doing in Vermont. Praise the Lord for the blessings upon churches that LOVE with agape and not just phileo.

  5. This was a great article and very encouraging.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thank you for this article. Very encouraging. As a young person on a church staff I find it difficult to help older staff members and elders understand that young people want a faith that is real and can change the world. They mostly think that young people aren't committed, but that is just not the case. Young people want to belong, they want to pour themselves into something, they want to be part of something bigger than they are. Your article was spot on.

  7. I still teach at Fruitland Bible Institute and I have also noticed the younger adults we get today have that same passion you describe. It is thrilling to know the young adults I encounter didn't get the memo either. I am encouraged at this next generation and their fervor & passion for to see the lost saved. Thanks for sharing.

  8. R. Z. - MississippiNovember 16, 2009 at 6:14 PM

    Dr. Terry -
    Amen to that sentiment! I see our aging little country church struggle because we are so entrenched in old-style worship. There are no other major issues but that one holds us back. Though we have a very loving church family, we're not the dynamic force that we could be. Interestingly, our congregation, in my opinion, is open to change. Our new pastor is well aware of the situation and is seeking God's direction in the matter. I know this, we'd better adjust or eventually we'll just fade away as young people in our community either remain churchless or are drawn to distant congregations that make them feel more comfortable.

  9. Dan Hunt, pastor, Eastview Baptist Church, Hopkinsville, KYNovember 16, 2009 at 6:23 PM

    I want you to know how exciting it is to read about young people who are sold out to Christ and determined to make a difference in our world. Sadly, most churches are simply too insulated from reality to understand the need to embrace these new young leaders. Rather they want to stifle (a fancy word for control) them to fit into their antiquated mold. It's tragic that many churches WON'T wake up to this truth until it is ether too late or they're on life support.

    Reading about churches like the one you visited makes me wish I was 23 again, so I could jump in feet first to this wave of God's Spirit and see just what miracles God would do. But since I can't, I think my calling now is to do all I can to recruit and release these young champions into the fray. Keep doing what you're doing. Stay in the center of God's will and who knows what this might bring ... ANOTHER NEW ENGLAND BASED GREAT AWAKENING????

  10. Bruce James, Director of Evangelism, Baptist Convention of New EnglandNovember 16, 2009 at 6:25 PM

    Terry, I've yet to find anywhere that if a group will passionately love Jesus Christ, love one another, teach, preach and practice the Word of God and then connect these dynamics to the community that God doesn't show up and expand His Kingdom. This is ever more evident here in New England where it's not suppose to work.

    Young adults are passionate by nature and see little value for playing church. They want to be the church as you have illustrated. Old wine skins seem to be the problem. Thanks for the post I will pass it on.

  11. Cameron Lewis, Youth Pastor, Washington Baptist Church, VermontNovember 16, 2009 at 6:30 PM

    I think that each church has a unique situation. Some churches are growing leaps and bounds, and some can not figure out how to bring young people in, even though they are trying hard, and some churches are in the middle.

    We have seen the awesome ways that God moves when his leaders are faithful. But sometimes leaders that are fathful dont always see the fruit of their labor. But God is truly blessing our church.

    As we visited churches in the south we saw that many were in need of youth. Some of them have tried and tried to reach out, and others are "antiques" so to speak. I am so thankful to live when our faith is tested because many have lived "comfortable" lives as Christians. I think it is a blessing to be tested, because it helps you grow. When young people here choose to follow Christ, usually it is the "real deal" instead of just following the crowd as it might be in some other places.

    But, i dont ever think the true "church" is in trouble, because it is connected to Jesus Christ, the Living God!

  12. Dr. Rafael Hernandez, Executive Director, Southeastern New England Baptist AssociationNovember 16, 2009 at 7:12 PM

    SNEBA put on a retreat for young adults, 20-30 year olds, a week after our annual meeting.It was well attended with much enthusiasm shown by participants. They want more and not just once per year. Curtis Coook spoke on the call of God in our lives. We, the local church and the association, need to be intentional about reaching them.

  13. Bobby Gilstrap, Director of Missions, Huron and Southern Baptist Associations, MichiganNovember 16, 2009 at 7:53 PM

    I like this.

  14. Ervin Smith, pastor, Faith Baptist Church, Claxton, GANovember 16, 2009 at 9:53 PM

    Praise the Lord. Keep on reaching.

  15. Shaun Stotyn, Worship and Student Ministry Leader, Daybreak Community Church, Colchester, VTNovember 17, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    I recently read an article in Relevant Magazine all about the new generation of 20 something churches and worshipers. It was a very challenging and well written article. I encourage you to check it out. I will see if I can find a digital copy, if not you can borrow mine sometime.

  16. Love it. Thanks for the encouraging word.

  17. I like this.

  18. Thanks for this post, Terry.

  19. This article was published on Jan 11, 2010 in the Baptist Courier, which is the state paper for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. You can find it as the link below:

  20. Looking for practical ways to put some of the principles in this blog post into action? Purchase my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The first part of the book explains why bivocational ministry is biblical, normal and missional. The second part of the book explains how to mobilize the laity to do high level ministry in a team setting with the pastor so that the church can be effective in reaching its community for Christ.
    The book is published by Crossbooks and you can buy the book directly from them at:

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