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"Tony Robinson is one of the most active church leaders in the United States, greatly in demand as he teaches congregations and denominations about church life. His work has a deep theological underpinning, which many congregational-development gurus don't have."

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author of The Gospel and the New York Times and And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

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Market-driven or Product-driven?

I had a call the other day from a thoughtful Presbyterian lay leader. She was trying to puzzle out the response to/ engagement with religion in the Millenial generation . . . and why so few were showing up in her church. She had also visited several churches that were popular with some millenials.

Millenials show a polarized pattern, which isn’t a big surprise, given that polarization characterizes most everything else in our culture. Some millenials range from hostile to indifferent to religion, Christianity and the church. These tend to have been formed by liberal culture and its higher education. They view Christianity as intolerant and regressive. Another slice of the millenial generation is drawn to highly conservative, usually non-denominational churches. Such churches may be quite prescriptive, providing clear rules and norms for their anxious congregants.

Meanwhile, countless church leaders have asked, “How can we (our churches/ denominations) attract millenials? What do they want? What works with them?” And countless articles have been written telling us what millenials want and how to attract them. Few of these prescriptions work.

While there are things we can learn in our churches by asking these questions, and changes we can (in some cases, should) make, I’m not this problem/ solution approach goes deep enough.

There’s a base-line question or distinction, drawn from the wider world of commerce and culture, “Are we market-driven or product-driven?” Market-driven means we ask ourselves what people want and try to give it to them. Product-driven means we have some product/ message/ way of doing and being church that we are passionate about, try to do it as well as we possibly can, and welcome those who are interested in it.

Probably some of both are in order, but I tend to think churches are better off being product-driven than market-driven. We have to find what we are passionate about, what we believe in, and then do it with excellence and enthusiasm. If we start from what we think people want or are looking for, we tend to end up surrendering ourselves entirely to judgments and opinions of others and losing integrity. Often these days people are so anxious about membership decline or “not having the young people” that the opinions or desires of youth/ millenials are taken too seriously. They are fawned over, a bit like parents who let young child call the shots.

But this raises the question for a church, what is our “product,” so to speak? What is our message? What is our vision of the church? Many mainline congregations seem quite unclear when it comes to answering such questions.

Often answers come, if they do, from visionary leaders who are passionate about the church, the gospel, and the Christian faith. But mainline churches are not always hospitable to such strong leaders.

Still, my own sense -- my gut -- is to tilt toward the product-driven. What do we believe in? What version of church and gospel are we compelled by? (And it can’t just be, a “we’re not like them” version of church/ gospel) Are we doing it, and doing it well? When people see that happening, there is a kind of attraction exerted, not for all, but for some.


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