Book Review: Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them, by Ed Stetzer
The current generation of American young adults is famed for being spiritual tinkerers, not consistent churchgoers. This observation, argued by Robert Wuthnow in his book After the Baby Boomers, forms the background for Ed Stetzer’s recent book Lost and Found.
The General Society Survey reports that general church attendance among eighteen to twenty-nine-year-old Americans declined from just under twenty-five percent to just over fifteen percent (4-6). This means that an increasing number of young adults are „unchurched“; that is, they do not regularly attend any religious service. An increasing number of them, moreover, have never regularly attended any religious service. This means that an increasing number of young adults are unfamiliar with Christian churches, have little or no personal ties to Christian churches, and may feel distant or alienated from Christian churches.
With these cultural changes in mind, Ed Stetzer and his team from LifeWay Research and the Center for Missional Research set out to get to know this current „unchurched“ generation, find out what makes them tick, and take a good look at churches they think are examples of reaching unchurched young adults with the gospel.
Stetzer’s team took polls, conducted surveys, and did face to face interviews, hearing from nearly nine hundred unchurched young adults from ages twenty to twenty nine, along with over five hundred unchurched Americans over thirty for comparison. They asked questions about their attitude toward Christians and the church, as well as their beliefs about God, Christianity, the Bible, and heaven and hell. The results of this research comprise Part One of the book.
Part Two of the book features Stetzer’s summary of and commentary on the values of the young unchurched that emerged in the course of their surveys. This section is intended to help the reader put flesh on the picture of the young unchurched that emerged in Part One, so that we can come to know the young unchurched before we seek to reach them (67). In Part Two Stetzer also reflects on how pastors and churches should respond to this knowledge of the younger unchurched. This section contains the bulk of Stetzer’s practical recommendations.
As a „young adult“ with plenty of unchurched friends, I cannot say that I found any of the statistics all that surprising or revelatory. Perhaps this merely confirms that Stetzer and his team have presented an accurate and informative picture of the general spiritual milieu of unchurched American young adults. If you’re feeling out of touch with the current generation of young adults, Stetzer’s research and commentary could serve as a useful primer that can help orient you toward the personal engagement with the younger unchurched that Stetzer, for one, would exhort you to take up (19).
In Part Three, Stetzer highlights churches that he argues are particularly effective at reaching the younger unchurched because they excel in nine areas, such as creating deeper community (ch. 8), making a difference through service (ch. 9), delivering content (ch. 11), and being authentic (ch. 14).
The book is woven together by a fictional narrative constructed out of different profiles that emerged from the research, which helps put faces on some of the numbers presented in Part One.
MUCH THAT IS BIBLICAL, SPOT-ON, AND FAR TOO UNCOMMON
The greatest strength of this book is that many of its practical recommendations are biblical, spot-on, and frankly far too uncommon in church literature. Here’s a sampling:
- After arguing that churches should present deeper content, Stetzer exhorts pastors to „Teach the entire Bible, even the difficult sections…Address tough topics and answer difficult questions…Provide exegetical Bible teaching,“ and „Sing theologically sound music“ (103).
- Stetzer encourages churches not to divide the church up into age graded segments (124), but rather to foster and encourage many kinds of cross-generational discipleship (131-136).
- He encourages all Christians to both seek out discipleship and to seek to disciple others (130).
- He encourages churches to think of discipleship not primarily as a special event, sealed off from the rest of the Christian life, but as living life together with the goal of doing each other spiritual good (134).
To all this, I and everyone at 9Marks would offer a hearty „Amen!“
Another commendable feature of Stetzer’s book is the humility he displays in seeking to understand those whom he wants to reach with the gospel. This missiological humility speaks well to Stetzer’s evangelistic zeal and love for the lost. It also serves as a model for how churches should patiently listen to rather than hastily criticize those who culturally differ from us. Perhaps more young adults would feel comfortable in our churches if more of us listened as well as Stetzer does.
A COUPLE MISSED MARKS
Yet it seems to me that there are several ways in which Stetzer’s overall approach doesn’t quite hit the mark.
First, Stetzer sometimes moves directly from his research to a ministry imperative. For instance, he writes, „Among unchurched young adults, service…was cited as a major reason why they would consider (or not consider) being part of a church. Knowing this, we must focus our efforts toward establishing social action as a major element in the strategies and programs of our churches“ (117). Now, I’m fairly confident that Stetzer believes that local churches have a biblical mandate to pursue social ministries. But in this passage he simply notes that the unchurched want more social action, and then declares that churches must therefore pursue it.
For my part, I think it’s probably not ever wise for pastors to simply ask people what kinds of things they’d like the church to do and then decide that the church should therefore do them. And while Stetzer boldly pledges allegiance to Scripture as our „plumb line for interaction with this world“ elsewhere in the book (99), his research sometimes wields a kind of functional authority that I don’t think harmonizes well with the sufficiency of Scripture.
Second, some of the book’s practical recommendations are driven by the belief that in order for the church to reach a certain group, it should attempt to look and feel as much like them as possible. For instance, Stetzer commends First Presbyterian Church of Salinas, CA for their amazing numerical turnaround. He writes, „In a nutshell the most significant change at First Presbyterian was the church’s willingness to adopt a new vision for impacting their community“ (162). So what was First Presbyterian’s new vision for impacting their community? A third weekend service with „U2 type music…(that is) very edgy…the kind of music that twenty-five and thirty-year-olds listen to on the radio,“ along with concert-style lighting (162). Or again, another pastor whom Stetzer commends writes of his strategy to reach young adults, „They have a kind of MTV mentality of lots of camera angles and movement and things like that. So that’s the style that they are kind of used to. And like I said, we just utilize or leverage technology to bring the gospel message in a clear and relevant way“ (183).
Now, I don’t doubt that the right music or an exciting, fast-paced atmosphere can draw people to a public event they otherwise wouldn’t attend, but I’m not sure that the church’s witness depends on aligning our corporate gatherings with non-Christians‘ personal preferences. In fact, I’m concerned that this runs deeply counter to the New Testament teaching on the nature of the church. Can we really divide the church into different worship services, each catering to the cultural preferences of a narrow and rather exclusive subgroup of people? Is the body of Christ really at liberty to create one “service” for the hands, another for the feet, and another for the eyes? Doesn’t that send the wrong message to those hands, feet, and eyes, who already seem to have a deeply rooted impulse to say to the others, „I have no need of you“ (1 Cor. 12:21)?
I understand that these brothers Stetzer commends are structuring their church services like this for evangelistic purposes, but if we tailor the corporate life of the church to fit all of the divisive cultural preferences of the non-Christians we’re trying to reach, aren’t we wrongly importing those divisions into the very life of the church?
So in the end, at least for this reader, this book is a mixed bag. The information Stetzer has harvested could be a useful way for someone to get oriented toward the way the current younger generation thinks about the church and Christianity. Moreover, many of Stetzer’s practical exhortations are exactly on target and are excellent prescriptions for biblically faithful ministry. Yet I think that a less-than-biblical philosophy of ministry shines through at certain points, so read with discernment.