What About Tomorrow? (An AGAPE Sermon)
1st Corinthians 9:19-23
The church faces a big problem today. An alarming number of American youth and young adults have no interest in the church or the Christian faith. In fact 40 percent of millennials don’t care about religion or church, and that number continues to grow. This is one of the reasons why the mainline church (which includes UMC) is declining at an astounding rate. Mainline Protestants have the worst retention rate among those 18-30. Just 37% of them stay in the church, according to Pew. By contrast, nearly two in three millennials raised without a faith continue to reject organized religion as adults.
If this trend continues there will not be much left of the mainline church and this church a generation from now.
I am sure many of you feel this issue at home. Maybe you have a teenager who does not want to go to church. You plead and beg but they just don’t care. When they do come, they are looking texting their friends and not engaged. Or perhaps you have a child in college who just does not see the need for the faith and church anymore. You are concerned because you raised them in the church and taught them how important faith is but they have drifted away from those values. Perhaps you are a grandparent who just does not understand why your grandkids are not active in the church. Or maybe you are a young adult yourself and you find that your friends have negative attitudes about faith and the church. Whenever you bring up the subject they have nothing by disparaging things to say about faith and the church.
Why is this happening? Why do so many youth and young adults want nothing to do with religion and the church?
Tragically one of the reasons is many youth and young adults have negative experiences of Christians. Barna did a study a few years back that found that most young adults are not interested in the church because the Christians they know are unkind, self-righteous and judgmental.
The other day I had a conversation with a 16 year old that confirms this. He recently got a job at an establishment that prides itself on being a Christian organization. At first he liked working there but now he wants to quit. Why? Because he doesn’t like the way his Christian coworkers treat gay customers. He said, “Not only do they say mean things about them behind their backs, but they treat them differently. It is so obvious. I thought Christians were supposed to be kind. I just can’t work there anymore.”
Many people have experienced the same of Christians and churches and have said, “I just can’t go there anymore.”
Of course another reason why so many youth and young adults want nothing to do with church or faith is because, quite frankly, Christians today are not doing a very good job passing along the Christian faith as effectively as older generations. The world has changed and continues to change at a rapid pace and many churches are just too stubborn or too lazy to adjust their way of doing ministry to accommodate these changes.
A few years back the United Methodist Church did a big ad campaign. The thought was if we do a big slick attractive ad more people will show up to church. It works for businesses. Why not the church? The ad tag line was “Open hearts, open minds, open doors. The people of the UMC.” Well it didn’t work. Why? Because when people showed up to church they found the product did not match the ad. Some churches were not as open as advertised.
The other reason it did not work is because the ad simply did not engage people, especially young adults. If they did show up to church the experience was not engaging or relevant.
This leads to the biggest reason why many young people don’t care for church or faith: It bores them! You see, most of the young adults in America who reject the church and Christianity are not atheists or agnostics. They are just bored by church. Greg Jones of Duke Divinity School asserts that the church has not done a very good job engaging young people in ways that are fascinating and relevant. Many young adults see Christians and churches as being preoccupied with irrelevant issues they don’t care about.
So what can we do about it? Really, what can Pasadena Community Church do about this? We are a good, healthy church. We are one of the biggest United Methodist churches in the Florida Conference. We are doing a lot of things right. We are a good church, but I want us to be a great church. I want us to be a church that reaches more young people with the love and power of the gospel. I want us to show young people how relevant the church and faith is to their lives. I want their hearts touched and changed by a God who loves them more than they could ever imagine. I want them to experience God’s and grow in their relationship with God. I have a heart for young people and I want Pasadena to have a heart for young people.
I also have a heart for our church’s future. I want Pasadena to be a vital and vibrant church 20 years from now. If we are going to continue to be a healthy church we must do something about reaching the next generation. If not, this church will be dead or close to dead 20 years from now.
So how do we do it? Well this morning I am going to share what Pasadena is going to do to reach more young people so they can’t wait to get here, meet Jesus and grow in their relationship with him. I am going to share with you how our church is going to grow exponentially in the next five years. I am going to share how we are going to reach your teenager, college age kid, grandkids, and your young adult friends.
To share how we are going to do this I want to draw your attention to some scripture. You see the Apostle Paul had a heart for making the gospel real, relevant and exciting to people who were not interested in Christianity. In fact, it was Paul’s ability to reach people outside the church that grew the early church like wildfire. You see, we often see biblical characters as old dusty irrelevant figures who have nothing to teach us about doing ministry in the world today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take a look at what Paul says:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. -1st Corinthians 9:19
What Paul is saying here is that for him to reach as many people as possible with the gospel he chose not to be authoritative or judgmental, but to come along-side people, understand them and respect them. According to William Barclay the word “slave” here means to “throw yourself into the interests of others.” Paul describes this more as he continues:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. -1st Corinthians 9:20-23
Paul is expressing his strategy for ministry. To reach people he began to think like they think, to feel their world, to establish a point of contact and connection with them, to know their interests. Once he did this he not only gained their respect but he discovered a way to make the gospel accessible and relevant to them.
For example, in the book of Acts when Paul was speaking to Gentiles he would not quote a Jewish prophet or reference Jewish history. Gentiles would not have understood any of that. Instead, he spoke of God giving rain and crops in their seasons (Acts 14:14-18). When Paul spoke to Greek philosophers he did not use language of faith but proclaimed that their “Unknown God” was alive and revealed in Jesus Christ (Acts 17:22-23).
Paul won more people for Christ than any other person in history because he realized it was essential to become all things to all people – to preach sermons everyone could understand, to create comfortable environments for people, to engage in relevant and stimulating discussions.
We must do the same as Paul if we are going to reach more young people and remain a vibrant church in the future. Based on what Paul expressed, how do you think he would have reached millennials and young people? By coming alongside them and connecting with them at their level. He would try to understand them. So here is what we must do as a church:
To reach young people we must create an experience that attracts them.
And that is exactly what we are going to do here at Pasadena. We are going to create something they can relate to, engage in, where we come alongside them, where they feel understood and respected, not judged – an environment that fascinates and interests them.
It all began about 5 years ago when Danny, Sidney and I began to talk about creating a worship experience that would accomplish what I am expressing today. We put it on hold until now because we wanted to be aligned with God’s timing. Well, this time of transition has created many serendipitous blessings. We know we can do worship well in this space. God has created a wave for us and we believe the time is right to move forward with our plan.
On September 17th we will begin a whole new worship experience for youth and young adults. It will be an environment that attracts, connects, and engages young people. It will be called A.M. (About More). Here is a new video about it:
(Play AM video)
A.M. will be here in the Hamilton Auditorium on Sunday’s at 9:45am. Both 9 and 11am will still be in the sanctuary and will stay exactly the same. Those services will not change. I will also preach the A.M. service.
Why will the service be in Hamilton? One of the things we have discovered is young adults like an environment where they feel comfortable and free to express themselves. A darker room is better suited for that, and, unlike the sanctuary, we can get this room very dark. Also, young adults like an environment that is visually stimulating with lights and luminary effects and obviously that would not work in the sanctuary. This space is also more intimate and lends itself to connection.
The music in the service will be progressive, cutting edge and appealing to young people. We will have a completely new band for the service. The service will also be smart phone friendly because young people love their smart phones.
Here is a short video of what we are trying to create:
(Show North Point Video)
Now imagine if we had something like this on this campus. Imagine if we could create this kind of energy and enthusiasm.
Now I know other churches are doing this. What makes us different? We are a church uniquely suited to attract young adults who are turned off by many churches and Christians. Most young adults and millennials are not hung up on a lot of issues that the church gets hung up on. They are not exclusive in their thinking. Our theology is progressive and we are very inclusive. Everyone is truly welcome here.
Many churches have a bait and switch going on. They seem welcoming, relevant and open but when you dig deeper and discover what they really believe the church is not as it appears.
I recall speaking with a young adult after worship here a few years ago. She had previously attended another church that had a similar service we are seeking to create. The church seemed welcoming and open. Soon she felt a call to ministry, to preach and teach. At first she noticed there were no women in leadership in the church. When she began to talk to some of the church staff about her call, she was politely told that women are not allowed to preach.
You will not find that at Pasadena. If you are a woman who feels called by God to preach you will receive full support from our church. Our church is genuinely open. We have a faith and a theology that backs up our welcoming, open and relevant atmosphere. When you combine a worship experience that is attractive with a faith that is progressive, open and inclusive you have a powerful ministry than can change the lives of young people.
Speaking of change, change like this will always be met with resistance. I know some folks here are not going to like making this change. Change is hard. That’s why many churches are dying. If change was easy every church would do it! But change and innovation must happen in order for a church to grow.
When Charles Wesley began to take bar songs and change the words to express a gospel message people thought he was a heretic and resisted it. Now those songs are in our hymnal.
When microphones were first introduced in worship people thought it was of the devil and resisted it. Now if you don’t have a microphone people complain that they can’t hear you.
When the contemporary worship movement began 40 years ago some people bemoaned how the church was going to straight to you know where. Now it is rare to find a church that does not have a contemporary worship service.
Each of these changes was essential to the growth of the church.
Now we find ourselves in the middle of another necessary innovation in worship. We can resist it if we want, but if we don’t want to be left in the dust as a church we must embrace it.
If you are still having a hard time with this look no further than the history of this church and J. Wallace Hamilton, this church’s pastor for 40 years. Innovation and growth is in our church’s DNA.
Most people don’t know that this campus was not the original campus of the church. The original campus was 7 miles from here. There’s a book about it entitled 7 Miles Out. The founders of this church had the vision of moving the campus closer to the beaches where it would be convenient for vacationers to go to church. They also knew South Pasadena was growing. Many thought the idea was crazy! Some people laughed at it. Some church members resisted it. What happened? The church grew to be one of the largest in the country.
It was not only Hamilton’s skill as a preacher that grew this church; it was also his creativity and innovative spirit. Do you know why we have so much property on our campus? Because Hamilton created the first drive-in church! When people were on their way to beach they could stay in their car with their bathing suits on, pull in to the parking lot, place a speaker on their car and listen to the service before heading to the beach! Now that sounds old fashion today, but back then it was cutting edge!
When the church grew so large that it required the building of a new sanctuary Hamilton wanted a sanctuary that was different. He wanted worshippers to be able to see God’s creation. That’s why the sanctuary is covered in windows. No one had ever thought of that before!
To continue to grow this church like Hamilton we must think like Hamilton thought. One of my favorite quotes from him is “If people aren’t interested they are not listening.”
We have a simple choice as a church: Change or die. Inwardly focused churches die. Outwardly focused churches thrive. Again, the church is the only institution in the world that exists for those who are not a part of it. It’s not about what we prefer or meets our fancy. It’s about making the gospel real and relevant to people who don’t know the love of Jesus. To do that we must continually plant trees that we will never sit under.
What do we need from you? Ironically, we need you to keep doing what you are doing. Stay faithful to your worship service. It is not our desire to split the 9 am service in half. We want to attract a whole new group of young people to our church. To do that we must create a space and environment that they own – where they see a bunch of people their age they can connect with. Now we are not going to check ages at the door but for this to work it must be a worship space that has a young vibe. Young people want to go where there are bunches of other young people.
We also need you to promote this service. Tell your friends about it. Talk about it on social media. Put a new decal on your car. Spread the word!
Now this is the first step in reaching young people. Later we will move to engaging them with small groups and service opportunities. For now see this worship experience as the front door and living room of the church. This is where things must begin before they feel comfortable moving into the kitchen and den of small groups and mission.
Are you ready to help Pasadena go to the next level in ministry? Are you ready to reach more young people in this community? Are you ready to invest in the future of this church? The time is now. Let’s ride this wave of God. Amen.