Ron Luce is worried. And if Ron Luce is worried, we should be too. Ron runs an organization called Teen Mania which puts on camps, concerts and various and sundry other sorts of events for youth. He claims that in the last fifteen years 2 million youth have attended his events, the usual formula for which includes some prominent popular Evangelical band, speakers, and counselors. There is a figure that was put out there a decade or so ago which said that even Evangelical Churches are retaining only about 4-5% of our youth. A more recent poll by George Barna suggests that only 5% of our country's youth are Bible believing Christians, but perhaps he was defining Christian or Bible-believing too narrowly. I personally don't think this is true, but even if it is in the ball park it means that youth ministry as currently constituted is largely failing. You should read the story for yourself. Here's the link from this morning's N.Y. Times.
The question to be raised is--- why such a huge attrition rate by anoyone's calculations? Should we blame it on the music? Should we blame it on the approach? Should we blame it on the culture? What the heck is happening out there?
Well perhaps I can point to a few clues. But let me tell you a story first. I count Chris Tomlin as a friend. He was a praise worship neophyte when I first met him over a decade ago in the Woodlands Texas where he was leading music at the Woodlands U. Methodist Church, a Church I know well. I've done various events there over the years, and the pastor is a long time friend. I invited Chris to come to Asbury and help me with a revival I was leading. He came, and it gave him some exposure outside of Texas, exposure to a bunch of future youth ministers, and other clergy types. He came again a couple of years later, and he was a star on the rise. Now of course he headlines Christian concerts all over the place. He headlined Ichthus this past year of course had a positive impact on the 20,000 folks there. But what happened to Chris's meteoric career?
Well, you could be cynical and say the American starmaker machinery called the music industry saw a good thing and got on the Chris Tomlin bandwagon. But that wouldn't entirely be true. Chris is a wonderful, devout, humble Christian man with a deep and abiding faith in the Lord.
You could hypothesize that maybe God just blessed him and he turned around and blessed others by continuing to produce high quality praise music. Well of course there is some truth to that assessment but it isn't the whole story.
Some will ask--- What is the formula for that sort of 'success'? We are always looking for the technique, the formula the gimmick. And yes, there are some tricks to good marketing. I ought to know. I've not only been in the music business when I was much younger working for the Record Bar chain and promoting a Christian concert or two, but I've been in the publishing business for a long time now. And here is one thing I know-- form without substance does not last. Flash without the cash does not last. Image is not everything. It may get your foot in the door, but it will not allow you to live in the house, and this is especially true with the shape-shifting ever moving Christian youth culture.
Two of the reasons Chris's music has been so embraced and well received is it has SUBSTANCE, it is strongly based in God' Word. My friend and colleague J.D. Walt our chaplain here at Asbury has helped Chris with this in regard to the lyrics. And it has paid dividends.
Here's a simple truth--- God's Word does not wear out or fail. It doesn't have built in obsolescence like pop culture. So here's my formula of the day-- the less Biblical substance to a Christian pop event, song, etc. the less likely it will have any staying power. So much of praise music is pablum-- endlessly repeating the same choruses over and over. Repetition is not a bad thing. In fact it helps one to learn the lyrics. But if what you are repeating isn't something strong and substantive that a person can build a Christian life around, then its a willow of the wisp. It will come and go.
And here's another other factor. You need to draw your water from a deep well. By this I mean that a Christian musician, minister etc. needs to have a deep and abiding relationship with the Lord and deep and profound grounding in God's Word and in God's community. If you try to proclaim something that has not first catalyzed your own soul and spiritual life, it will ring hollow, rather than true. And one thing you don't have to worry about with Chris Tomlin-- he is not a superficial or surface Christian. He has authenticity and integrity. I could wish for still a bit more substance to some of the lyrics--- but hey we are getting there. Check out his new CD "See the Morning" and listen to 'Uncreated One'.
But Chris has a third secret. And its hiding in plain sight. He is not just singing, posturing, or performing. He is leading people into worship, into the living presence of God. Worship is a well he drinks from regularly and in the many Passion events he has led it is clear where he is coming from, and where he is bidding us to go. There is a different between a performance, and an act of worship, and Chris is fully comfortable with, indeed excited and joyfully taking us into worship.
My word today to Youth Ministers is this--- one key to retaining the youth is this--- have they been captivated, caught up in love, wonder and praise of the Lord, or have they merely been entertained? There is a difference. Does the event not merely make them dance but make them kneel and confess their sins and pray? Does the event not merely move their emotions but challenge their thinking? Does it bring them to repentance, or are you offering some kind of forgiveness without repentance, crown without a cross, encounter without commitment? And are you integrating them into a caring Christian community where they will be planted deeply, richly in God's Word? The key to retention is surrounding a new Christian with a caring, supportive and yes challenging Christian environment that involves more than just worship. It also needs to involve some profound Christian education, as our youth will never get that from our culture these days. Youth ministry is often failing because in general the Church's Christian education is failing. Less than a third, on average, of people who go to worship stay for Sunday school or Bible study or its equivalent. We should have noticed this warning sign a long time ago.
So much of youth ministry is 'boiling things down', or as the jargon goes, putting the cookies on the bottom shelf. But you can't boil something down that you haven't first boiled up. By this I mean the youth leaders must be more profoundly grounded in God's Word than they are in pop culture, though they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the culture as well. However, as our culture, even youth culture, moves further and further away from Christianity, it will be hard to find points of contact with that culture that can be jumping off points for a Christian witness. So perhaps we could try something different.
Chris' approach is not to boil the message down, but rather to boil the people up. This I think is the right way to go. Get them excited about the Lord, get them excited about the Word. And instead of turning the message into pablum why not tease the minds of our youth into active thought? Why not honor their keen minds, their curiosity, and even their questions by challenging them with the meat of God's Word? Help them so that their reach will extend further than their current grasp. Give them something solid to hold on to.
Today more than ever with one out of two marriages, even in Evangelical Churches, ending in divorce and more and more family dysfunctionality, we need the church to BE a family, the family of faith, who will take in all comes, every straggler. Maybe our motto could be "give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breath free..." Wait a minute isn't that on that statue on Ellis Island? Yes it is, but real freedom only comes from a close encounter of the first kind with the Word of God Incarnate, and the Word of God written, and the Word of God incarnated in his community. And that's the Gospel truth for today.