Belling The Cat: Your Responses To “The Real Reasons Your People Aren’t Turning Up To Church Every Week”

If the number of hits is any indication, then my last blog post struck a chord.  And it’s not just the number of hits, it’s on FB, privately to me, and on the comments section of the blog.

People said things as simple as “Phew!”  They thanked me for articulating what they felt. They felt cautiously hopeful about it, but were not sure what could replace that program-led church.

The best response – and the one that warmed my own heart because it came from someone in my own church – was this:

“As a mum with a life full of kids, family, life… I weekly experience and rejoice in the restful product of your intentionality. I hope so much you will inspire other Pastors to be brave and bold and counter cultural and radical to embrace LESS IS SO MUCH MORE. To cull away the TIRING packaging and production and hours of time robbed from family life and shining the light simply to our neighbours by trying to do church so excellently. To even shut down some stuff, and relax and do church and each of its components ( music team, communications, Sunday School, etc etc etc) as simply as possible, just present the Gospel.”

And that’s from a woman whose enthusiasm and service among us since she and her hubby and daughter started attending, is infectious.

In the end here’s why this article resonated so much: It belled the cat. And that cat has eaten too many local wildlife with impunity recently, so there seemed to be much rejoicing when I collared it.


My post called out what hundreds of people, thousands in fact, are feeling; that the Boomer-led way of doing modern evangelical church is neither sustainable in our current Western setting, nor is it biblically prescriptive.

In short, a whole lot of cultural and theological baggage has been heft upon verses such “Do not neglect to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25).

A number of respondents were alarmed that my post may actually encourage people to stop meeting together.  But the problem is already there.  Despite all of the cajoling and tweaks, people are stopping.  So perhaps it’s time to stop recycling the same law of diminishing returns methodology.

The main worry was that if we don’t encourage people to turn up then they won’t turn up.  But let’s put it the other way around; if when they do turn up, we are not encouraging them, then they will stop turning up anyway.  And I don’t blame them.

The onus constantly seems to be on the average person in the seats to make sure they turn up, with too little thought and attention going in to the matter of what we are calling them to turn up to.

If what they get out of the church experience is not the encouragement to keep going in the difficulties of the late modern west, and to fix their eyes on Jesus, then we’re actively discouraging them.

And my problem is that too much of what church offers as “fix your eyes on Jesus” stuff, is actually a distracting form of turning this way and that; all with little time to fix our eyes on anything for long enough to get focussed.  When “the day approaching” has been reduced to the start of our next evangelistic campaign, or our new groups roll-out, or our big Easter push, then the very eschatology that these things presume, has fallen off our radars.

If the answer to the question “What are we calling them to turn up to? is “Pretty much everything”, then Houston we have a problem.

And that problem is hugely cultural.  And, sorry Baby Boomers, it’s hugely cultural primarily because of your influence in the church scene over the past forty years.  You were born just after the war – a tabula rasa moment in our Western culture – and to that end you have fallen into the trap of thinking that your world is their world.  And it’s just not.

And it’s not merely in church that this totalising group-think is starting to crumble. In fact it’s strongest signals have been in the the secular culture, with the church playing catch up as usual.

So, for example, today and yesterday in The Australian newspaper there were two fascinating pieces ostensibly about getting the difficulty for young people in their attempts to access the over-heated property market in Australia.

But the underlying theme of the two articles was to expose the critical differences culturally, sociologically and psychologically between Boomers and their Millennial offspring.

These differences, revealed by the vastly different attitudes to the property market,  are set to change how Australian life is lived in the next forty years. And those issues are bleeding into the church as well, so the way Australian church life is lived is set to change also – and drastically. Believe it, do something about it, or die as a church

The two articles discovered that the values frameworks of the Millennials is light years away from the Boomers.  The Boomers scoff at the shy approach to fiscal tightness that the Millennials hold to; deriding the way in which their offspring order smashed avocado and sour dough on a plate, but are unable to save for a mortgage.  But the Millennials simply stare back and retort:

“Smashed avocado on a plate? You got everything on a plate; a fresh cultural start in the sixties, a free university education, a trip around a terrorist-free Europe in a gap year,  a guaranteed job with good pension schemes when you got home; cheap housing; a dating and marriage culture that was straight-forward; the pick of inner city suburbs to live in. And now you’re telling us in our setting, if we just work hard like us you did we will be rewarded. Rubbish!”

Sorry Boomers, it just doesn’t fly. And what’s worse, it’s your very own children that you spent so many angsty hours raising that are saying this.  And they’re not just saying it in the world, they’re saying it in church.  I feel that many Boomer-led churches are just waiting for the Millennials to grow up, have their kids, and then be handed the reins in an “as-you-were” manner, and they’re going to be severely disappointed.  I watch the Millennials in our own church and there is no way – no way – they would buy into the programmatic model.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned my tribe, the X-Gen crowd, born to the so-called pre-war Silent Generation.  What do they think?

Of course we haven’t mentioned them, because the Boomers in general don’t actually care what the X-Gen crowd thinks.  Boomers have been too busy building the world for their Millennial children that they overlooked the X-Gens in between.  This is not to say that some Boomers don’t get it, don’t see it, but by and large the X-Gen crowd is their blind spot.  Our parents were silent, and we have assumed the family trait.

Not that we care. We’re not even sure if we’re being ironic about that any longer either. Besides we had Nirvana to help us get through those early years.  And for X-Gen types, the Boomers – and the way in which they see life and do church – either sucked us in or repelled us.

We were either afraid of their influence and confidence, so reluctantly lined up with their vision of how church would be done. Or we walked away altogether, resurfacing at fifty with a couple of kids of our own who we want to see remain Christian, but who we are busy protecting from that full-on programmatic church experience that did nothing for us.

Hence in church leadership some X-Gen leaders have desperately tried to hold the Boomer model up and tweak it around the edges to make it fit a world that doesn’t exist anymore.  Result?  Burn out or burn off.

Others got into the emergent and missional church movements, only to find they either nothing of orthodox substance (emergent), or ended up being big sexy church experiences themselves, led by hard-edged X-Gen types who ran them like corporations.

X-ers are both critical and cautious.  Critical of how they were made to feel when they opted out more than opted in.  And cautious of being drawn back in to yet another church experience that promises to be different, but isn’t.

To be honest our church is akin to Christian rehab; a whole bunch of Christians with late teens and early twenties who turn up won’t be sold on some promise that this time it will be different.  Show them over the course of three or four years that it is different, and you might find they stick with you until death. But don’t play them, they know every advertising trick in the book.

Now I have not even addressed the huge shift in our secular culture which is marginalising Christianity in the public square, exposing it to the critical glare of progressive identity politics and giving it a hammering.  The Boomer-led church model has, from my experience, never even begun to address that huge dilemma for younger X-Gen and Millennial people today.

In the next few articles I write I am going to focus on two things:

  1. What ways we can do church now that push back against the cultural flow of busyness.  In other words, what now for church?
  2. What sort of church will Millennials create?  In other words, what then for church?

1 Comment

  1. You’ve definitely tapped into something I’ve been thinking about lately, about how the generational gap has been pushing down on us and the way we think about church. (And as a Gen X, thank you for giving us a mention!)

    I’ve been curious about whether agile methodology, with its emphasis on minimum viability, could speak into the new church context?

    For example, you have a church of 100 people but only 20 of them are in a small group. Traditional (waterfall) thinking would say we have 80 slackers and should persuade them to join a group.

    But an agile way of thinking might say, how about we work with the 20 we’ve got, make sure that their small group experience actually is growing them as Christians. Then, if it’s working well for them, start to spread the story in church to see whether other people would like to be part of something good.

    So start with small and vibrant and work out from there. Maybe like a mustard seed is a bit small but gets bigger, you know?

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