Young People Hate: Helicopter Churches

Jason Micheli —  August 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

My post yesterday on David Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me: Why Young People Are Leaving the Church, generated several emails, one of which was a passionate note from a mother whose 20-something daughter simply has no interest in the church. The issue is real and, for those who care about the Church, urgent.

David Kinnaman’s research found six basic reasons young people cited for writing off the Church. Kinnaman labels the first of these ‘Overprotective.’ That is, just as our culture is rife with the phenomenon of ‘helicopter parenting’ so too do our churches vigilantly- excessively- manage their members (of all ages).

In the same way that helicopter parents intervene to insure that their children do not make mistakes, do not make messes, do not fail or fall on their face and do not miss an opportunity; helicopter churches minimize Christians’ creativity, self-expression and risk-taking in the fear that an innovation fail. ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it‘ in other words isn’t simply arbitrary stifling of anything new it’s the genuine desire to protect the church- and its members- from harm. Helicopter churches, as much as helicopter parents, are motivated by love. We love the church and so we don’t want someone’s new idea mess it up. We love our youth and so we don’t want their new idea to fail and hurt them.

Kinnaman wonders if this comes at a cost:

“Is it possible that our cultural fixation on safety and protectiveness has also had a profound effect on the church’s ability to disciple the next generation of Christians? Are we preparing them for a life of risk, adventure, and service to God- a God who asks that they lay down their lives for his kingdom? Or are we churning out safe, compliant Christian kids who are either chomping at the bit to get free or huddling in the basement playing World of Warcraft for hours on end, terrified to step outside?‘ 

Whatever good intentions might motivate such overprotectiveness, Kinnaman argues the research shows that it comes with risks.

By protecting our youth from the world (and isn’t this often what we want church and youth group to do-provide a safe alternative to the realities of teen life?) we inadvertently, yet quite logically, do a bad job of preparing them to live in it as Christians. We spend so much time shielding them from the world they have no idea how to practice their faith in the world once we can no longer, because of age, keep them from participating in the world. Is it any wonder, then, that young people drift away from the faith once they’re in the 20’s and 30’s. Our love of them and the church has produced a sort of Faith-Failure to Launch.

This plays itself out in a few ways, Kinnaman says.

  1. By presenting youth a risk-free form of Christianity, it’s only natural that youth would seek out risks from other, less healthy, outlets. We’re not giving them a Christianity that’s sufficiently interesting to compel them away from ‘bad’ risks.
  2. By shying away from asking youth to ‘make a decision’ (to give their life to Christ) we fail to equip them to make any other decisions of consequence.
  3. By protecting the church and youth from ‘mistakes’ we stifle creativity which has led to a loss, a near absence really, of Christian art. And, as any historian of Christianity can tell you, it was the Church’s ability to shape culture- not mimic it in pop form- that led to Christianity’s rapid rise in the ancient world.

The last two weeks I’ve preached sermons on Isaiah’s 3-year stint preaching nude and David’s 100 foreskin dowry. Some have suggested I’ve done this for juvenile and/or prurient interests. While I don’t deny my juvenile tendencies, I’ve actually chosen these scriptures for the very reasons Kinnaman highlights in his book. By blatantly choosing bible passages that might otherwise be off-limits and honestly wrestling with them, having fun with them and asking questions of them, I want to indirectly communicate to my listeners that we’re the kind of church where anything, if done in good faith, goes. I don’t, in other words, feel the need to protect people from anything, even scripture.

Jason Micheli


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