Sex. Movies. Social media. Church dropout rates for 20-somethings and other false stats—throw a bunch of Christian journalists together, and you’ll overhear them talking about all of these.
I spent the first week in May at the Evangelical Press Association national convention, and much of what we talked about is relevant for Christian leaders, so I’ll pass along a sampling of highlights.
. Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, said we need to check out the statistics we throw around. One non-Christian asked him why evangelicals make up stats that make themselves look bad and then publicize them! Here’s the biggie: That stat about how 20-somethings are leaving the church at unprecedented rates. Yeah, that. It isn’t true. Here’s what the research guy told Christianity Today last January: My book Lost and Found included a 1972–2006 [General Social Survey] GSS chart that showed that the percentage of 20-somethings attending weekly worship services has been rising since 2000, after a serious dip in the mid-1990s… Since then, the 2008 data showed another uptick, bringing attendance among evangelical 20-somethings back to what it was in 1972. Among non-evangelicals there was indeed a decline: Just fewer than 25 percent attended weekly in 1972. In 2008, it was just over 12 percent. Listening to some commentators, you might conclude that young adults had left the church. But that is not what the data tell us.”
. Stetzer also insisted we must talk about sexual issues within the church. Lust, adultery, homosexuality, premarital sex, porn, sexual abuse—our members struggle with it all. And we need to listen (without dropping our jaws) before giving people advice. Later in the week Bishop T. J. Jakes echoed this, saying, “We need to teach group leaders how to react to shocking stuff so they don’t shut [confessors] down with quick advice.” Later he noted that when it comes to sex, we do often talk about the ideal, just not the reality. He also noted the absence of conversations about AIDS.
. People get their news and information personalized. They also need the gospel that way, rather than via a canned presentation. This requires listening. “Listening is the new apologetics.” Asking questions is essential before diving into the gospel. We need to personalize our presentations of the good news. And to do that, we need to understand the framework of our listeners.
. A major bridge to spiritual conversations is a familiarity with film. Jakes reminded us that “More people are reached in the theater than in the pews.” Movies are the primary ways we learn stories in the West. Our shared stories are flicks. Examples of recent movies with strong conversation potential are the re-release of the true-story POW drama, “To End All Wars,” and the forthcoming release (which we previewed) of “Get Low,” a true story by Lutheran pastor Scott Seeke set in the 1930s about a Tennessee hermit who threw his own funeral party while he was still alive. (Great performances by Robert Duvall, a serious Bill Murray, and Sissy Spacek, by the way.) Warning: The language used is the way people actually talk. Oh, and we saw clips from the next Narnia film, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” slated for a December 10 release. Plan to take your youth group to that one. Great stuff.
. Social media is not a fad. See this 4-minute, 22-second Youtube video for evidence: http://tinyurl.com/nutlrj The biggest growth area is boomers.
. Rather than gearing everything toward “the next generation,” we must appeal to all ages on our web sites and church publications. Glamour magazine has reportedly survived multiple recessions because each cover includes something for the woman in every age range.
. While network TV and print newspapers may be declining, it’s a great time for niche communications. ABC will never cover “left-handed soccer players.” But plenty of people will always want and need what we have. And contrary to popular belief, even people strongly entrenched in one point of view often read the “other side.” So now more than ever we must avoid jargon, which alienates those looking over our shoulders on church web sites, in bulletins, brochures, blogs, and on social media.
A final charge came from a reflective Jakes, who told evangelical journalists that we’ve seen the death of civility under the guise of free speech, yet the way Christ-followers speak must not deny the One we represent. (Twitteresque summary: Manners—good.) He noted that we can now sit in our PJ’s with smelly breath and post stuff on the internet like the Wizard of Oz emboldened by the curtain of anonymity. Must. Stop. Meanness.
Jakes also reminded us that every great person of God thought multi-culturally. I can think of Joseph—carried off to Egypt; Moses—raised in Pharaoh’s household, but a Hebrew; the apostle Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews yet the apostle to the Gentiles; Daniel—a Hebrew living in Babylon; Esther—a Jewish woman living in “Iran”; Ruth—transplanted from Moab. And let’s not forget Jesus—born in Bethlehem, taking refuge in Egypt, and returning to Nazareth. To name a few.
Bonus: if you’re looking for a fresh voice in inspirational music, Anthony Evans (http://anthony-evans.com) received the second-ever standing ovation from this über-tough crowd for an astonishing vocal performance. Expect to hear a lot more from him.