BEWARE New "Strategies for Church Growth"

Must Evangelical Churches Always Strive for a 'Youthful Image'?



M y wife and I recently left the fellowship of a congregation in which we had worshipped for almost three years.
As always, there are some regrets; some friends we will now no longer see on a regular basis, some of the really great and enjoyable things which occurred in that fellowship. The preaching too was often really great preaching. Unfortunately, however, the time came where it became hard to live with the gap between the biblical preaching and some of the serious problems which existed at administrative and organisational level. Those problems largely existed because our ex-fellowship had bought into the "necessity" to pursue a 'youthful image.'

The time came where the pursuance of this 'youthful image' started to render the biblical preaching a little hypocritical at times. For instance, If we say that we 'love the brethren,' should that not mean all of the brethren?

The same Church Growth strategy is affecting more and more evangelical churches here in the UK, and I know from American friends that the same thing has been increasingly happening over there.

This strategy basically says that evangelical churches need to 'target' the group which they wish to evangelise and continually focus on that group. Sadly, the whole schema is based on 'market forces' and finance - not on biblical principles! Young people - it is suggested - are the future of any congregation and, in years to come, they will be the chief financial contributors to the congregation therefore it is simply good sense to 'target' them for evangelism!

The pursuance of this aim is why increasing numbers of evangelical churches have at least one of their Sunday Services virtually given over to the young with 'twangy' electric guitars and pop-style worship songs the staple worship diet!

In no time, young faces are preferred to lead services and to offer prayers. It is felt that when young people enter the hall of worship for the first time and hear pop-style modern hymns and see very young faces leading services they will not feel 'out of place' or in an unsympathetic environment. The next step is often that very young people are promoted to leading positions within the ministry below the level of the ministers. The congregation which we recently left had a placed a very young lady of about 21 to organise and write the Bible Studies. She was a very fine young woman but privately admitted to me that she often felt completely out of her depth when problems came along. There were, of course, many more senior people who could have done the job and been better able to handle the occasional problem but they would not have cut the right image.

Our congregation was situated in a University town with many young people passing through and there is no doubt that these young folk were targeted for evangelism. Of course, this resulted (as it always does) in an effectively split congregation! A huge group of older people (yes, certainly including my wife and myself, since we are in our 50's) felt completely left out of things and often quite surplus to requirements. I will just give our ex-pastor credit for being determined to hold on to a balance of hymns (rather than having only new pop-style ones) but, beyond that, our pastor and his elders were striving hard to make it a young person's environment!
Our pastor would (I now learn) often make the boast, 'We are a very young church!' But actually he was wrong. There were about 300 members, probably 65% of them over the age of 40! What he meant was: we have a lot of young people passing through, they are not members but we continually target them. We probably had 150 young people who were in and out when the university was in session, and going to other places of worship too. Of course, many such young people will eventually make a commitment to Christ and that is great, but a huge majority of such students would never become 'members' of our congregation and yet all our efforts often seemed to be continually geared towards them because of the acceptance of a youth-based church growth strategy - can that be right? After all, this also meant that there was little focus and attention on many elderly people who had faithfully served the congregation for many years!!

The determination to pursue a youthful policy meant that if several people volunteered to do a job which was in the 'limelight' it would be the youthful face which would always be picked. This often offended middle aged and older members and - at the time we left the congregation - there were some indications of a coming rebellion!

So what is essentially wrong with this whole approach?

Isn't it good to target the young for evangelism?

We see yet again that when human reasoning is applied to evangelism, it immediately goes awry! This whole approach is based on a financial strategy - it is also an approach which seeks to copy the deficiencies of our modern western societies in which youth is everything and the importance of older people is continually undermined! The strategy seems to just assume that we can decide where God should bestow His grace, but that can never be so.
The truth is, the Word of God does not tell us only to target certain age groups for evangelism, rather we are to preach the gospel to 'every creature' (Mark 16:15).

Another and, it seems to me, associated problem is the increasing tendency for churches which practise believer's baptism to baptize young people before they are genuinely ready for baptism. My wife and I have seen so many examples of this that it beggars belief! We have seen some youngsters who were baptized before they were ready, later end up in prison, in a tragic state of drug-dependence and - in one case - a young man that we knew took his own life. This seems to go hand in hand with the tragic diminishment of the biblical teaching of Repentance! When we tell people to, 'Just repeat this prayer after me and when you have finished saying it, you are saved' we are teaching an unbiblical practise! (I don't accuse the fellowship we just departed of this, but it is widespread). Repentance can never come by repeating somebody else's prayer but must always come from the heart! John the Baptist said, 'Bring forth fruit meet for repentance' - in other words: 'You say you are repentant? Demonstrate it by your fruits of a changed life!'
We might baptize young people before they are ready, but....God is not mocked! We cannot make them Christians in that way no matter how many times we 'dunk' them under the water!! Becoming a Christian is ultimately a matter of whether God has furnished us with the necessary justification and regeneration; baptism remains important and yet it is ultimately no more than a symbol. Certainly, in the last few months while witnessing almost a procession of young people being baptized we heard one or two very odd pre-baptism 'testimonies' which strongly suggested that certain of these individuals were just not ready for baptism. In the final few months we withdrew from attending these 'baptismal services.'

I recently spoke to a 'Youth Pastor' from a large evangelical church in a large English city. I have no personal knowledge of this place of worship and did not necessarily expect this Youth Pastor to endorse my own feelings but he was utterly forthright, though asked us not to divulge his name at the present time. This is what he said:

'During the last three years we have, I think quite shamelessly, pursued a policy in which we went all out to bring in youngsters. This inevitably meant a compromise in standards. The price we had to pay was greatly reduced security with seven break-ins with quite a bit of theft during this period. We are now about to revise our approach because although we experienced 16 baptisms during this period, 4 of those were middle-aged people, 3 of the younger baptized people no longer even claim to be Christians, and the others (all young people), have now moved on to different churches. We should never consider these things, perhaps, from a money perspective, but if we did, our policy has cost us money because the majority of these young people were just not financial contributors! For my own part I am looking forward to returning to a situation in which I will only be working with our own young people, rather than a seemingly endless array of lads who attend because we seem to have the prettiest girls in our town!'

You may feel that that Youth Pastor's comments were excessively cynical, but he was speaking purely from his experience. Perhaps the situation is not always that depressing, though.

As we have already noted, the Great Commission tells us to preach the gospel, without fear or favour, to all! (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16). God does not show us exactly where He will furnish His grace, neither can we manipulate who God may call by any amount of focussed church growth strategies! But there is another problem here:
James shows us that the showing of partiality or favouritism within the congregation is a sin (James 2:1-13). It is wrong to favour the rich, or any other particular group. Some may respond that to pursue a policy of favouritism toward the young is a long way from showing partiality to the well-off, but as we have seen, the roots of this particular 'Church growth strategy' are firmly based in monetary considerations, even if a few who are currently steeped in youth evangelism are unware of this.

So, let us encourage the young to attend church and learn more of Jesus in every way we can, but not at the expense of making middle-aged and older congregation members feeling distinctly 'left-out,' uncomfortable and frankly, surplus to requirements because of the pursuance of a divisive and ill conceived 'growth strategy.' On the contrary, we should very much value those who have been the backbone of the congregation perhaps for many years! Indeed, we should do all we can to tap into the wealth of experience, wisdom and knowledge of these individuals.
Robin A. Brace
2004.


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