Is Attending Church Relevant?
About the Guest
Your child is 23 and not going to church. How do you handle it? Pastor Kevin DeYoung talks about the mindset of millenials, and ways parents can "invest" in their kids today, to help them engage with Christ tomorrow.
Kevin DeYoungA native of Jenison, Michigan, Kevin graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, with a B.A. in Religion. He earned his Master of Divinity degree at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is now a Ph.D. candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Leicester in the UK. Before accepting the call to lead Christ Covenant Kevin served as pastor of ...more
Your child is 23 and not going to church. What now? Pastor Kevin DeYoung talks about the mindset of millenials, and ways parents can “invest” in their kids today, to help them engage with Christ tomorrow.
Is Attending Church Relevant?
Bob: This is a special edition of FamilyLife Today for Friday, March 10th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
Today we go live aboard the Love Like You Mean It® marriage cruise for a conversation with pastor and author, Kevin DeYoung. Stay with us.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. It’s rare that we have a chance to have a studio audience joining us when we’re recording a FamilyLife Today program.
Dennis: And it’s even more rare that the audience is onboard a cruise.
Bob: That’s right. We’re in the middle of the ocean right now—but as listeners are listening—this was back, Valentine’s week, that we were onboard the Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise. A number of our listeners joined us for our recording session—welcome! [Applause]
And we also had one of our guest speakers who agreed to join us for this session. I got this actually sent to me this morning; and I thought, “This is something that I would love to talk to a young pastor, who is pastoring in a college town, and get his input on what I’ve heard.”
It just so happens we have somebody like that.
Dennis: Yes; Kevin DeYoung joins us again on FamilyLife Today—welcome back!
Kevin: Great to be here.
Dennis: Kevin is senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He and his wife Tricia have been married 15 years and have seven—
Dennis: —count ‘em—seven—last count.
Kevin: Could be eight by the time—[Laughter]
Dennis: Yes; really!
You’ve written a book that Bob and I were really looking forward to talking with you about—Why We Love the Church. You wrote it with Ted Kluck.
Dennis: And the reason I wanted to talk about it is because we have a lot of listeners, who listen to FamilyLife Today, as well as many in the audience, who have children that are either approaching adulthood and leaving home, if not already, and they’re puzzled about what’s taking place today in the abandonment of a generation of the church.
Bob: In fact, listen to this article that came into my email box this morning. The author writes:
From the depths of my heart I want to love the church. I want to be head over heels for church, like the unshakeable Ned Flanders.
I want to send global sky-writing airplanes, telling the life-change that happened beneath the steeple. I want to install a police microphone on the top of my car and cruise the streets, screaming to the masses about the magical utopian community of believers waiting for them just down the street. I desperately want to feel this way about my church; but I don’t, not even a bit.
It seems all too often churches are actually causing more damage than good, and the statistics show a staggering number of Millennials have taken note.
Here are the statistics—now, you’re not a Millennial / you’re a little past Millennial—
Kevin: I am a “Gen-X-er” I guess; yes.
So 22-35-year-olds—he says this study says only two in ten Americans under the age of 30 believe attending church is important or worthwhile—that’s at an all-time low.
He says 59 percent of Millennials raised in church have dropped out; 35 percent of Millennials have an anti-church stance, believing that church does more harm than good; and Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church, by far.
What’s going on?
Kevin: Well, there are a lot of things going on. I think those numbers can reflect something important—to the degree that we have those stories in our own church / our own families—who want to pay attention. I also think those numbers / those doomsday numbers always need to be taken with a little grain of salt. You look at the statistics, and it’s been true for a number of generations. I’m old enough now—39 years old—to remember when everything was about the Gen-X-ers leaving the church.
It does happen that a number of people start to come back as they begin to have kids and they raise families.
Now, we don’t want to be presumptuous about it—that’s one thing. It’s also important to realize these losses are not true across the board. We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back, as evangelical Christians—but by and large, the number of people in evangelical churches has remained steady / in fact, it’s kept up with population growth.
Most of the rise of the “nones”—those who no longer identify with any religion or Christianity—are coming from dropped-out Catholics and from burned-out or dropped-out main-line Christians. I’m not saying we don’t have our own problems—we certainly do—but it’s just to take those statistics with a grain of salt. We always think that the sky is falling, and it may be someone else’s sky over someone else’s house. Now, when it is our sky / our own house, we have to pay attention to it. How we respond is, really, even more important than trying to understand to what degree it’s true.
I think the first thing is—admit where there are faults. I mean, this needs to happen on a level of personal conversation. We can talk about statistics and Millennials; but you know, that’s just generational terms. As long as I’m young enough to get away with this, I just want to say: “The generational stuff is—sometimes, it’s just garbage.” God doesn’t have to put us all into a box—and you were born in this year and, all of a sudden, you think totally differently.
So, talk to people—talk to your kids, talk to your grandkids, talk to people in your church. Find out who they are / what they’re like, and begin this personal conversation about why they’re leaving the church. Maybe they’re leaving a very bad church. Maybe they’re being very selfish. I mean, the response when people say, “Well, the church is filled with hypocrites,” I always have two responses in my head: One is, “Well, then you’d fit right in.”
Dennis: That’s right.
Kevin: Or, the better response, maybe, is to say: “You know what? You don’t even know the half of it. You don’t even know how sinful we really are, in our hearts, but you know what? That’s kind of the point.”
If you’re looking for what this author [above] said—some idealistic utopian—where does that exist but in heaven?
Kevin: Where did we get this idea? It doesn’t exist at a Beyoncé concert. Where are they going to find this? You’re going to find it in heaven; and the representation of that heaven here on earth is going to be the church, with all of its imperfections.
Bob: You have met, though, disaffected evangelicals—those who grew up in pretty solid churches—and are saying: “There was just too much emphasis on personal salvation—not enough on social justice / not enough on the bigger problems around the world—I mean, the church has ignored sex trafficking,” or “The church has ignored…— whatever the cause of the day is. They’re put out, and they don’t want anything to do with the evangelical church as a result.
Kevin: It really depends, again, from church to church. I have met people like that. Sometimes, you want to say with tears, “I’m sorry that you had a bad church experience.” There are bad churches out there / there are bad pastors. You listen and you try to love people.
Then there are folks who are leaving evangelicalism and they’re barely hanging onto the last rung before they get all the way to unbelief. They don’t have the words to describe it; and so they describe it with these sort of categories, but it’s often a heart issue that’s wandering from Christ.
Now, when somebody comes to me—and certainly, there are all sorts of people in a university town who want to talk about social justice—and, “What do you guys do about social justice and the least of these?”—and refugees, and the poor. My first instinct is to want to affirm the good things they want to affirm: “Okay; tell me what you’re concerned about. We should be concerned about that as Christians.
“Tell me what you want to see happen—God’s laid this vision / this burden on your heart.”
Once I can clear some of the undergrowth and understand what we want is probably very similar, we can begin to talk about, “Where do we find this and what does it look like?”
Dennis: I, personally, think that a tsunami—a cultural tsunami around homosexuality / same-sex marriage—hit the church. Honestly, I’m speaking maybe more about myself now than I am generally the church—I don’t think I was ready to know how to express love and grace as this book, the Bible, says. What I had to do is go to school, asking God, “Teach me how to love other”—emphasis other—“broken people, who aren’t like me.”
I think the church has been playing catch-up, not knowing exactly how to respond. This generation of young people has a face to homosexuality / has a face to same-sex marriage—
—and they may be their best friends.
Kevin: Yes; so this cultural tsunami has come ashore. If we position ourselves as the old cultural warriors—there’s a way that we want to fight for what’s—so I’m not—
Dennis: Yes—still stand for the truth.
Kevin: That’s right. You know, politics matter; but if we get in that old stance of: “We have to reclaim America. We have to retake America,” that’s just—first of all, I don’t know that it ever was our America. I mean, whose ours was it? It didn’t work that well for African-Americans for most of our history.
Kevin: So, we need to be honest about that. And then we need to understand that people want to hear a vision of Christ and His Kingdom, not America and its kingdom. If we can get past that, and then we can begin to talk to our kids, and grandkids, and Millennials—and what you said, Dennis, is so true—
—they want to know, “Is this a church I’d be embarrassed to bring some of these people here?”
Now, if they’re embarrassed because of the truth, that’s one thing; but if they’re embarrassed because people have this -ic factor—they don’t know how to talk to people or every sermon comes at you like all the bad people are out there, instead of talking about our sins—I always say the sins people should hear about in the church most are their own sins. If it is always talking about other people’s sins out there, it’s going to have a certain veneer that’s not going to resonate with folks; and maybe it shouldn’t.
Bob: You wrote a book called What the Bible Has to Say About Homosexuality, which, by the way, is one of the books, along with Sam Allberry’s book—and there are others that I recommend to people on this issue—yours is excellent, because the second half just takes every argument and gives a biblical response to it. I’m sure, in a town like East Lansing / in a college town, to be the pastor who wrote the book, What the Bible Has to Say About Homosexuality, doesn’t win you any favors with the intellectual elite.
Kevin: No; it was eye-opening—I suppose it shouldn’t have been. Even more than the book was a blog post I wrote after the Supreme Court decision. You never know which of those things is going to go viral. I knew it had gone far when I saw our neighbor across the street—and hardly any of our neighbors are Christian or go to church—nice folks, though. We saw on her Facebook page®—she said something like: “I can’t believe that my neighbor wrote something like this. They seem like such nice people.”
But yes; that is hard; because in a town like ours, we’ve had a number of people—and our kids go to the public school, whether you think that’s good, bad, or otherwise; but they do—and so people will just talk to us and they assume.
They assume, maybe because we’re in the town and we talk like normal people, they will talk to us about how great the Supreme Court decision was—they don’t even think to ask what our opinion is. They just assume it’s that. So we’ve had some interesting conversations.
I remember a lady at the school—I was saying something about homosexuality and wasn’t preaching / I was in a public school setting. She just said: “Oh, you’re a pastor; and I have a friend who’s really looking for an open and affirming church. Would your church be a good church for her to go to?” Right in that moment, I think, “How do I answer that?”
Kevin: I said: “Well, I need to be honest. Our church is probably not what you have in mind when you say ‘open and affirming.’ We believe that the Bible says that that behavior is wrong, but we’re a church that would like to think that we really love anybody who comes, and that they can find a welcoming place, and learn about Jesus and the Bible.” That was my little off-the-cuff spiel, and it didn’t work; but I tried.
Dennis: You happen to be on a committee for public schools—
Dennis: —dealing with some of the issues around gender inclusivity—around same-sex bathrooms / transgender bathrooms. You’re kind of the token pastor amidst others. Here’s the question I have for you: “What coaching—or what have you learned, from that experience of being surrounded by people who don’t think or believe like you—that could help parents know how to prepare their kids to live their lives in a culture and a generation that do not think like we think, like we think, from the Bible?”
Kevin: That’s right. Well, one—you have to know what you believe and be convinced of it before you get into that moment. Number two is just being a hard-working kind of person—it is not the gospel—but it can get you somewhere.
You know, people feel like, “Well, he seems nice, but his views are bigoted”; right?—we want to create that confusion: “This is not what I thought these people would be like; because he works hard, and she is pretty kind to us, and a good neighbor to be around.”
And then the third—on a wisdom level—is you need to quote that great theologian [Kenny Rogers / The Gambler, by Don Schlitz, 1978]:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away.
I just had to realize: “At any moment, anyone from any viewpoint can be listening to this. I need to think carefully/strategically: ‘Is this the hill? Is this what I want to fight on?’”
What I did, in that sort of moment, as I was always trying to clarify—like on that committee—“What are we voting on right now?” because I had some things I wanted to say; but I didn’t want to say it before I had to say it. I wanted to keep my powder dry.
I think to equip our children, we want to say: “You know, it’s not about being duplicitous / it’s not about hiding what you believe.
“But being courageous doesn’t mean you have to download your systematic theology on people every time you’re with them. There’s wisdom to understanding when’s the time to talk about this; because when you have a 30-second sound bite on something that’s controversial—these sexuality issues—it’s probably not going to go well. You need to have some time to develop more what you think.”
Dennis: Kevin, I’d add one thing to what you’re saying. I think today, as never before, we have to train our children to be missional. They need to be about the Father’s business, just like Jesus was. A part of that is, yes, speaking the truth; but it’s speaking the truth—held in tension with grace, and love, and humility that embraces broken people where they live. There’s where the church has a great message for a broken culture—we’re all broken!
Kevin: Yes; if people you evangelize—and they want to jump in—they want to talk about, “What about gay marriage?”—yes.
I don’t want to hide what I think about that, but it’s ultimately a lordship of Christ issue. I want to talk to people about Christ. I want to help people realize, just like Paul in Acts, to defend our faith and to evangelize our faith can go together.
Bob: So on the sex-ed committee at public school, when they turn to you and say, “So what do you think?” how do you pick the place where you bring Scripture in and bring Jesus in versus the place where you say, “There’s just not wisdom in the approach that we’re taking here”?
Kevin: It’s really hard to know how to do that. Certainly, in that context, I wouldn’t—you know, “What do you think?” I don’t go to Romans 1 in a school board setting / public school. What I tried to do—and I don’t know that I did it successfully—was try to make space that our views, as Christians, have legitimacy, and have a place at the table, and are based in—not bigotry—but in good thinking and historical precedence.
The one thing, strategically, that we do have—if people are willing to be honest, which they often aren’t—is to say, “Okay; you all want to be inclusive,”—university town / they all like inclusivity—I say: “Okay; what does it mean to really be inclusive? Are you inclusive of people like us?—are you inclusive? You want to represent the kid with two moms—what about the kid who has a mom with seven kids? That’s not represented in the curriculum here.” You try to angle that way.
Then, I would try to present people—you know: “If you think bigotry is coming to conclusions, apart from reason and rationality, then I agree with that. Let’s be thoughtful. Look—if we’re really a community—and we really value thinking, and we don’t want to be bigots / we want to be reasonable people, then why don’t we step back? Why don’t we hear from both sides of this?” If you want your kids to be well-taught, right, why do you have to be afraid? Why not give them the best arguments that we can think of?
Bob: Let me come back—because we’re running out of time—but I want to be back to the disaffected 23-year-old, who is not going to church on Sunday anymore. Mom and Dad don’t know what to do. They’ve been on their knees about this for a couple of years, since it became clear that they kind of lost this son or daughter during college. They don’t know what to say—whether to prod / whether to say nothing. What counsel would you give? What kind of pastoral wisdom would you have for those parents?
Kevin: Don’t underestimate what you’ve already poured into them. I think then—as a parent / as you parent in a different way now—it’s keeping that bridge open. You don’t want it to be so that, in addition to repenting before Christ to come back to the church—which is what they need to do—that you’re making them shamefaced, swallow, eat crow, come before you and “You were right, Mom and Dad. I should have been going to church.”
You’re not trying to win an argument with them.
Now, there are certain things you have to draw the line—maybe: “You’re not going to live here. You’re not going to have that sort of relationship in our house,”—and I completely support parents doing that. But with the disaffected 20-something Millennial, who’s not going to church, I think parents continue to love / they continue to ask questions.
I remember, as a kid, feeling like, “Mom and Dad, why do you have to ask questions?” And yet, there was that part of me that, if they didn’t, I’d feel like: “Well, don’t you care about me? Isn’t that your job? You’re supposed to ask questions, and I’m supposed to seem like I don’t care.” [Laughter] Don’t underestimate how much a child always needs to know that Mom and Dad love him and to tell them that: “I love you. You know what I want, but I love you,”—you keep that open.
Then you have to—the Holy Spirit—you are not the Holy Spirit in your child’s life / only the Holy Spirit can play that role.
Dennis: And make the home a safe place where a teenager can come home with doubts and have a receptive audience that doesn’t condemn their doubts but encourages them in the journey.
Kevin: That’s right.
Dennis: I just look back on my own life—how I literally, as a junior in college, the spiritual lights came on in my life. I literally went on a walk at the University of Arkansas that led me into the church that was the leading church in the state of Arkansas in reaching college students. One fourth of the student body at the University of Arkansas came to that church every year—a student body of 10,000 people / 2,500 students came to that church. They were hearing about Jesus Christ around the issues of our day—Him being relevant as never before / the One who was a radical and the One who spoke truth. Pray for your kids—that they will stumble into a great church that preaches the gospel.
I so appreciate you, Kevin, being a pastor, a dad, a husband, a man in this culture, and doing your best to follow Christ. Thanks for being on the broadcast.
Kevin: That’s what I’m doing—trying to do my best—but thank you.
Bob: Would you guys thank Kevin DeYoung for us? [Applause] Great job.
Kevin: Thanks, guys.
Bob: You know, listening back to that conversation with Kevin DeYoung, I think a lot of our listeners, who were with us on the Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise, where we recorded that interview—that was just one of the benefits of being onboard the cruise—getting the opportunity to have some dialogue time with the speakers who were onboard with us. We were able to sit down and have some important conversations, which is a part of what the Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise provides.
As we look ahead to Valentine’s week of 2018, we are already more than 60 percent filled up for next year’s cruise. We want to make sure that FamilyLife Today listeners have an opportunity to be with us as we leave from Fort Lauderdale and head to the Dominican Republic, then to Grand Turk island, and then to Half Moon Cay before we get back into Florida—it’s an extra day this year.
As I said, staterooms are starting to sell out. If you are interested in being on the cruise Valentine’s week of 2018, now is the time to call 1-800-FL-TODAY or go online to FamilyLifeToday.com—get more information and get registered. We have some early-bird pricing that is in effect until March 20. If you want to take advantage of the lower rates, go to FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And with that, we have to wrap things up for this week. Thanks for being with us. Hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend.
Then I hope you can join us on Monday when we’re going to talk about resolving conflict and offering forgiveness to one another in marriage and in all relationships. We’re going to hear from 25 years’ worth of guests who have been on our program, talking about the importance of resolving conflict and forgiving each other. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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