GroundSwell – Hearing The Voice of the Next Generation

“The church needs to change the way we preach the word, going to the people and meeting them where they are rather than just expecting people to show up. This will be messier than we’re used to. The church may not be liked by everyone in the future, but it will not be able to be ignored because of the disciples we’ve made.” Tyler Gramling, Cooper City, FL, age 19

Young people today are not simply the church of the future. They are a viable part of the church of today. This was just one of several themes running through the almost three hour webcast, GroundSwell, last Thursday as pastors and ministry leaders discussed the future of the church through the perspective of more than 30 teens from a wide variety of churches and every region of the country.  Facilitated by Leadership Network, the webcast originated from The Refuge at Saddleback Church and included taped segments from individual teen agers, youth ministers, panel discussions and live in-studio commentary by Dave Kinnamon, president of The Barna Group and author of UnChristian and the new book, You Lost Me.

Emerging from all of the comments of the young people were five major themes: 1) We are not too young-involve us now; 2) Challenge us;  3) We want a relationship with you and to learn from you; 3) Don’t water down or sugar coat the Gospel; and 5) There is too much competition and a lack of unity among churches.

These are observations from Dave Kinnaman based on listening to the students and current research by The Barna Group.

DK: This generation is more interested in being challenged than we are in challenging them whether it is in being an apprentice, learning Scripture or how we pray. The other way to think about how this generation is expressing their perceptions of the church is not only are they more wiling to be challenged than we are to challenge them but they are more willing to challenge us than we are to be challenged. You hear it in their wanting to have more leadership opportunities, wanting more of a seat at the table.

LN:  Any thoughts on how church leaders can do that?

DK: We need to make an intentional choice as leaders to listen and involve them. They are comfortable with videos, etc.   Some churches have asked teens to create a video history of the congregation and then shared it during a service. Do a video interview with them that allows the voice of this generation to be shared in the church. It seems as though the church has used a market based approach to generations…but a Biblical view of generations is more that that…it is the people alive at one time who are serving God’s purposes…that’s the real body of Christ.

Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback, joined the webcast briefly and was asked “What are you learning from teenagers that you think other church leaders need to learn?”

RW: Teenagers are not the church of tomorrow, they are it. We are trying to integrate them now literally into every area…on the stage, behind the camera, doing offerings.  For too long, Saddleback made the mistake of segregating them by age. We built enormous ministries for junior high, senior high and college.  What we found out is that they would finish and then just leave because they had no connection to the bigger body.  About three or four years ago, we started making some strategic changes.  One of them was me speaking to kids more…junior high, youth. A second one was incorporating them on stage…we want our service to look like heaven…to be age diverse.  We are getting ready to do the next step…we are going to cancel our student programs once a month on Sunday and they come into the service…it is not an option…so that they are totally integrated into our service.  We also send kids on mission trips with peace teams.

DK: I love what you are saying.  One, you are intentionally involving teens in relationships. We found that two of three young people who grow up in a church don’t even have an adult friend at the church.

RW: Studies have shown that the number one factor on whether a young person makes it in life or doesn’t is the presence of one caring adult in their life. It does not have to be a parent but it is a caring adult in their life. It is the relationship, more than the doctrine, the teaching or anything else.

DK: The other thing is really involving young people in relation to their calling and vocation.  We learned that 86% of young Protestants had no idea of how the Bible applied to their field of career or professional interest. What a tragedy for us to not be able to help them connect the dots.

RW: We are working on a thing right now that is a cross between and for career identification in the church. Basically, it is to get the older generation to mentor the younger generation.  When I started Saddleback, my daughter Amy was four months old.  She is now married with three kids.  Three years ago, we fired the older generation of leaders, the Caleb generation, and now the second generation of leaders is leading.  We keep growing because we have depth on our “farm league.”  Usually a pastor will reach people within ten years of their age.  Now that I am in my 50‘s I have leaders in their teens, 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. That’s my “farm league” and you are always moving them up.

LN: What about preaching a gospel that’s not watered down yet still reaches this younger generation?

DK: They want to be challenged, they want to be taught. We assume they would not understand some of the finer points of theology or subject areas but what we are learning is that they are smart…they are intelligent, they have connections and an ability to think about broader issues.

The one caution I would give is that it is easy for us as leaders to say that the deeper gospel for which they are asking is only available here at this church and at the same time to criticize other churches that we think maybe aren’t teaching that deeper gospel.  In interviewing young people who have walked away from the church, it is because they see that as divisive.  We need to be careful in the way we talk about other churches and our brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t do the things the way we do.

LN: What does it mean when they say the church should be more culturally relevant?

DK: A lot of the language we use…missional churches, outward focused churches, gospel centered…we use the terms so much that it’s like we have rubbed the meaning off the coins. Culturally relevant is kind of like that. We must be interested in being culturally aware.  The best Biblical model of being culturally aware is Daniel. He learned the language and literature of one of the most pagan human cultures in history and he thrived in it as a faithful follower of Yahweh.

Culturally aware means that you understand the culture in which God has placed you. You speak the language, understand the science and recognize the industries of technology, politics and media that are shaping our world.

We are not just trying to be cool or hipster about it…we are not trying to out do culture…we will never do that.  For a church that feels it is just trying to keep up with the culture, that is a false goal.

When the students say culturally relevant, they really mean culturally aware. They want to be prepared like Daniel was. They want their faith communities to be aware of the media and conversations and churches have to be willing to go there with them.

It is more about helping students navigate the cultural realities and that means vocation. We listen to a lot of young adults and what they encounter is that if they are a scientist or a journalist, or doctor or law or in some other career, pretty soon the Bible and their experience of church wears thin because we have never helped them connect that cultural awareness to their interests and what they are called to do.  If we don’t connect how the Bible works for the Creation, Fall, and Redemption story to their calling, then we miss the chance of imparting Biblical depth to this generation. That is what they are looking for.

The following are actual quotes from the teen participants in GroundSwell.


Build young-we need you. We are not helpless.  Do not underestimate us. We can contribute and serve. The most mis-understood thing about our generation is that we are helpless and don’t know what we are doing. We may do things a little differently, but we are not helpless. Include us in the worship service by allowing us to serve. We DO matter. We CAN contribute.


Ask us to step up and we will. Our generation is about causes, purpose and movements and the most important cause is that of Christ. Teach us how to live missionally. Stop just talking about problems and get into action. Be bold enough to disciple us. Empower us with the mission of the church and trust us to carry it out. True discipleship isn’t just attendance and fellowship. True discipleship is building into the lives of others and sharing your faith with them.


People don’t come to the church just to learn how to deal with dicey situations. If that were the case, we’d just Google it.  We want relationship. Churches are more interested in programming than discipleship. We need leaders to inspire us to give of ourselves. Help us learn from you. We need you to mentor and apprentice us. We need your instruction, guidance, correction and affirmation. In order to make the transition to the future, we need you to help us learn from your experience.


Be real. We need to show the relevance that the Gospel already has. Address sexuality and other moral issues in a new way and in depth.


There is too much fighting in churches today. Today’s church is too judgmental about other churches. The church is pretty self-focused. Our job as Christians is to love and serve people.  We need to work together rather than competing with each other.


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