One of the church’s primary roles is to reach the world for Christ. The Great Commission Jesus gave His disciples in Matthew 28 is still our mission. This job has never been easy. The competing worldviews of the secular world and the church have been at odds forever. In a recent study cited in the new book Flip the Script: Disrupting Tradition for the Sake of the Next Generation, data indicates Americans’ confidence in the church has declined steadily over the last 50 years and continues to weaken.

In 1975, nearly 7 in 10 Americans agreed with the statement, “I have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion.” By 2022, fewer than 14 percent of American adults said they have a great deal of confidence in the church. And confidence in the younger generation is even lower. Only 10 percent of 18-34-year-olds have a great deal of confidence in the church. In the mind of the culture, the church has lost its relevance and, therefore, its influence.

As we seek to win the next generation of kids and students for Jesus, the church must understand the felt needs of the increasingly secular culture in which we are called to take the Gospel and make disciples. The research in “Flip the Script” reveals two major felt needs plague our current culture: belonging and identity. Kids are longing for belonging and searching for identity. The truth is they will find an answer to these questions someplace. And sadly for too many, it will be in the wrong places.

Two big questions

This generation’s key emotional need is feeling known and seen and experiencing a sense of belonging. The key question of this generation is “Who Am I?” If we build an environment that meets their key emotional needs and teach content to answer their key cultural questions, we have a better hope of reaching this generation. These two ideas fuse together to form one interconnected approach to ministry.

When kids and students feel safe and known by others, they become open to learning about who God is. When they base their identities in who God is, they break free of the cultural pressure to get their identities right. Instead, they discover their identities are already defined by the God who made them. This freedom compels kids and students to want others to know God too.

Traditionally, it made sense to start with content, when kids and students had church experience as a starting point. As the world becomes increasingly secular, we need to do more relational work up front to earn the right to be heard and earn the trust of our listeners. This allows us to challenge secular cultural beliefs and connect kids’ and students’ cultural narratives to Jesus. In order to answer these cultural questions, we need to flip the script from a traditional content-first approach to a relationship-first approach.

Who am I?

People long to know who they are, why they exist and the meaning of their lives. They have a deep desire for purpose. But they’re missing their true meaning because real meaning for humans can only be found in a relationship with God. A humanity made in His image and likeness has lost its connection to the Creator and therefore lost its frame of reference for understanding identity. People who don’t know God, or aren’t willing to look to Him, search constantly for substitute identities in an attempt to fill the void they feel. These identities are often centered on self.

Few people know God has something to say about their identity, much less what He has said about who they are.

The voice of the secular world is both pervasive and persuasive. The world inundates kids with messages telling them who they should be or that they can or must choose an identity for themselves. For most kids and students—both inside and outside the church—the voice of Truth is missing entirely as they ponder their identities.

Many from Christian families wrestle to reconcile the onslaught of post-Christian messages anchored in the expressive individualism they hear all week (at school, from friends, online, on TV and on social media) with messages they hear at church on Sundays. Often, kids and students equate Christianity with Bible knowledge (what I know) and right versus wrong behavior (what I do/don’t do) rather than identity (who I am). Ultimately, they need to understand knowledge and behavior are empty outside of identity and discovering their true identities is where the Christian life really begins.

Where do I belong?

Belonging is a fundamental human need, right behind food, water and safety. For children, experiencing a sense of belonging in school has strong, positive effects on both emotion and cognition. Belonging in school is found to improve mental health and emotional well-being, reduce feelings of alienation, and reduce anxiety and depression. Why would we expect belonging to have a different impact at church?

Kids who feel like outsiders experience fear and insecurity and don’t learn effectively. As kids increasingly assimilate into the group, their fear of being embarrassed or marginalized decreases and their ability to learn and contribute increases. We need to design church experiences that move children from feeling like outsiders to feeling safe enough to contribute. It’s important to visualize the experience newcomers have, being mindful to design the content and flow of a church experience. We must welcome newcomers into relationships.

How the church answers these questions

In a post-Christian culture, effective evangelism is relational. Fewer and fewer unchurched, under-churched and de-churched people are willing to accept cold invitations from strangers to visit unknown churches. We need to enter our neighbors’ lives and welcome them into ours. Once we know our neighbors, we can bring them into our church communities and introduce them to Jesus. In short, the church can no longer expect the community to simply walk through its doors. The church must actively go out, seek out, search out and build up connections with our unbelieving neighbors.

Consider how your church can engage with neighbors in driveways and around backyard firepits. This may mean evaluating the church calendar to make strategic decisions to have people in neighborhoods more than on church campuses. Help those in your circles recognize the opportunities they have at parks, at soccer games and by taco trucks. We must seek to actively reach our non-believing neighbors by building relational bridges that allow us to lead them to Christ in a context of true, caring friendship. Our non-Christian friends need to know an invitation to church is not based on a religious agenda but is an extension of genuine friendship.

This kind of radical hospitality doesn’t passively wait; it actively watches. Guide leaders to notice newcomers and speak value over them. Let’s make our churches places where people who don’t yet know God can learn about Him in a warm and welcoming environment that connects them with committed believers who show them Jesus. We can better reach our neighbors by creating a church culture that is oriented toward receiving and welcoming the uninitiated and goes to radical lengths to connect them to our biblical communities of faith so they might come to believe.

Script the flip

Implementing ministry strategies that lead with relationships before content does not happen by accident. The flip will always be intentional. We must script (plan) our flip (strategy). When we prioritize the fostering of relationships, we upend the traditional method of ministry that begins with lessons and studies. What we teach is extremely important, and we don’t want to minimize this aspect. Emphasizing connection in discipleship relationships impacts both the inputs and outputs. Content conveyed in a context of trust and respect always yields greater influence as we seek to answer the cultural questions kids are asking.

Once you’ve flipped the script on offering students and kids a full pathway to creating extreme hospitality that leads to relationships, their eyes, ears, hearts and minds will be open to hear, understand, and believe the truth of the gospel. Biblical content replaces the secular idea that “I need to define myself from within” with the biblical understanding of identity. I am who I am because of who God is.


Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash