Why are we losing our young adults, those who author Addie Zierman’s identifies as “millennials”?
David Kinnaman, in his book You Lost Me, suggests that this group is more accurately called “Mosaics” because the people born since 1964 are so diverse in so many ways! Thousands pack churches like Joel Osteen’s in Houston or the Elevation Church in Charlotte—mostly to hear motivational speeches reminiscent of Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale. Thousands more are forming “atheist” “churches” around the country with a huge endowment to fund their new congregations. Thousands more are still in traditional Christian churches. The term “mosaic” reflects the residual personal identity, beauty, and accent of each piece. “Mosaics’ insist on this, for they want to be free to express their own views. However, they are seeking meaning in their lives and can be vulnerable to “snake oil” religious sales persons who promise more than they can deliver.
Kinnaman says that Mosaics want relationships that are meaningful more than institutions that demand membership. Of course, prioritizing relationships over institutional authority and loyalty is not unique to the younger generations — it is also true of octogenarians! No one today relates to a “company” or a “church” as much as we relate to friends, family, and sweethearts! If our church is not immediately including new guests into existing groups, they will not stay long.
The genius of Methodism from the creative days of John Wesley in England through the 1840’s in America was the class meeting. Unlike the “bands,” the class meetings were “co-ed.” This social equality of women with men was a cultural dramatic change. Unique to England’s rigid social class structure, the class meetings were also heterogeneous in age, social standing, and spiritual journeying. Indeed, as Leslie Church’s study has proven, “to enter a Methodist society one must first abandon all idea of caste.” The nature of class attendees was diverse, with some who were quite mature in their faith journey, while others making a good start in their faith, and still others attending to escape a life of abuse and poverty. They met weekly, usually in groups of twelve. The class took on all the sociological and psychological traits of a biological family. They “hung tight” and were “at each other’s back.”
The Methodist class meeting was unprecedented and its equal is non-existent in most churches today. The Puritans were so obsessed with hell that they could not deal redemptively with sin. The Deists were so enamored with human dignity that they could not take sin seriously. Wesley recognized the reality and power of sin but insisted that we were created in God’s image and that we need to see the word “salve” in the theological concept of salvation. He defined sin as “disease.” He called conversion “taking the cure” and used clinical language more than courtroom language.
The meeting was in a home. The leader was considered a “sub-pastor,” and the job required faithfulness, honesty, integrity of character, and concern for people. The role of the leader was to set the tone of the meeting and ensure that openness and authenticity were hallmarks of the gathering. The leader started this by insisting on confidentiality in the gathering; that “what is said in this room stays in this room and if anyone is reported to be sharing it outside this circle, you will be asked not to come again.” This might have sounded harsh, but it is the only antidote to gossip and required for building trust. The leader would then begin the group conversation by sharing the condition of his or her own spiritual life that week—growth, failures, sins, griefs, other inner battles. After the leader modeled true authenticity about his spiritual condition, veteran members of the group did the same. John Miley in the 19th century wrote, “The class meeting was a medium of expression for people who otherwise would never have the opportunity to speak. The servant girl would follow his mistress in telling people what God had done for her and her struggle with her demons.”
The testimonials were not doctrinal, not biblical, not gossip, and not political. The content was personal experience. This included discouragement, struggles they were enduring, the self-discipline they were exercising, the acts of mercy and deeds of kindness they had done, and any “dark night of the soul” there were experiencing. No one could express shock—even in body language; no one could be offended even if a colleague shared how you had hurt him or her. No guilt trips, no bullying, and no self-righteousness. A realism about human nature and conduct was built into the fabric of the meeting. The content was much more like an A.A. meeting than a Sunday School class!
The meeting included a report on absentees and how follow-up should be made to determine sickness, schedule conflict, sloth, or spiritual lapse. All class meeting members were expected to attend the Sunday “society” meetings. The Methodist Book of Discipline did not use the term “local church” until the 20th century; prior to that, they retained Wesley’s word, “society.”
So why did the class meeting die? I once asked that question to Dr. Thomas Langford, then professor at Duke Divinity School. He answered immediately and succinctly –“Sunday School.” With the advent of the Sunday School, churches began to build “education buildings,” move all activities to the church, include classes for the children, and lay the class meeting to rest.
We need, almost desperately, to revive the class meeting. These meetings don’t require expensive facilities, in fact, they are better held in houses, apartments, conference rooms, restaurant dining areas, etc. For Mosaics, the negative baggage they carry about the church makes them hesitant to come to a church building. Just as Wesley adapted to the needs of the people (through his field preaching), we too must recognize that unless we get outside our walls and created new spaces for authentic sharing and accountability, we are doomed to fail to reach Mosaics.
Can we cast aside the ways that we’ve always done things, and regain the true spirit of the class meeting?
Unless we do, it’s likely that Mosaics will keep leaving the church.