For decades we have witnessed a decline in the number of people attending worship services in the United States. The membership roles of most denominational churches continue to shrink as does their revenue. We have long noticed the "graying" of our congregations as growing numbers of young people have turned away from the church or have sought out churches that are not part of the denominations in which they were raised. Recent reports indicate the fastest growing group in America today are the "nones." These are the people who indicate "none" as their religious preference. This is the reality facing many of our denominational churches today, and the question has to be asked, "What are they doing to address this reality?" The answer must be "Not much" since the problems have only gotten worse. The next question that must be asked is, "Is the church not paying attention or does it just not care?"
Part of what makes this so sad is that many young people today are drawn to the person of Jesus Christ. It is the church that they don't trust and don't like. Many younger people do not believe the church represents the real Jesus so they have turned away from the church and sought out other means to practice their spirituality. A number of books address this problem, but none does it better than They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations by Dan Kimball.
At a church leadership conference Kimball challenged the approximately 500 pastors in attendance to leave the confines of their church offices for part of each week to spend time with persons not involved in a church. Their response amazed him. Many believed their congregations would not approve as they were expected to be at the church office in case they were needed by one of the members. Some felt that it was not their responsibility to go to the people; they should come to us. Few seemed to be willing to spend time building relationships with unchurched folk and discussing with them the reasons they are turned away from the church.
Kimball is willing, and this book contains some of the conversations he's had with numbers of the emerging generation. I will warn you...some of those comments people have made to Kimball about the church are not comfortable to read. The folks he talked to had some harsh things to say about church leaders, about some of the teachings of many churches, some of its practices, and its political agenda. Some of their accusations seem a little unfair, but much of it is accurate, and whether we agree with their comments or not, they are the perceptions held by many unchurched people today. If we are not willing to build relationships with these folks and earn the right to discuss their perceptions, how do we ever expect to be able to reach them? Perhaps just as important...if we are not willing to listen to these folks how will we know which of their perceptions are actually valid and need addressing by those of us in church leadership?
Those of us who have been Christians for some time often live in a bubble. We speak a secret language only known by other Christians. We listen to Christian music, buy Christian books, attend Christian events, watch Christian programming on television, listen to Christian radio, and the majority, if not all, of our friends are Christians. Our churches have conducted their activities in the same manner for years (decades?) so we assume that everything we do is normal and should appeal to people today just as it did to our grandparents. If we want to learn how others see us, we have to get out of the bubble and enter the world we've been called to impact with the Gospel.
Isn't that what missionaries do? If they spent 24/7/365 with their fellow missionaries they would never make an impact on the people they are trying to reach. America today is just as much of a mission field as any other nation, and the church needs to learn that it must treat it as a mission field if we are going to have any influence on it today. For a missionary to be effective he or she must understand the people they are trying to reach, their beliefs, their practices, their thinking.
For us to effectively reach our mission field we must do the same thing. This book is a great place to get an overview of the people God has given us to reach. Then, we must be willing to go out among the people and engage them, develop relationships with unchurched people to help them see that their perceptions of Christians are not valid of all of us, and then earn the right to share our faith. It would be a shame to lose a generation of people because we weren't paying attention to the reasons why they didn't like the church. It would be a greater shame if we lost that generation because we simply didn't care.