Why Teens Fall Asleep in Church: And What We Can Do About It

Note: This article hops all over the place, but my focus and aim in writing it is to spark real talk about the students, youth and young adults that feel disengaged in our churches. Writing this article was like my mind shooting a metaphorical shotgun at drywall - it goes all over the place. Enjoy.

I remember sleeping through entire church services as a teenager. It didn’t matter if I had been out late the night before. Once I went into the gathering hall and started breathing in that thick, hot Oklahoma air, I was out. The last thing I would hear was the pastor making a joke about football.

Living that pew-turned-bed life.

I remember the arguments I heard at the time. My generation needed to learn respect and discipline. We would shape up eventually. It was just teenage angst, a bump-in-the-road for the Millennials.

Move forward to 2016. I still see teenagers sleeping in church – and people my age too.

Once you reach early-mid twenties we never fully pass out. Being adults, we know it would be social unacceptable. Instead our eyes glaze over, Bibles remain unopened, and minds wander to what we will do Sunday afternoon.

The "Yes, I'm listening pastor" face.

I think churches across America are struggling to engage younger generations. It isn’t just a Millennial phase – it’s a growing trend.

Disarming the Immediate Arguments

The typical knee jerk response to a statement like this is to jut forward your chin, plant both feet on the ground with a mule’s stubbornness saying, “Well, I don’t follow God because it’s a cool or trendy thing to do.”

Good on you – because the Bible itself says we don’t gain cool points in the world for being Christians (John 15:18-25) – but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that Christians, who already go to church, are not engaged. It’s less discipleship, more obligation.

The second knee jerk would be to counter, “Well, you can’t speak for all the churches across the nation. God is moving, whether you see it or not.”

That’s absolutely correct. I have seen anecdotal evidence of good things happening in the American church. However, I can’t point to a few healthy trees and ignore the burnt forest. My generation isn’t going to church. Lifelong church goers in their 30’s and 40’s struggle to recall relevant scripture. People talk about church like it is a routine, not an experience. It’s just a thing people do like laundry or dishes.

Finally, the third and (maybe) final knee jerk is to throw your hands up in exasperation, “Well we can’t change everything. God hasn’t announced plans to publish a sequel to the Bible, Nathan. We can’t make new content as fast as Snapchat.”

Nor would I insist on that. In fact if you are experiencing this knee jerk, then you have incorrectly guessed where this article is going.

I’m not suggesting a doctrinal shift. I’m suggesting a culture shift.

The Gospel cannot be universally engaging if you use a cookie cutter approach to talk to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Russian, Iranian, Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, Algerian, Spanish, French, Swedish, Canadian, American, Mexican, Brazilian, and Argentinian people. That’s common sense. Taking that logic further, I do not think the Gospel can be universally engaging if we take the same cookie cutter approach to talk to Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z, high-income earners, low-income earners, immigrants, northerners, southerners, nature lovers, money lovers, and everyone in between.

So how do you engage? By taking an inerrant Gospel and making it culturally relevant to where your congregation and youth are right now.

What the Church Could Learn from the Education System

In my line of work, I’m constantly seeing the inner workings of good, bad, and ugly schools. There’s a lot thought leadership, theory, and experimentation around our struggling education system. I think a lot of the work being done here could benefit churches.

Here’s just a few ideas I came up with. They aren’t meant to be the best solutions – they aren’t meant to really even be good solutions. But I want to prove a point that there are ideas out there, and that they can help the church make organizational gains and achieve cultural relevancy. You can probably see connections in your industries if you grab a pad and pen and let your brain wander.

10 Ideas Churches Could Steal from Educators to Better Engage Their Young People

1. Make students look for culturally relevant scripture.

Often times I try to teach a lesson and then find ways to connect it back to the lives of who I am teaching. The model should be flipped. Have students tell you what they care about. They will tell you. Teach them based on that.

2. Intersect the church with what people like doing in the community.

If you are a Colorado church on the front range, there is no excuse not to take your students/youth/young adults into the mountains as many times as possible. If 90% of meetings are happening within church walls, you’re doing something wrong.

3. Know when/how to loosen up.

I once met a Boulder pastor who hosted beer tasting at his house for the congregation. Would people in Oklahoma throw a fit over that? Yes. Did it get people into his house and in his community that otherwise would have never come? Yes.

4. Don’t shy away from tough topics.

Young people are smart. They know when they are being handed an easy, black-or-white problem. Give them something tough to work with – give them something you may not even know the answer to. It will stretch them, and bolster critical thinking.

5. Teach them how to teach themselves.

I recently heard a woman say that our fractured education system is “giving our children a lobotomy.” How can we avoid that in the church? Teach youth how to use the Bible in the context of their lives. Don’t just throw lessons at them. Give them tools and ideas with practical, useful applications that can be revisited.

6. Have small groups to break out for critical thinking.

In large group environments it is hard to focus people. Even if you pull six guys into a separate room for meaningful conversation, they just want to go back to the basketball court. Have small group meetings outside of the main group time for conversation, debate, meaningful sharing, and unpacking scripture in a personalized way. Go take over a table in your local coffee shop every Monday night.

7. Turn punitive justice into restorative justice.

Putting a 17-year-old in the hallway and giving him a stern talking when he acts out teaches him nothing. Switch from punitive to restorative. Instead of a slap on the wrist, make people take meaningful steps toward "restoration" that will grow them in the process. It shifts church discipline from shame based to character development based (i.e., if a guy says something that is degrading toward someone else, get his parents to have him read Ephesians Chapter 4 and have him write an apology letter to the offended based on what he learned).

8. Mix up the teaching style frequently.

Are you falling into the routine of pick-six-Bible-verses-and-make-three-slides teachings? Mix it up! Have you tried visual demonstrations involving a little science? What about examples that use audience volunteers? How about role play? What about integrating the teaching into EVERYTHING else you do tonight so that the games, snacks, and small group time all becomes centralized around the themes of teaching for the night?

9. Be authentic – we can tell if you aren’t.

If you are working with youth or teaching anyone under the age of 25 in order to look cool, you are wrong. Period. Youth need role models, but we don’t need Eddie-Bauer smoothness or Facebook albums of your latest mission trip to Brazil (note: these things are not inherently bad). What we need are role models who are willing to set the example of transparency (here is what is up in my life), vulnerability (here is how I feel about it), and encouragement (this is what the Bible says about it, and why I have hope that things can be better).

10. Have fun!

If you aren’t having fun in the room as the volunteer, staff member, or leader, then what makes you think anyone else is? Make something that you think would be fun. Start there. You can tailor it to your population as you go, but start with something that you think is fun. You can build deep, meaningful conversations off of a healthy foundation of fun energy.

Conclusion

I know I’m not an ordained minister. I know I’m 23 years old. I know I’ve never run a church or ministry and therefore do not know all the realities that go into running one. But I also know that none of these things make my ideas invalid. My mind is always “throwing things against the wall” to figure out how I can make things better.

Are all my ideas good? No, normally 90 percent suck. But nine sucky ideas and one good idea is better than no ideas at all. So let the ideas roll, and let's keep pushing our churches to get creative on how to connect the Gospel truth to our youth and modern American culture.

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