Great Stuff — What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Found on The Gospel Side. Here is the author’s bio:

I am Matt Marino; husband to Kari, father to Ellie and Luke and a guy who loves God and people…many of whom I met while doing youth ministry. I am an Episcopal priest, the Director of Youth and Young Adults for the Diocese of Arizona and planted a multi-ethnic church in Central Phoenix for people passionate that the church should look like their neighborhood. I spent 17 years on Young Life staff, taught school, wrote the Recovery Workbook for the Remuda Ranch Eating Disorder treatment center and spent 7 years as a ball-boy for the Phoenix Suns.



Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

  1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.
  2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…


…empty churches.



We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

  1. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.
  2.  “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.
  3. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?



Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.



In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…





What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are at today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — What’s so uncool about cool churches? — 20 Comments

  1. “Where is a sense of the holy? ” was what I asked at my old church. I found it at my new one.

  2. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

    And…you’ll still be preaching to empty pews.

  3. @J. Dean #3
    No, I’m just saying that even if we all finally “do church right” there’s no indication that it will have the slightest impact on a 30 year decline in church attendance. I mean a disciple of the market driven approach could very easily read this article and say “ok, confessionals ~ show us your numbers!”

  4. @#4 Kitty #4
    I mean a disciple of the market driven approach could very easily read this article and say “ok, confessionals ~ show us your numbers!”

    True, but a confessional who has done a good job of teaching his congregation might reply, “Show me your people who can complete a Scripture passage begun for them.”
    (as a guest preacher was amused to have happen to him in the middle of a sermon last Sunday). 🙂

    Christ didn’t say “build mega churches”; He said, “Teach them to observe all things I have commanded you.”

  5. He doesn’t spell out “what they need” is. I guess we (and maybe the author) is assuming it is Jesus Christ Himself, but I don’t think he’s real clear on that.

  6. Many times I have heard parents of confirmands say on confirmation Sunday “now I’m done.”
    I’ve sat through Bible studies where the assistant pastor rattles off this list of all the required items that people really should have memorized before they take communion that I can find nowhere in the Bible. How many times have we had a baptism where you have never seen the parents before and then never again after their child was baptized. For a church body that is not about works a lot of its “members” seem to see the church and their faith as not much more then a series of “events” to get through.

  7. I fondly remember the graduation robes that we wore on Confirmation Sunday. Confirmation should be an induction. Instead, it is treated by all parties involved like a second 8th grade graduation.

  8. Maybe we could go back to the numbers we had in the 1940s and 1950s and show the contemporaries those numbers and tell them “See? We had those numbers once but thanks to the CGM, we’ve lost those numbers because they are being taught it’s more about how you look in a service on Sunday mornings rather than how you worship in a service on Sunday mornings.” I’m in my 40s and long for the days when we got a service instead of a show on Sunday mornings! (And, I’m referring to present-day Lutheran Church Divine Services too … Seems its more of “How can I impress you?” instead of “Let Him impress upon you His Word and Gifts!”

  9. We had those numbers once but thanks to the CGM, we’ve lost those numbers.

    Really?  That’s the reason?  Evidence please.  Demographics? Has there been any loss of numbers in liturgical churches?

  10. So if either way it is possible that we may be preaching to empty pews, then perhaps we shouldn’t be concerned about numbers at all, maybe we should just focus on preaching the truth and using liturgy that properly reflects that. Seems like Paul says something like that in a lot of places.

  11. @#4 Kitty #14
    @Rev. McCall #15

    Well, there you go! The only group that’s growing is the unaffiliated, so let’s dump both the Truth and the Liturgy, so we can get that growing group into our mega-church! Oh wait. They’re already doing that…

    (Did you notice the figures cited in Kitty’s link are for Democrats and the like?)

  12. @Pastor Ted Crandall #16

    (Did you notice the figures cited in Kitty’s link are for Democrats and the like?)

    One in five adults have no religious affiliation and it’s one in three for adults under thirty. And you’re right; the “nones” (as they are referred to) are the only group on the rise. But I don’t get the remark about them being Democrats. Are you trying to say that Jesus is a Republican?

    so let’s dump both the Truth and the Liturgy, so we can get that growing group into our mega-church!

    I really don’t think it matters which strategy is used ~organized religion is becoming extinct.

  13. #4 Kitty :I don’t get the remark about them being Democrats. Are you trying to say that Jesus is a Republican?

    Well… 🙂

    Actually, I noticed the pie chart of Democrats in your link, just above the chart showing overall affiliation, and I mistakenly thought the poll was of just Democrats.

    In reading more carefully, I found this in the article: “With their rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate… They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.”

  14. #13 John Rixe … What I meant with that blanket statement is that LCMS numbers didn’t start dropping until the late 70s into the 80s … right? When did the CGM movement come into play? Late 70s early 80s … When we got away from the services being about God’s gifts to us and started focusing on our own selves, we started to see the slide. I just think it is time to strip it down and get back to the Divine Services that have worked for over half of a millenia … we need to get over ourselves and quit trying to outdo God and each other!

  15. @#4 Kitty #17
    I really don’t think it matters which strategy is used ~organized religion is becoming extinct.

    Well, if we choose a church by looking for the best social program, and teach our children to do the same, the Christian faith will shrink to those are called to Christianity, I suppose.

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