General church attendance has been on the decline for the past decade and nearly one-third of Millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point. Yet many continue to return two days a year: Christmas and Easter. “It’s part of a religious hangover,” says Jon Tyson, founding pastor of Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan, New York, and author of the Barna FRAME, Sacred Roots. But, he points out, it’s also sign of a continuing spiritual hunger; Christmas and Easter offer people “access points to transcendence.” And so they return to church for a morning. In this conversation with Barna president, David Kinnaman, Tyson talks about the pastoral pressure of Easter Sunday, the different generational questions of Boomers and Millennials and how Christians—both pastors and lay people alike—can renew their vision for church.
David Kinnaman: We’re coming up on Easter, which means a large Sunday morning crowd. Why do you think people are still drawn to church on Christmas and Easter when they aren’t attending very regularly at other points throughout the year?
Jon Tyson: I think there’s some level of religious hangover. People grew up attending church; it’s still celebrated quite largely across our culture. It remains a reference point for people. The more secular our story gets—the more consumeristic our story gets—the more hungry we, as spiritual beings, get for moments of transcendence. People know traditionally the Christian stories of Christmas and Easter, so I think people come to both holidays because they provide access points to transcendence—to hope and meaning that society is not offering them.
DK: That’s a lot of pressure on the church—on pastors—for those two holidays. I grew up as a pastor’s kid, we work with pastors a lot in our work here at Barna, do you think that’s the right kind of pressure they should place on themselves?
JT: Pastors [recognize] they have a reduced social and cultural platform to speak the Good News into people’s lives, so they feel the pressure to maximize on those increasingly rare opportunities. So I think the heart behind it is a good heart that says, “I don’t know if I’m going to get another chance all year to really articulate what God has done for us in Jesus. I want to make sure that I get that right.” I think that’s a good pressure. I would say however, that pressure should not just be channeled into programming and excellence of events. It should be put into prayer, it should be put into fasting, it should be put into creating ways for people to continue on in exploring the Christian faith.
DK: The top reason people give us in our research for why they don’t attend church is because they find God elsewhere. It’s something you hear a lot in popular phrases like, “I’m spiritual but not religious”; “I love Jesus but not the Church.” As a pastor, when you hear that kind of reasoning—that God is available and findable outside of the church—how do you respond?
JT: It’s too simplistic. I’ll try to explain why quickly, and it will be hard. There’s three kinds of spirituality: mono-, di- and tri-spirituality. Mono-spirituality is what I would call secular spirituality. It’s basically saying: secularism isn’t working, there has to be more to me than just chemicals and brainwaves; I will look for a spiritual force or God within myself. That sort of spirituality is used as a cloaking mechanism to stop you from having to depend on some sort of God.
Then you’ve got di-spirituality, which basically says: No, I need something outside of myself. I need a relationship with a deity of some kind. And this, I think, is what is wrong with evangelicalism—which can minimize my relationship to other people as incidental or secondary—everything exists so I can have a personal relationship with God.
Tri-spirituality is myself in relationship with God and in relationship with others. This is the spirituality Jesus taught—and actually cares about. So I think people are deluding themselves to think that outside of the body of believers—and I say that carefully, not church programs or Sunday events—that outside of the Body of Jesus Christ, people can find God. You will have a limited, immature, shallow spirituality if you think you can find it on your own. We are called to practice the way of Jesus with other people.
My guess, though, is that’s not really what people are saying. What I guess people are mostly saying is that [they find] Church to be pretty mediocre—that it is about guilt, condemnation and hypocrisy, and [they] find the Christian faith in other means. And if people get together regularly with a big group of friends to live the way of Jesus, if they’re laying down their lives in sacrificial love, I’m fine with that. It’s my experience, though, that most people don’t want to do the second part of that.
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DK: You know, it’s interesting, after reading your FRAME, Sacred Roots, a friend of mine said she hoped this little book would challenge pastors to change their view of what it means to be an effective church. That the problem is not just the consumer, individual church-goer, or culture, but it’s also church leader’s own expectations of what it means to be a community of faith.
JT: I completely agree. There are two forces at work. There is what people do to form people, and then there’s people’s response. It’s not a pastor’s primary job to create events that are better than other churches so their consumers are happy. It is their job, whether people like them or not, to preach the Word, to sacrificially love, to care about the poor, to focus on relationships over events and programs. It is their job to see the church be the Body of Jesus—a tangible trinity on earth in a local place.
DK: As you said earlier, most pastors’ hearts are in the right place. It’s probably something of a slow mission drift, shaped by culture and a history of certain expectations of church. So how can they avoid falling into some of those traps—of becoming a consumer-driven church or of setting expectations too low?
JT: I think the issue is what evangelical culture focuses on as success and what evangelical culture holds up as the model of success. Every conference you attend, the speakers are, for the most part, charismatic, disproportionately gifted, un-reproducible anomalies. And they lead churches that are, for the most part, in unique contexts at unique cultural moments and cannot be scaled or multiplied easily. So we are holding up the anomaly and trying to make it the expectation. We live in an evangelical culture that robs us of our pastoral joy by repeatedly telling us to compare ourselves to people we can never be like.
Very practically, [as pastors], we must first claim a biblical definition of success and root that in our own hearts. According to the Bible, success is faithfulness (“Well done, good and faithful servant.”) So we need to have a vision of faithfulness and obedience as true, biblical success. Number two: sacrificially laying down your life for your people in love. Which means focusing on the relationships that are actually before you, and asking the question: How can I more tangibly manifest the love of Jesus in the actual relationships God has brought to me? And number three, keeping our lives focused on the need of the world rather than striving for success or notoriety in any sort of Christian or ecclesiological platform.
DK: When you think about Millennials and young people in particular, what do you think is unique about their criticisms of church—what do you think is unique about their cultural context that is different than the way a generation of Boomer skeptics approach church?
JT: I think for Boomers—this is a massive generalization—it was about making church credible intellectually, and relevant culturally. I think those were the two great challenges post-WWII. There was a lot of apologetics and trying to make the Christian faith credible in light of history. Millennials wrestle with completely different things. They are wrestling with issues of authority; a distrust of authority has basically leaked into everything. I think consumerism is a default. Millennials want access, not ownership. They tend to use things rather than own things. Marketing has been telling them their life has to be exceptional—so they’re always trying to go on that journey of trying to be exceptional. I think that’s a very, very real generational shift. I would say this: The culture of distraction we wrestle with is unprecedented in human history. And the implications of getting people to focus, to be still, to walk with God, to hear form God, to think, and read, and have convictions on any sort of deep level are just incredibly hard.
DK: And what would be your advice, then, to a Millennial pastor who is dealing with that culture of distraction? Or to a Boomer pastor who’s trying to reach Millennials?
JT: To a Boomer pastor I would say, you should offer the gifts you have from your own story, journey and experience. So another generation doesn’t have to make those same mistakes. People are craving mentors to give them not just trends, but wisdom on how to live. I think there should be a massive increase in terms of mentoring—that’s an incredible gift Boomers can give. To a Millennial pastor, I would simply say, follow the path of wisdom, not the path of trends in a worship experience. We can’t let all these intrusions continually make their way into our lives. We have to put boundaries in place. In some sense, silence, solitude and stopping are the essential disciplines a Millennial pastor has to practice.
DK: I bet most people would be surprised to find out you trained to become a butcher. In your FRAME, you tell the story of how, back in Australia, you left school at age 16 to become an apprentice to a butcher and indentured yourself to that industry for four years. It’s a great story, and I just really loved reading how the Lord’s hand has been on you, bringing you from Australia and spicing meat, to one of the world’s most influential cities.
JT: It’s also, I think, in many ways a very New York story. Which is why even though I’m from another country, I feel like I’m very well received here in New York. New York is a meritocracy. It rewards you primarily on achievements, and in God’s kindness, things have gone well for our church plant. We have some level of credibility here in the city in terms of church presence.
And it’s an immigrant’s story: to move from one culture to another with a dream of being a part of something greater. That was certainly my story. And I’ve tried to take the best parts of my story, try to make sense of it and then help other people make sense of theirs. I love it.
DK: And I think some of the things you argue for in your FRAME: calling the church and Christians to move from dabbling to devotion, from transience to permanence, from preference to proximity, from beliefs to practices, also reflect some of those elements of what you’ve learned both in Manhattan and in your own story.
JT: Yes, definitely. Let’s ask the question: How do we need to live in order for God’s dream for the Church to be realized in the world? What do we actually have to change about the way we live our lives, not just about the way we think? And not just one or two of our practices. What, in our actual lives, has to change so God’s dream for the Church and the world can be realized. You have to evaluate not just the surface levels or practices or habits, you have to examine the framework. So I think much of what’s in that FRAME is my best thinking, best real-world experience about the future. In a transitory, secular, suspicious world, how does the Church need to live, think and act in order for it to gain credibility again? I think those shifts are a step forward.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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