21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 3


New light in an old churchFour more issues we need to address in this series of “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church.” (Previous installments: #1 and #2.) If you start to see a trend here, well…it’s intentional.

12. Be a church for all kinds of people
It bothers me as a Caucasian to look around on a Sunday morning and see no faces that look different than mine. While it’s true that our churches draw from surrounding neighborhoods, I know that while my neighborhood is predominantly white, it’s not exclusively so.It bothers me that at most churches the second a family hits the lobby they scatter. Mom goes to her MOPS class, Dad goes to his men’s class, while each child is sent to a separate classroom. Poof! They’re vapor. We talk about unity of the Body, but the designs of our churches and their programs tell a different story.

The singles are herded into a corral with other equally sexually frustrated people and we expect them to behave. Nor do we really want to know what they’re up to so long as they don’t whine about it.

Same goes for the elderly, because God knows that once you’re old you no longer have any viable purpose. (No wait, perhaps I’m confusing the Church in America for the movie Logan’s Run.)

Yet a body cannot function compartmentalized. Cut the heart off from the rest of the body and we know what happens. Remove something as small as the pancreas and see how long the body lasts.

Why we think it’s healthy to compartmentalize people in our churches is a real head-scratcher.

Somehow we’ve gotten it all backwards, thinking that our little nuclear families are the ne plus ultra of God’s design. Jesus turned that idea upside-down, though, when He said that the Christian family does not consist of those who share a biological relationship, but of those who do His will.

A healthy family is available to all its members. It doesn’t shunt its elderly off to a home to die. It doesn’t let its singles twist alone in the wind. It doesn’t believe that the five-year old can’t contribute. The foreigner and the alien are welcome and given a place of honor. Angels are entertained without our knowing.

Why are our church programs segregated by age and various other distinctions? Why do we have separate educational materials for each age group rather than a unified curriculum around a set area of study that is taught age-appropriately to all people in our church? Why do we set up parents to fail with their kids because they never know what the kids learned in Sunday School?

I believe we need to start asking questions why our churches look all white, all black, all middle class, all young, or all old. If the Church on Earth is a representation of the Church in Heaven, then why aren’t we preparing now to look like that Church at the End of All Things? I wonder if God is asking the same question.

I’m not filled with answers on this one, mostly questions. Still, I think that all of us need a gut check on this issue because it causes the Body of Christ to suffer needlessly in the long run. I’ve written a few smatterings on this topic before, so I won’t needlessly rehash old posts. Let’s just agree that this is an area of growth we should be pursuing in order to make our churches all they can be, not only for the Lord, but for all His people.

11. Conduct a proper self-examination
Ever encounter a truly humble person? I haven’t met many, but one characteristic stands out in the few I have met: they live in peace with all men. Why? I think the major reason is that they’ve truly believed that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.This past year, the garrulous tone that the Godblogosphere took on disheartened me because it was a rush to self-justification. Each side in whatever battle was picked launched into the other with fingers wagging and hearts pounding. Jumping into some of my favorite blogs lost its allure. After awhile I was just sad.

If I learned one thing in 2005 it’s that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sure, I’d memorized that verse a long time ago from my Navigators Topical Memory System days, but the deeper meaning behind it had gone undiscovered. What I learned this year is that most people don’t get up in the morning plotting evil. Usually evil comes as they try to go about their day using whatever flawed coping mechanisms they’ve acquired in time. The result is shattered lives and bondage to sin.

This is not an attempt to diminish sin, only an acknowledgment that none of us are perfected yet.

Before we launch into a tirade about homosexual activists, our snooty neighbor, or the promiscuous girl in the youth group, perhaps we should put ourselves in their shoes first. Maybe then we can better examine ourselves to see how far we’ve fallen and carefully note the chinks in our own armor. That homosexual activist may be a slave of sin, but he’s there at the bedside of every friend who has ever died of AIDS. The snooty neighbor who needs to know Christ gave a third of her income to help destitute children in Africa, never saying anything about doing so. The promiscuous girl who is fornicating her life away tutors dyslexic kids every day at her school.

Where are we? And just how big is the log sticking out of our eye?

We need better self-examination, folks. If we’re not putting ourselves in front of the Holy Spirit daily to allow His Light to root out our darkness, then we need to be doing a whole lot less finger-pointing. Ironically, when we do put ourselves under the Spirit’s illumination we do a whole lot less finger-pointing anyway.

There but for the grace of God go I. The humble man realizes this because he’s been there. He knows the depth of his own failure, so he’s less likely to grouse about someone else’s. I pray that our churches would be filled with that kind of humility.

10. Fire the youth pastor…then rehire him for his true purpose
Okay, now I’ve ticked off the multitudes of youth pastors out there, but hear me out. Trust me on this one.If you’re familiar with the
Business series I wrote this last summer, then you know that youth ministry started as a reaction to industrialization in England in the early 19th century. Young people were leaving farms to come to the big city to work in factories. Alarmed by the loss of parental support and the tendency of youth to turn idle hands into the devil’s toolkit, well-meaning Christians attacked the problem by creating a new kind of ministry.

The only problem is that no one thought to ask was if there was a better way. In truth, for centuries there had been a better way: parents taught their children at home about the Lord.

In taking the role of teaching one’s children about Jesus and placing it in the hands of supposed experts, the Church in industrialized nations created a monster. Teens today don’t work in sweaty factories or live in factory-sponsored dormitories, but the model used to meet that need is still paraded as the best way to reach young people.

Yet by every measurable standard, today’s youth ministry is a devastating failure. Every poll shows that Christian youth are indistinguishable from their pagan counterparts. Same amount of sexual sin, same pathetic understanding of Scriptural truth, and on and on. The model is not working, yet we continue to believe it is.

Why not take what was usurped and turn it back over to the people who once did it right? In other words, why are we using youth ministers to instruct our children in the faith rather than using their parents? It’s the parents’ responsibility anyway, isn’t it? Aren’t we simply undermining that responsibility?

Fire the youth pastor. Then rehire him for his true purpose: teaching parents of youth how to teach their own kids about the Faith.

Today’s parents were never shown an example of how to raise their children for Christ. Most don’t have a clue. I find it hard to believe that this was the case with Christian families two hundred years ago. The failed reality remains, though. We have to do something about it.

Already in a tailspin from its heyday in the 1950s, the early 1990s saw the wholesale shuttering of Christian Education departments within churches. Time was that every church had a paid person on staff responsible for overseeing the education of people within the church, but this has long since gone the way of the dodo. In many cases, the Christian Ed department was there for the very purpose of helping adults instruct their kids in a holistic Christian worldview. Now it’s gone.

But a youth ministry 180 degrees from the typical youth ministry model of youth pastor and clan of kids can counter that loss. A youth pastor dedicated to teaching parents how to instruct their kids in the faith puts the pieces back in their rightful place. It betters families, improves parent/teen communication, and also saves the youth pastor from the typical two-year burnout and rampant divorce patterns that have plagued youth ministers for the last thirty years.

This doesn’t mean that a youth group must go away, only that it be better incorporated into the full functioning life of the entire church. The elderly are involved, entire families are involved, and parents get to take back what they let slip away.

It’s time we moved to this model. (If you didn’t get enough here, I may write on this again in the future.)

9. Be hospitable
In the latter half of last year I wrote series called “The Little Things.” One of those little things that has gone unnoticed is our lack of hospitality in our churches and our homes. This lack of hospitality manifests itself as an unspoken message of division and exclusivity. Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I’ll point you to “The Little Things” post on hospitality and hope it speaks as well now as it did then.

Follow the link below to part 4…


23 thoughts on “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 3

  1. Kim

    We walk into church, our boys go to their Sunday school classes, my husband and I go to ours (together). This is the one hour a week that we speak to adults about adult topics. It is one of the few hours in the week that my children get to hear other people talk about God (other than my husband and I). These small groups in a church are a key to its vitality. It is here that much ministering takes place. The older adult class in our church has been together for over 50 years. They aren’t being shuttled into a corner — they are active and learning, and maintaining a Christian fellowship that has sustained them for half a century. Why do you assume that because my almost teenage son attends youth group that I have abdicated my responsiblity to teach him about God? I am supplementing what I do with youth group and allowing him the privilege of Christian fellowship that I enjoy.

    Thank you for your examination of this topic and for the thoughts that it has inspired for me. Keep it up.

  2. Kim,

    Any series like this is going to make general statements. Some churches can make even the craziest ideas work and some can’t even get a committee to agree on the simplest idea. You never know what will work.

    IN GENERAL, churches suffer from some of the things I’ve mentioned here. It is to those churches that I’m speaking. Yes, there are parents who teach their kids the Faith exactly like they should, but sadly, that’s the small, small minority from my experience.

    Glad you are finding good things in the series. It will keep getting meatier as we get closer to #1.

  3. Anonymous

    I guess the only issue with saying that it is the parents responsibility to raise children/teens in the faith is that it doesn’t address young believers with non-christian parents…

    (the answer at least in part lies in the body of christ acting as a family – but I thought I should point it out…)

  4. Travis

    Ooh! Can I try and tackle anonymous’ comment? 😉

    Most kids like you’ve described would only be coming if (a) one of the kids in the church with believing parents invited them, or (b) the church’s shuttle bus picks ’em up, because pagan Mom and Dad are happy to be kid-free for a few.

    This situation is similar to the single mom in need of a father figure for her boys… parents in the church should “adopt” such a child. We need to actually be the People and the Family of God.

  5. Great series, Dan. The biggest thing it is doing for me is making me so thankful for my home church. It is a dynamic, newcomer friendly, authentic Christianity, discipling church. They honor the artists. They honor the intellectuals. They reach the youth, the teens, the midlifers, and the elderly. So many of the things you are saying that the church needs, I am seeing lived out in this local body of Christ. It’s been my church home just over three years, so I can say they truly do reach out to those who are new. But I guess I get so used to seeing all these good things and listening to the good teaching, I am sometimes unaware that so many Christians don’t have access to the same sort of church home. Thanks for the reminder to be grateful. Robin

  6. codepoke

    I don’t know what to do with #12, Dan. Your solution seems worse than the problem to me, though I agree that both are problems.

    Your stated problem is our churches lack of human variety. Your solution is to increase focus on the nuclear family. Then you return to the original question without answers. I believe the church trumps the nuclear family in the plans of God, and that it is just exactly the place that we should go to find meaning in our lives that is larger than our families. Making the kingdom of God yet another family event cheapens it dramatically.

    As for why we all look the same in our churches, is it not because we all believe the same? It’s not that the church at the corner of High and Broad caters to white people. That church caters to Presbyterians of a particular bent, and they all tend to be white people. I’ll blow the geography bugle again.

    Self examination can hardly be overplayed. Thanks!

  7. Anonymous,

    I knew that at least one person would say what you did, but I didn’t provide an answer because this series is revealing what that answer is. Travis had a good response along those lines.

  8. Robin,

    Yes, you are fortunate. From your description, it sounds as if your church is doing a lot of things right.

    Even so, I think all our churches can do better with unifying their educational programs, plus the simple act of treating people right and making sure they are plugged in at all levels within the church.

    We can always do better, right?

    Thanks for writing! I read your blog and marvel at how busy you are, yet always productive.

  9. Codepoke,

    Somehow you got the wrong message from #12, so I guess I didn’t write it well enough.

    It’s not about nuclear families, though I see no reason for a church to work at cross-purposes in their educational programs by splitting up nuclear families when they show up on Sunday. But it’s not all about nuclear families, either. Did you follow the link showing that Jesus was not as interested in nuclear families as say Focus on the Family?

    I’m arguing that we stop leaving people out of the family of believers. And we tend to do that by isolating certain groups (elderly, singles, couples, etc.) rather than designing ministries that work cross-generationally.

  10. Weekend Fisher

    I’ve taught and still teach “age-segregated” Sunday school. I’ve taught the preschoolers. Some of them aren’t toilet trained. If you use a word longer than 2 syllables or ask them to read something, or read something to them that has no pictures, you’ve lost them. They like to color pictures of the story. Grown-ups don’t.

    I’m teaching pre-teens now. They ask lots of questions. Doubt they’d ask some of them in front of a mixed-age crowd. The age-segregated classes are, up until a certain age, needed. The kids asking the goofiest questions have the parents least able to field those questions.

    There’s a place for a mixed-age class. But there truly is a need for a separate class for the less mature also.

  11. cwv warrior

    Diversity as a goal in itself is feeble. A welcoming church shouldn’t need to put thought or energy into such matters. To dwell on it is create division, much like a liberal.
    On the other hand, I love the idea of helping parents and not cutting them off from their children’s education. As a homeschool mom, I’d take it all the way and do without a youth minister. Radical, I know. I happen to like nuclear families worshiping/learning together. Leaving singles, elderly, or childless couples out is not what I mean either. I like the way you think on this. Clumping is bad!

  12. CWV, Diversity isn’t a feeble issue if the neighborhood around the church is diverse, yet the church isn’t!

    I know a lot of churches that fall down in that regard. I even know of a church split where some folks didn’t like the fact that their outreach was actually attracting “those” people to their church, so they started a new church. Have you ever heard of anything so stupid?

  13. Weekend,

    I’m not necessarily against age-segregated classrooms. What I am against is using different curriculum in each of those classrooms. When the family gets back together, the parents have no idea what their kids studied.

    On the other hand, a unified curriculum gears the same topic or passage for each age group. So if the adults study the Good Samaritan, so does each classroom of their kids—all in a completely age-appropriate manner. Churches that use this method are light-years ahead of those that don’t, and they grow as a result.

  14. Steve

    I have to heartily disagree with your comments on youth ministry. Our church has long had burgeoning, active, solidly biblical youth ministries (both middle school and high) with fabulous teachers and leaders. The youth ministries allow kids a wonderful opportunity to meet peers and learn from one another how they can grow strong in Christ. These kids are VERY active in ministry, and the leaders make a deliberate effort to keep in touch with parents regularly and emphasize the parents’ serious responsibility for bringing up their own kids the way they should. Parental authority is strongly affirmed and encouraged. We feel very fortunate to be in such a church with an extraordinary high level of youth participation that encourages REAL growth in Christ and service for the kingdom, and many of the families are healthy families.

    Sorry, Dan, but our three teen sons and many other kids at our church have turned out fantastic. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

  15. Weekend Fisher

    There are passages for which a unified curriculum would work. Good Samaritan is one of them. Maybe ought to do a term of those each year. But Romans 1? No preschooler can get their head around the concepts. Half my preteens class couldn’t either. If the unified curriculum were for the whole year, the parents could never study any passage that was entirely above the head of the preschoolers, kindergartners, etc. There’s a time for the parents to be in the same class as their kids. There’s a time for the parents to see the same material as their kids. And there’s time for the parents to cover the parts that the kids just can’t mentally grasp yet.

  16. Steve,

    The youth ministry at your church is in the vast, vast, vast minority. Every study on youth ministry done in the last thirty years has shown it to be a miserable failure.

    Everything I write here will, by its very nature, be a generalization. Some churches will have no troubles at all in some of these areas, while others will be a disaster.

  17. Weekend,

    Respectfully, I have to disagree. I know churches that have gone to a unified curriculum and have made it work down to the youngest ages. Having taught very young children, I know that anything in the Scriptures can be explained to them if we work at through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

    The precedent is there, too. In fact, before we started segregating everyone, a unified curriculum is how the Puritans and others like them dealt with Christian Ed for their families.

  18. Bonnie

    Humbly, it seems more important for pre-schoolers (at least) to learn what their purpose is in worship and the church body rather than going off to play and color about a lesson they will most likely forget by next week. A parent’s example is what will stick with children. When children stay with their parents they see the function of their father and mother in the body, and therefore are able to see where and how they should function. We should encourage parents to teach their own children, and during the church “hour” should be no different.

  19. Pew Potato

    Any suggestions of publishers offering unified curriculum? The only one we’ve found is Group’s FaithWeaver, but we felt the Adult material was weak.

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