To go deep, you have to go wide

Photo by ??’ via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our students so quickly dispatch their faith in early adulthood.

As I’ve read Sticky Faith, Almost Christian, Christians Smith’s research, and played host to the Extended Adolescence Symposium last week I’ve been taking it all in and trying to figure out “why.”

Why is it that so many students walk away from their faith in early adulthood?

And I can’t get away from this: The Jesus we present is often times shallow, weak, and boring. He’s easy to walk away from.

It’s not that following Jesus is any of those things. It’s just that we present him that way.

I think a lot of young adults walk away because we are shallow, weak, and boring.

They are thinking deep thoughts about important things, they are reading Joyce and Emerson and wrestling with the Pythagorean theorem while we spend countless hours debating the merits of pop-culture Christianity. We care more about Rob Bell’s glasses than we do why Jesus is allowing hundreds of thousands of children to starve in the horn of Africa. We care more about next week’s worship set than we care about what’s happening on their campus.

Our students are learning from their own experience that if you want to go deep on things you have to go wide– and they look at us and see us trying to go deep on things we aren’t very wide about.

  • They observe we only read from people we already agree with.
  • They observe we only listen to vantage points we are likely to already hold.
  • They observe we are only stretched intellectually unintentionally.
  • They observe we are avoid big theological questions.
  • They observe we seek training and education for our limited scope and see little value in getting outside of our discipline.

I’m struck by the reality that most high school sophomore’s have a more mature reading pallete through their literature classes than the average pastor.

A sophomore is reading Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Arthur Miller, Twain, F. Scott Fitzerald, Maya Angelo… to name a few. The average pastor is reading Francis Chan, a couple of commentaries from the same theological spectrum, and a book about leading small groups.

You might have an MDiv but you’re looking pretty intellectually thin next to a 15 year old getting a C- in British Lit. 

We make a mistake when we try to simplify the Gospel. We make a mistake when we try to dumb down what Jesus is saying to what we think our students can understand. We make a mistake of trying to neatly wrap up a Bible lesson into 3 easy-to-remember points.

Because our students know life isn’t that easy. They expect an infinite God to be infinitely deep and infinitely wide. And what they see presented from their leaders lacks both.

I think the thing I’m wrestling with is  the reality that students aren’t walking away from Jesus necessarily. They are walking away from the cheap, easy,uninteresting, anti-intellectual, shallow, weak Jesus we have presented them in high school.






22 responses to “To go deep, you have to go wide”

  1. Rob Reardon Avatar

    Well said! I believe whole-heartedly that we have dropped the ball so far as our students are concerned – all the way from middle school through college. We expect them to get by on “fun” activities and last minute videos rather than expose them to the wonderful depths of faith.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      So true. O, that we would wake up and give our students wine instead of offering them grape juice! (figuratively, of course)

  2. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

    Dude, you almost sound like @GregStier:twitter! Totally agree.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I’ll take that as a compliment. Greg is someone whom I admire. It’s one thing to invite students to know Jesus, but it’s another to keep them. 🙂

  3. Christie Purifoy Avatar

    So much wisdom in this post. I couldn’t agree more (and not just because I’m a lit. prof.!) I think part of the problem is that we want to share an easily-digestible faith with young people. We worry that they will have doubts, so we don’t give them safe places to explore doubt. I hope I will always model a questioning, seeking faith for my kids and other young people in my life.
    Thank you! I’ll be bookmarking and sharing this one, for sure.

  4.  Avatar

    One guy from our young adult Bible study just asked if the next thing we studied together could be passages that don’t have easy answers (things like the violence of God in the Old Testament).  He wants us to wrestle with how we relate with other religions, philosophy, etc.  And our group consists of primarily recovering addicts and non-college attending emerging adults.  They really want to engage deeply on things they don’t yet understand.

  5. Jared Dilley Avatar
    Jared Dilley

    Adam while I agree I think their is a major reason you failed to mention our structure. People 18-35 do not like sitting in a lecture where an expert presents the truth and they cannot challenge it. Even our small groups fail to allow disagreement and challenges. Till we begin dismantling our structures that are not working we will continue to lose students.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Agreed. I’m 35 and lecture is one of the worst forms of “learning” for me. If there’s no way for me to talk back or ask questions my mind lasts about 5 minutes of any lecture. 

      1. Jared Dilley Avatar
        Jared Dilley

        sense no one i know under 40 likes or learns this way why do we make it central to our time together?

        1. Brit Windel Avatar

          I wouldn’t say no one… i for one do find value in it…sometimes. But agree we have made it the one central means of ‘spending time’ together in a gathering to worship, that is something that needs to be re-thought

      2. Ben Patterson Avatar

        For real. 

        Lecturing is easy.  Teaching is tough.

  6. Andy Cornett Avatar
    Andy Cornett

    I agree with much of what you say. I agree that often you can pick up a lame image of Jesus. You are right to critique or shallowness, and the comment about the pastor’s reading list made me wince (too true). My struggle with all this has worked on in two primary issues:

    1) We in youth ministry have a heavy drive for teaching toward application – show me what this does, how this works, what difference it makes. We can be so application oriented that we move too quickly past the fundamental truth/reality and skip to how it cashes out. But if all you hear is how it cashes out, how can you ever love the beauty behind it?
    2) We in youth ministry are geared toward the drive that everyone is welcome all the time. You might have a mature 18 year old who loves Jesus and a dorky 14 year old who brought two friends who have never heard about Jesus before (or vice versa). Maybe you even have a spread of MS and HS together. Maybe you have a large crowd, maybe you don’t but the pressure pushes on you to flatten out the presentation and make it “accessible” and “interesting” to everyone who comes. We don’t want to turn anyone away. We so glad they were willing to come that we don’t want them leaving thinking this is some uber-spiritual mumbo jumbo.

    I’m not saying either of those are necessarily right – but they are real. I’m haunted by a talk John Ortberg gave at Willow Creek in ’08 on whether we are making followers of Jesus … or just Christians, commonly understood. I don’t ever shink back from a clarion call to follow a brilliant Jesus into all the cost, sacrifice, joy and glory … but I wrestle with both those dynamics above.

    grace and peace

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      excellent comment, lots to chew on. that ortberg dude… he swims in the deep end of the pool. 

  7. Sean Scott Avatar

    Although being raised in a middle-America, middle-class, Christian family I did not come to Christ until I was 40. I attended church as a child, a little as a teen (mostly to chase a girl I liked) but none as an adult. I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me personally the lure of sin was too great. 

    Let’s face it, to most children, teens and young adults who lack the wisdom that comes from maturity, sin is a whole lot of fun. It’s not that Christianity is all boring, but it’s hard to take someone who is youthful, energetic, looking to see the world and meet attractive members of the opposite sex and then propose to them that a lifestyle of abstinence and temperance is worth something to them. 

    All of us are being bombarded by the world and the sins of the flesh. Are we equipping youth properly to combat sin?

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I think there’s something to this concept of sin management worth exploring. 

      The crazy thing? You are who you are today because of the sin you’ve wrestled with. I think parents get so hung up on keeping their kids from trying stuff that they forget that MOST of us learn the hard way. 

  8. Andy Avatar

    Adam, so it seems like youre saying we as the youth pastors are the issue? (generally speaking, obviously not EVERY one of us)

  9. Garthaziz Avatar

    I think part of the issue is not that we don’t go deep but that we are afraid to go deep. It has us out of our depths and causes us to search our own theological perspectives and forces us to re-evaluate our lives and lifestyles. Going deep and wide means we have to change and who likes change? So in my opinion, they leave because they do not see any congruence between what we teach or profess with what they see in our lives. Being a Christ follower means going against the grain, challenging the status-quo, getting out of our comfort zones, asking the difficult questions and allowing the difficult questions to be asked. Our young people have questions, they have temptations, they have lives and if what we offer does not match what Christ has offered we are going to miss the mark and Jesus is a majorly interesting person with much depth. We tend to offer our theology and many times we don’t offer Jesus.

  10. Jim Jackson Avatar

    Adam – I’ve spent a fair bit of time browsing your blog – and it’s good stuff. And I agree with much of what’s in this string and other entires. I just think there’s a huge element mostly missing from the discussion – the most important element. I just don’t know how we can answer the question about why so many are leaving their faith without making the role of parents central to the discussion, and the importance of inspiring and equipping them to take the reigns of the spiritual formation of their kids.

    Having been in some fashion of youth & family ministry since 1985, I believe that the primary reason students are walking away from their faith in early adulthood has little to do with youth ministry and much to do with the fact that youth ministries far overestimate their ability to impact youth without consideration for the role of parents. (I realize there are a minority of students whose parents are out of the picture or have largely given up. But they are a grand exception, and I don’t speak to that issue here) For years I worked at being cooler than parents. It felt good to be hero to so many kids. I took them deep and sought to be wide. I trained my staff to do the same. I was friendly with parents, but I didn’t “get” them the way I got students. I’d never been one after all. So I was cordial with them, but did nothing to integrate them and their wisdom into my youth ministry planning. In fact, mostly stayed away from them (as does the content of this blog string). @markdevries:disqus  can make a pretty strong argument that in the early days I made an idol out of doing great youth ministry. Looking back (similar to @markdevries in “Family Based Youth Ministry”) I saw that only those kids whose parents were really in the game (the ones who were always volunteering and meddling with my grand efforts to do great youth ministry) were growing up to embrace vital and vibrant faith.I have grown in the conviction that if we are not in our ministries attending fervently (but not exclusively) to the turning the hearts of the parents to their children, the land will indeed be stricken with a curse.

    So – I’d like to know more about what innovative things those of you reading this blog are doing to inspire and equip parents to be youth ministers in their own homes?

  11. Katie Reams Dupuis Avatar

    I love this post Adam.  I have always hated church fluff.  Teens are searching for truth and realness and so many churches just give them catchphrases and cliches. 
    When I was just out of youth group, like 18, we were sort of between youth pastors for a while and we had no message one night so I decided to just talk about what I had been reading and thinking about in my personal bible study time with God.  It happens that I was struggling with hypocrisy in the church, as I often do.  So that’s what I talked about.  I thought the volunteer adult chaperone was going to stop me in the middle of my “sermon” lol.  He looked downright horrified.   The kids thought it was great though.   I had a lot of great one on one conversations the stemmed from that night.  Kids need honesty in church.  They’re like little bullshit detectors and once they’re set off you lose all credibility so of course they leave. 

  12. Pastorhudson Avatar

    I believe the solution encompasses much more than youth ministry. In te book “You lost me” Kenamin exposes the statistical truth that these students are only doing what previous generations have done. And that they come back. They are not totally walking away from God.

    Parents are vital. We as a ministry need to integrate the generations rather than pushing them apart. We have inter generational small groups and my goal as youth pastor is to integrate students into the body of Christ. Students often get the clear message that they are to have fun and not disturb things until they are old enough to have a voice in the ministry. This is damaging to both the young and older generations. They can help each other.

    Class size was another issue brought up in “You Lost Me” also discussed in “Out of our minds” by ken Robinson. We need holistic intimate approaches to teaching students. The cookie cutter approach is not effective at discipling young people. It may very well be that a youth group of 10 is much more effective than a youth group of 50 or 100 , but this is blasphemy in most of our church cultures. Many youth pastors focus on funneling students into bible colleges instead of helping them and their parents as a team find the creative element God has called that young person to. The world is complex and we need complex solutions for individual communities.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      This is a great comment. Thank you for it. 

      I think you bring up interesting context. In my language I say, “This is the result of the law of depreciating returns.” 

      Any company knows that if you don’t constantly reinvent yourself your market share will steadily decrease. The church has essentially stopped innovating and declared their methodology canon law. 

      In yesterday’s post I gave an example of 3 very intelligent men, all highly successful business leaders, who just are lost at church. ( They go (very rarely) but don’t get anything out of it. They don’t understand the very basics of the faith. 

      And it’s not because they aren’t curious. It’s because the methods used at the churches  they’ve gone to haven’t worked for them. 

      In the post I made a comment about how horrible a learning environment a typical church service is. They go but learn nothing. And in saying that I KNEW that would be the only thing I got comments about. 

      Why? Because we have canonized our methods. The sermon is the single biggest waste of time your church does. It’s bad economics for the highest paid person in the organization to spend the majority of his/her time on something that is so ineffective.

      And yet, that’s what we judge a pastor on. He’s a good pastor if he delivers a really good sermon. Intellectually, we know that being a good preacher is barely a qualification for eldership.

      And yet we lift that one skill up, which has nearly NO IMPACT on the day-to-day life of our people, as the thing? 

      That’s what I mean… we’ve canonized our methods. I would argue that in so doing we have given up on the power of the Gospel.

      Imagine what would happen if your most talented people’s time went to loving neighbors, making the church community an amazing place to live, and serving the needs of the hurting among us? 

  13. Rachel Foss Avatar
    Rachel Foss

    I know a family. They are the kind of family I want to be: fun-loving, adventurous, honest, realistic, God-loving, nurturing, inviting, generous… The (slightly older than average) parents chose to homeschool their two boys – so that they could spend more time together, go skiing or travel, and all without the confines of the public school calendar. That’s the best reason for homeschooling I’ve ever heard. We met this family when their boys were just in middle school (we were the youth pastors), and they sort of adopted us, the new young couple in town who had no friends. They invited us to play at the lake, and the boys quickly bonded with my husband in a way you just can’t replicate. We lived and worked at their church for just over a year, but have stayed in touch, going back for the boys’ hs/college graduation. At the ages of 17 & 18, both boys graduated from high school with an AA degree as well. Then they attended college for 2 years and got their Bachelor degrees. Both young men are just the nicest guys, they have more fun than anyone I know, and it’s pure fun. Their faith has never waivered, and what also impresses me is that they seem to know what they want to do as adults! The parents did something amazing with those boys that I wish I had a recipe for, and I don’t think it had much to do with an organized youth group.

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