What is What?

kinnon —  November 24, 2009 — 14 Comments


Last week, I had a long chat with someone I hadn't spoken to in years. He's a well known leader in the wider church world – one who has become tired of consumer church, sounding almost post-evangelical. He reminded me of the above statement – one he remembers a seminary professor sharing with him almost four decades ago. It's no less true today.

Last night, the iMonk shared this video on the Boar's Head Tavern, The Christian Side Hug. This is what masquerades as discipleship in youth ministry. A steaming pile of gangsta-style from middle-class white kids singing suspect purity theology. And we wonder why the 18-30 segment are leaving the church in droves.

Yet, we will use the same nonsense in an attempt to win new "converts." Brad Boydston points to this good post from Dan Whitmarsh, Anything to Make a Sale:

… the strategy is: do something fun/cool/outrageous to get people in the door, then tell 'em about Jesus.

Let's be clear about one thing: the motivation is great. Telling people about Jesus is our highest calling. Creating opportunities to tell people about Jesus is a wonderful task.

But there was a dark side that very few people really wanted to talk about: this 'wow 'em and tell 'em about Jesus' strategy doesn't do much in the way of creating disciples. Instead, it creates instant flash with no long-term impact. The fact that even 70-80% of Christian kids leave the church after high school ought to tell us we're doing something wrong. That we're not growing Followers, that we're not raising Disciples. Instead, we're creating Consumers who will always chase after the next big fix, wherever that comes from. We're not raising young people who understand such basic tenets of Christianity as sacrifice, service, humility, forgiveness, love, grace and mercy. We are, in fact, temporarily distracting young people with smoke and mirrors, sneaking the gospel in there, assuming that, since they 'said the prayer' following the pizza and root-beer gorge, they're 'in.'

And here's today's problem: those raised in this world are leaving their youth ministry days behind and moving into senior leadership in churches across America. . .and they're using the exact same strategies in the larger church.

A case in point, this painful video at Out of Ur. I have no doubt this young man basically has good motives. But he's not interested in hearing any critique. Entertainment is good because it gets butts in seats – "cuz, it's all about the numbers, baby!" And this young man's church has the numbers to show – so the rest of us just need to shut our festering gobs.

But, in line with Whitmarsh above, do those numbers reflect the raising up of people who are disciples of Christ – whose lives exhibit "sacrifice, service, humility, forgiveness, love, grace and mercy."

Tony Robbins attracts huge crowds. He has loyal followers who hang on his every word and buy his every product. Actually, Tony has loyal consumers. And that is what much of the the entertained pew fodder are in North American megachurches and megachurch wannabees – loyal consumers. If we can keep them entertained, providing them with the "tools" to be better whatevers (husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, children, students, employees, employers – you name it) then we can guarantee growth.


What we win them with, is what we win them to. Win them with entertainment, and you've created customers – who expect to be continually entertained.

Picking up our crosses and following Jesus is not particularly attractive. Buying into a worldview where the last are first, and the first are last doesn't win us any earthly popularity awards – and seems antithetical to the North American Dream.


Please allow me to suggest.

If you insist on bragging about your church, don't tell us about the numbers. Tell us about how the Kingdom has come to your community. Tell us of the lame who walk, the blind who see, the debts that have been forgiven, the reconciliation that has taken place at personal, generational & racial levels, how the poor and the outcast are loved and taken care of, how widows and orphans are grafted into the church family, how your community is experiencing the Year of Jubilee – because of what the Spirit is doing in and through your church.

But if all you can talk about are your numbers, then, please…

…just shut up. It's long past old.

[NOTE: If you click on the image at the top, it will take you to a larger version, which you are more than welcome to use. It was created in Adobe Illustrator & After Effects CS4.]



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

14 responses to What is What?

  1. The plea from the multi-site/mega-church folks is always “Can’t we just focus on the gospel and not worry about fighting over methods?” That would be nice, but over a decade after the emerging movement began we’re more fractured than ever about what the gospel actually is. Our understanding of the gospel dictates our form of church. Hard core missional and emerging folks get this – it’s why they want to change everything. Hard core Reformed folks also get this – it’s why they want to preserve everything. But everyone else in between seems clueless about that fundamental disagreement.

  2. Bill, fantastic post. This, to me, is one of the biggest issues in North American Christianity. As long as we refuse to deal with it head-on we’ll be plagued with pathos. Thanks for posting.

  3. Bill, this post is a homerun if there ever was one. In a context so blinded by individualism and consumerism, we just can’t bank the “the medium is the message” drum loud or long enough. Thanks.

  4. There was a Pew study a few years ago that showed that Hinduism has the highest retention rate of believers in the US. Some of that is probably because temple life is central to the cultural attachment that many recent Hindu immigrants may feel to their country of origin (usually India). Consider also everything that does NOT happen at a Hindu temple: No one pretends they are a rapper, no one does stunts on a motorcycle.

    What the church has to realize is that many people are searching for something ancient and durable. I did a post recently on how Lifeway discovered that people – especially people under 30 – prefer churches that have a traditional gothic feel to them. These buildings are set apart, different from what the mall or the cinema look like. Consider the appeal of Buddhism to many Westerners: why flock to follow old men in orange robes who shave their heads, ring bells and chant in another language?

  5. Great post, and YES very painful video!

  6. I actually grew up in one of the first mega churches in California during the seventies. We had a lot of fun during those times. My junior high and high school groups had close to 700-800 kids.

    But if you came, you were always invited to participate in some discipleship. At least half of the time was broken up into some form of small group mentorship. And shockingly, kids stayed. Wow. What a concept. We were doing week long mission trips AND camp.

    And what I liked about it was the sense of caring that came in the discipleship time. What it meant for me was seeing an adult help me answer questions. It wasn’t just about Jesus, but about following Jesus.

  7. Great post, and thanks for the recommendation about the books of C. J. Sansom–I’m on the fourth Shardlake mystery now.

  8. I burned through the Sansom books, as did Imbi and as has our oldest, Liam. Can’t wait for his next one. Really glad you enjoyed them. (The iMonk did too, according to a podcast of his from a month ago or so.)

    I’m reading Judith Cutler right now and enjoying what turns out to be her second Tobias Campion mystery, Shadow of the Past. A good read so far. (Campion is an Anglican priest who is “a little Wesleyan.”)

  9. Jason,
    Would that we even understood the Gospel.

    Mike, JR and Brad
    Thanks and amen.

    Webber’s Ancient Future Church comes to mind. Or was that Len Sweet. (Both, methinks.)

    I didn’t come to faith until I was 26 – though I spent most of my youth on military bases going to Anglican services. (We lived off-base, no pun intended after I was 13 and I stopped going to church.) I think youth ministry can be both/and – both fun and disciple-training. The problem is when it’s 95% fun and 5% gettin’ ’em to make The Decision.

    Imbi and I have both come to the realization that some form of updated catechisis is critical for the church.

  10. So true. Thanks Bill. The video highlight is actually the guys sweater…. that says so much to my somewhat jaundiced eye!

  11. Bill, I’ve been catching up on your blog and I think you’ve long been on to something that I’m only starting to perceive these days. Most of the stuff we give ourselves to is insignificant. Most of what we argue over is unimportant. Most of our methods of discipleship and evangelism are parodies of the Gospel.

    Over the past few months I’ve been stepping up my ministry on the margins and wow, that just blows this stuff right open. Mere theology, sharp philosophy, and flashy gimmicks have no power. They just look silly when you start reaching out to people who aren’t wealthy consumers. It’s like a repent-fest down here of late. Good words on discipleship. I think you’re asking the right questions.

  12. Ed,
    Thanks! I think the Perry Noble’s of the world simply prove you can grow an audience in a Christendom context – you are selling to people who live in the Bible Belt who have a basic handle on the Christian story – while you baptize their lifestyle(s) with a syncretist Christianity-lite. (See the recent Pew study on what “Christians” actually believe.)

  13. Thanks so much for this, Mr. Kinnon I’m a 42 yr. old father of 3 (youngest is 16) & I couldn’t agree more with your observations. Also – thanks for the Fitch/Stetzer videos. Great, great work!

    Jesus is the answer to our youth ministry/discipleship problems. Discipleship isn’t rocket science. However, it is impossible to make robust followers of Christ in our own strength. The gospel is still the power of God. Jesus is still the consumate disciple maker. By grace we must repent of our wickedness, stubborness, selfishness, pride and apathy, submitting ourselves to the benevolent Lordship of Jesus Christ. Let the prophets be heard! It’s time to show fruits of repentance! It’s time to back our liturgical confession with sacrificial action! We are the priesthood of all believers, with every parent a priest, called by God to take primary responsibility for the spiritual maturity and education of their children. Parents, when necessary (and I believe more than not it is) must be lovingly equipped to do their job by biblical elders willing to risk job security and reputation for the glory of Christ revealed in future generations.

  14. James,
    Thanks for the comment and I appreciate your passion, indeed.

    I’m also the father of three, with the youngest being 18 – but I started a little later than you, as I’m 54.

    Hope you and yours had a wonder-filled Christmas.


What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.